How can I lose weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

I recently received a set of reader questions from Skye at Mealtime Hostage, and I figured I would take a crack at answering them. Here’s the first one:

I’m overweight because my diet is so unhealthy (mostly carbs, no meat, no fruit or veg … *ps…There might be juice, or a blueberry muffin-ish type thing). I want to lose weight but how can I shed the weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

Hi there – I think this question is conflating two different things: healthy eating and weight loss. Tragically,* it is not a guarantee that if you eat a healthy diet, weight loss will follow. This may happen for some people (if adding in fruits and veggies displaces more calorically-dense foods) but on a strictly technical level, the weight loss is not a result of eating “healthier” food. People can lose (and have lost) weight on diets composed primarily of Twinkies, sheerly through calorie restriction. I’m not recommending it, but that’s how weight loss happens: you take in fewer calories, from any type of food, than you expend.

While this is true at the most reductive level, I must also point out that the economic model of body weight (that’s what I’m calling it from now on) omits certain complicating factors: like the possibility that, as one eats less, one’s resting energy expenditure (the number of calories you burn just existing) may take a hit as the body attempts to avert starvation through conserving energy. In animals, this means their body temperature goes down, they shiver less in response to cold, and they become very lethargic in their daily activities.

It also completely skirts the question of whether this kind of calorie deficit is sustainable for the long term. According to research in humans, it’s mostly not. And lastly, it ignores the possibility that some people are just naturally larger than other people, and that there is a considerable component of heritability to this weight diversity. That’s not to say people cannot be at a weight that is unhealthy for them, or at a higher weight due to overeating (they can), but it is to say that not every “overweight” person is in this situation. I don’t know what is true for you personally, but this deserves to be acknowledged in general.

Given all this very discouraging information, what’s a person to do? In my opinion: focus on eating well (and moving well) for its own sake. Understand what “eating well” truly means: eating a varied, nourishing, satisfying, and pleasurable diet. Eating well means eating all of the macronutrients (carb, protein, and fat), and plenty of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that come along for the ride when you plan balanced, tasty meals.

Take it back to basics: the four food groups. (In case you don’t remember 4th grade, they are: vegetables/fruit, grains, dairy/alternatives, and legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives.) It sounds like this particular questioner is missing out on at least two food groups: legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives and vegetables/fruit. Here’s the place to start: keep eating what you’re eating now, but add on what is missing. If you want, you can try shooting for three food groups at each meal, and two at a snack. Look at your meals and ask yourself, What’s missing? Then ask: what’s the easiest, tastiest way to add it on?

Can you toss in an apple? A handful of baby carrots? Some strawberries? Order a side salad? Get chicken on that salad? Put some tuna in your mac and cheese? Have eggs with your toast? A slice of cheese? Peanut butter?

In response to these changes, your weight will do what it will. You may lose some weight, if you have been eating past your own fullness. In my experience, it is more difficult to feel truly satisfied, and to clearly hear fullness signals, if you are eating only one or two types of food, not feeling well-nourished, and skipping out on foods that contribute to fullness (like protein, and the fibre in vegetables and fruit.) When you return to eating the full complement of food groups, you might find that your weight stabilizes, if you were previously gaining, or you might lose a modest amount, and then stabilize. It’s not a guarantee, but it is a possibility. This is a slow process, and can take 6-12 months of eating well, so don’t hinge your behaviour on weight outcomes.

What should you hinge it on? A lot of people feel lost when they put their weight focus on the back-burner (or kick it off the stove altogether.) And now we come back to what I said earlier: for its own sake. Eating well, regardless of what your weight does, gives you so much. For me, personally, the following things happened when I learned to eat well:

  • stopped having heartburn and other GI upsets
  • stopped thinking about food 24/7
  • stopped feeling out of control with food
  • stopped feeling guilty about eating foods I enjoyed
  • had more consistent energy through the day
  • stopped experiencing overhunger that left me shaky and desperate, and overfullness that made me miserable
  • enjoyed my meals more, since, in addition to tasting good, they really hit the spot
  • tried and learned to like a whole bunch of new foods, including different vegetables
  • felt happy for taking good care of myself with food

