Can You Eat Healthy but still Gain Weight?

Sep 08, 2019

When I started my road to get healthy and lift weights many years ago, I was extremely dedicated to the Paleo Diet.  (Read my own weight loss transformation story here).  At the time, I worked at Starbucks and managed an entire year there without consuming any sugar. Surrounded constantly by froofy, sugary beverages, I was steadfast.  I would have a monthly emotional breakdown to my husband and ask him why I couldn’t lose weight faster.

It took me looking hard and honestly at my habits to admit that I was simply just eating too much to be aggressively losing body fat.  I felt better than I ever had, my energy was amazing and my training was stellar. Sure, my body composition was changing gradually and looking back, I am really amazed at how slowly but consistently that progress took place.  I wasn’t doing anything wrong, per say, and I contribute much of my strength gains during that period of time to not overly restricting calories. 

At the end of the day, no matter how healthily you are eating, if you want to be shedding the pounds, it is still necessary to be mindful of not intaking more energy than you are outputting through exercise and a daily active lifestyle.

How do you define “Healthy”?

In terms of defining “healthy,” we should probably clarify that everyone has a different definition of what is considered “healthy.”  This definition comes from what we have been taught or heard on the news and from what foods make us feel best. 

A vegan will have a different definition of what is healthy compared to a carnivore.  Someone who digests grains easily and does well on a high carb diet will have a different opinion than someone who bases their nutrition around ancestral health and high-vitamin, saturated fats.  Some people love a big salad with tomatoes, peppers and the works. Then there are other people who experience GI distress from eating a lot of vegetables. However your opinions fall in those debates, there is no denying that “healthy” is a loaded term surrounded by ego, guilt, insecurity, and even misinformation.

I am of the belief that at the end of the day, you know deep in your gut what foods make you feel your healthiest.  So perhaps the issue doesn’t come from classifying food as healthy versus unhealthy, but rather identifying food as healthy for you based on its nutrient density and whether or not it leads you to have your best results in terms of performance or weight loss.

Healthy versus Skinny

A few years back, coconut oil was all the rage as “a healthy fat.”  This idea of “healthy fats” swept the country along with the resurgence of the importance of saturated fats for their fat soluble vitamins and as a substitute for less-desirable, highly processed fats.  Many people seemed to interpret this as “if they are healthy, then I can have a lot and won’t gain weight.”

I really detest when weight loss and health are lumped together as if synonymous.  You can be thin and actually be very unhealthy. I’m not sure if I think the opposite is true, but you can eat healthy food and still be overweight.  I think some people have this misconception that overweight people must be eating Big Macs and fries and cookies in secret, but I disagree with that wholeheartedly.  However they may have become overweight in the first place, you don’t lose weight overnight simply by eating healthy. In addition, it takes a dedication to practicing mindful eating and using your nutrition to support an active lifestyle.

Let’s revisit our friend Coconut Oil as an example.  Since coconut oil has now been deemed healthy, our friend, let’s call him Bob, switches out his standard cooking oil for coconut oil to cook his frozen breakfast sausages.  He finds some potato chips at the health food store with are three times the price as Ruffles, but must be healthy since they were baked in coconut oil. He swaps out his Bryers ice cream for coconut milk ice cream (also three times the price, so it must be healthier). Bob also read that putting coconut oil in your coffee can speed up the metabolism in the morning and so he puts a heaping spoonful in his coffee instead of his sweetened creamer.

Now, at the heart of this, Bob is really trying to make some healthy substitutions to his diet based on readily available information and this is great.  Even though he hasn’t lost any weight (in fact, he gained a few pounds probably because those coconut oil potato chips are so damned tasty), there may be some health benefits that we can’t see without a blood test.  For all we know, his blood pressure and triglycerides could be greatly improved. But he hasn’t lost any weight. Why not?

By swapping one serving of processed cooking oil out for one serving of coconut oil, he may be choosing a healthier oil, but his calorie intake remains the same.  This is a trap I have seen many people fall into, and have fallen into myself in the past, and we are so confused when the scale doesn’t budge. Bob may have been consuming hundreds or thousands of calories past his maintenance calorie zone and that didn’t change simply because he made this switch.  He also didn’t add any exercise to his routine and maintained all of his standard habits of eating past fullness at most meals.

It can be so difficult to admit to ourselves that even though we are eating healthy, we are still eating too much.

Energy In versus Energy Out

If you were to switch all of your processed, nutrient-empty foods with high quality whole foods without changing your calorie intake, your weight likely wouldn’t change much.  Though we may see some weight loss due to lower inflammation or water retention and some changes at the molecular level that could only be measured by bloodwork, the question of calories still has a value here.  This is why concepts like flexible dieting can work for people who are willing to be obsessive about tracking their calories - because it allows them to eat whatever foods they want as long as the calorie values stay within their daily budget.

In the absence of rigidly counting calories, you must achieve a calorie deficit in other ways.  Remember, a calorie deficit is intaking less energy (calories) than what you output during exercise or while your body is doing its normal daily functions like keeping your organs working.  You can achieve this calorie deficit by tuning into your body’s helpful cues that send you signals when you’re full or when you’re hungry. Or, you could achieve this calorie deficit by eating the same as you do now and increasing how active you are.  Personally, I find that a blend of both is most ideal to keep you feeling energetic and not too hungry.
If you need help determining how best to keep a calorie deficit, there are a number of holistic principles to help you lose weight without tracking calories.  It requires a lot of mindfulness and cueing in to your body’s needs, but in the long run you will be more capable of carrying these skills with you into any situation in the future. 

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