We've heard it all before..."eat less, move more, and follow diet X". Yet, few people are successfully able to lose weight. Incredibly few people are able to keep it off. Why? If you've tried the traditional advice and still struggle with weight loss, consider these possible reasons. Also, don't miss this chance to snag my bonus article - "The Diet Myth that Even the Experts Believe".
1. Too Much Cardio
Yes, you read that right. I've seen this time and again with female athletes, and even have experienced it personally. Getting some exercise is extremely important. Research shows that the optimal exercise level for weight loss is approximately one hour per day on average, and the vast majority of successful 'weight loss maintainers' get this exercise in the form of walking (1). Exercise also has a host of other health benefits, such as reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
However, what happens when you decide to lose weight by training for something like a marathon or a long-distance triathlon? When exercise goes to the extreme, the benefits really decrease. There are a few ways that this can make weight loss challenging. The first way is insatiable hunger which makes self-control more difficult. Secondly, you feel like you deserve to indulge, and many end up eating more calories of "reward" than they actually burned during exercise. Finally, endurance training can contribute to hormonal changes that are strongly unfavorable to weight loss. It can induce excess cortisol, epinephrine, and testosterone. It can also contribute to thyroid hormone imbalance in some. So, if you are putting in a lot of cardio hours without seeing the results you're looking for, consider scaling down your efforts.
2. Neglecting Strength Training
Did you know that muscle burns fat 24 hours/day? I recently calculated out that if a woman my age weighed the exact same as me, but had 5% higher body fat (and, thus, less muscle), she would have to eat ~150 calories less each day than I could eat, just to maintain the same weight! In other words, putting on muscle increases your metabolism, allowing you to lose weight more easily. I've often seen clients break through a weight-loss plateau by adding strength training to their routine. You can get it using weights, machines, body-weight exercises, or combination activities such as Crossfit; the right fit is highly individual. The important thing is that you work on strength training. I generally recommend two sessions of 30-60 minutes/week to start, depending on the type of activity.
3. Following Outdated Nutrition Advice
Oops, looks like federal nutrition guidance was completely wrong for decades, a mistake which has been a large contributor to the obesity epidemic. Did you catch the news that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are exonerated as causes of heart disease, even by the highest government nutrition agencies (2)? Turns out, refined carbohydrates, industrial seed oils, and trans fats that, for decades, have replaced traditional fats are true contributors to obesity, inflammation, and cardiovascular disease. Still afraid of eggs and butter? It's time for a nutrition knowledge update. I recommend a paleo/ancestral template to all clients, and individualize it for their specific needs.
4. Focusing on calories instead of quality
Have you ever heard the notion that 3,500 calories equals one pound of body fat and, thus, you should eat 500 calories less each day to lose one pound per week? Forget that. Human metabolism is extremely complex and depends on many factors such as hormone status, body composition, types of foods consumed, and your individual gut flora (microbiome). Plus, tracking calorie intake is extremely difficult to do accurately. Most people also struggle to maintain a tracking habit for the long-term.
It's not that total energy intake doesn't matter - it's just that counting calories is seldom the right way to accomplish decreased energy intake. Whenever I see a client try to eat fewer calories of the same processed foods as usual, they always experience extreme hunger....and poor results. Transitioning to a diet that is nutrient-dense and composed of the foods your body was designed to digest will often make the weight come off without any additional effort. In other words, a diet composed of quality foods that are high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats makes eating less calories almost effortless.
5. Gut Health
There is now a clear connection between an imbalanced microbiome (yep, I'm talking about the bacteria in your colon) and obesity. In fact, the connection is so strong that scientists were able to induce obesity in mice, simply by transferring bacteria from obese mice to healthy ones (3). In another study, bacteria from obese humans induced obesity in mice (4). Your microbiome was originally established by factors such as whether you breast fed, if you had a vaginal birth, and your mother's microbiome. Other factors such as diet and antibiotic use also have strong effects.
The topic of gut health is quite complex, but a great start (again) is to follow an ancestral diet. Soluble fiber and fermented foods are two important features of a paleo template that will benefit your microbiome. If you need specific advice, you can always consider working with a professional for optimal gut health.
6. Planning Cheats
One common feature I see with diets is a planned weekly cheat meal, or even a whole day. Let's say you worked hard all week (6 days) to eat 500 calories less per day (3000 calories less total). You go out for your "cheat meal" at a big chain restaurant. You order an appetizer (500kcals), a pasta entree (1500kcals), and cheesecake (1000kcals)....oh, and a cocktail (300kcals). Total: 3,300 calories. Oops, you're further back then when you started. Think I'm exaggerating? Go online to check the nutrition information for common chain restaurants.
Don't get wrapped up in the unhealthy cycle of deprivation and over-reward. Transition to an appropriate, ancestral diet and you won't feel like you've been deprived. In most cases, people can still follow the 80/20 rule (have an occasional indulgence) and still see great results.
7. Ignoring Other Lifestyle Factors
As described in item #4, a calorie isn't always the same calorie. Your lifestyle has a big effect on your body's ability to lose fat. Sleep and stress are the primary players here, as well as social and spiritual life. If you need help in this area, check out this great article on sleep - it's connection to weight and how to improve it. Stress is another, related, issue that can create a hormonal imbalance fighting your weight loss. If you've been doing everything right without seeing results, consider the other facets of your life. Especially look for ways to improve your stress level and sleep.
8. Inappropriate Fasting Window
There has been a lot of buzz around fasting lately, to include a lot of conflicting information. Think intermittent fasting sounds difficult? I do! I hate the idea of skipping breakfast. Fortunately, a recent literature review article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that any fast greater than 11 hours/day provided statistically significant weight loss (5). Paul Jaminet is a renowned expert in this field and also recommends a 12-hour daily fast (6). Aside from weight loss, regular fasting intervals have been shown to improve circadian rhythm and aid optimal metabolic function, such as insulin sensitivity (5).
What does this all mean for you? It simply means that you should stop eating after dinner, and not have breakfast until around 12 hours later. So, say you finish dinner around 7pm. You can eat as soon as 7am and still get the weight loss and metabolic benefits of intermittent fasting. No need to skip breakfast! Let's say you do eat an evening snack around 10pm. Then, you would go ahead and eat a late breakfast around 10am. Easy, right?
Don't forget to consider if fat loss really is an appropriate goal for you. Women (especially) often desire a body fat percentage that is lower than needed for health (approximately 17%-25%). Also, body fat percentage is a much more valuable indicator of your body composition than body weight. For example, I've seen strength training clients gain 10 pounds and wear a SMALLER jean size! Get a professional body fat percentage, or at least pay closer attention to how your clothes fit than to the scale.
It's important to chase health, strength, and wellness...not a specific number on the scale. However, if you genuinely have a need for fat loss and have hit a plateau, I encourage you to explore these tips.
Want more free weight loss tips? Get the bonus article HERE and you'll also receive early access to my upcoming free webinar! In the webinar I'll be explaining three reasons why the conventional weight loss recommendations actually prevent success, and I'll share the formula I've developed that actually works. Don't miss it!