Let me start off by stating that this post is by no means meant to encourage anyone to lose weight. When it comes to weight loss, I’ll be the first to tell you that health is not dictated by the number on the scale, and that plenty of people can benefit from paying less attention to their weight and more on their health and how they feel. But regardless of my stance on the issue, I know that there are still plenty of people trying to lose weight–whether it is for health or aesthetic purposes–and many of those individuals feel stuck and unable to reach their desired outcome. If this is you, I want to share with you some unconventional reasons why you may not be seeing the results you’re striving for. If you feel like you’ve tried so many things and are “doing everything right”, and still are not seeing your body composition change, or if you’re a yo-yo dieter and constantly struggle to adhere to your dietary intentions, then you may find this post helpful.
I first want to preface this with a brief explanation of the very basic nature of how weight loss works. In order for someone to lose weight, they must be in a caloric deficit, meaning that they must expend more energy than they consume. If weight loss happens, then it means that a deficit is present; if weight loss does not happen, then a deficit is absent. So does this mean that all you have to do is count your calories and ensure that they remain under the arbitrary number given by some energy expenditure formula you found on the internet? Not necessarily. First of all, these formulas are very generic and do not take into account many different factors that influence the rate at which your body burns energy. So, adhering to them religiously can leave you at a drastic deficit–that ultimately causes harm–or leave you at a surplus, which will keep you from seeing results. So yes, weight loss technically is about calories in versus calories out, but more importantly it’s about the things that influence your body’s metabolic rate AND the things that influence your own dietary food choices and your ability to adhere to your food-related intentions. So let’s take a look at what some of these things are.
Okay, resistance training is, in my opinion, the best form of exercise for longevity, so I don’t want anyone to interpret this as instruction to avoid it. But I want to start here to simply explain how muscle mass can affect weight and sometimes trick people into thinking that they are not progressing. It is very true that muscle weighs more than fat because it is denser than fat. This means that five pounds of muscle will take up less space than 5 pounds of fat. It is very common for people who start weight training to see no change in their weight, and yet look slimmer and even go down a few clothing sizes. This happens because as the body starts to adapt to this type of training, it increases muscle mass, which in turn increases basal metabolic rate–this is the amount of energy that your body expends at REST–and therefore reduces fat mass. So your body fat percentage can decrease, while the scale’s number remains the same. Therefore, a more accurate way of referring to this issue is “fat loss” because that’s ultimately what people are generally trying to achieve when they’re trying to lose weight. So for technicality purposes, I will use the term “fat loss” for the remainder of this post.
These are a major contributor to increased appetite and over-consumption. In the context of modern life, where we live fairly sedentary lives and have an abundance of food, it is easy to eat more than is necessary, especially if we’re not tracking (not that I recommend tracking, more on this later). Food companies dedicate lots of money and research to engineering processed foods that taste really good and that are difficult to stop eating. And this isn’t out of malice, rather it’s simply a way for businesses to make more money and prosper. If people want the food and can’t say “no” to it, then they’re more likely to purchase it. Hyper-palatable processed foods have a physiological effect on the consumer in that they trigger a dopamine response, which makes us feel pleasure, while also increasing ghrelin (hunger hormone) and decreasing leptin (which makes us feel satiated); this is what makes them so difficult to resist and in some cases addictive. So by consuming these hyper-processed foods that are so readily available to us, we shut down our bodies natural hunger/satiety signals and remove our ability to eat intuitively. Couple this with a sedentary lifestyle and we have set ourselves up for excess energy intake and having difficulty losing fat.
Not Eating Enough
But don’t you have to be in a deficit to lose fat? Yes, that is true, but being in a calorie deficit–especially if it’s a huge deficit or if it lasts for an extended period of time–causes a stress response in the body. Your body responds to this by decreasing muscle mass, since it requires more energy to create and maintain, and slowing your metabolism. This isn’t because your body is misbehaving or fighting against you; it’s actually trying to protect you and keep you alive. When you’re chronically underfed, your body’s natural response is to hold on to as much energy (a.k.a. fat) as possible and to burn calories sparingly because of the shortage of food. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do under these circumstances. This leads me to my next point.
