I believe, and have always believed, that starting (or increasing) exercise while trying to lose weight is the best approach. It preserves and builds muscle mass so you can achieve an overall leaner look.
But what about when you can’t exercise? Or maybe you simply don’t want to? What ever the reason, it’s still possible to be successful losing weight with limited mobility. We are going to go over that approach here.
How I Learned How to Lose Weight With Limited Mobility
A bit of background: Last year I suffered a debilitating spine injury. Apparently, it is not too good to land on your head from a launch into a forward roll (just picture flying through the air & trying to land on your upper back & roll out of it). The things we did as kids are far more dangerous as a grown up. As a result, I lost a lot of the ability to do much of anything. ANYTHING.
Therefore, exercise went out the window. The things I love: strength training, power yoga, dance and hiking, went out the window. The things I wanted to learn (tai kwon do – my kids were practicing it – and boxing were next on my list) went out the window too. At first I went crazy. Luckily it passed quickly (or not, depending on who you ask). Honestly, in my discouragement at the beginning, I didn’t adjust my meals to make up the difference for quite a few months. I put on 5-10 (ok, 10-15) pounds. On the bright side, my hubby loved my ginormous boobs. With some time however, I decided enough was enough.
So, that’s how I became very, very familiar with how to lose weight when you really can’t do much of anything. I also planned it in order to keep as much muscle as I could, even without moving much at all. In the end I lost 15-20 pounds. I tried, but couldn’t keep the boobs, it was a loss for me and my hubby. I did lose some strength while not moving for so long. So I had to take the bad with the good. Yet at the end, losing weight gave me something to focus on during this time.
So here we go… First the basic principles. Second, what it’s like. Third, a day in the life of implementing the restrictions.
Principles to Lose Weight With Limited Mobility
The Basic Principles
1 – Keep protein intake high
2 – Lots of veggies
3 – Regular meals
4 – Lower carb intake
5 – Focus on Foods that Are Hard to Digest/Waste Energy
Principle #1 – Keep protein intake high
This is probably the best part. Since protein protects your muscle mass, higher intake becomes essential while you are trying to lose weight with limited mobility.
Since you aren’t moving much, your muscles are at a greater risk of being broken down for energy. Simply, you will lose muscle mass because you are not moving much. When they’ve studied young men and had them stay in bed all day, they found that they lost muscle mass simply by being inactive.
If you are losing weight on top of that, you are more likely to lose a greater amount of muscle. As a result, without exercise you will lose muscle mass. This principle is key when you are learning how to lose weight with limited mobility. So, let’s protect as much as we can! Protein also helps keep you fuller longer, which is sorely needed when you are cutting back.
Principle #2 – Lots of Veggies
There are two main reasons behind this one. First, veggies help keep you fuller without providing many calories at all. It takes a lot of broccoli, lettuce, or many other veggies to provide any significant amount of calories. On top of that you have all the fiber which makes it harder to digest what little is there.
They also keep you fuller because of all the fiber adds volume. The volume keeps your stomach satisfied. The fiber provides additional bulk as you are digesting the food, which keeps you fuller longer. Being fuller helps keep you from eating tons of food at your next feeding opportunity because you are STARVING. Additionally, this makes eating out, or having meals with family/friends realistic. You have plenty of options without offending your friends or ordering everything off menu.
The second reason is that veggies also provide many vital nutrients to protect your cells and keep you healthy in the long run. Cutting back and leaning out puts a lot of demands on your body. One being the decrease of nutrients. By maximizing the nutrients you eat within the smaller volumes, you keep yourself healthier. If long term health doesn’t get you excited, think better skin, better hair, etc.
Principle #3 – Regular Meals
Without exercise your body doesn’t need nearly as much energy. Not much at all. A painfully small amount in my mind. Personally, I’d rather move more & eat more, but I didn’t really have a choice. Having regular meals helps to feel less like I was suffering through the day.
Regular meals also help keep metabolism a little higher and provides further protection for my muscle mass (if you notice the theme here… I was trying to keep all the strength I could). When you do it this way, your body is searching for energy before each meal and when you eat, it burns the energy right away without trying to store it. Between meals your body goes back to burning your energy stores and has plenty of proteins to spare without breaking down your muscle mass.
Regular meals also help keep you fuller as you are eating veggies regularly, and always have another feeding opportunity a few hours away. This also includes having something that includes both protein/carbs within an hour or so of getting up. Overnight, your body burns though much of it’s carb stores, especially when you are cutting back. So to stop your body from breaking down your muscle mass, it’s important to eat soon after waking. Given that most people I talk to prefer to skip breakfast, this seemed an important thing to highlight.
