If you’ve tried every diet under the sun, only to find that the weight always comes back, you can’t follow it long term, or the diets stop working at all, you are definitely not alone! If you feel like you are doing all the right things, with little or no results, I have some ideas of why.
I don’t do weight loss, but most of my clients lose weight. We don’t talk much about weight, and I make clear that weight loss is not our focus. So many of them are pleasantly surprised then to see the scale going down and will tell me something like, “This has been an X year battle! I can’t believe I lost weight!”
These same clients often label themselves as “undisciplined” or having “no self control” because of their failed weight loss attempts. But my experience with these people has been the opposite. To voluntarily under-eat or stick with difficult diet protocols for days, weeks, sometimes months with little or no results takes more self-control than I have!
The problem is we are all approaching weight loss backwards. All of us, including dietitians and doctors, the people who are supposed to know!
Unfortunately our obsession with “calories in” must be less than “calories out” is part of why we fail so much at weight loss. It is similar to the mentality that fails at healing chronic heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and autoimmunity. We are trying to kill a giant weed by plucking off the top, rather than digging it out at the root. The weed may seem tamed for a short time, but it only grows back more tough and gnarly than before.
The problem is not the problem. You are not overweight simply because you eat more calories than you burn. If we want lasting success we need to dig a little deeper than that. The true issues are usually buried several layers below the surface. I will explore just a few that I have seen.
1. You’re Not Fat, You’re Inflamed
If you are an American, there is a good chance you are inflamed. A whopping 60% of us have at least one chronic disease, and 40% have more than one (cdc.gov)! These are just the diagnosed people. I can tell you from experience that many of my friends and clients feel terrible but nobody has been able to tell them why yet.
At the heart of all this disease is inflammation, which means you may look and feel puffy and retain water and even fat for other reasons besides overeating.
When I create a customized anti-inflammatory eating plan called LEAP for clients it is common for people to shed 5 or 10 pounds in just a few weeks without trying. One client shed 25 pounds in 3 weeks, and it was not because she was starving.
Little of this weight loss is even fat. It’s mostly water at this point because as inflammation decreases, some people will finally let go of all that water they were holding onto. The “puffiness” in their faces, legs, arms and belly that they assumed was fat was actually water they were retaining as part of being in this state of chronic inflammation.
Following a rigid fad diet is not going to get rid of this inflammation. In many cases it will only make it worse because it places MORE stress on your body. It is well known that stress of all types, mental or physical, only increase inflammation.
2. Your Relationship with Food is on the Rocks
Nearly everyone I know has a relationship with food that is a bit out of sorts, even when they don’t realize it. It happens for different reasons for everybody.
Maybe you look at too many magazines of starving and/or touched up, seemingly flawless models and think everybody’s body but yours looks like that.
Perhaps your parents struggled with weight or worried about your weight and encouraged or modeled disordered eating patterns.
Maybe you’ve been on so many diets with conflicting “food rules” that now everything you eat is “bad” according to one diet or another. It is too high fat for that diet, and too high carb for the other, or doesn’t combine foods in the right categories according to some other diet.
Perhaps you’ve just taken the advice of too many friends, social media posts, or news articles as gospel truth.
Once you’ve started to develop this love-hate relationship with food, you might start equating yourself as “good” or “bad” depending on what you are eating or what the numbers on the scale say. You might feel mild (or intense) fear that the foods you eat are “making you fat.”
You might feel guilty about almost everything you eat. You lose touch with foods you used to enjoy or that made you feel good, and your food behaviors become impulsive and irrational. You might feel you can’t control yourself around certain foods. If this sounds like you to some degree, you’re in good company!
The best approach I have found to mend your relationship with food is to learn about and practice “Intuitive Eating.” This method has been proven more effective at long-term weight loss and improved body image than dieting.
3. You’ve Labeled Yourself
We all give ourselves labels and identities. It makes us feel comfortable, secure. But sometime our labels keep us stuck.
For instance, I know several large men that have labeled themselves as The Big Guy or The Overeater, and so they must live up to the label. Especially in public situations. Their well-meaning friends usually don’t help, giving attention to and egging on the behavior in good-natured fun. When these men attempt to lose weight, it is uncomfortable to escape this label that has become a part of their identity.
What labels and self-limiting beliefs are you clinging to? Have you or others labeled you as the Chocolate Lover, the Big Girl, the No Self Control Guy, the Emotional Eater? Perhaps it’s time to challenge these beliefs and give yourself a different label.
