Bipolar and Weight Loss: How to Effectively Shed Pounds

Weight gain can be an unwelcome side effect of bipolar disorder. Use strategies like mindfulness and a support system to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine.

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Whether you’d like to lose a little weight or a lot, you’ve got company: According to National Health Statistics Reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 70 percent of Americans over age 20 are overweight.

Managing the ups and downs of bipolar moods can make it more challenging to manage the ups and downs on a scale, too. It’s not news that keeping up physical activity and putting together healthy meals — assuming you have any appetite — feels close to impossible during a depressive episode.

That’s why sticking with medications that control your mood symptoms remains a top priority, even if your current prescriptions bring on carbohydrate cravings and weight gain.

“Initially, gaining mental strength is more important than losing weight,” notes Jessica Crandall Snyder, RDN, a certified diabetes educator in Denver and CEO of Vital RD. “Maintaining good mental health allows you to have the energy to be active and engage fully with your life.”

Fortunately, the fundamentals of self-care that keep your mental health in balance — and boost your well-being overall — overlap with the basics of weight management. Healthy eating and a suitable amount of physical activity are givens. Research suggests that the quality and quantity of your sleep, surprisingly, influences appetite and weight gain.

Creating and sticking to routines has powerful benefits for maintaining wellness when you live with bipolar. So creating a schedule to wake up, eat meals, exercise, and take your meds at the same times every day not only keeps your body’s biological clock running smoothly, but also locks in healthy habits.

Digging deeper, here are five principles to help you on the way to a healthier, happier you.

1. A Healthy Diet Equals a Healthier Mind

Note the difference between “a healthy diet” and “dieting.” If you’re aiming for some ideal weight or desirable waist size, the constant subtext is, “I’m not good enough.” It’s easy to focus on the gap between here and there and get discouraged.

Now think about this: When your goal is to do something positive for your well-being — and that covers mind, body or mood — you’re always moving forward from where you are.

“One reasonable way to approach this is not to strive for perfection but to strive for progress,” says Snyder. “Think about what you can do today to really engage in maintaining your good health. Take action around your own nutrition and own it. Don’t compare yourself to others.

“Maybe today you take a walk or ride your bike to clear your head. Or maybe you just take your dog for a walk, removing the thought process from yourself and caring for others, like your dog.”

2. All Calories Aren’t Equal 

Ultimately, you have to be taking in fewer calories than your body is burning in order to lose weight. Strategies include setting yourself a calorie cap per day, checking that your portions actually match the recommended serving size, and keeping track of everything you eat in a food diary or an app like Lose It!.

Good health is not just about calorie intake, though. Instead, shift to thinking about how to get the most nutrient bang for your buck, says Bobbi Jo Yarborough, PsyD, an investigator for the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon.

Dr. Yarborough leads a team that developed the STRIDE program, which targets weight loss and weight maintenance strategies to people who live with serious mental disorders. (If you’re wondering, STRIDE isn’t an acronym for anything. The upper-case name was picked to suggest movement and momentum.)

Given an equal number of calories, which food choices are going to give you the most vitamins and minerals? What protein sources have the least unwanted fats? How about maximizing grams of natural fiber?

That’s why so many healthy diet plans recommend the same basics: lean meats, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. And the closer your food stays to the way it came from the farm or garden, the better. As in: An ear of corn trumps a handful of corn chips.

Yarborough, in common with many physicians and nutrition experts, recommends the DASH Eating Plan (shorthand for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension”). The so-called Mediterranean diet is another widely respected option, and research has linked this dietary pattern to lower rates of depression.

Relying more on “nutrient-dense” foods should also improve your energy in/energy out ratio. By replacing the quick rush of “empty” calories with a more sustainable and balanced power base, you may end up with more verve and fewer exhausted crashes throughout the day.

3. Practice Mindful Eating

How you eat can be as important as what you eat. Grabbing whatever’s handy when you’re hungry, chowing down when you’re on the go or busy working, snacking while you watch TV — not exactly friendly to making optimal choices.

One antidote: mindful eating. Slowing down to savor what’s in front of you, making the most of every bite in your mouth, listening closely to your body’s signals about satisfaction and fullness.

When Shayla P. of Corning, New York, sits down at the table, “I remind myself to live in the moment,” she says. “When I’m eating, I sit and intentionally observe the colors on the plate, appreciate the taste, and think about how my body processes the food for my benefit.”

