Dieting to avoid weight gain is a challenge that you hope to overcome. You’re excited, motivated, and ready to start a healthier lifestyle. All this becomes more difficult when you struggle with a headache. For many people, headaches are a major problem with a weight loss diet giving people a hard time. Pain depletes energy levels and kills motivation, but you can prevent it. Read on to learn more about headaches when dieting and how to prevent them.
Why Do People Experience Headaches with Weight Loss?
The survey carried out by the National Headache Foundation showed 30% of all migraine attacks were diet-related (1). Certain foods trigger migraine attacks and they’re usually unhealthy items you want to avoid. Caffeine withdrawal, for one, may be needed. But it’s not uncommon for people on a calorie-restricted diet to struggle with headaches, too. Why does that happen?
Imbalance of electrolytes
Calorie restriction can lead to fatigue and headache, primarily when you don’t eat the right foods. You see, when you consume an unbalanced diet or insufficient calories the balance of electrolytes may impair. Impaired balance of electrolytes means your sodium and potassium levels are unsatisfactory. When that happens, you’re bound to experience various symptoms including headache (2).
Insufficient water intake
Many foods are high in water content. So, when you decrease calorie intake the amount of water you introduce to your body lowers too. This is particularly the case if you don’t drink enough water, to begin with. You also need to keep in mind the total water levels in the body tend to decrease when you are trying to lose weight. Water-deprivation headache is common (3) and may be the first sign of dehydration.
Low blood sugar
Some diets require fasting for long hours while others include skipping meals. In these cases, a person may experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar levels fall below 70 mg/dl.
Hypoglycemia can cause both migraines and a general headache. Pain associated with hypoglycemia-related headache is dull and may throb at the temples. Some people may also experience nausea with their headaches (4).
Besides headache, hypoglycemia may also induce other symptoms such as confusion, weakness, lightheadedness, sleepiness, sweating, heart palpitations, anxiety, mood changes, just to name a few.
Low blood pressure
Hypoglycemia is not the only side effect of fasting. You may also experience hypotension (low blood pressure). When a person has low blood pressure, they may experience headaches and other symptoms such as lightheadedness and nausea (5).
When you’re fasting or adhering to a low-calorie diet, you also restrict the amount of fluid you introduce to the body, as we’ve learned above. This may lead to a decrease in blood volume, hypotension, and headache ensues.
The location of headaches caused by hypotension may vary. It can be in the front, affect the entire head, or one-sided in some people. You may also notice your headache resembles a migraine in a way it’s sensitive to light and noise. Pain doesn’t have some specific traits and its character may vary from one person to another. Some people may experience this type of headache is pounding and aching while others may notice it’s more like stabbing and pressure-like.
Dieting calls for a lower intake of food. Learn how to do a subtle diet tweak. Many diets involve a significant calorie restriction. Food isn’t just about calories, though. Vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients our body needs are obtained through food primarily.
Therefore, when there is insufficient calorie intake, you also consume lower amounts of nutrients. Unbalanced diets and various diet fads are particularly problematic in this aspect. The insufficient intake of nutrients could cause nutritional deficiencies.
Nutritional deficiencies manifest themselves through a wide spectrum of symptoms including headaches. The most common deficiencies that may induce a headache include:
- Magnesium deficiency: Low levels of this important mineral are known for the potential to cause headache and migraine (6).
- Vitamin D deficiency: Since vitamin D is tricky to obtain through diet, it’s easy to get deficient. Insufficient levels of sunshine vitamin can cause headaches and also contribute to migraines. What’s more, vitamin D deficiency is associated with a higher frequency of migraines (7). After all, vitamin D protects us against inflammation and supports nerve health. Deficiency makes you more susceptible to inflammation and nerve pain which may lead to headaches or migraines.
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2) deficiency: Since riboflavin prevents headaches and migraines (8), deficiency in this micronutrient can make you more prone to these problems
Preventing Dieting-Related Headaches
Headache doesn’t have to accompany your dieting efforts. As we’ve learned above, several factors are behind your diet-related headache. The good news is that you can prevent this problem. Scroll down to see prevention tips that are bound to help you out.
1. Avoid dramatic calorie restriction
The golden rule when you are trying to lose weight is to watch your calorie consumption. Consume fewer calories than you burn. The foundation and main objectives of many diets are based on that rule. Of course, you do need to decrease calorie intake to slim down, but going overboard may not be the best choice.
Nowadays we are swamped with fad diets and “magical” solutions that claim you will be able to fit into your favorite jeans just by following their programs. These programs ask you to consume insufficient calories, which can create a chain of reactions that leads to headaches. And yet about 50% of Americans use fad diets (9).
Not only are they incredibly restrictive, but fad diets are not sustainable weight-loss methods. You keep losing weight for a while, but then you regain it once you stop following that specific eating program. There's a restrictive weight loss diet giving people a hard time to adhere long term.
Therefore, to prevent dieting-related headaches you need to avoid severe calorie restriction. To achieve that, you may want to say no to fad diets and opt for healthier alternatives. The best thing to do is to consider healthy eating habits as an integral part of your lifestyle, not a program to follow for a while. This will help you avoid headaches and follow a weight loss diet giving you excellent results.
2. Drink enough water
Drinking enough water may seem like such an obvious thing to say, but most of us don’t do it enough. A vast majority of people wait to feel thirsty in order to drink some water. By the time you feel thirst, your body may have started experiencing some signs of dehydration. As seen above, the first sign is a headache.
