Why Can’t I Lose Weight? - 4 surprising reasons that have nothing to do with calories!
Updated: Jun 19, 2019
Have you ever struggled with a weight loss plateau? Or found yourself eating a healthier diet, exercising, and doing everything “right”, yet the scale still won’t budge? Weight loss resistance, stomach bloating, and low energy can be so frustrating and can lead to increased stress and anxiety in our lives.
I remember the days when I thought losing weight was just a numbers game: “calories in vs calories out” they’d say. I’d watch the calories on the treadmill each day, making a mental note of the calorie deficit I was accruing for the day. I thought restricting my food equated to weight loss. If my body needed 2,000 calories each day (according to my calculations), then 1,700 must be even better, right? Yet even with the restriction and the daily exercise, the scale was staying the same, my stomach was still bloated, and the extra weight around my waist made me feel self conscious.
I know that I’m not alone in this journey. In fact, this might be one of the biggest reasons people reach out to me - and I understand their frustration.
Here is the thing - your body is this incredible machine with countless systems and processes all working together synergistically to keep you feeling your best. It is NOT just about calories in versus calories out. And there may be some important, but easy to correct, factors that you’re overlooking in your effort to keep the weight off.
As humans, we have a biological drive to overeat high calorie foods. Throughout our evolutionary history, we would seek out foods that were high in nutrients and energy (calories) because in the wild, starvation was an ever-present danger. So, we’ve literally evolved to find foods high in sugar and fat delicious. Think berries and nuts though, not the manufactured foods we have available today.
The problem, of course, is that today, we have unlimited access to energy-dense foods wherever we look. And because of modern day manufacturing, much of that food is created in a lab or factory, not grown from the ground, and devoid of any real nutrients that actually nourish your body.
We have a situation where people are eating a lot of calories, sugar, and fat, but not a lot of the vital nutrients that help our bodies to thrive, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and others. The nutrients that come from real whole foods with one ingredient - think apple, salmon, almonds, broccoli.
In fact, about 75% of the US population does not consume the recommended intake of fruit, and more than 80% do not consume the recommended intake of vegetables (1). And a recent US survey found that 94.3% of the US population does not meet the daily requirement for vitamin D, 88.5% for vitamin E, 52.2% for magnesium, 44.1% for calcium, 43.0% for vitamin A, and 38.9% for vitamin C (2). These are not good statistics when it comes to the nutritional status of our country.
But, how does this affect your weight loss efforts? It’s not just the high intake of calories.
Micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are essential for many different functions in your body. Functions that we take for granted every day, like absorption and processing of energy. Without adequate micronutrients, your metabolism cannot function properly and your ability to burn fat and lose weight will be significantly reduced.
What to do?
Ensure you are eating a lot of whole plant-based foods. Look for foods with only 1 ingredient that do not come in a package. And try to eat in season, as these foods tend to have the highest nutritional status. Get your nutrient levels tested, take a high-quality multivitamin, and work with a trained dietitian or functional medicine practitioner if you want to ensure you are getting the right nutrients for your body.
Gut Microbiome Imbalances
We have over 100 trillion microbes in our gastrointestinal tract, collectively known as the gut microbiome, which means that our bacterial cells outnumber our own cells 10 times over. Kind of hurts your head to think about doesn’t it?
Research continues to show the importance of the gut microbiome in our health. It helps to digest and store food, balance glucose levels, control the immune system, and influence brain health.
Luckily, we have evolved to live in harmony with our gut bugs, and when properly nourished, they help in a number of ways to keep us healthy and feeling our best. However, gut microbiota are impacted by a number of environmental factors, including the food that you eat. Diets full of naturally fibrous foods, like vegetables and legumes, allow healthy bacteria to thrive. But a diet devoid of fiber and nutrients has been shown to cause an imbalance of healthy versus unhealthy microbes, known as dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis of the gut has been linked to impaired metabolism, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, IBS/IBD, and other health issues. Importantly, some bacteria extract more energy from food, leading to weight gain, while other bacteria will extract less energy from food, leading to weight loss. These changes in metabolism are directly linked to increased weight gain and obesity.
In fact, when researchers have taken gut bacteria from a set of twins, one normal weight and one obese, and transplanted the bacteria into mice, those that had received gut bacteria from the obese twin stored more fat and grew heavier than those that had received gut bacteria from the thin twin (3), despite eating the same amount of food! Later studies confirmed these findings, showing mice that received feces from obese mice became obese and those that received the feces from thin mice remained thin (4).
