Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Oct

What If I Don’t Want to Lose Weight?

I receive a lot of emails from folks worried about losing too much weight on the Primal Blueprint, underweight readers who need to gain weight, or the formerly overweight who have reached their target weight and wish to stay put. No, they don’t outnumber the questions from overweight readers, but that’s to be expected given the obesity rates in industrialized countries, from which most of MDA’s readers hail. Anyway, with the frequency of those emails increasing, I decided to take a look through the archives for pertinent posts. Other than the post on how to gain weight and build muscle, I realized that gaining weight hasn’t been addressed at length on MDA. I’ve explained how to pack on muscle mass, but what about the folks who aren’t going to squat heavy and don’t care about getting 70’s big?

Is Primal right for those people? I’m talking about:

  • The naturally lean, petite woman who’s already underweight and can’t seem to gain weight. Rather than add fat, stress makes her lose it.
  • The guy or gal who “eats anything they want,” never exercises, and can never keep anything on. We all know one of these.
  • The classic “skinny fat” person, whose BMI implies healthy body composition but whose protruding gut tells a different story.
  • The man who’s finally nearing his target weight, can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but doesn’t want to keep losing once he gets there.
  • The ectomorph, that gent with the blistering-fast metabolism who everyone hates, while on the inside he just wants to gain a little mass (but is scared to voice his desires for fear of being ridiculed).
  • The person who lost all the weight, then kept losing, and found the only way she could maintain weight was by “eating normal” again.
  • The marathoner/triathlete who’s at the top of his game and, by all external accounts, looks fitter than 99% of the population, but who’s a wreck on the inside with a laundry list of health woes (sound familiar?).

Lemme talk about that last guy for a second, because I know a little something about him. When I was at the top of my game, running 100+ miles a week, engaging in ungodly amounts of training, and stuffing my face, I was incredibly underweight. You could see every striation of every muscle (even though I didn’t have much to write home about) because I was so skinny. As I developed the Primal Blueprint and began applying evolutionary principles to my diet, training, sleep, and overall lifestyle behaviors, I gained weight – both muscle and much-needed fat.

Err, how could that happen, you might ask?

I ate far fewer carbs than ever before, started choosing grass-fed meats, ate way more animal fat, and stopped snacking (let’s face it, eating meals) constantly, and I still gained weight. What’s the deal? Isn’t that the dietary advice you give someone who wants to lose weight?

Sure. Someone wants to get leaner and burn fat, the simplest way is to eat Primal. It’s fewer headaches, less agonizing over calorie counting, and more satisfying. But I’d also tell someone who wanted to gain weight to do the same thing, to eat the same food. By eating, exercising, sleeping, and living in accordance with the “expectations” of my genes, I was sending all the right hormonal, epigenetic, and environmental signals. My body was simply realizing its ideal composition – the degree of leanness that it was “meant” to maintain.

If your “ideal weight,” as decreed by your physiology and genetics, is higher than your current weight, going Primal will most likely cause you to gain weight. If you are malnourished, with visible ribs, jutting hips, and low energy levels, sticking to meatvegetablesfishfruitnuts, and tubers will pack the weight on as needed. There are different tweaks you can make depending on whether you need to lose or gain, including macronutrient ratios and total caloric count (which I’ll get into below), but the basics – eat animals, plants, fish, fruit, nuts, and tubers – remain the same regardless of your weight.

The 10 Primal Laws aren’t designed for “weight loss” or “weight gain,” for that matter. They are designed to optimize your health. They are founded on the blueprint for fantastic health, including the hallmarks of fantastic health like longevity, performance, and yes, body composition, that resides within each of us.

So, for me, going Primal came down to normalizing my weight. I’m pretty sure the same would be true for anyone.

Let’s get on to the solutions. These tips, tricks, and suggestions assume that you are already following the Primal Laws, that you’ve ditched the grains, sugar, and vegetable oils, you’re eating the right stuff, you’re getting good sleep (or working on it), you’re reducing stress (or, again, working on it), you’re walking when you can and lifting heavy things now and then with the occasional sprint session, and you’re getting regular sun (or taking vitamin D), but the weight just won’t budge (skyward).

