I grew up in a world that told me weight loss is healthy, and weight gain is bad. That may be true for a large portion of the population that struggles with obesity, insulin resistance, and the like. However, in the population that I work most closely with, it is often the exact opposite. Most of the women I see on a daily basis actually need to put on weight in order to restore their health. Many of these women are coming from a history of undereating, dieting, overtraining, overworking, and chronically stressing themselves out. With the rising rates of amenorrhea and infertility, this is something we can’t ignore. It’s not easy to hear or accept that you might have to gain weight to address your health issues. Gain weight? After you’ve worked so hard to do the opposite? After you’ve struggled and sacrificed so much to try to get that dream body? After you did everything the media told you to do in order to be fit and in shape? All of those spin classes, dry salads, and green juices messed up your hormones?!
It’s hard enough to wrap your head around the fact that doing what you thought was the right thing ended up being detrimental to your health. How did working out and “clean eating” put you at risk for infertility and osteoporosis? How did exercise and watching your caloric intake make you unhealthy? How come copying your “health idol’s” habits that seem to work for her did the opposite for you? How is it possible that so many “healthy habits” are actually not healthy at all? It’s disappointing, confusing, and almost unbelievable at first. You might feel embarrassed, ashamed, and silly. Overcome with disbelief. So, yeah, it’s hard to hear and accept that you might have to gain weight to get healthy again. And it’s certainly not easy to actually do.
In the past three years, I have gained close to 50 pounds. My weight had dropped far too low, and I felt the repercussions. I lost my period, was cold all the time, had no energy, had brain fog, was irritable and cranky, was losing hair, had thyroid problems, and felt trapped in my own life. I had to gain a lot of weight to get my life back, and to become me again. And with every pound I gained, I got closer to restoring my health. As I gained the weight, though, it was not always easy to see it that way. My clothes were fitting differently, I didn’t recognize the woman I saw, and people made comments about my changing body. There were times when I felt chubby or ugly, and I wanted to stop. I was conflicted because part of me was desperate to gain weight to start feeling better and to take care of my body, but the other part of me was still self-conscious about my body, worried I might gain too much weight, and a little scared to not be as “skinny” anymore. It saddens me to say that those were my thoughts, but I want to be completely honest for anyone else who is feeling the same. In the end, though, the journey to gaining weight not only restored my health, but it healed my relationship with myself. I learned to really love myself, to detach my value from my appearance, to change that negative self talk, and to focus on what was most important in life.
There are always temptations to avoid gaining weight. Society has tried to make it so gaining weight in ANY context is BAD or SHAMEFUL – this is not true. Even when you realize that, it’s hard to fight the judgments of others who don’t understand, or the judgments of the media. The media is desperate to sell you the idea that you always need to be thinner and that you’re never good enough the way you are. It takes a lot of courage to stand in the face of an industry that says you always need to lose weight, and run straight ahead and do the opposite.
I work with a lot of women who have lost their periods, have thyroid issues, are at risk for osteoporosis, are cold all the time, have no energy, and are overworking their bodies in every sense. We live in a world where we are told to eat less and work out more, but this is not always the answer. That is causing many of these problems. Why would gaining weight help? When our bodies are chronically stressed, things go haywire. Our bodies need to feel safe, not at risk, in order to function properly and to be healthy. If you’re underweight, undereating, overtraining, or overstressed in any way, that tells your body that it is not safe. It goes into survival mode. It might need that extra weight so that it trusts you again. It wants to have dependable nourishment. When it feels safe, when it knows it will get enough food and rest, things run smoothly again.
I can’t tell you how many beautiful women sit in front of me and tell me that they’re getting fat, that they hate their bodies, and that they’re embarrassed for people to see them. That they’ll do anything they have to do in order to restore their health, but they won’t gain the weight. It breaks my heart, because these women are not fat, should not hate their bodies, and definitely should not be embarrassed for anyone to see them. Usually, they tell me they’ve gained “a lot” of weight, yet I notice no difference in their bodies at all, as an outsider. If I notice anything, it’s that their eyes and faces have life again.
There is an immediate negative reaction to any sort of weight gain, though. Sometimes they haven’t even actually gained any weight yet – but the thought of doing so is making them panic. Sometimes they’ve gained only a few pounds, an unnoticeable few to anyone else, but it’s all they can fixate on. Part of my job is supporting these women, helping them to gain perspective, and helping them to become comfortable with gaining some weight. I’m there for support. No matter how much weight they need to gain, talking about weight gain, and actually gaining the weight, is difficult for almost everyone who goes through it. Even when you recognize that you physically feel better, there’s that voice in your head, conditioned by society, confusing you because it’s saying that you shouldn’t feel better for gaining weight. It’s telling you that weight gain is bad and shameful and associated with being fat and ugly, but this is not true.