So, then, to get to what I suspect is actually the heart of this question: how do you learn to eat well? One little step at a time. Eat what you’re eating now, and add on what is missing. Make the time to have consistent meals if you’re not already, and see how it works for you. And remind yourself that none of this is an obligation. None of this is a “should.” None of this determines anything about your character. All eating well can do for you is make you feel better physically. It cannot make you a better or worse person. If you do this, do this because you want to take care of yourself, because you want to feel good, and because you believe you are worth the effort.

You are.

Take care of yourself first, worry about your weight second (or don’t. It’s up to you.)

*Not actually tragic.


Fun and games in comments.



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18 responses to “How can I lose weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?”

  1. Amy Avatar

    I love this article so much!!!!!!!!!! Thank you!

  2. Jessica Avatar

    I love this so much. Thank you!

  3. lynne Avatar

    Thank you for this article. I do feel like I’m getting the hang of eating well, and would like to share that an “additive” approach is really working for me.

    Good thing. Losing weight cannot be a primary goal of mine, lest I return to the old Diet Coke-cigarette-popcorn diet.

    However, even after getting past the diet-binge cycle, I had many days where I could not eat to satiety. It was very distressing. I called them “bottomless pit days” and would graze and graze to no avail.

    Though it had often occurred to me that my body must be trying to inform me of a deficiency, it took longer to figure out that the missing foods must be things I had forbidden myself so long ago that I no longer thought about them.

    Turns out what I needed in my life were nuts. A handful of something nutty, especially walnuts, several times per week.

    Since then, I’ve been all about consciously adding foods I’d forbidden myself (butter) or hadn’t bothered with (parsley) or that might hold some yet-unknown nutritional promise (kefir, for the probiotics).

    Last week I had to admit to myself that I am shedding less hair than I used to (something I hadn’t even identified as a particular problem) and I think my skin may be a bit less dry. I’m still fat but my weight has been stable for quite some time, and these new developments are kind of exciting.

  4. Linda Strout Avatar
    Linda Strout

    It is VERY hard to let go of the ‘shoulds’ we hear about around eating. I don’t always succeed, but when I listen to what my body wants (instead of trying to follow the weird and ever-changing rules) I tend to have a more balanced diet.

    It can also be difficult to alter your eating habits when the outside world interferes. Right now I’m in school with only a ten minute break between classes that are two hours long. I can’t handle that long without food, so guess who is eating nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of a full meal in that ten minute break. To make it worse, I do better without gluten, but as I am broke, I am eating regular, cheaper bread. Currently this is the most workable solution and I don’t give myself grief for not being able to afford gluten-free bread or for tending to eat slow enough that I can’t work with other kinds of food in that limited time period.

    As far as weight goes, I have found this blog and others very helpful in reminding me that weight is more complicated than we are led to believe and that it IS possible to accept yourself as you are, although some days are better than others. What’s more important is figuring out what you need in any given set of circumstances and trying to get those needs met.

    1. Jesse the K Avatar
      Jesse the K

      Celiac here: I eat my peanut butter with sliced apples carrots, celery. Stuff it all in a small container, doesn’t need refrig, ready to eat in that ten minutes.

      1. Linda Strout Avatar
        Linda Strout

        Ah, but I tend to choke on those things, so I must eat them more slowly.

  5. Jennifer Hansen Avatar
    Jennifer Hansen

    I think that many of us who’ve been on the diet treadmill have a Question Zero that must be answered before everything else. That question is: Am I hungry?

    It isn’t always as obvious as one thinks. Being a good eater in this culture often means ignoring hunger. We eat a good breakfast even if we don’t want breakfast or that much breakfast or breakfast-type food. We snack because it’s good for us or don’t snack because it’s not good for us, depending on who we believe, and regardless of whether we want snacks or not. We have our carefully metered 600-calorie dinners when our appetites are roaring for more, or when we really would feel better with a couple of Dagwoods at lunch and a cup of clear soup for supper. We’re not supposed to think about it because hunger is some kind of weakness or even a social solecism like public farting. Honestly, what a mess!