1. Track your calorie intake.

I know, I know. This sounds like sacrilege. But a huge number of people who claim to eat 4000+ calories each day without gaining an ounce of fat or muscle are simply not eating as much as they think they are. Classic fat-and-protein-rich Primal fare has the benefit of being nutritionally-dense and/or extremely satiating. These are excellent traits if you need to eat less, but if you’re trying to eat more, they can lead to unwittingly undereating. Don’t let that happen. Use Fitday or Cronometer or Paleo Track to track your food intake for a few weeks. Stop guessing and stop estimating; start measuring, if only to get an accurate idea of how much food you’re actually eating.

2. Ease up on the VLC approach.

I love fat. I love burning fat. It’s healthy and makes your body run better and cleaner. And I think most people eat way too many carbohydrates than they require, but that isn’t true for everyone. Many Primal eaters get to where they want to be by consulting my carb curve, finding where they fit, and going with a low-carb approach to lose the weight. Generally speaking, the thinner you are, the more insulin sensitive you are and the better you can handle glucose. I’m not saying engage in carbo-loading day in and day out. I’m just saying that a sweet potato with dinner, a few handfuls of berries through the day, and a butternut squash won’t kill you. Remember that the “sweet spot” for weight maintenance is 150 grams per day for most folks. If you’re actively losing weight – too much of it – and want to gain a few pounds, I would definitely avoid dipping below that maintenance level. That doesn’t mean gorging on pizza and burgers. Stick to roots, tubers, and other Primal-approved sources of starch.

I suspect a lot of the underweight are going very low-carb when they really don’t need to. Once you’re at your target weight, it’s unnecessary, and even counterproductive. I mean, I swing low-carb compared to mainstream recommendations, but I don’t shy away from a bowl of berries, a sweet potato, or even a bit of rice from time to time.

3. Eat more food.

Eat bigger meals. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. You just have to eat more food, especially once you’ve established that you actually aren’t eating very many calories after all.

Sneak in calories. Drizzle butter on your food. Incorporate coconut oil into everything. Take an extra serving of yams. Add an extra egg to your usual omelets. Grab some nuts for a snack. Just eat.

4. Optimize your nutrient intake.

Don’t get stuck on the ground beef and broccoli Primal eating plan. You need a wide range of nutrients to optimize your hormonal status. Minerals? Those are raw building blocks for hormones, neurotransmitters, and bodily tissues/structures. Some even act as antioxidants. Eat food that contains a lot of all of them. Vitamins? They enable a whole host of bodily processes. Without vitamins K2 and D, for example, calcium doesn’t go where it’s supposed to go. You need them all. Are you eating organsSeafood? Are you making bone broth? Are you eating mineral-rich green vegetables? If you’re not, and you’re underweight, you may be deficient in a number of crucial micronutrients that play a role in maintaining proper body weight.

Remember my post on the zero-carb diet? Heed its lessons. Valuable – heck, invaluable – nutrients exist in plant foods, people!

5. Realize that you’re no longer fat.

This can be the hardest part of all, especially if you’ve spent most of your life overweight. The weight becomes part of you (literally), and many overweight people can’t shake that feeling of being psychologically tied to it, even after losing the pounds. Now, I don’t know the feeling firsthand, and I won’t pretend to, but I’ve talked to enough formerly overweight readers, friends, and clients who have had trouble severing the mental ties with their former selves to know that it’s normal to feel and act overweight even when you intellectually acknowledge that your body comp is perfectly fine.

Sometimes it’s not even a conscious decision. You spend so much of your life trying to lose weight that eating tiny meals and exercising deep into the night become ingrained habits. It’s all second nature to you. Except you’re not fat anymore, and those habits are counterproductive. Realize that. Give yourself constant reminders.

Once again, folks, it boils down to eating and living Primal. That’s not a cop-out, because there are plenty of tweaks you can make to your Primal plan to address weight gain, as I’ve shown above, but the basic formula remains the same.

How about you? Are you trying to gain more weight? Are you worried about losing too much? What’s worked for you? Let everyone know in the comments!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great point on upping the carb intake. Some people naturally deal with carbs better than others. Like Mark said, that doesn’t mean cram down the pizza, but it does mean you can up your intake of starchy carbs and see no negative effects.