I understand. It’s a mental battle. But I have a few tips that helped me mentally cope with gaining weight when I needed to, and I finally became totally confident in my body. I finally saw that every pound gained gave me a bit more freedom, because that is what my body needed. These tips are what helped me silence the nagging, negative voice in my head.
- Get support. You don’t have to do this alone. Some great options for support are going to therapy, working with a nutritionist or health coach, joining a program for group support, or talking regularly with a family member or friend who you can really be open and honest with. There is nothing that shows more strength than being willing to ask for help.
- Throw away your scale. The number on it means nothing. A scale can’t tell you how you feel or when you’ve reached true health. Scales are all different, and most of them are inaccurate anyways. Don’t let a piece of metal define your self-worth. Scales really do nothing but increase anxiety and cortisol levels.
- Throw away clothes that do not fit you. Trying to squeeze into clothes that aren’t your size is uncomfortable and looks much worse than wearing clothes that fit you. Wearing clothes that are too tight and uncomfortable just make you constantly aware of your body throughout the day, and usually more worried about a wardrobe malfunction than anything else. There is nothing wrong with wearing a bigger size than you used to. If anything, it’s a good sign that you’re making progress. Guess what? No one else knows or cares about the number on the tag. What they might notice, though, is if you’re acting self-conscious and uncomfortable in whatever you’re wearing.
- Stop measuring and counting. All numbers – just stop. No calories, macros, ounces, sizes, pounds, etc. NUMBERS MEAN NOTHING. Numbers should not control you.
- Stop looking in the mirror so often. I realized that I used to look in the mirror a lot. Every time I passed a mirror, I analyzed myself. This is a very important habit to break. Getting rid of almost all mirrors around me helped a lot, and eventually I just fell out of the habit of looking to begin with. I never used to go into a restroom without looking in the mirror at least once, and now I rarely glance up. I don’t need to look in the mirror to know how I feel about myself.
- Stop looking at old pictures of yourself. It’s easy to look at old pictures and romanticize the past. Guess what, though? We can’t move backward, and you probably weren’t as happy in that photo as you’re imagining you were. Doing whatever you were doing then is what got you to the place you’re in now. Instead of thinking about the past you, think about the future you. There’s no use in comparing yourself to anyone, including yourself.
- Speaking of not comparing yourself to people, stop looking at so many photos of other people! This means spending less time on social media and unfollowing people who post a lot of photos of themselves and trigger you to compare yourself to them. This also includes scrolling through your phone and looking at your own photos of friends. Photos are highlight reels, taken when people look and feel their best. Who takes photos when they’re crying and feeling poorly about themselves? Who takes pictures at their worst angles? Not many people. Plus, do you really know what’s going on behind the screen? How do you know if that person is actually happy and healthy? They might not be. Besides that, you are not ever going to be anyone else but yourself. It is ridiculous to compare yourself to another person’s body, because no matter what, it is physically impossible for you to look exactly like that person.
- LET ME REITERATE – pull away from social media in general and unfollow anyone who makes you compare and feel less than. You will not hurt their feelings. They will not know. Unfollowing someone does not mean you think they are a bad person – it is just looking out for your own mental health.
- Stop looking at food all the time. Analyzing meals and trying to figure out how much other people are eating will do you no good. There’s no way to know exactly how much someone else is eating just from social media, and even if you could, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has different requirements when it comes to food. FYI – most people on social media undereat.
- Surround yourself with people who don’t care about looks. We all know those people who are really into appearance, or people who make comments about their and others’ bodies and weights. Those types of comments are rooted in that person’s own insecurities – do not let them push those onto you. They are not in your body and don’t get to judge what is best for you. When you’re already struggling with voices inside your own head, you certainly don’t need any from other people adding to the clutter. I found that changing who I surrounded myself with helped a lot, because the conversation naturally shifted to other things that kept my mind occupied and away from appearance.
- Realize that you probably have some form of body dysmorphia. This is really hard for most people to believe while it’s happening, because it usually doesn’t become apparent until far later on. For me, I had to constantly remind myself that I couldn’t trust my perception of myself in the mirror. It took years for me to look back and realize that at times when I felt “chubby,” I was still underweight. I can see that now, but at the time I had a totally different perspective.
- Realize that if you feel like it’s all going straight to your stomach, you are not alone. This is very common and happens to almost everyone who has to gain weight back after a period of restriction. It will eventually even out, but you have to trust the process. When our cortisol is high, our bodies are most likely to store extra weight in our bellies. It’s not permanent, but remember that your body is healing. It’s best to just embrace it, because it means you’re headed in the right direction.
- Surrender a bit. You might have to gain more weight than you think you need to in order to let your body know it’s safe. It’s not always about just restoring weight – sometimes you have to go beyond that. Accept that you might have to gain a bit more than you initially thought. Maybe not, but maybe. It’s going to be okay. Things even out in the end. It’s part of the journey, and it will be worth it.
