Taking the initiative to make dietary and lifestyle changes to shed pounds and become a healthier you is a significant first step. At the beginning, you’re likely very motivated to adopt healthy new habits like drinking more water, meal prepping and adding more movement to your day. You might feel you’re doing everything right, but notice you feel prone to mood swings and sometimes take it out on your family, friends and even yourself.
If you’re feeling low, easily annoyed or quick to anger, know that it’s not all in your head. “There are several physiological and psychological reasons this may happen,” confirms Katie Rickel, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management program in Durham, North Carolina. This is especially true if you start a little more aggressively (i.e. drastic changes to your diet and exercise routines) instead of easing into a diet.
The good news is, there are ways to lose weight without the mood swings. Here’s everything you need to know to get back on track.
You know the basic weight-loss equation pretty well: Consume fewer calories than you burn. But, when you create a calorie deficit by burning more calories than you consume, your body perceives that downtick in expendable energy as stress. Hormones and blood sugar levels get out of whack, which can lead to dips in your mood and energy levels. Similarly, lifestyle changes made to shed pounds, like spacing meals further apart or eating imbalanced meals (Think: Veggie-only salads without protein or fat), could lower your blood sugar levels — another source of increased irritability and a low mood.
Finally, the emotional challenges of a weight-loss journey can take a toll. For some, obsessing over calorie counting and weighing every single gram of food increases cortisol levels (aka the ‘stress hormone’) and makes you feel more stressed out, according to a study in Psychosomatic Medicine. “When you’re going too hard, too fast, you’re even more prone to mood swings,” says Rickel. Aiming for a calorie deficit that is too steep, cutting out entire food groups, restricting yourself to very narrow eating windows, or avoiding social situations that involve food can make you feel deprived, edgy and low on self-esteem. When it becomes too difficult to stick with such an impossible program, you inevitably violate your own rules, and painful feelings of guilt and shame often follow, leading to cycles of yo-yo dieting and weight gain over time.
If this sounds familiar, take a deep breath. Then, read on for five ways to rescue your mood.
“When you’re first trying to lose weight, it can be tempting to make drastic changes to your eating or exercise plan, but you’re setting yourself up for failure because you can’t possibly stick with it,” says Rickel. To keep your hormones and mood in check, it’s best to make small, sustainable changes. Rather than setting a lofty, weight-loss goal, which can be discouraging and make you feel like a failure if you aren’t hitting the number quickly, “aim to lose a healthy amount of weight per week,” says Rickel. On average, that’s about 1–2 pounds per week or a total of 4–8 pounds per month.
“To avoid the deprivation and FOMO [fear of missing out] that can accompany a weight-loss attempt, it is important to focus on what additions you’re making to your life, not what you’re giving up,” says Rickel. Nutrition-wise, that means filling your plate with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, filling whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, all of which can help support your weight-loss efforts. To keep stress levels low, put pleasant and energizing activities on your calendar, like fun new workouts. Think of it this way: “If you’re spending less time focused on food, you can turn that focus to new pastimes and experiences,” says Rickel.
“Eating well-balanced meals at regular intervals throughout the day can help with blood sugar management which also helps stabilize mood,” says Alida Iacobellis, RD. Avoid going more than four hours between meals and snacks by scheduling them in existing windows of opportunity, suggests Iacobellis. For example, can you piggyback snack time on top of another habit, like before or after yoga, a workout class or a break at work? To stabilize your blood sugar (and avoid a sugar high and crash), choose a satiating snack that combines protein and fat instead of reaching for a cookie. Try Greek yogurt and berries, rye crackers and cheese, a turkey and hummus sandwich on whole-grain bread, or an apple and peanut butter.
While carbs are often viewed as the bad guy in the dieting world, one study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found following a low-carb diet can increase anger, brain fog and feelings of depression and dejection. This may be because too few carbs can make it harder for your brain to synthesize serotonin, a known mood-booster. The fix: “Make sure you’re getting 45–65% of your total energy from carbohydrates each day and avoid large calorie deficits,” says Iacobellis. Here, an app like MyFitnessPal can help you make sure you’re hitting a healthy calorie goal with the optimal balance of macronutrients (aka carbs, protein and fat) to support weight loss. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, milk, yogurt, fruit, beans, plantains, wheat, barley, oats and rye are all great sources of mood-stabilizing carbs, says Iacobellis.
Finally, make sure you’re getting 7–9 hours of sleep each night. “Weight loss and reduced calorie intake are almost always an added stress on your body, so it’s crucial to make sure that more rest and recovery are built into your lifestyle,” says Rickel. Sleep deprivation can also knock your mood and energy, making weight-loss related mood swings even worse. To ensure you’re getting adequate zzz’s, establish a consistent evening routine an hour before bed. Cut off screen time to reduce blue light exposure and transform your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary that’s quiet, cool and relaxing.