    This is Sparta Strength wrote on October 27th, 2011
  2. I love this post! I have read the other ones about “packing on muscle” and they didn’t quite fit with my lifestyle. I have always been thin. In my childhood and teen years I was really skinny, probably underweight, despite how much I ate. In my early adult years I partied too much and didn’t eat enough, and was still underweight. After I stopped partying I became “skinny fat”….. gorging on carbs and alternating between manic bouts of exercise and none at all. Then I started this Primal diet and people started to worry because I lost all my excess fat within the first two months; you could see my spine and ribs clearly. Now I have leveled off and realized that if I have a craving for carbs I need to indulge it sensibly, because my body is telling me I need them. In addition to plenty of protein, I eat sweet potatoes, squash, berries, dark chocolate, yogurt and/or lots of veggies. Over all I get around 150 grams a day; any less and I don’t feel happy or satisfied, and go straight for the “bad” carbs.

    Mary wrote on October 27th, 2011
  3. I gained 10-15 pounds going Primal. I’m a 5’6″ female and went from 117lbs to around 130.

    However, I fit into my clothes BETTER and just look sexier in general. It looks like I lost weight, even though I had gained it. I just lost fat and gained muscle so I look toned and strong. :)

    Vivian wrote on October 27th, 2011
  4. At 5’3″ 106 lbs. I was afraid I would loose weight when I decided to go primal. Not only primal but I was giving up eggs, dairy and some saturated fat to see if it would help my RA. But with consuming coconut oil and coconut milk I have not lost any weight. Sometimes I am at my wits end as far as what I should eat and should not.

    Marybeth wrote on October 27th, 2011
  5. I dropped from 150 to 135 even though I was eating 2500-2800 per day. Calories mostly coming from Eggs, sausage and steak. I don’t understand how calories in meat dont’ make me gain weight. Because when I eat 2500-2800 calories per day from rice and potatoes (and meat) I put weight back on. I’m 5’11.5.

    xfinite wrote on October 27th, 2011
  6. Now the big question: in this day and age of warped body images and stick-thin portrayals on TV, how many people who need to gain know they need to gain? Are we talking about people who are in medical danger because of their size, or the merely scrawny who would probably look (and feel) better with an extra 5-10 lbs?

    Erin wrote on October 29th, 2011
  7. 70s Big, I pronounce thee UGH. 40s Big was so much more interesting–those thick ropey muscles that Kirk Douglas and friends got from tossing around medicine balls. Bring that look back and I’ll thank you.

    kapo wrote on November 2nd, 2011
  8. I have been a fairly primal living crossfitter for the past 3-4 years, but REALLY locked down my diet and got my work/sleep cycles down in the past 3 months, and have finally peeled off the last 3-5% BF I have been yearning for, and have NOT LOST A POUND. Its totally possible!

    Doc P wrote on November 2nd, 2011
  9. “The naturally lean, petite woman who’s already underweight and can’t seem to gain weight. Rather than add fat, stress makes her lose it.”

    You just perfectly described me!
    I’m 25 and 5 ft tall. My problem has always been no appetite. After going through a difficult time, my weight actually dropped under 40kg (that’s 88lbs.), much to the concern of my Dad who constantly tried to ply me with food.

    What really helped me was stumbling on eating primal a couple of years ago. Eating more fat (sometimes I just slice a piece of butter like cheese and munch on it), eggs cheese and a banana for breakfast, adding a potato and carrots swimming in butter to those veggies and protein. Dairy too, mostly cottage cheese with raisins and plain yogurt!
    After doing a few experiments, I discovered that sugary things (read: cookies, candy, etc.) actually completely kill my appetite, so I stay away from those.

    I also recently started doing some bodyweight training, which I am loving. It’s added a nice bit of toned muscle.

    I’ll probably never be quite as curvy as I’d like, but I am very proud of gaining those 10 lbs, and an appetite with it to boot!

    Wafaa wrote on December 4th, 2011
  10. Yay, that I found this. Was about to email Mark :)

    I view my weight loss as a side effect of feeling great. I would like to put on a teeny bit more weight. Really I lost most of it on an anti-candida diet first – which is SO restricting.

    I am just tired of people commenting on me being thin. Why is it ok to comment on someone’s weight if they’re thin, but so rude to say ‘yeah ya look a little chubbier than normal’. Drives me insane!

    Tara wrote on February 5th, 2012
  11. Hey there. I just read the article and I will really try to follow most of the stuff written . I’m underweight as long as I can remember I’m 53kg and 1.76meter high . I’m 21 years old now. Lately I started eating everything I saw which was a big mistake because I think I kind of develope a Gastritis or something because my stomache hurts as hell now. I will follow everything you say because I really really want to gain some weight. If you can give me an addition advice I’ll be very happy!