Principle #4 – Lower Carb Intake
This part is key when you are trying to lose weight with limited mobility. When you don’t move much (or at all), you simply don’t need as many carbs.
Since carbs are primarily used for energy and you aren’t burning much, your needs for them are much lower. Veggies provide healthy carbs, so they do help with that too. On a side note, I count peas and corn as carbs. They have, essentially, the carb content of bread, and this is why it goes here for me. Technically they are defined as veggies because of their vitamins (don’t get me started on the crazy ways corn gets classified), but for this we call them carbs. Taking in many more carbs then you need can quickly add to your waistline.
Your body only has three options. The first is to burn carbs and use them for energy. When your energy needs are satisfied, it tries to store the overage of carbohydrates to support exercise and keep your blood sugar levels steady. The third option (and the one we are trying to avoid) is to convert it to fat and, basically, expand your waistline, your thighs, sometimes even your boobs. Wouldn’t it be nice if we got to choose where it went? Unfortunately not…
Principle #5 – Focus on Foods that Are Hard to Digest/Waste Energy
This principle helps to keep you full and let you enjoy meals without living off a meager 3 bites (a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s what it feels like). So, we are looking for foods that burn, well, differently.
What goes in this group? Before getting into it, know that first of all, you need to ditch most processed foods. The processing of them makes them a lot easier to breakdown and absorb. Do you ever feel bigger just looking at a fast food restaurant? There are other considerations too.
In the place of your white carbs, use whole grains. Whole wheat pasta instead of white, whole grain bread instead of white bread. Also note here that some breads say 100% wheat bread and are dyed brown. They aren’t whole gain though. They get away with it because they are made from the (heavily processed) wheat plant.
With pasta, have it al dente when possible. When they are a little firm in the middle, you don’t absorb them as well.
Also, think brown rice, quinoa, oats, corn tortillas, etc. Oats can be easily eaten raw (I hear the shouts of joy now!), which makes them really hard for your body to break down. You can puree them in a smoothie, or add them to protein bars/peanut butter balls. You get the picture — the closer to nature the better.
Additionally, other foods are harder to break down too. Eat most veggies raw. Choose avocados, foods with really high amounts of fiber, nuts, and kale. A green tip banana is lower in sugar than a ripe or overripe banana. When food tastes less sweet, it usually has less sugar.
What It’s Like
Don’t forget that you are talking to someone who likes food. Someone who also lives with a big family and had to make big cuts in what I’ve normally eaten for YEARS.
Yes, I was hungry. At least in the beginning. And yes, my body adjusted. When it did, I wasn’t so hungry anymore. It took some effort to get there, but once it happened it was a lot easier.
there would be days where I would get really hungry. Sometimes I would just increase my portions or add in a snack. It would really depend on how hard I was interested in working and how hungry I was.
You will likely find that what seems good on paper doesn’t work for you. You may find you need a larger meal at breakfast or lunch to keep your sanity. Or you may find the afternoon to be a nightmare without a snack. These things you will need to accommodate. I had to change it up a few times myself.
Don’t let it get to you. Patience is key. And be forgiving of yourself. The most important part for your success is finding what works for you.
For me, breakfast wasn’t a big deal, but in the beginning I would start getting really hungry between 10-11 am. Hungry hungry! Over time I had to adjust to meet my body’s demands and my own personal preferences. I moved lunch to earlier in the day. Some days I could go the 6 or so hours to dinner without a snack, but most days I would add a snack in.
The toughest part for me… dinner. We feed a small army of 8. Have you ever seen what teenagers can eat?!? I also don’t believe in separate meals — we all eat the same meal. I had to make what everyone ate work for me too. Meals built to feed the growing kids while still letting me lean out. Talk about a challenge! Not just in planning, but in setting up my plate & not getting some of the extras. Once you get the hang of it though, it’s really simple (I’ll get into that more in the next section). That said, getting the hang of it does take time.
It goes without saying that life kept going whether or not I was on a diet. After dinner especially was sometimes quite tough. We would have dessert about once a week. Since I believe in cheat days (read about those here), I would have dessert with everyone. Maybe I’d have a smaller portion, but I’d still join in. Other times we’d eat out for dinner. Those days I just enjoyed the time with everyone and didn’t worry too much about the food details. And sometimes hubby and I would have steak, salad, and beer for dinner. And let me tell you, those meals were worth it!
Once I got the hang of what worked for me, I still had to be flexible with myself. Sometimes my body would scream for more at different times of the day. Therefore, being flexible from day-to—day becomes really important.
If you think about it, you are already like that. Some meals you have more, some meals less. It’s important to carry that flexibility through your weight loss plan. So, what does it really look like? Here is an example… with details that are flexible!