- Journal every day. Get to know yourself. Write down what you’re feeling, and be totally open and raw. No one else ever has to know what you write, but you’ll never learn to love yourself if you don’t learn to be completely honest with yourself first.
- Think about people who you admire and who inspire you. Write out a list. What do you love about them? What about them is inspiring? Are any of these things related to their weight? Probably not. This leads me to my next point…
- What do you love about YOURSELF? What do the important people in your life love about you? What traits make you special and unique? What makes you YOU? I doubt the answer to any of that is because of your weight. This is all about learning to detach your worth from your looks. I promise you that there is so much more to you than your appearance. Your body is just a vessel – your soul is what counts.
- Learn about women who have also gained weight to restore their health. There are so many testimonials from people online, and their stories are inspiring. Knowing that other people have gone through it, too, can really help. Maybe this means having a list of books, blog posts, or podcasts that you go back and listen to every time you doubt yourself or need some more courage. For me, hearing stories from other women helped me feel much less alone, and gave me strength so that I could do it, too.
- Write down all of the things that suck about where you’re at right now with your weight. Sometimes there are physical symptoms, and sometimes there are psychological factors. This list can help motivate you to keep going. It could be anything from wanting your period back so you can have children, to wanting to stop feeling cold all the time, to wanting to escape the prison in your brain and relax around food, to wanting to not have to plan your schedule around eating and workouts, to getting a good night’s sleep, to improving your mood and energy, to making sure you have strong bones for the future…
- Be specific about your goal. It’s not a number. Is it health? Is it happiness? Every step you take should be getting you there. Whenever you second guess what you’re about to do, ask yourself if it’s going to bring you closer to that goal. Example: I’m hungry, but my initial instinct is that I don’t want to eat that extra piece of meat because it feels like “too much food.” But my goal is health, and right now I don’t have a period, and in order to regain my period I have to put on weight to let my body know it’s safe. Therefore, I should probably eat more. That will get me closer to my GOAL of health.
- Use logical reasoning to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Focusing on the logic of the situation rather than emotions is something that always keeps me going. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you gain weight? Well, you gain weight. Your body feels safer and starts functioning properly again. Oh, wait – that was the goal. Or what about…When you’re 95, are you going to care if you were 5 or 10 pounds heavier when you were 25? Is being a few pounds lighter now worth losing your health and taking years off your life, or forfeiting your option to have children? Is being a few pounds lighter worth limiting your life? Are you actually happy as you are right now? Nothing will change if you don’t make a change. What you were doing before this was obviously not working, otherwise you wouldn’t be in this position.
- If you’re worried about gaining too much weight, you won’t. You’re getting ahead of yourself and stopping yourself before you even get started! Real talk – that’s just an excuse to not do the hard work, and to avoid being uncomfortable during this time of change. If your body needs extra weight, then be kind and give it that. If SOMEHOW you gain too much weight at the end of the process, which is incredibly unlikely, then you can address that later in a healthy way. But that’s not what you need to worry about now. Focus on your HEALTH.
- Remember that no one else is as critical of you as YOU. You’d be surprised how many people don’t even notice that you’re gaining weight. Trust me, most people are more worried about themselves. Or they really don’t care if you’re gaining weight – that’s not why they hang out with you.
- Even if you start to look different, it doesn’t mean you look worse. It usually makes people look a bit more alive and energetic, if anything, but it’s hard to see that when it’s your own body.
- Think about how lucky you are that your “prescription” for health is to CHILL OUT. Eat more food. Relax. Lay off the workouts. Breathe. There are a lot of people out there who are told they have to RESTRICT more to get healthier, but your path to health is the OPPOSITE! You have permission to free yourself – don’t fight that! Embrace it! Eat the food! Ditch the workouts you dread! Relax! Indulge! There’s never a better time to enjoy some cookies, IMO.
- Really think about why you care about your weight. Whose standards are you trying to meet? Is it society’s? A friend’s? Yours? If it’s yours, why is that your standard? Where did that stem from? Are you really going to let someone else’s view of “healthy” define YOURS? Take back control.
- Make every decision from a place of self-love, not self-hate. No more punishing yourself.
- Keep the end goal in mind. Sometimes you just have to put your head down and push through. Even when you’re uncomfortable. Be okay with being uncomfortable for right now. Nothing worth it is ever easy.
Gaining weight is difficult emotionally and physically, but sometimes it’s necessary for us to bring back our health. At the end of the day, it requires swallowing your pride and focusing on health rather than aesthetics, and learning to detach your sense of self-worth from your body and attach it to who you are as a person. This is about loving and accepting yourself, and that lesson will transform not only your health, but your entire life.