One strategy that can be helpful here is to actually write down a few statements or affirmations highlighting positive behaviors you either already have, or would like to have, and repeating them to yourself every morning and night, plus anytime those negative labels creep in to your psyche. Sounds simple but it can be powerful.
4. You Are Trying to Beat Biology
You can’t beat your biology. You will lose every time. Your body is programmed to survive and the biological signals governing food, hunger, fullness, and cravings are powerful. Instead of trying to willpower your way through these impulses, understand and work with them.
One way we try to beat biology is by under-eating to lose weight. Perhaps your strategy is to skip breakfast and go for as long as possible without eating between meals.
This is a bad idea for several reasons.
First, when you go into a meal ravenous with hunger, you will crave quick calories (simple carbs) rather than foods that are flavorful and full of nutrients. You will have a difficult time stopping before you are stuffed. Your body will also adapt to weather the long absences of food by slowing down your metabolism. Now you need fewer calories and over-eating becomes even easier.
This is part of why weight loss becomes more and more difficult with every diet attempt.
5. You are Insulin Resistant
Up to 88% of Americans have a condition called “Insulin Resistance.” Insulin resistance means you probably have too much of a hormone called insulin floating around in your blood, and this is connected to a lot of problems. Researcher Benjamin Bikman shares some of these problems are:
- increased fat storage around your belly
- fat stored around the liver and other organs (fatty liver disease is on the rise)
- high blood sugars and diabetes, eventually
- heart disease
- hormone imbalances
- low testosterone
- polycystic ovarian syndrome
- weak muscles (because fat is being stored within them)
- inflammation in general throughout the body
If you are insulin resistant, it will be VERY hard to lose weight without first reversing your insulin resistance.
Few doctors test for insulin levels, and your levels will be elevated for YEARS before you start to show symptoms like high blood sugars (aka diabetes or prediabetes).
One easy way to tell if you are likely insulin-resistant is to simply measure your waist. A waist circumference greater than 40 inches for men, or 35 inches for women, is linked to insulin resistance (www.niddk.nih.gov).
How do we get fix high insulin levels and insulin resistance?
Frequently eating lots of foods that make your blood sugars rise, like sugar, fruit juice, syrup, white flour, white rice, and other sweets and simple carbs. The American diet is very high in carbohydrates, especially simple carbs. Even if you follow “healthy” diet recommended by our US food pyramid or MYPlate.gov, your diet will be very high in carbs- which turn into sugar in your blood.
High blood sugars are what trigger your pancreas to release that hormone we just talked about- insulin. Insulin tells your muscles and other organs to take up that sugar in the blood so that blood sugar will come back down to normal levels. Continuous spikes in blood sugars cause continuous release of insulin.
Continuously high insulin causes cells to start ignoring insulin (they are just plumb full of sugar already), and your pancreas is forced to release more and more and more insulin to get those cells to respond and stuff themselves even fuller.
So what is the simplest way to reverse insulin resistance? Eat very little sugar, white flour, and other simple carbs which make blood sugars rise. Eat more healthy protein and fats which keep blood sugars low.
You can learn more about how to balance blood sugars, insulin levels, and hormones in my 4 week Food Medicine Jumpstart course. I share several tips for how to do this, and we put them to practice to get your feeling better right away.
6. Your Hormones are Wacky
A common problem I’ve seen is that our hormones are all messed up these days.
Crazy blood sugars and high insulin levels will do this.
Birth control and medications can do this.
Chemicals found in our food, air, plastics, lotions, perfumes, house cleaners, pesticides, and more, called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), can do this.
Poor diet can do this.
A nutrient-rich diet, on the other hand, can protect our bodies from harmful EDCs and meds that are throwing off our hormones. A good diet can also balance blood sugars that are throwing off hormones.
When your hormones are wacky, you might not be able to lose weight no matter what you do. Again, it comes back to getting your body healthy at the root, and a healthy weight will more easily follow.
So how do you know if YOUR hormones are out of balance? Well, a dead give-away is if you have any conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, diabetes, painful or heavy periods, irregular periods or lots of PMS or menopausal symptoms. Even without these symptoms, you might benefit from some hormone balancing.
The first step, as always, is getting your diet right. Lots non-starchy vegetables and very little sugar will make a big difference. For some basic ideas on where to start, you might want to read the 4 Cornerstones of Healing Disease.
Cutting back on EDCs you are exposed to can help as well. There are some exposures we just can’t help, but we can lesson our body burden by using less plastic, safer cleaning and personal care products, and going organic when possible.
