While weight loss isn’t a focus of the Whole30, many still take on the program hoping to improve body composition and lose weight. We understand and support these efforts through our program and resources, as we explained in this 2012 article on the Whole30 and weight loss. In fact, one of the effortless “side effects” of removing grains, dairy, and legumes in favor of vegetables, fruits, and more healthy fats is weight loss.
In a 2011 survey of more than 2,000 Whole30 participants, 95% lost weight or improved their body composition without undertaking any specific weight loss efforts (like cutting calories).
But what about those who can’t afford to lose any weight during their Whole30? For super-active athletes, those with the metabolism of a teenage boy, and people coming into the program already kind of skinny, it may be challenging to maintain a healthy weight and muscle mass on a strict Paleo diet or our Whole30 program.
Today, we’ll talk about some obvious and not-so-obvious tips for those undertaking a Whole30 by-the-books and looking to maintain (or gain) body weight and muscle mass.
The first tip falls under the “aduh” category—eat more. You’d be surprised, however, at how many times Whole30 first-timers think they’re eating plenty, but are actually under-fed. Swapping out grains and legumes for vegetables and fruits puts you at a serious caloric deficit. You’ve got to make those calories up somewhere—and in the case of our general meal planning recommendations, that comes in the form of healthy fats and starchy vegetables. But if you’ve been a little fat phobic, adding as much fat as you need to maintain a healthy body weight may be scary.
From another angle, if you’re a little carb-phobic (because someone told you that consuming carbohydrates was going to make you fat and diabetic), you may be limiting sweet potato, winter squashes, and fruit on purpose—and if you’re already at the lean or downright skinny end of the body comp spectrum, you can’t afford to subsist on leafy greens and low-carb veggies alone.
Finally, for those new to the Whole30, your satiety signals may take a few weeks to self-regulate, leaving you feeling stuffed after even small meals. Remember, protein and fat are extremely satiating, and if you’re used to filling up on food-with-no-brakes, you may not be used to that feeling of fullness. Be patient here, as this tends to regulate within just a few weeks.
Action Item: Get your calories in. If those satiety signals are misfiring, you may feel like you’re eating too much, because you’re full all the time. Still, make sure you’re eating at least three meals a day, even if you feel like skipping lunch. You of all people can’t afford to be missing meals. And while we discourage people from grazing like antelope all day long, if you do find you’re hungry between meals, go ahead and have a snack—ideally including a decent amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. (Snacking on just an apple isn’t doing much for your cause.)
Action Item: Eat more fat. Go back to our Meal Planning Template as your starting point. The fat amounts outlined should be the minimum anyone is consuming during their Whole30, but you’ll need to up your amounts to the highest end of the spectrum, if not beyond.
Action Item: Eat more carbs. While we love leafy greens and other “lighter” nutrient-dense vegetables, your priority needs to be both nutrient and calorie-density. Don’t fill up on bowls of salad and platefuls of broccoli, leaving less room in your belly for meat and fat. Prioritize carb-dense vegetables with each meal (like sweet potato, winter squashes, beets, and parsnips) and don’t be afraid of fruit (!). Even taro and yuca have a place here, if you need some starchy variety.
Action Item: Eat more protein. While eggs are nutrient-rich and an easy breakfast option, many folks find they hit their satiation point on just two or three—they just get sick of the taste or texture of eggs. The trouble is eggs are light on protein compared to comparable amounts of red meat, chicken, or salmon. Try branching out into other kinds of meat and seafood for breakfast, because it’s important to eat enough of everything—fat, carbohydrate, and protein.
Action Item: Liquid food. We generally recommend against liquid food because it bypasses normal satiety signals, prompting people to feel less satisfied after their “meal” and potentially leading them to overconsume. In this case, however, you may want to purposefully employ this principle to sneak in a few more calories. Check this link for three recipes with lots of calories.
Action Item: Don’t even think about intermittent fasting. Do we really need to explain this one?
So we’ve covered the obvious food angle… but know that there is much more to this story than just eating more. Other lifestyle factors, like training, recovery, and stress, all play into your ability to maintain or gain weight.
To put it bluntly, if you’re running 10 miles a day and wondering why you can’t maintain muscle mass, well… Certain exercise protocols (especially those with lots of longer-duration, moderate to high-intensity activity) are whittling off body weight—often in the form of muscle mass—faster than you could eat it back on.
Even if you are on a strength-focused program, if your recovery practices are inadequate, you’re not going to be able to easily maintain your gains. Lifting heavy five days a week doesn’t mean squat if you’re only sleeping six hours a night, not doing any recovery work, and are chronically stressed with work, school, family, or financial worries.
Action Item: Rethink your training. Consider swapping out those long, hard training sessions and sexy met-cons for very short high-intensity met-cons and lots of heavy strength work. Think “muscle-building,” not “muscle catabolism.”
Action Item: Prioritize recovery. Make sure your recovery efforts are adequate for the frequency, duration, and intensity of your training sessions. If you don’t have the time to properly recover, step down your training. Remember, you don’t get fitter when you train, you get fitter when you recover from that training. And recovery is more than just taking a rest day.
Check Under the Hood
Finally, consider consulting a functional medicine practitioner and having them analyze factors like your stress hormones, thyroid function, and gut health. If your gut isn’t healthy, it doesn’t really matter how much you’re eating—you’re not absorbing all of those nutrients, which means you’re unable to make use of them in the body. (It’s like filling a bucket with a hole in the bottom—no wonder you’re not gaining weight.) And other factors, like parasites, bacterial imbalances, environmental toxins, micronutrient deficiencies, and food sensitivities, influence your body’s ability to turn nutritious food into healthy body tissue.
A stress response gone awry (remarkably common in today’s hectic modern world) can dramatically tilt the balance of tissue breakdown and repair towards ongoing breakdown. Over time, this can erode your muscle mass, while infuriatingly and seemingly paradoxically preserving your body fat stores. A good functional medicine practitioner will address lifestyle influences on your stress response, and give you some useful strategies to start to normalize the way your brain not only perceives stress, but also how your brain (and adrenal glands) respond to stress.
Understand that if you’ve got a medical condition or long history of chronic stress, your weight maintenance issues may not be improved by dietary and lifestyle efforts alone. If you’ve tried all of these recommendations and are still unable to maintain or gain weight, it’s time to call in the big guns, and do some comprehensive testing.
Life After Your Whole30
Finally, remember the purpose and intention of the Whole30: it’s a learning tool, designed to help you figure out which foods make you, individually, more healthy or less healthy. If you get through your Whole30 reintroduction and determine that some whey protein and white potatoes make your weight maintenance efforts that much easier (and that you tolerate those foods very well), feel free to add them back into your diet. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to weight loss or weight gain, and the Whole30 is all about helping you figure out what works for you.
Do you have a weight maintenance or gaining strategy on the Whole30? Share it in comments.