    Stanislav wrote on February 15th, 2012
  12. Thanks Mark for being so prompt at returning my question. It was very good info.It was for my son who is getting very thin on your diet. I am sure it will help. I have just started, but wondered what I should do when I reached my goal. Thanks again. Alice

    Alice wrote on May 7th, 2012
  13. Love this post!! I’m totally that petite woman who can’t gain weight. It’s been kind of a bane of my existence for most of my adult life. I never worried about it much as a kid, but…well as a Junior in college I developed pretty severe anxiety disorders, and one of my biggest fears was “wasting away,” or fainting due to low blood sugar. So I constantly snacked (very tiny amounts of actual food though,) on granola bars. But stress/anxiety also absolutely killed my appetite. So it was this tortuous state of wanting to eat more but stressing out so much about it that I just couldn’t. Anyway that was kind of a long time ago, but I’ve always had a very rocky relationship with food.

    Anyway I’m 24 now, I don’t have anxiety anymore, (actually the primal lifestyle has me feeling more relaxed than ever,) I went primal about…4 weeks ago I think? Anyway, it’s the best relationship I’ve had with food in years. I am 5’6” and weigh 112lbs. I would LOVE to weigh 120 or even 125, by putting on some muscle and fat in the “right places.” 😉 I’m very hopeful, given others’ successes. I’m doing a good bit of strength training, and actually since going primal I have way more energy even eating less–I’ve even challenged myself sometimes to go for a while without eating, just to face that fear…but since reading this I think maybe I’ll just go to town and EAT MORE!! 😀

    Cristina wrote on May 29th, 2012
  14. I am a weird case because I got diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when I have always been underweight. Chris kresser wrote an article on why this happens, but I find its harder for me to gain weight because starchy carbs just spike my blood sugar instead of storing as needed fat. I have also been working on healing my stomach and I cannot eat nuts without feeling bad the next day. I have gained a small amount since eating starch after exercise, but I don’t think I will ever gain much more until my blood sugar is less reactive. I would like to gain more “womanly” weight in my hips but it seems like I am stuck basically looking the same for now.

    Barbara wrote on October 30th, 2012
  15. I’m SO glad I found this. I’ve always been slim and petite, but have been on a strict gut-healing protocol to reverse numerous food allergies. So far it seems to have worked, but it involved a lot of dietary restrictions. I dropped about ten pounds doing it – and I didn’t really have weight to lose. In combination with ditching grains/legumes this year, I’ve gotten much thinner – to the point where every time someone hugs me or sees me for the first time in awhile, the first comment is along the lines of “OMG, you’re SO skinny.” (Rude? I think so.) Sometimes people actually lecture me for working out or going to the gym, saying I don’t “need” to. Uh, doesn’t everyone need exercise? I’m not going to become totally sedentary, thanks.

    I’m getting self-conscious about it, so I’m very glad to have stumbled on these suggestions. I like being trim and tiny, but if I could make my ribs a bit less visible, that would be glorious. TO THE COCONUT OIL. (Got a gallon under the sink!)

    Kit wrote on May 4th, 2013
  16. Hi all,

    I’m a 24 year old female and very lean but need to gain weight – fat and muscle – I have been eating fairly primal for the past two months and have lost weight but this was not my intention! I have always been quite small framed, but I weigh 51kg now so have lost half a stone, and I am 5ft 7 so this is too low for my height, but I can’t seem to gain any weight. I have had blood tests recently beceause I have had women problems (too low hormone levels to have my monthly flow – sorry guys!) So just trying to gain weight to make my body run normally again.

    Once a week I do an “intensity” workout class – (an hour of intense exercises like squat jumps, pressups, lunges, burpees, mountain climbers, sprinting on the spot, high knees etc.) Then I try and do another 3 workouts, where I run for 25 minutes (sprinting then slower jog), and lift 8kg weights with squats, lunges etc, use the TRX and do bodyweight exercises – totalling an hour 10 minutes per workout.