There are also a number of supplements and essential oils you can take to help balance hormones. I recommend checking out Aviva Romm for ideas depending on what stage of life your are in (still menstruating, pregnancy, menopause…), and what conditions you might have.
7. You are Focused on Quantity, Not Quality
The common advice from weight loss articles, programs, and even experts like dietitians, is to eat fewer calories and exercise more. In theory, this is sound advice, but in practice it becomes murky.
My observation is that a hyper focus on eating less and exercising more leads to food obsession, a hate for exercise, and inability to stick with this strategy for very long before we mentally and physically revolt and “fall off the wagon”.
Another problem is that this focus on “eat less, burn more” puts the focus on weight loss, rather than health, even if you are trying to lose weight to be more healthy. But a weight-focused approach is a poor long-term motivator. More about this in a minute.
And then there is just the fact that a calorie consumed does not directly translate to a calorie within the body. Your body is much more complex than that. And factors like your insulin and hormone levels make a big difference.
Instead of focus on QUANTITY- how much we are eating and how many calories we are burning- shifting the focus to QUALITY has been more successful for my clients.
A quality focus is a respectful approach that focuses on nourishing your body with all the nutrients it needs to functions at its best. It means trusting your body that when you nourish is well, it knows what to do to create health.
Focus on filling your plate with foods that are RICH in vitamins, minerals, color (not artificial color!), fiber, antioxidants and other goodies our bodies thrive off of.
Limit the amounts of processed, nutrient-poor foods with artificial or harmful ingredients.
When you do eat treats, learn which ones you truly enjoy, and enjoy them thoroughly without guilt.
Focus on how you FEEL when you eat, rather than what the scale says the next day.
When you exercise, burning calories should be the furthest thing from your mind. Exercise because you enjoy feeling strong, energetic, flexible, and not huffing and puffing when you walk across a room. Enjoy the mental boost it provides for hours after, and the self-respect that comes from doing something challenging.
Focus on quality over quantity when it comes to both exercise and food, and you will begin to crave good food and movement, which will have a longer-lasting impact on your weight (even if it is slower in coming) than a focus on “eat less, burn more.”
8. You are Focused on External, Not Internal Rewards
If the focus of your weight loss is how you look, what others say or think about you, reaching a specific scale number or pant size, or any other “external” factors, this focus may be part of the problem.
These are called “extrinsic motivators” and they are poor long term motivators.
Learn to focus on internal, or “intrinsic”, motivators, such as how much energy you have, how you FEEL about your choices, how well you are nourishing your body, your health, and other factors that are independent of somebody else’s praise or opinion, a scale number, or pant size.
This type of thinking tends to come from a place of self-love and self-respect (feelings that diets tend to diminish) and are powerful long-term motivators. Your reasons for the choices you make daily will come from a strong force within, rather than a place outside of you and outside or your control.
Sure, you may have weak moments now and then. We all make poor choices from time to time, but you will be more consistent at doing things that are right for your body, and that’s what matters in the long-run.
Also, if you struggle with self-love (from years of failed diets or for any other reason), it may take some practice to build this part of yourself up. Do what it takes to get there. You are worth it, even if you don’t believe it yet.
9. Your Goals Are Far-Fetched
I’m about to tell you something you don’t want to hear: your weight goals may just be plain unrealistic. Take an honest look at what you THINK you should look like, and what it would take to maintain a weight like that. Deep down, everyone that wants to lose weight believes it will make them happier.
But if you are focused on achieving a weight SO low that it will require a life-time of under-eating, overexercising, and obsessing over every calorie… is that what happiness looks like for you? Probably not.
Instead, focus on nourishing your body, moving your body, creating health. As you fix root imbalances deep within, trust that your body will gradually reach the weight that is healthiest for you.
Often that is a weight lower than where you are at. But it may not be the weight you were at in high school. And be okay with that.
The key to lasting weight loss might be to throw everything you think you know about it out the window.
It takes longer to dig out the root of a weed than it does to pluck off the top.
Likewise, a focus on honoring your body, balancing blood sugars, and nourishing your body with an abundance of nutrient-rich foods may not yield quick results. But a focus on changing how you think about food and your real, deep-down reasons for wanting to lose weight will get at the root of why you are overweight in the first place.
Take the time and effort to dig deep and root it out for good. Work with a functional nutritionist or functional medicine doctor to resolve health issues and change your diet. Find an exercise routine that works for you and makes your body feel good.