Losing Weight and IBS: Why Calories Don’t Count

Weight loss is a huge industry, with a market worth over 70 billion dollars. Diet culture is heavily focused on women yet is powerfully shaped by the patriarchy. From an early age, we are conditioned to associate our weight with our self-worth, extending through adulthood. 

This is nothing new. 

Historically, a woman’s worth has been dictated by her body size. And history shows we will go to extremes to achieve what society deems “beautiful.” 

In the 1500s, corsets were introduced to women. With corsets, the culturally ideal yet anatomically unnatural hourglass figure could be achieved by anyone, regardless of their natural shape. The corset reigned until World War I. That’s nearly 400 years of cinching the waist so tight that it led to the disfigurement of the spine, abdominal organs, and lots of fainting. 

Why would anyone subject themself to this? Because body size was directly related to success. And 300 years ago, female success meant finding a husband.

Thankfully, things have changed a lot since then, but we can’t ignore the fact that we will still go to extremes when it comes to losing weight. (Who remembers the Master Cleanse diet?!) 

But hear me out: losing weight isn’t always a bad thing. 

The problem is that there often seems to be a disconnect between weight and true health.

Over time, we have been conditioned to view fat as bad and skinny as good. But this isn’t how it works. Fitting into jeans that are three sizes smaller is not a guarantee that you will suddenly be healthier, feel less bloated, less tired, or even happier. 

I know you’ve heard this one before, but it can’t go without saying—the number on the scale does NOT dictate your health. 

And when it comes to losing weight and IBS or IBD, putting your health first is ESSENTIAL. Gut problems and chronic illness demand support that cookie-cutter weight loss diets just can’t provide—unfortunately, they can make health problems even worse! The big secret is that your body will find its perfect weight as a beneficial side effect of supporting the gut. 

Losing weight and IBS: Why all calories are not equal

Almost every weight loss program has one thing in common: counting calories. If you know me, you already know that calorie counting is not something I recommend. If you are new here, check out my blog, The Top 3 Reasons You Should Stop Calorie Counting to Lose Weight (and what to do instead)

The massive problem with the calorie counting method is that it ignores the nutrient density of food. Not all calories are equal. One hundred calories of ice cream do not impact your body the same way as 100 calories of sweet potato. Sure, they both provide carbohydrates, but the sweet potato also provides nutrients like fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin c, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and choline. These calories affect your body in drastically different ways. 

When you have IBS or IBD, eating a nutrient-dense diet is foundational to healing. We need lots of nutrients for gut health and mental health. And both of those are key when it comes to IBS and IBD. You can learn more about that here

Losing weight and IBS: Tummy troubles and weight loss

Visualize that you are getting ready for a night out, and pull on your favorite jeans. They are pretty snug, but you figure you can suck it in for one night. A couple of hours later, however, and they are uncomfortably tight. “Ugh, why am I so bloated?” you think. “ I need to lose weight.”

Guess what? Losing weight is not the solution to bloating and distension. Skinny people get bloated too! Chronic bloating and abdominal distention are signs that something is awry in your gut, and it is a common symptom for those with IBS and IBD. 

Gut health is a significant influencer of weight loss. This means that if losing weight is your goal, gut health must be addressed first. Your gut plays a part in regulating everything from your metabolism to your food cravings. 

Interestingly, researchers have observed that those with IBS and IBD often have gut dysbiosis (aka imbalanced gut bacteria) and also abnormal levels of hormones that regulate appetite (1). This is a big deal! 

In addition to stimulating appetite, one of those hormones, ghrelin, also affects gut motility and is thought to contribute to the development of IBS (2). Several studies have found that those with IBS have increased levels of ghrelin in their gut (2). In theory, this could lead to increased feelings of hunger for those with IBS. 

Although this is just a theory, it does drive home the point I am trying to make—when it comes to losing weight and IBS, healing your gut must come first. 

So, instead of jumping on another heavily marketed, trendy diet, start with the foundations. Begin by focusing on how your food makes you feel. 

To do this, start looking for signs that you are actually fueling your body well and absorbing nutrients from the food you eat. 

Here are some common signs of a healthy gut and nourished body. How many of these boxes can you check?

  • Sleeping soundly 
  • Feeling rested and restored in the morning
  • Feeling balanced energy all day
  • Shiny hair that doesn’t easily break
  • Strong nails 
  • Energy to exercise and feeling like you recover well from workouts
  • No frequent bloating
  • No frequent stomach pains/cramps
  • No excessive or foul-smelling gas
  • No frequent diarrhea
  • No blood in the stool
  • No large pieces of visibly undigested food in stool
  • Often feel mental clarity (no brain fog)
  • Often feel a sense of calm and happiness 

If these don’t sound familiar to you, here are some tips to help put your gut and YOU first before focusing on losing weight. 

Focus on food quality

Food quality is essential when it comes to gut health.

Diets that contain lots of ultra-processed foods, added sugar, and inflammatory fats have been linked to an increased risk of both IBS and IBD (3,4).

Beyond eating less processed foods, choosing organic or naturally grown food may also be helpful for gut healing. Pesticides commonly used on foods can impact gut health. One study found that a commonly used pesticide, glyphosate, impacted 54% of the species in the human gut microbiome (5), and others have confirmed that exposure to glyphosate at levels considered “safe” reduces levels of beneficial gut bacteria such as Lactobacillus (6).

Optimize your organs of digestion

Pop quiz! Does digestion begin in a) the mouth or b) the brain?

If you guessed the brain, you are correct! Your digestive process begins in the brain and is triggered by the sight and smell of food. 

Digestion is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” system). This means we must be relaxed to fully digest food and absorb nutrients. Eating when stressed, upset, or even on the go can contribute to indigestion, heartburn, bloating, and gas. 

Relax before eating by taking a few deep breaths while seated, eat your food slowly, and take time to enjoy what’s on your plate. 

Move your body in a way that makes you happy

We all know that exercise is essential for losing weight, but when it comes to losing weight and IBS, the type of exercise you do can make or break your success. 

Strenuous exercises like HIIT and long-distance running reduce the blood flow to the gut and temporarily increase leaky gut. This can make IBS symptoms much worse.

Strenuous exercises also stimulate your fight or flight response and increase stress hormones. 

For some, this can hinder weight loss, especially if you are not fueling your body to match your activity level.

So, if you have been forcing yourself to make that 5 am HIIT class, it’s time to find a less rigorous exercise that actually makes you happy. Give walking, hiking, swimming, yoga, or resistance training a try. 

Do a nutrient-dense, satisfying diet, energizing workouts and community support sound more exciting (and fulfilling) than spinning your wheels obsessing about weight loss? Check out The Good Pooper’s Club, an 8-week personalized reset that will help you find your perfect weight.