    Eating wise, a typical day for me is avocado with smoked salmon and a couple of oatcakes for breakfast, or on a carby day a bowl of oats with kefir milk (sorry not primal!) and berries and nuts, lunch usually consists of a big salad with steamed veg – on a carby day sweet potato included, otherwise just greens and tomatoes, peppers etc, with about 100g protein such as sardines, chicken etc. drizzled with olive oil, sometimes I have lentils or rice in my salads depending on whether I think I need the carbs.
    Snacks – handful nuts, oatcakes spread with avocado, chicken breast slices, fruit.
    Dinner – usually a sweet potato and carrots/green beans, with lamb, chicken, or fish cooked in coconut or olive oil. Sometimes brown rice when I’ve worked out quite hard.
    Protein shake after workouts using sunwarrior protein (17g protein per scoop)
    I put coconut oil in my tea daily to try and gain weight but no luck so far!
    I am very good with eating healthily and never really have a cheat meal or desert – desert for me is generally full fat yoghurt with dark chocolate pieces and fruit with honey! So nothing “bad”.

    I track my diet on fit day to make sure I’m getting enough protein and fat, and on a general day I get about 60-70g protein, 55- 60g fat, and 120-150g carbs.

    Any suggestions? I feel quite tired the day after a workout and just feel zonked and low energy, also irritable. I had thought I was doing fine with the carbs but maybe I need to start eating more and doing 1 day of carb refeeding per week? I want to build lean muscle and gain fat and look more shapely! Thanks appreciate any advice.

    sarah wrote on May 10th, 2013
  17. Hi Mark,
    I’ve been a long time paleo-er. I just recently ran into this problem. I am 5’1′ and was usually 135 before primal and after primal, I leaned down to a nice weight, which is what I think my what my body should have been at some point, but now Ive lost too much. Im at 105. In a panic, I’ve began eating whatever I can, totally veering off the primal path, with no avail! Burgers, pizza, bread, whatever isn’t helping me gain anything. If anything, like another post said, it curbed my hunger for a short while, but it will come back 10 fold after, there is no satisfaction!
    Tonight I said, calm down self, go back to the blog, I’m sure Mark has a post on this somewhere… and sure enough. I know exactly what I’ve done wrong, cutting out all starches! I haven’t been eating fruits or veggies or potatoes! Silly me! I was panicking and stuffing my face with processed food! Ugh. Anyways, thanks again Mark, I’ll be back on track when I wake up tomorrow. As a mexican woman, I need my curves. Can’t wait to get started.

    Raquel wrote on October 12th, 2014
  18. I’m one of those people who eats a ton and never gains anything. I’m 5’3 and weigh about 106 pounds, I am not underweight but just to feel more confident and sexy I have always wanted to gain more or less 10 pounds. I live in a paleo house but am very guilty of eating a little carbs on the daily (mostly tortillas), I have a very high metabolism and exercise at least four times a week…but I can never seem to gain weight! In fact I lose weight like crazy if I miss meals. This has been a problem for years with me, and I have only recently managed to get to a weight I’m pretty satisfied with, but I still want to gain a little more. I also forgot to mention when I do eat I usually eat large portions….so I’m doing everything I can, but I never see any changes. Do you have any suggestions for this?

    Merina wrote on May 12th, 2015
  19. This was soooo helpful. In april i was 5ft 6″and weighed about 140. This is when I started to eat very low carb. Now i am about 100lbs and my body fat percentage is 4% which is really bad for girls i was told. So now i am trying to pack on the weight but keep on losing weight. I think it is because i would not eat any carbs. I cut out all fruit, tubers, roots or any starchy foods (i wouldnt even eat carrots). But this article really helps and shows me that i need to some carbs. I do find it very difficult though to get in enough calories in a day with just eating 3 meals. I find i feel full way to fast and then I end up not eating enough. Also I am training to become a professional circus performer so I train many hours a day and cant always eat big meals or else i will puke while on my apparatus or in contortion. Any tips on just eating 3 meals a day? is it really bad to have smaller meals and some snacks throughout the day?

    Lindsey wrote on September 5th, 2015
  20. I am 5.9″ and 125 lbs and one of those people who can eat a ton and still not gain much weight, and I feel confused about this topic. A primal diet should make the body regulate itself and find optimal weight, assuming I eat when I am hungry. If this is true, then why do I need to eat more in order not to lose weight, even though I am satisfied? How would this work from an evolutionary perspective? Am I simply one with genetic traits that would not survive if I faced the selection pressures of our ancestors?

    Tove Koch wrote on September 30th, 2015

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