Monday, April 12, 2010

Dairy and Weight Gain/Loss

By Diana Hsieh

Officially, this post is another update on my recovery from hypothyroidism. In fact, however, it's a report on my own experience with weight gain and loss while varying my dairy consumption within the context of limit in a broadly paleo diet.

A few weeks ago, I stopped gaining weight -- finally! Since I became seriously hypothyroid in the fall of 2009, I'd been gaining weight at the very consistent rate of three pounds per month. Sometimes, mostly due to a bit of fasting, I'd be down a pound or two, but then I'd suddenly gain back all that weight plus more within a day or two, so that I'd be on that steady upward slope again. That pattern continued, even after the worst of my hypothyroid symptoms were eliminated with the switch to desiccated thyroid and the addition of iodine.

By late February, I was up 18 pounds to just over 150 pounds, i.e. my pre-paleo weight. Since I'm fairly tall (just over 5'8"), that's not so terrible in and of itself -- although I hated it. However, the continued upward progression was really alarming. Plus, I'd outgrown almost all my pants. Yikes!

After listening to Robb Wolf talk in his fantastic podcasts with Andy Deas about the growth-promoting, insulin-spiking effects of dairy, I realized that I'd been eating a huge amounts of dairy -- far more than ever before. I was buying those huge blocks of cheese from Costco, not to mention those delectable half gallons of cream. I was eating cheese-and-eggs instead of meat-and-eggs for breakfast. I was eating some high-fat dairy rather than meat-and-veggie leftovers for lunch. And we'd often have dairy as part of dinner too. As Robb would say, "Holy cats!"

When I realized that in late February, I cut my dairy down dramatically -- to basically just one serving per day at most. So now I'll have a cup of raw milk kefir or cheese on meatza, but not much more than that. I've also limited my nuts, as those are too easy to eat in bulk. That shift was really hard for me for the first week, as I'd grown very used to eating cheese as a staple. I experienced more than a few "Gack! What can I possibly eat?!?" moments, particularly for lunch. Once I restocked the fridge though, I was okay: I could eat my favorite uncured bratwurst, kielbasa, or ham -- or large salads.

Happily, that shift in my diet immediately reversed the upward trajectory of my weight. I immediately lost four pounds, then stabilized around 146 pounds. That's where I've been for a few weeks now. Of course, I'd like to lose another ten to fifteen pounds of fat, but I'm not willing to push myself much to do that. I'm already pretty stressed, and losing weight would be yet another burden. Moreover, I'm still recovering from my hypothyroidism. I'm doing well, but I'm not yet perfect. (I'm currently on one and half grains of desiccated thyroid, but I expect that I'll need to be bumped up to two with my next round of thyroid blood tests.) Based on my body temperatures and other symptoms, my metabolism likely isn't quite up to full speed. Losing those extra pounds might be easier when that's humming along better.

The lesson I've learned from my n=1 experiment is that dairy might be something to limit or even eliminate in a broadly paleo diet if you're struggling with your weight loss goals. Honestly, I'm not sure if that's due to any special insulin-spiking, growth-promoting properties of dairy, as Dr. Cordain argues -- or simply because it's super-easy to consume a boatload of calories with high-fat dairy. Personally, I suspect the main problem is the calorie load, as I have the same problem with nuts, as do others. Although not all calories are created equal, a girl does have her limits!

That being said, I don't think that it's necessary to cut out all dairy to lose weight. My weight doesn't seem to be affected by eating small amounts of high-fat dairy. Plus, I lost 18 pounds on a broadly paleo diet while drinking nearly one-and-a-half gallons of raw milk per week. Now I'm down to just a half gallon per week, most of it cultured into kefir. That's manageable, I think.

As usual, your mileage with dairy may vary. People need to experiment periodically to see what foods work well for them. Of course, the major experiment in diet is the experiment with paleo itself. Yet even after that foundation is well-established, my experience shows that even the small tweaks will sometimes yield major benefits.

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