This is the second article in an ongoing series. Make sure to check out the other articles after finishing this one:
Could improving fibromyalgia symptoms be as simple as achieving a healthy body weight?
It should come as no surprise that a healthy weight results in lower pain levels – a fact that is true whether you have fibromyalgia or not. However, for those with fibromyalgia maintaining a healthy body weight is even more important.
Studies have shown that:
- Nearly 30% of those with fibromyalgia are overweight;
- Up to 50% of those with fibromyalgia are obese. (1)
People who are overweight or obese also report more tender points – specific areas in the body that are tender to moderate pressure. Overweight and obese patients are also likely to experience greater pain sensitivity, poorer sleep quality, and reduced physical strength and flexibility. (2)
However, when these patients lose weight, their symptoms improve. As part of a pilot study into the effects of weight loss on fibromyalgia, female fibromyalgia patients who were overweight and obese were put on a 20 week weight loss program.
On average, patients lost about 9lbs (4kg) which was just over 4% of their weight. This weight loss resulted in significant improvements in:
- Pain levels,
- Body satisfaction
- Quality of life. (3)
However studies show that adjusting the diet may help as well.
New research suggests that the food patients with fibromyalgia eat can play a pivotal role in their mental health. A study done in Spain showed that eating fruit, vegetables and fish on a regular basis directly resulted in higher levels of optimism and lower levels of depression in patients suffering from fibromyalgia. The same study showed that eating cured meats (like deli meats, bacon and ham) and drinking sweetened beverages (like pop and juice) every day were associated with higher levels of depression and lower levels of optimism. (6)
Physical activity is also linked with improved mental health benefits in people with mild to moderate depression. (7, 8) However, for patients with fibromyalgia who are also overweight or obese, movement is often connected to greater pain levels – something they want to avoid at all costs. This is despite many studies that show the opposite to be true. You can read more about that here.
These studies prove that a healthy diet and weight loss are important steps in controlling the symptoms of fibromyalgia. But how can patients comfortably lose weight and keep it off? The answer is not found in a fancy new diet trend.
How to lose weight comfortably (even if you have fibromyalgia)
Extreme caloric deprivation, ultra-low-carb diets, and other plans that emphasize extreme measures rarely work well for those with fibromyalgia because they’re an added stress to the system. Instead, dietary changes should be comfortable, lifestyle alterations that can remain in effect for the long term.
It’s best to think of weight loss for fibromyalgia patients as a marathon, not a sprint.
At Flourish Clinic we recommend following a Paleo-style diet for all weight-loss endeavors. This diet eliminates food that may be inflammatory, and increases whole, nutrient-rich foods to nourish your body.
The theory behind the Paleo diet is to eat foods that our Paleolithic ancestors ate as our bodies are more suited to eat these foods instead of the modern convenience foods that make up the majority of our diet today. In fact, these modern foods are thought to be some of the major culprits in chronic inflammation.
Since inflammation is one of the main drivers of fibromyalgia, it follows that diet should be low in inflammatory foods.
A Paleo diet eliminates potentially inflammatory foods including:
- Grains (both gluten and gluten-free);
- Concentrated sweeteners;
- Refined and processed foods.
Instead, the diet focuses on nutrient-rich food such as:
- Non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber;
- Traditional fats (coconut oil, lard, olive oil).
By shifting to a Paleo-style template, daily calories tend to be quite balanced between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Nutrients to nourish the body affected by Fibromyalgia
A healthy diet should provide all the necessary vitamins and nutrients without requiring supplementation. For those with fibromyalgia, ensure your diet is high in the following micronutrients:
An antioxidant for immune support.
- Fruit sources: papaya, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, cantaloupe, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries
- Vegetable sources: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and bok choy
For maintenance of gastrointestinal and immune health.
- Top sources: yogurt, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, beet kvass.
To support muscle and skeletal weakness.
- Top sources: daily sun baths. Duration should be half the time it takes your skin to turn pink.
- During the winter season, supplementation is necessary. I recommend taking 1-2 tsp of cod liver oil. This will provide most individuals with enough vitamin D for the day.