    So I think that before planning for micronutrients and such, it might be a good idea to jot down on a piece of paper what one eats (not with obsessive detail, just what it was, roughly when, and “a lot” or ” a little”) along with how hungry one is before and after. Do this for about a week, and patterns might emerge. This was how I learned that most so-called snack foods just made me hungrier after half an hour (so away with them and in with things that really helped), and that if I got up very early I would feel better if I just worked at this and that until later in the morning and then ate breakfast.

  6. JessDR Avatar

    This is so important, thank you! (And BTW, tuna + mac & cheese = DELICIOUS. Especially if you add some frizzled onions…)

  7. JamieG Avatar

    My diet is vastly improved over what it was a few years ago (I eat probably twice as many different foods, usually at least twice a day!), but I still can’t get over the vegetable hurdle. It’s not a weight loss thing for me – since I started eating better, I’ve actually put on a fair amount of weight (the time period also correlated with what I think is normal early-twenties weight gain, so I have no idea if it’s related) and I’m okay with that – but rather that I know I’ve felt so much better since I started eating more foods, and that I know I feel so much worse when I slip back into a fast food only diet for a few days, due to whatever circumstances. So I’d love to be able to expand my horizons further; I’m a very picky eater, and I’ve been trying to work on it just by eating a new food every week so the concept stops being terrifying, but so far almost nothing has actually been what I’d deem edible.

    That rambling said, when you say you learned to like a bunch of different foods… how? Does the standard little kid advice of “eat something a dozen times and they’ll like it” apply to adults as well? And is there no easier/more efficient option than wasting money buying food I don’t like just so I can try it again repeatedly?

  8. rydra_wong Avatar

    I would also ask why Skye “can’t” eat healthy foods, myself.

    For example (aside from entirely external reasons like lack of money or access to “healthy” foods), maybe they’ve always been a “picky” eater and have a lot of difficulty with any foods outside a restricted range. Maybe they’ve never got into vegetables and could use tips on making them more palatable (maybe they’re a super-taster, and need to be told that it’s okay for them to hate broccoli). Maybe they have anxiety about food safety re: cooking meat or eggs. Maybe they’re very short on spoons, and things like muffins or juice that are ready-to-eat are easier than meals that need preparing. Maybe deliberate efforts to “eat healthily” mess with their head. Etc. etc..

    All of these things can be worked with. But I feel that “can’t” is complex and deserves some more exploring.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Sorry, I should have mentioned this: Skye is the author of Mealtime Hostage, and not the question-asker. Very likely this is a picky eating issue, as that is the main topic of her blog, and while I didn’t address picky eating in this post, I did in a new post I just published today.

      1. rydra_wong Avatar

        Whoops, sorry for the misunderstanding. And yay for you being way ahead of me. *g*

  9. Ceri Cat Avatar
    Ceri Cat

    I would add that even doing a lot of exercise doesn’t assist weight loss for everyone. My sister is around 240lbs at 14 years old and a mere 5’4″ at best despite being a regular attendee of 4 different martial arts dojos every week and tournamenting every month along with training weekends, and seminars. There’s a number of reasons you’re probably well aware of for why exercise doesn’t guarantee weight loss, especially if the diet isn’t brilliant (the kitten’s sucks in part due to lactose intolerance, gastric reflux, and a gall bladder removal).

    She could be more active outside her martial arts admittedly, but she’s well above the average output of someone her age athletically.

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  11. Linda Strout Avatar
    Linda Strout

    Adding onto the ‘how food makes you feel’ idea, I want to point out that sometimes it is a very subtle negative feeling.

    I have never liked chamomile tea, and the only odd thing I noticed about myself was my throat felt a little weird and uncomfortable when I drank it. Nothing major, it really was a pretty subtle feeling. It was only much later I found out chamomile is related to something I was diagnosed as allergic too.

    So be aware of the subtle things.

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