When dieting you also reduce calorie consumption including foods rich in water content. Our fluid intake through food isn’t as significant as the amount you obtain by drinking water. The problem happens when you don’t drink enough water, especially if you also exercise or are physically active otherwise.
So, to avoid dehydration you need to drink enough water (as you should anyway). Evidence confirms water intake can reduce the severity of migraines (10). Water can also prevent headaches because it keeps you hydrated.
Ideally, women should drink about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) and men 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of water a day (11). Regular, plain water is a much better option than fruit juices, especially sugar-laden store-bought kinds.
3. Don’t skip meals
In order to lose weight, you may feel inclined to avoid meals. Even some diet programs advocate for skipping meals. But, unless you’re doing intermittent fasting, there is no need to do so. In fact, this can decrease energy intake but in the long run, it may harm your health (12).
Why avoid the practice of skipping meals? Well, calories in food are a measurement of energy. The human body needs a consistent source of energy to function properly. Our energy comes from food which acts as fuel. If you skip breakfast or avoid other meals and go long hours without food, your blood sugar levels drop, as discussed below. As a result, you experience headaches.
Therefore, to prevent dieting-cause headaches, you need to eat your meals regularly. If you’re worried about calorie intake, you can just decrease portion sizes or opt for fresh homemade soups.
4. Make your weight loss diet versatile
The biggest reason behind dieting-related headaches is an unbalanced diet. Insufficient calorie intake is one thing, but it’s also important to mention that a few weight loss diet require eliminating various food groups. Your choice of foods to eat is limited and that’s the problem.
The body needs a wide spectrum of nutrients to function at an optimal level. These include healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. You won’t find all these nutrients in a single food group. Different groups have different nutritional profiles. So when you eliminate a certain food group entirely, you also deprive yourself of the nutrients it provides.
As a result, you are prone to nutritional deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, and other problems that may lead to headaches.
Therefore, the solution is obvious here – a versatile diet could help prevent headaches when losing weight.
The best weight loss diet is a balanced diet. Avoid all the restricting programs. Instead, you should focus on diets that are versatile and deliver various nutrients to your body.
5. Avoid artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame could trigger your headaches. Aspartame is a low-calorie artificial sweetener that has been in use in the United States since the 1980s. Not only is it low in calories, but aspartame is a lot sweeter than sugar. That means less of it necessary to achieve a certain degree of sweetness.
For that reason, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are present in some diet products too. Although the idea of an artificial sweetener may seem harmless, you may want to avoid them.
Studies show aspartame could trigger headaches (13). While studies on this subject are older, and new research is necessary to learn more about the underlying mechanisms, they do show the link between headache incidence and aspartame use.
Not all people have headaches from aspartame. So, the best thing to do is to stop using it for a while. If you don’t experience headaches anymore, then aspartame was the culprit. If your headaches persist, the cause is something else (some of the causes outlined above).
In order to prevent a headache from happening in the first place, you may want to avoid aspartame or limit consumption of products that contain it. You may want to use honey in your tea instead. Also, monitor your blood glucose levels.
6. Avoid alcohol
Having a drink or two may not seem like such a big deal, especially after work or during weekends. But it brings more harm than good, especially when you are dieting.
You see, alcohol is a diuretic and it makes you urinate more often. As a result, your risk of dehydration goes up (14). This also means you are more likely to have a headache.
An easy way to prevent headaches is to limit alcohol consumption or avoid it entirely. Focus on healthier beverages instead such as water and green tea.
7. Focus on protein intake
Protein is crucial for weight loss for more reasons than one. This macronutrient promotes satiety i.e. it helps you feel full for longer (15). Instead of a weight loss diet that advocates for low protein intake, you should opt for eating programs that supply your body with a sufficient amount of this nutrient.
Since protein acts as a long-lasting fuel for the body, it can be a great way to avoid severe calorie deficits and prevent dieting-related headaches. When you focus on a protein rich diet, you also feel more energized. This can help you do your best in the gym and get the most from your workouts.
8. Manage stress
Adhering to a specific weight loss diet can be challenging so much that your stress levels go up. Evidence confirms dieting could have a negative impact on psychological wellbeing because it increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Restricting a calorie intake is also a biological stressor because one of the main functions of cortisol is to enhance the availability of energy in the body (16).
Stress is a common trigger of tension types of headaches such as migraines, but it may also trigger other types of headaches or make them worse.
Avoid headaches when dieting by including adequate stress management. We can’t always avoid stressful situations and other stimuli such as dieting. But we can improve our response to them. Instead of waiting for stress to go away, we should be proactive.
Being proactive means you’re facing stress head-on and doing your best to manage it. Stress management doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. It all comes down to what you find relaxing. Identify what keeps you relaxed and strive to incorporate it whenever you are under stress.
To tackle dieting-related stress, you may want to change the way you think about weight loss and a healthy diet. Don’t consider them as a punishment, but important parts of a healthy lifestyle.
Headache is a common side effect of a weight loss diet. It happens due to calorie restriction, dehydration, nutritional imbalances, and other reasons. Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to prevent weight loss headaches. This post listed eight useful tips you may want to try. Always keep in mind the best approach to weight loss is through a well-balanced diet and a regular exercise routine. Focus on your eating habits.