The specific mechanisms for how your gut bacteria impact your ability to lose weight are still an active area of research, but it is becoming more clear that taking care of your gut microbiome is vital for maintaining a healthy metabolism and improving your weight loss efforts.
What to do?
Eat whole unprocessed foods full of soluble fiber (prebiotics) - your gut bacteria love high-fiber plant foods. Eat a diverse range of foods, which can help to build a strong and diverse gut microbiome. Limit your intake of artificial sweeteners, as some studies suggest this may negatively impact your gut health. Avoid antibiotics whenever possible, as these are literally meant to kill bacteria (it’s in the name). This means killing your good gut bugs as well, which can have a devastating effect on gut health. And supplement smartly - a high quality probiotic can be helpful in restoring bacteria and keeping your gut healthy.
Inflammation & Immune Function
Did you know that inflammation underlies all chronic disease? In fact, nearly every person who has heart disease, cancer, depression, dementia, and/or diabetes also experiences chronic inflammation. Additionally, inflammation might be the single most important factor driving the obesity epidemic.
Research has shown that inflammation actually begins in the fat cells themselves and as fat accumulates, inflammation increases. Your fat cells also produce inflammatory molecules called cytokines, which perpetuate weight gain and cause insulin resistance (5). In fact, high circulating levels of cytokines can actually predict future weight gain (6).
The major issue here is that inflammation is both the cause and the result of obesity, which means that each can further stimulate the production of inflammatory molecules and cause a vicious cycle where inflammation is causing weight gain and growing fat cells are causing inflammation.
Additionally, many other environmental triggers (besides fat cells themselves) can promote inflammation, thereby impacting your weight loss efforts. These include, infections and viruses, mold toxins, environmental toxins, gut dysbiosis, stress, lack of sleep, food allergens, and a poor quality diet.
What to do?
Follow an anti-inflammatory diet, which is the exact kind of eating style that we discuss every day here. Ensure you are getting plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, as well as a good amount of proteins and healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, nuts/seeds). Exercise - move your body every day, even if it is just a 20 minutes walk. Engage in stress reduction techniques (I like exercise and listening to motivation podcasts), get adequate sleep, avoid environmental toxins, and be aware of potential food allergens or intolerances. If a food makes you feel bloated every time you eat it, there is a good chance it is causing some inflammation within your body.
As humans living in the modern world, we’re exposed to an incredible amount of environmental toxins, an issue that our ancestors did not necessarily have to worry about.
From the air we breathe to our food, clothes, and furniture - environmental toxins are everywhere. These toxins include plastics, pesticides, formaldehyde, phthalates, BPA in plastics, flame retardants, particle pollution (dust, mold, fungus), heavy metals like lead and mercury, and any of the 80,000+ chemicals introduced in the last 300 years.
These toxins are called obesogens because they’ve been shown to play a direct role in weight gain and obesity. In fact, studies show that environmental toxins directly contribute to obesity and diabetes, independent of poor diet and physical inactivity (7). And what’s really interesting is that exposures early in life (infancy and childhood) represent the greatest window of vulnerability for metabolic issues with long-term consequences (8).
Toxins contribute to obesity in a number of ways by affecting your metabolism, hormones, and brain function. But the good news is that while they are nearly impossible to stay away from completely, you can take steps to significantly reduce your toxic burden.
What to do?
Avoid plastics, especially those with BPA, and opt for glass bottles and containers instead. Never heat food in plastic or leave a plastic water bottle in a hot car. Opt for organic foods as often as possible - take a look at the Dirty Dozen list and prioritize these. Consume responsibly-raised meat, free of all the hormones and antibiotics. Filter your tap water and choose fresh over canned foods when you can. Wash your hands frequently and dust/vacuum your home regularly. Spring for an air purifier, especially if you live in an area with poor air quality. Sweat regularly - another win for exercise! Eat a lot of fiber to help your body’s natural detoxification system. And eat foods known to support detox pathways - cruciferous vegetables, grapefruit, resveratrol (hey red wine!), fish oils, and green tea.
As I mentioned before, weight and fat loss is so much more than just “eat less and exercise more.” If you’re one of the many people that I talk to or have worked with who struggle to lose weight, despite feeling like you’re doing everything right, you may want to look into how you are doing in these 4 areas - they are a huge contributor to your weight loss success.
Next week I’ll be going over 4 additional factors that might be impacting your weight and fat loss efforts. So, stay tuned!
If you made it to the end, you are a rockstar! Which one of these do you think might be the biggest problem area for people? Let me know in the comments below. :)