A Day in the Life
Here’s how it looks, a real world example of how to lose weight with limited mobility. Remember this is what worked for me. What works for you may be different. Take this as a “you are not alone” example.
A Brief Discussion on Dinner
Since dinner was my biggest challenge, I’ll start with some explanation there. In the end, to survive the dinner table, it meant dropping the amount of carbs I had to about 1 serving (a slice of bread or a scoop of rice/pasta about ½ the size of my fist), having a protein portion about the same as everyone and veggies were 2-3 times the volume.
For example, everyone loves spaghetti, right? At least here we do. Dinner is ground beef, spaghetti sauce, pasta, spaghetti squash, and salad. No one really likes spaghetti squash, so I usually would get most (all) of it.
I would have about half a cup of pasta and ½ of the squash. Spaghetti squash is neat because it comes out of the peel in strands the size of spaghetti. And no, it does not taste like spaghetti, it tastes like squash. But when you are hungry, and you coat it in spaghetti sauce (which is also a veggie) it tastes pretty good. I’d also have 1, or sometimes 2, servings of salad.
I’m not the only one that does taco night, right? That would be 2 small corn tortillas with every topping, then a taco salad. Lots of lettuce, tomato, taco meat, salsa (lots of salsa – for dressing), a small amount of sour cream (small spoonful with the salsa it makes good dressing), and cheese. Not too bad right?
Another example, chicken thighs, garlic bread, and broccoli? Yup, 1-1.5 pieces of chicken, 1 small piece of garlic bread (sad, sad, sad – I love garlic bread), and lots of broccoli. Lots and lots of broccoli! We can go through almost 2 pounds of broccoli at a meal, so I’d make that much to ensure I had extra. Sometimes I’d make a salad with parsley, red onion, lemon, and garlic salt to top the chicken and broccoli. It tastes a lot better than it sounds!
Do you get the gist? It really wasn’t all that bad. Dinner was still my favorite meal. And I still got to have what everyone else did.
All the explanation aside, what does that actually look like?
My Diet to Lose Weight With Limited Mobility
Right After Getting Up: Coffee with 1 cup 2% milk (and yes, I considered the milk in my intake), small handful nuts or a small smoothie if I was hungry (plain yogurt, raw oats, frozen fruit).
11 am (ish): 2 Wasa crackers and 1 avocado (whole) with garlic salt or with 2 slices mozerella, ½ – 1 sliced tomato and garlic salt. Sometimes a salad, or dinner leftovers (heavy on the vegetables and protein, ½ cup carbs or 1 slice bread).
2-3 pm snack?: ½ serving protein drink (I like chocolate Muscle Milk, so a scoop of that). Or grapes and gouda cheese, or an apple and 1-2 slices of cheddar. Sometimes no snack, it really depended on how I felt.
Dinner: see above, tacos/taco salad, spaghetti/squash/salad etc.
See?! It’s really not so bad!
In the end, it became a habit. Now I’m back on my feet & doing a lot better. My physical therapist is my favorite person & probably the only person in the world who I do anything she says whenever she says to do it. And I’ve gotten stronger and stronger over these recent weeks.
After mastering how to lose weight with limited mobility, I’m onto my next challenge. Coming out of inactivity and starting to move more has caused my body to scream for more food. It takes disciple to increase portions slowly (I’m still not moving that much… yet), and to keep my focus on the healthier, tougher to burn options.
When looking at doing something like this, the most important part is to adjust based on how your body responds. If your weight isn’t going down, make adjustments. On the days you are doing great, keep the portions small/cut out more of the carbs. Reserve that intake for the harder days.
Also, learn the rhythm of your body. We all go through hungrier days, and days that aren’t so bad. And there are things that can trip any of us up: lack of sleep or dehydration to name a couple of examples. Find what causes you more hunger pains & prepare for it (or avoid it if possible).
Additionally, we all have harder and easier times during each day. It pays to learn how to set yourself up to succeed. Maybe you can set up a planned snack, have larger portions at certain meals. Or paint your nails, call your friends, watch a fitness show or anything that keeps you from wanting to keep eating. In time it does get easier. Above all, aim to answer the question, “does this seem feasible?”. Even more important, are you willing to try it?
Fun Related Reading aka References
- One Week of Bed Rest Leads to Substantial Muscle Atrophy and Induces Whole-Body Insulin Resistance in the Absence of Skeletal Muscle Lipid Accumulation. DOI: 10.2337/db15-1661
- Nutritional strategies to attenuate muscle disuse atrophy. https://doi.org/10.1111/nure.12019