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 meat, vegetables, fish, fruit, nuts, 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.
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 organs? Seafood? 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!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.