As you move to a Paleo diet you will eat less and less packaged and fast food. The only downside to this is that these foods are more often than not packed with sodium. While your body doesn’t need all of the added sodium, a low intake of sodium can lead to symptoms such as lethargy, nausea, and hypotension and lead to more serious consequences.
- Adding salt to your food (to taste) should ensure your daily sodium levels are optimized.
High levels are associated with lower blood pressure, and low levels or a deficiency is associated with hypertension, high blood sugar, and being overweight.
- Top sources: potato, halibut, plantains, rockfish, sweet potato, beet greens, bananas, sockeye salmon, acorn squash, avocado, parsnips, pumpkins, kohlrabi, duck, and mushrooms.
Calcium, zinc, and magnesium:
These minerals have been shown to have stress-lowering effects.
- Calcium: sesame seeds, sardines (with bones), yogurt, collard greens, spinach, cheese, turnip greens, sockeye salmon (with bones), molasses, and mustard greens.
- Magnesium: oysters, liver, crab, lobster, beef, lamb, endive, pork, nuts, dark chocolate, and crimini mushrooms
- Zinc: dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish (mackerel), avocados, dairy products (if tolerated), bananas, figs, and dark chocolate
We’ve provided more information about following a Paleo diet in this blog post.
More tips on starting a Paleo diet for those with fibromyalgia
Keep it simple.
You don’t have to adopt the Paleo diet overnight. Try removing one food group at a time as you slowly work towards the Paleo template. Remember, you’re changing your lifestyle. You’re not going on a diet.
A healthy meal doesn’t have to be complicated. A protein like meat or fish cooked in a healthy fat like olive oil, plenty of non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and whole food carbohydrates from root vegetables or fruit. Voila, a Paleo dinner.
Be sure to eat enough.
For those with fibromyalgia, less food is not better when it comes to losing weight. Your body needs optimum levels of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and the micronutrients associated with each. This is not the time to start counting calories and depriving yourself.
Reaching for weight loss shakes or restricting calories robs your body of the nutrients it needs to overcome inflammation. Unfortunately, this ends up stressing your body even more which then prolongs treatment time.
Don’t worry, even though you’re not consciously restricting calories you’re still likely to lose weight on a Paleo diet. By following a Paleo template, you end up getting more calories from proteins and fats. Gram for gram, proteins are far more filling than carbohydrates so you will feel full while eating less. This is why weight loss tends to happen effortlessly while on a Paleo diet.
Get friends and family on board
The hardest aspect of a new diet or lifestyle change is staying committed. For the first couple weeks you will be full of ambition and energy. But as the months progress, staying committed will become more challenging. This is especially true when you try to do this on your own or if you’re cooking separate meals for yourself and your family.
Making major lifestyle changes without any social support is not only difficult, it’s often difficult to keep up. Embarking on your Paleo weight loss with friends and family will greatly increase your chances of success. Encouragement, motivation, and maybe even some friendly competition between you and your family and friends will help you keep these changes for good.
Tying it all together
If you’ve been following this series of posts, you now know that there are three important dietary changes to make to improve your symptoms of fibromyalgia:
- Eliminate gluten. The overlapping symptoms of fibromyalgia and celiac disease or gluten sensitivity indicate that you may experience an improvement in health just through this one step. Remember – while some people experience an improvement in their health relatively quickly, for others it can take a few months to see noticeable changes. Give your body time to adjust and heal. You can find more information on how to do this here.
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight through sensible, sustainable dietary changes. Those who are overweight or obese see an improvement in symptoms when they lose weight – however these dietary changes need to be gradual and gentle. Do not put added stress on your already-suffering body. You can read more about how to do this here.
- Eating fewer inflammatory foods. One of the main symptoms of fibromyalgia is inflammation, so it follows that your diet should be low in inflammatory foods.
This is not a quick fix diet. It’s not 30-days to cure fibromyalgia. Instead, these recommendations are going to help you make a gradual lifestyle shift that should result in an improvement in your symptoms.
To better make these changes sustainable, tackle them one at a time. Again, because of the strong link between the symptoms of gluten sensitivity and fibromyalgia, I recommend first finding out if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.
Check out the other articles in this series:
Also published on Medium.