Shayla, a mother of four, tries to bring mindfulness into every aspect of her life.

“I take the time to actually enjoy preparing my food by playing some good music while I carefully chop vegetables, or make that walk leisurely instead of trying to power through it. It’s all become part of my lifestyle and not a chore.”

4. Make Weight Loss a Team Effort

Shayla says her kids provide an excellent support system for her efforts to be healthier.

“They hold me accountable. I’ll set a goal for myself and share it with my daughter. For example, if I want to drink a certain number of bottles of water in a day, I’ll agree to give her a dollar if I don’t do it.

“Instead of just wanting to win her dollar and letting me forget about my goal, she helps by giving me encouraging reminders throughout the day. Last night, she denied me a cookie!”

There’s plenty of proof that accountability helps when you’re working toward lifestyle changes. For example, studies have confirmed the value of exercise buddies. Having a standing date to jog with a friend before work may get you out the door on mornings you don’t even want to get out of bed.

Wendy W. of Darlington, South Carolina, credits TOPS (Taking Pounds Off Sensibly), a nonprofit weight loss support program, and the “wonderful group” of local women she’s joined at weekly meetings since April 2017, with helping her shed 38 pounds.

Yarborough notes that support groups for weight loss combine both accountability and reinforcement from your peers.

Don’t underestimate the rah-rah factor of putting together a support team. Wendy’s sister has cheered on her efforts, and her daughter got her started on a walking routine.

“I was hospitalized one time in winter, and my daughter said, ‘Come on, Mom, let’s go for a walk.’ Now I go every day or at least every other day for 30 minutes,” she says.

Wendy explains that walking — “especially in the mornings to get the sunlight I need to help with my [bipolar] depression” — has been a huge help for her mood, apart from any other benefits.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important exercise is — even when you’re down and don’t want to do anything, just try to get up and move some if that’s all you can do,” she says.

5. Find a Diet and Exercise Plan That Works for You

Not everyone’s a joiner, of course. Yarborough’s husband and colleague, Micah, who has bipolar 1 disorder, says he’s not big on working out in a group. He’s big on working out, though, so he’s been fine going solo.

Micah is a research associate with the STRIDE project alongside his wife. He’s got first-hand experience with the lifestyle interventions he encourages for participants. After his last manic episode, he gained 40 pounds in two months.

“I played sports growing up and was always active.… I’d never been overweight in my life and I was determined to get that weight off,” he says.

It took him eight months, but he never let up.

“I set a minimum of three days a week to exercise, but usually did five or six days, and I concentrated on staying physically healthy.

“I added more cardiovascular work — that burns more calories — and focused on my portion control. That meant eating a ‘reasonable amount’ and not always eating until I was full. If I got hungry between meals, I’d teach myself to wait.”

Despite the recent stir in scientific circles over whether watching calories or getting more exercise is a better way to lose weight, the general consensus still seems to be that a combination of the two works best.

No arguments there from Steve K. of Toronto, Ontario. Steve remembers having “a weight-gain issue” when he was prescribed medication that increased his appetite. He became very body-conscious, he says, then decided to tackle the problem head-on.

“I increased my workout frequency, even though I’d gone to the gym regularly back then,” says Steve.

“There’s also no real shortcut to losing weight,” he adds. “You need to limit your calorie intake and work out regularly.

“Maintaining motivation can be difficult with bipolar, but it’s not impossible. You really do have the power, so use it.”

UPDATED: Originally printed as “A New Way to Weight Loss”, Winter 2019

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Stireman B, Afful J, Carroll M, et al. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2017 – March 2020 Prepandemic Data Files— Development of Files and Prevalence Estimates for Selected Health Outcomes [PDF]. National Health Statistics Reports. June 14, 2021.

Tasali E, Wroblewski K, Kahn E, et al. Effect of Sleep Extension on Objectively Assessed Energy Intake Among Adults With Overweight in Real-life Settings: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine. February 2022.

Rackow P, Scholz U, Hornung R. Received Social Support and Exercising: An Intervention Study to Test the Enabling Hypothesis. British Journal of Health Psychology. April 2015.

The post Bipolar and Weight Loss: How to Effectively Shed Pounds appeared first on bpHope.com.

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