by Josh Turknett, MD
I’ve said previously that the benefits of the Migraine Miracle plan extend well beyond protection against migraine. It’s the way of eating I recommend to maximize health and longevity (which was why I started it in the first place).
It also happens to be the best way to lose body fat and achieve optimal body composition, without ever having to count calories or starve (which is why it works so well)!
That said, when we launched Primal Provisions, our Migraine Miracle meal planning service, I expected to we’d get some questions about how to maximize weight loss on the plan.
Turns out I was totally wrong!
Far and away the most common weight related questions we get with folks on the plan is not how to lose more weight, but how to GAIN it![RELATED: Click here to learn more about or sign up for Primal Provisions.]
What Are You Trying To Gain, Anyhow?
To start, let’s clarify what we’re really talking about when we refer to body weight. One of the problems here is that “weight” is actually an imprecise term, and measuring and monitoring body weight alone can lead to misleading information.
So our total body weight is really the sum total of all the “stuff” that we’re made of. We can break that “stuff” into categories, which are:
2. Lean tissue (muscles, tendons, bones)
4. Body fat
So when we gain or lose weight, that gain or loss can come from any of that stuff. And when we talk about wanting to “gain” or “lose” weight, we really must specify what stuff we actually want to gain or lose, because how we go about it will differ according to the stuff we’re trying to add or get rid of (i.e. – not “I want to gain weight,” but “I want to gain muscle,” OR “I want to gain fat,” etc…)
Since we get more questions about how to gain weight than lose it, that’s what I’ll focus on here; however, the same principles apply to either goal.
We have the ability to modify the amount of body fat, water, and lean tissue we have. Our body protects organ mass, so our organ tissue will only be metabolized as a last resort (extreme malnutrition). So if we want to lose or gain weight, those are the 3 areas we have to choose from.
And regardless of whether we’re wanting to gain or lose, it’s important to first ask
1. Why do we want to do so, and
2. What “stuff” do we want to gain or lose (water, fat, lean tissue).
Oftentimes when folks mention wanting to gain weight, there’s not a compelling reason other than a nebulous worry about being too thin. The main health reasons for wanting to gain weight would be – loss of lean body mass due to insufficient protein intake (i.e. the body is metabolizing its own proteins to meet protein requirements), or extremely low body fat to a degree that could impact the endocrine system (which is very rare).
I wouldn’t personally embark down the road of trying to add more weight (in the name of better health, at least) unless I had clear evidence that one of these two things was happening.
I understand there may be other motivations (cosmetic, cultural norms, etc.), but recognize they’re not likely in the name of better health. In other words, looks, or simply being outside of the bell curve of the “normal” population (a bell curve that’s heavily skewed by a terribly unhealthy population of humans), wouldn’t be a health reason for gaining weight.
So back to the original question – IF you are following the plan and are thinking you want to gain weight, AND you’ve assessed your reasons for wanting to do so and find them compelling (again, very rarely do I find that people who say they need to gain weight actually have compelling HEALTH reasons for doing so), then here’s how I’d advise proceeding.
First, decide on how you want to add weight. While there are 4 categories of “stuff” that contribute to weight, only 2 of those are really modifiable (since we can’t do much to modify organ mass, and since retaining more water would require us to increase carbohydrate intake). That leaves the 2 possible areas where we can add “weight”:
1. Lean tissue.
2. Body fat.
The Choice: Muscle or Fat?
If you are wanting to add more lean tissue, the primary means by which you can do is to add more muscle. To add muscle, you must do 2 things:
1. Stimulate the muscles to grow, AND
2. Provide the raw materials for growth.
The way to stimulate the muscles to grow is through physical activity, and resistance/weight training in particular (moving the muscles against resistance). Resistance exercise creates the DEMAND for growth.
After that, you must give the muscles the raw materials for growth through dietary protein. As you may know, if you’re currently trying to stay in ketosis, then too much protein can potentially knock you out of it. However, physical activity and resistance exercise will tend to raise the threshold where that occurs (i.e. you can typically eat more protein and stay in ketosis if you are active/have more muscle mass).
If you are wanting to add more body fat, then you must eat more food. Now, one of the typical advantages of an ancestral diet is natural appetite regulation – you’re much less likely to “overeat,” for a number of reasons. So you’ll have to figure out a way to get in more food, so that the excess will be stored as body fat.
My recommendation for doing so is to find something – whether it’s a snack, etc. – that’s still within the Migraine Miracle framework that you find especially delicious. This essential means finding something that you’d continue eating after you’re full. The technical term for this is a “hyper-palatable” food – most junk food has been precisely engineered to be hyper-palatable (i.e. to make it so that you continue eating it even after you’re sated, which is why it’s so fattening). So identify what foods fit the bill (or try to find them), and eat more of them.
Again, I think there are very few situations that merit deliberate attempts to gain weight, so before proceeding along these lines, make sure you’ve thought about it very carefully, are very clear on why you’re doing it, are clear on the type of “weight” you’re trying to add, and are certain that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Many people, after going through that exercise, will find that their concerns about needing to gain more weight are unfounded.