For today’s edition of Dear Mark, we’ve got a two-parter. First up is a question from a reader whose wife has gained weight following the Primal Blueprint way of eating and after completing a Whole30. She seems to be doing everything right, in other words. What could explain the weight gain? Next, I discuss what can be done – if anything – about upper arm fat. It might be hereditary, but that doesn’t mean we’re totally at the mercy of our genes. And even if we are, we can change how we react.
First off I just wanted to thank you for all that you do. I’ve been primal for over a year, have lost over 35 lbs., and am in the best shape of my life. I have consistent energy levels, and am much healthier overall. The Primal Blueprint and MDA have changed my life, and I evangelize both to all who are interested.
My wife has also accompanied me on this journey. Her results have not been quite so spectacular. While she also has enjoyed more consistent energy levels, she has actually gained a significant amount of weight. Approximately 15 pounds so far. I only weigh 10 lbs. more than her now (156 vs. 146).
She was never as strict as I was when it came to what she was eating, but overall she ate pretty well. She had an affection for baking paleo baked goods, which in my opinion really aren’t primal at all. That said, she was eating much better than she ever had previously in her life. I suggested that we try a Whole30 and follow it 100%. We’re almost done with our Whole30 now, and she is up 3 – 5 lbs. from the start of the Whole30. It’s very perplexing.
I have to imagine this is hormone related. I’m not sure what else would cause this to happen, but it’s very discouraging for her, especially when in the face of my results. Do you have any suggestions or insight that may help us figure out what’s going on? We’re not really sure how to “troubleshoot”. Perhaps she should get tested for thyroid issues?
Thanks so much!
Thanks, Kris. I’m glad to hear it’s worked so well for you. I’m sorry it (apparently) hasn’t for your wife.
A few thoughts:
The nutrient density and protein and fat content of a Primal way of eating, or a Whole 30, works almost too well at lowering appetite, increasing satiety, and triggering spontaneous and inadvertent calorie reduction. It’s rare, but some people – and this seems to happen more frequently in women than men – experience such a drastic reduction in metabolism upon lowering their food intake that they actually gain weight. Their “calories out” drops because of insufficient “calories in.” The low calorie intake is a signal to the body to reduce expenditure, and this is actually why a lot of people fail with traditional diets: not only are they struggling against insatiable hunger, they’re lowering their energy expenditure.
If she’s intermittent fasting, that may be the problem. You may recall the post I did a couple years back addressing this topic. Many women simply don’t do well fasting. They either stall or gain. They may not even realize there’s an issue because of the aforementioned lack of hunger during the fasting period. But if you’re gaining body fat after a few weeks of skipping meals, try not skipping them. It’s not working.
So in general, eating too little food can be counterproductive. So too can eating too infrequently. Watch out for both.
I’d also rule out thyroid with a test. Since thyroid hormone often plummets on super low-calorie diets, thyroid is a good test to run. But the fact that her energy has improved makes me wonder if it’s that. That shouldn’t happen if thyroid and/or energy expenditure are tanking.
Some women do gain weight in the “right places.” And I don’t mean to sound (that) sleazy. For many women it’s completely natural to have a higher body fat level and accumulate more fat in the gluteofemoral region – the hips, butt, and thighs – because that’s where women store DHA for future baby brain construction. That’s probably why gluteofemoral fat is notoriously stubborn and hard to burn – because it’s a reliable, secure way to store an important nutrient (DHA) that’s often scarce during pregnancy. She needn’t worry about gluteofemoral weight gain (and you might dig it); it’s actually a sign of good metabolic health.
The weight gain might be a good thing, in other words. If all the other changes from adopting the lifestyle (like increased energy) have been beneficial, the weight gain might also be “good” or “what the body needs.” Is she exercising? If so, are her numbers improving? Is she getting stronger? Faster? She might have put on some muscle. She may have needed the weight.
The scale doesn’t tell the whole story. Where the weight has gone, what comprises it, and any other effects from the diet must all be considered and weighed to get an accurate picture of the situation.
I am depressed by my upper arms. They are flabby and compared to the rest of my body are quite large. My mother has the same. Is there anything I can do about it?
Brachium butter beating you up? Have I got just the thing for you!
The name of the game when it comes to burnin’ arm flab, my dear, is vibration! You need to make the arm an inhospitable home to make that pesky limb lard skedaddle. Just like you’d do whatever you could to move out of an apartment if a subway rumbled overhead every few minutes, arm fat cannot tolerate the agitation from constant vibration.
Now, there are plenty of options to try. You could put on a hardhat and get a job as a jackhammer operator. You could hold on to soda pop bottles filled with Mexican jumping beans. You could do this move.
Whatever method you choose, this next step is crucial. Once you’ve got the arm flab on the run, you’ll have to graduate to full body vibration. If you sit still, the fat will simply relocate elsewhere. Your wrists, your ankles, your cheeks. There’s literally no telling where a fleeing band of fatty acids desperate for a home will migrate. Full body vibration prevents the fat from ever settling down or getting its bearings. Most arm fat gives up after about 20 minutes of vibration. If it’s a particularly plucky group, you may have to vibrate for an hour or two until they lose all hope.
Just don’t let up until you get the urge to visit the toilet. That’s how you know the fat is finally leaving.
In all seriousness, a lot of fat deposition is hereditary and we already know that spot reduction doesn’t work. You can’t force your body to lose weight in a specific area by training that area. If your genes are inclined to deposit fat in your upper arms, that might be unavoidable. You could starve yourself down to unhealthily low levels of body fat, but I would strongly advise against it. Your health will suffer – remember that women generally function better with more body fat than men – and you will be disproportionately skinny in other areas.
It could be hormonal. I’d get a full endocrine panel (thyroid, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, etc.) done to confirm your hormone levels are within range.
Make sure you’ve got all your other ducks in a row:
Sleep well. Don’t stay up late and skip sleep for silly reasons. Avoid blue light at night, and electronics in general.
Exercise consistently. Lift heavy things a couple times a week, walk a ton, and do something really intense once or twice a week. Maybe it’s a sprint session on a bike or on a track. Maybe it’s a few sets of burpees.
Find joy on a regular basis, whether it’s being intimate with your partner, curling up with a great book or flick or TV series, taking a trip, going for a hike, playing with your dog (or cat), hosting a dinner party, or watching the sun rise or set. Or all of them. Try to pick at least one “small” thing to enjoy every day and one “big” thing to enjoy every week.
You know, the basics. If you’re doing all that and your arms are still a bit flabbier than you’d like, realize and accept that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Some people, even if they’re fit as a fiddle, may not fall into the “svelte” category. And while fashion magazines often suggest otherwise, that’s OK. In fact, that’s more than OK. There’s perfection to be found in all types. Love your body. It’s the only one you’ll ever have. How? Well, that’s a topic for another article entirely. (Stay tuned.)
I hope this helps, M. and Kris, and be sure to stick around for the comment section. Our brilliant readers always chime in with some piece of advice I’d forgotten or overlooked.
Thanks for reading everyone! Let’s see if we can help M. and Kris in the comments, huh?
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.