3 Coping Mechanisms for When Your Weight Fluctuates Because of Illness


Some illnesses and disorders are more visible than others. It is easier, for example, to see if a person uses a mobility aid than it is to see if a person has a mental disorder. Even relatively “invisible” conditions, however, can have visible symptoms. One of these visible symptoms is weight fluctuation. I have personally experienced both unintended weight loss and unintended weight gain as complications of some of my conditions. Losing weight or gaining weight as a result of a medical condition can make management of the condition more difficult. Visible weight fluctuations can also add to the stigma of having a chronic condition.

When I first developed gastroparesis, a stomach disorder that slows digestion, I lost weight due to uncontrolled nausea and vomiting. During this time, I developed clinical depression, which was exacerbated by my physical health problems. After my gastroparesis was diagnosed and managed, I steadily gained back the weight I lost due to it. Approximately two years after my gastroparesis diagnosis, my mental health problems progressed to the point where I had to be prescribed medication to manage them. One of the psychiatric medications I was prescribed caused significant weight gain as a side effect.

Because of my gastroparesis and the medications I have taken, my weight has fluctuated within the last three years. All of these fluctuations have been out of my control. My weight has fluctuated so significantly and so rapidly, and as a result, I have received many comments about my weight from people who did not know the context of the changes. When I experienced unhealthy and unintended weight loss due to gastroparesis, I received compliments about the weight loss. I was told I “looked great” and that my clothing fit well. Even medical doctors would talk about my weight loss positively because my body mass index (BMI) was within a “healthy” range.

When I experienced unintended weight gain due to medication side effects, I dealt with self-esteem issues brought on by outgrowing clothing and by negative comments from both peers and medical professionals. The negative impact the weight gain had on my self-esteem led to my decision to ultimately discontinue that medication – despite the knowledge that it was helping me.

Throughout my experiences with uncontrollable weight fluctuations, I have had to develop coping mechanisms. The following are some of the strategies I used to process my weight fluctuations.

1. I had to unlearn deeply ingrained societal messages, such as the misconceptions that weight loss is inherently “healthy” and that weight gain is inherently “unhealthy.”

My unintentional weight loss due to untreated chronic nausea was not healthy. I experienced dehydration, as well as nutrient deficiencies, to the point of needing medical attention when I went through that period of weight loss. My more recent unintentional weight gain was brought on by taking medication that stabilized my mental health enough to allow me to get through school. It is hard to feel like weight loss achieved through nausea and vomiting is unhealthy, especially when friends and family compliment you on the weight loss – and when medical doctors tell you that your weight is not an issue because your BMI is still within a “healthy” range. Comments like that warped my perceptions of what constituted healthy eating behaviors and led to my becoming hesitant to eat again, even after the nausea was treated.

2. Once I became more familiar with my medical diet, I stopped looking at nutrition labels.

When I first started to follow the gastroparesis maintenance diet, I had to go out of my way to track the amount of fiber, fat, and nutrients I consumed. Doing so required reading nutrition labels religiously and tracking the foods I ate. While at first I used my nutrition tracking application to record my intake of fiber and nutrients, I eventually got into the habit of using it to cap my caloric intake. After becoming accustomed to which foods I could tolerate, I made myself delete the nutrition tracking application and looked at nutrition labels less regularly.

3. I reminded myself that most of the people commenting on my weight did not know the context of the fluctuations, and I made an effort to educate those who brought up my weight about how the weight gain and weight loss were achieved.

While receiving compliments on unhealthy weight loss and negative remarks on weight gain due to medical treatment can be painful, I understand that people who make such comments do not mean them to be hurtful. I have found that informing people who comment on my weight fluctuations about how those fluctuations were achieved leads to those people understanding the problems with their comments pretty quickly.

Dealing with chronic physical and mental health problems is exhausting in and of itself. Accepting my body, regardless of how my health conditions change, it is an ongoing process I still have to work on.

Follow this journey on Spoonie Musings.

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