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Are some of the most popular “healthy” foods actually hidden causes of weight gain? Believe it or not, they are, says JJ Virgin, nutrition and fitness coach to high-performance athletes, CEOs, and A-list celebrities, and author of The Virgin Diet. The root of the problem is not simply calories, but ingredients your body can’t tolerate—a condition best described as food intolerance. And, she says, it affects as many as 70 percent of Americans.
This type of intolerance isn’t a typical food allergy—a sometimes life-threatening immune-system reaction immediately after eating a specific food. Food intolerances trigger a different type of immune reaction, which takes more time to manifest and is difficult to connect to the offending food. They also set off chronic inflammation, disrupt hormones that regulate fat storage and hunger, and damage the digestive system. Weight gain or inability to lose weight are common signs, but there are also many others (take the quiz below).
There can also be another problem: Some people genetically lack enzymes needed to break down specific foods. Lack of the enzyme lactase, needed to digest lactose in dairy foods, is a common example, known as lactose intolerance.
How do you discover which foods could be hurting you? In more than 25 years of solving weight problems, Virgin has identified these 7 hidden causes of weight gain that have a high likelihood of triggering food intolerance (FI):
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners
These hidden causes of weight gain are sometimes found in obvious places, such as gluten in bread. But they’re also added to countless processed foods where you wouldn’t expect them to be (if in doubt, just read a few ingredient lists on labels). And sometimes, they find their way into other foods. For example, conventionally raised chickens eat corn or soy, and those ingredients make their way into eggs, where they can trigger a food intolerance. Conventionally raised cows eat corn, turning beef into a high-FI food.
Virgin has also identified “low-FI” foods, ones that are least likely to cause a reaction. And these open the door to healing and weight loss.
The Ultimate Solution
By abstaining from the high-FI foods that are hidden causes of weight gain long enough to heal your system, you can then gradually reintroduce them into your diet one at a time, monitor your reaction, and customize a way of eating that keeps you slim and in good health. That’s the basic principle.
This isn’t a “diet” in the usual sense, says Virgin. “It treats food as information,” she explains, “connecting the dots between what you eat, how you feel, and what you weigh so you can customize your diet to support fast and lasting fat loss.”
Her book explains the process in much more detail and includes many more food options and recipes, but these are some highlights.
The initial step lasts 21 days, and is a combination of shakes and clean meals that don’t contain hidden causes of weight gain. The first week is a jump start to produce weight loss of up to 7 pounds in 7 days—the maximum safe amount—with shakes for two meals, a third consisting of low-FI foods, and an optional snack. Keeping a diary on what you eat and how you react is vital so that you can make the connection between food and your state of being.
For the second and third weeks, you can have two low-FI meals, a shake for the third, and an optional between-meal snack. Or, stick with two shakes and one meal. These three weeks help restore health to your digestive system, as well as producing quick, motivating weight loss.
The next step is gradually reintroducing one high-FI food at a time into your diet and determining whether or not you can eat it, and how often. This is where you discover your unique body chemistry.
And the final stage is maintenance—continuing to eat in a way that suits your system and will keep you healthy and slim.
Is Food Intolerance Hurting You?
- If you have a symptom 1–2 times per week at a mild or moderate level, even if it’s barely noticeable, score 2 points.
- If you have a mild or moderate symptom 3 or more times per week, or a severe symptom 2 or more times per week, score 4 points.
____ Inability to lose weight
____ Food cravings
____Constipation and/or diarrhea
____Gas and bloating
____Chronic mucus or a stuffy nose
____Acne or rosacea
____ADD and hyperactivity
____Arthritis (any type)
____Dark circles under the eyes
What Your Score Means
Low Intolerance: Below 4
You have few food intolerances if any. However, says Virgin, most people feel and look better if they don’t eat the seven most reactive foods, even if they don’t have any noticeable symptoms of intolerance.
Moderate Intolerance: 6–14
You suffer mild or moderate discomfort and bloating with certain foods, according to Virgin, but not all the time. You may have gained weight without changing your diet, may feel more tired or stressed than you used to, or your skin and hair have lost their glow.
High Intolerance: 16+
Your stomach likely feels constantly bloated, no matter what you eat, and you just can’t lose weight, even though you’ve tried every which way. You might wonder why you look tired or older than your years.
What To Eat
Have a shake within one hour of waking up. If you exercise in the morning, have half the shake before and the other half after your workout. Eat every 4–6 hours (unless a medical condition requires you to eat more often). Don’t eat later than 2–3 hours before going to bed.
The Virgin Diet Shake
Blend and drink:
- 1–2 scoops rice, pea, or hemp protein powder
- 1-2 Tbs. fiber (chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seed, nut butter)
- ½-1 cup organic frozen berries
- 1 cup water or coconut water
In this sense, “best” means low-FI—least likely to trigger food intolerance symptoms.
- Proteins: hormone-free, free-range chicken and turkey; pasture-fed lamb; pea, rice, and/or hemp protein powder; wild cold-water fish. Next-best are grass-fed beef; pasture-fed pork; and wild game.
- Non-starchy vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, deep green leafy vegetables, kale, and spinach.
- Fats: avocado, coconut oil, coconut milk, freshly ground flax seeds, chia seeds, extra virgin olive oil, and palm fruit oil.
- High-fiber, starchy carbs: brown rice, quinoa, lentils, and sweet potatoes.
- Fruit: apples, blueberries.
For each meal, include a clean, lean protein, non-starchy vegetables, high-fiber starchy carbs, and some healthy fat. Virgin recommends these quantities:
- Protein: 4–6 ounces for women, and 6–8 ounces for men. Eat the larger amount if you are very muscular or athletic, or need to lose 50 pounds or more.
- Non-starchy vegetables: at least 2 cups raw or 1 cup cooked, but feel free to eat more.
- High-fiber, starchy carbs: ½ cup for women and 1 cup for men.
- Healthy Fats: 1-3 servings, with each serving containing approximately 100 calories. One serving is defined this way: 1 tablespoon of a fat; or 1⁄3 of an avocado; or the fat contained in your portion of grass-fed beef, pasture-fed pork, lamb, or wild-caught fish.
Your daily water total should be at least 64 ounces, but ideally, half your weight in ounces. Drink 16 ounces when you get up and again 30–60 minutes before each meal, and 8 ounces before bed. During meals, don’t drink more than 4–8 ounces, and wait an hour after eating before drinking more.