Obsessing Over Caloric Intake
So this can be a problem for several reasons. First of all, where is this calorie number that we’re aiming for coming from? Usually from a calorie calculator that generates an arbitrary number that does not take into account your stress levels, hormone levels, sleep, diet history, etc. And remember that everybody has different energy needs every day. One day you might expend 2000 calories, and another day you might expend 2800, which is a pretty drastic difference. So constantly aiming for a number (that is probably inaccurate anyway) can make you feel excessively hungry on some days and/or excessively full on other days. This can then makes it difficult for you to stick to your calorie intake goal and can lead to disordered eating habits. It also steers you away from listening to your own body’s hunger and satiety cues, and leaves you to rely on some calorie tracking app to tell you how to eat, which is really unsustainable. It’s also important to note that obsessing over anything causes a chronic stress response, and thus has a negative impact on your hormones, which then can inhibit your body’s ability to burn body fat. This happens because chronically elevated stress levels can lead to “cortisol resistance”, which is the body’s inability to utilize cortisol effectively (similar to insulin resistance), which can then cause chronic inflammation. (One of cortisol’s major roles is to decrease inflammation in the body). This is why I don’t recommend that people track their calories and/or macronutrients. Now, I know that there is a small percentage of the population that really enjoy tracking and find that it works really well for them without creating obsessive behaviors, but most people are not this way. Most people do not want to have to log every single thing they eat. Most people do not want to have to decide whether or not to have potatoes or cake or whatever based on how many carbs or calories they have left for the day. And most people do not want to have to do this forever. Micro-managing calorie and macro intake can lead to chronic stress, disordered eating, and disconnection from true hunger/satiety cues, which can all contribute to fat storage and difficulty losing body fat.
Going Too Low-carb
This has become increasingly common because of currently popular diets including the ketogenic diet, low-carb diets, and even the carnivore diet. Our bodies tend to rely on either ketones or glucose for energy. Problems can arise when an individual’s carbohydrate intake is too high to allow for the production of ketones but too low to provide adequate energy from glucose. This leaves the person stuck in an energy “limbo” and can leave them feeling fatigued and run down. This can cause the body to feel deprived and to start holding on to stored energy in order to make up for the shortage of available glucose/ketones. It can also trigger the release of hunger hormones (like ghrelin) and the suppression of satiety hormones (like leptin) as the body tries to encourage energy consumption.
Another thing to consider is that some people do not operate well on a long-term low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. While individuals might experience clarity, focus, increased energy, and fat/weight loss when adopting such a diet, lots of people start to experience negative symptoms after adhering to the diet for more than a few weeks. Some of these include weight gain, fatigue, irritability, cravings, insatiable hunger, and poor exercise performance, all of which can be a sign of chronic stress and possible cortisol resistance. This is especially true for women. It’s also important to note that for every one gram of stored glycogen, your body retains 3-4 grams of water. So some initial weight loss on a low-carb diet can be due to loss of water weight, which isn’t the type of weight people typically aim to lose. This is why some people might find that their weight decreases within the first few days of decreasing carb consumption, but end up hitting a plateau shortly after the first week or so.
Training Too Hard
“Move more, eat less.” This is the advice that is typically given regarding fat loss, which can push people into the extreme of under-eating and over-exercising. While exercise is a healthy practice, it’s important to remember that it is also a stressor on the body and can be overdone. When exercise levels are too intense or are occurring too often for the body to adequately recover, it can lead to a slower metabolism, cortisol disruption, and difficulty losing weight. A chronically stressed body wants to hold on to as much energy as it can and also becomes inflamed as it tries to heal while undergoing cortisol resistance, which can lead to a “puffy” appearance. Sometimes the best thing that a person can do is take a week or two off of training, especially if they’re frequently working out at high intensities and/or with too few rest days (both of which are relative to the individual). Typically, the more stress you deal with during your day-to-day life, the less exercise and exercise intensity you can handle without experiencing negative repercussions.
