Weight Loss and RA: Be Kind to Your Joints
“If you lose some weight, it’ll be easier on your joints.”
Easier said than done. At my heaviest, I weighed a whopping 230 pounds – that was about a year after I was diagnosed with RA.
As the decades rolled on, I’d lose some weight, then put it back on, hovering around the 180 to 200 pound mark for a number of years. It wasn’t that I ate poorly, or lacked exercise. I prepared healthy meals and regularly swam, skied, skated, cycled and windsurfed. I had a sweet tooth (still do) – actually, a mouthful of sweet teeth and a lot of swallowed stress.
I tried a number of different diets and strategies, all with limited success.
No Weight Loss Wizardry
My stress coping technique was to eat. Ice-cream, chips, chocolate and baked goods provided succour (sugar?) when I was dragging suitcases bulging with negative thoughts and emotions that had nowhere else to go besides into my mouth.
Sadly, there was no magic wand, nor powerful pill, that could help me snake my way into a lower weight. What did happen was a slow, steady and patient shift that began roughly at the same time that I became Auntie Stress.
An alternative to eating my stress
As I began to balance my nervous system by regularly practising stress techniques, I:
- Had fewer cravings.
- Became more mindful of my urges to eat.
- Made better choices.
- Was more content to slowly drop the pounds.
- Gave up dieting and opted for lifestyle changes that are sustainable, forgivable and liveable. (Would you be interested in a blog post on this topic?)
If I do over-indulge, I resolve to eat better the next meal/day. (Previously, a moment-on-the-lips of a broken diet, would lead to weeks, if not months, of “What the hell, I blew it!” eating.)
The Weight of Stress
Doreen Virtue, the author of Constant Craving, has this to say about stress eating:
Stress eaters usually have a wide range of food cravings, all intuitively chosen to ease their tension and frustration. They crave alcohol to manage their ever-taut nerves, coffee and cola to pump up their enthusiasm and energy, chocolate to ease their love-life disappointments, bread and dairy products to calm themselves down, and crunchy snack food to control their anger.” (Virtue, Doreen. Constant Craving: What Your Food Cravings Mean and How to Overcome Them. Hay House, 2011. 44.)
As you see in the above quote, there are a lot of negative thoughts, feelings and emotions to consume (process): tension, frustration, taut nerves, low energy, disappointments, agitation, anger.
Which foods call to you when you are stressed? Next time you have a craving, take a moment, notice how you are feeling. Name the emotion. When you become aware of your patterns, you’re one step closer to making positive changes.
Cortisol, “the stress hormone,” is produced by your adrenal glands during times of stress. How you think and feel can trigger the stress response.
When you have good emotional management system, your cortisol level rises, then falls. However, if you are constantly triggered by negative thoughts and emotions, stress becomes chronic, and in my case, over-eating also became chronic. Without stress strategies in place, I tended to eat my way through my emotions.
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress related responses and emotions. These foods really are ‘comfort’ foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.” (Why Stress Causes People to Overeat Harvard Health Publishing.)
COVID-19 provides a very real-time example of stress and overeating. Were you able to keep your weight in check during the height of the pandemic? I’ve heard from a lot of people who found comfort and diversion by baking, cooking and eating during the height of restrictions.
In 1936, Canadian researcher, Hans Selye, described stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” What that means is that different people react differently to stress. Going one further, not everyone stress eats and not everyone puts on weight if they do.
Overeating can also take on a life of its own. It becomes a habit. It can also be something to do when you’re bored, unfulfilled or heartbroken. (More negativity.) What makes it particularly challenging is that eating is a celebratory social activity, that is often blended with cultural significance.
Stress, Sleep and Overeating
Stress can impact the quality of your sleep. In my case, I often reached for a food-pick-me-up when what I really needed was a nap. However, taking a nap in front of a classful of students would not go down well. Recess and lunchtime and lesson prep time was ideal for snacking. A quick hit of sugar and away I went. Unfortunately, the scales went, too – in an upwardly direction! (See: Stressing Sleep.)
Back to the Joints
You may think twice about foraging in your fridge when you’ve already had a nutritious meal after reading How Fat Affects Rheumatoid Arthritis. Linda Rath states:
Being overweight can worsen rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms, make medications less effective and set you up for other health problems. About two-thirds of people with RA are overweight or obese – the same proportion as in the general population. But when you have RA, extra body fat can create extra problems. (Arthritis Foundation. Rath, Linda. How Fat Affects Rheumatoid Arthritis.)
The article explains how excess fat releases high levels of cytokines. Cytokines are inflammation-causing proteins. When you have RA, your joints are very likely bulging with cytokines. When you peel off the pounds, you are not only being kind to your joints, but your body, as well.
Since I was unable to make a splash in the swimming pool, I began a walking project – Operation North Delta, (OND). I am proud to say that I walked every residential street in North Delta, the neighbouring community. (You can read about the highlight of that project on Follow the Music.)
I identified a grid that I wanted to walk, which usually took an hour to walk. One of the many observations I had during OND was that my left ankle and my metatarsal heads (balls of the foot), weren’t bothering me like they used to do whenever I walked with purpose. Weight loss helped take the pressure off, despite having an RA-ravaged subtalar joint.
It’s unfortunate that I didn’t know what I now know, decades earlier, but it is what it is. Better late than never!
Take it from me, weight loss is definitely kinder to your joints!