Sleep is so commonly overlooked because it can be difficult to set aside more time to sleep. But sleep plays a major role in maintaining all the systems of the body, which makes it extremely important for proper recovery, healing, and overall health. And of course, sleep is essential for healthy fat loss. Our bodies are actually 40% more insulin resistant when we are sleep deprived. This means that we become much less effective at clearing blood sugar and utilizing glucose for energy after a poor night’s sleep. For reference, someone that is extremely insulin sensitive doesn’t experience huge spikes in blood sugar, is extremely effective at using glucose for energy, does not store body fat as quickly, and has a fairly easy time burning body fat. Someone who is insulin resistant experiences the opposite. Insulin resistance plays a major role in weight gain, inhibits our ability to lose body fat, and contributes to the development of metabolic syndrome which can lead to cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. Of course, sleep deprivation is also a major contributor to elevated stress levels, which can lead to cortisol dysregulation and chronic inflammation. So if fat loss is a goal, it is crucial that sleep be prioritized, even before exercise. If you have to choose between getting adequate sleep and fitting in a workout, you’re better off skipping the workout (or skipping the Netflix binging and social media scrolling 😉 ).
Toxic Chemical Exposure
This one is important to mention because it has a direct impact on our hormonal balance. Remember that cortisol, insulin, estrogen, and progesterone, along with many others, are all hormones. Many toxic chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, meaning that they interfere with your body’s natural hormonal production and balance. Our bodies also store toxins in fat cells, which means that more toxin exposure leads to an increased need for body fat. And where are these toxic chemicals found? In practically all household, hygiene, and cosmetic products we use. We are typically exposed to these things 24-7; think about it: most people use toothpaste, shampoos, soaps, makeup, perfumes/fragrances, lotions, deodorants, air fresheners, candles, cleaning products, laundry detergent, etc. everday. When you sum it all up, this can have quite the impact on our hormonal balance (especially cortisol and estrogen) and fat mass. This is why it’s wise to opt for more natural alternatives to these products, especially if you’re using them daily.
So as you may have noticed, chronic stress is at the source of every one of these reasons for fat loss inhibition. One major contributor to an inability to lose body fat is simply being unhappy, as silly as it might seem. Who hasn’t experienced an increased appetite for high sugar and “junk” foods after a long and stressful day? People that lack mental and emotional stimulation tend to make “poor” dietary choices and move less because of a need to release feel good neurotransmitters like dopamine and because of lack of motivation. There is even some research that suggests that a lack of meaningful relationships can be as detrimental to a person’s health as smoking; and in order for an individual to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way, he/she must be in relatively good health. So finding purpose and joy in life and managing stress can be extremely beneficial for fat loss by helping regulate appetite and hormones. And keep in mind that if your strict diet regimen is making you absolutely miserable and getting in the way of your relationships and overall happiness, it may be doing more harm than good and inhibiting your ability to reach your goals.
So some key takeaways:
- Avoid hyper-palatable processed foods most of the time.
- Use your body’s hunger/satiety cues to deciding what to eat and how much of it to eat.
- Do not get caught up in counting calories/carbs/fats/proteins if you find it stressful.
- Use resistance training to increase your muscle mass (benefits can come from as little as 1-2x/week).
- The more stressful your day-to-day life is (job, finances, family, etc.), the less intense exercise you’ll be able to tolerate.
- Prioritize sleep quantity and quality, and avoid things that inhibit your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Switch over to natural household, cosmetic, and hygiene products with less ingredients.
- Do things that bring you joy, make meaningful human connections, and ensure that you are living a life that is purposeful to you.
I hope you have found this helpful, and if you have any questions or would like to add something that I have overlooked or left out, feel free to drop a comment in the section below!