I will admit to being reticent to tackle this subject. Our culture is obsessed with weight loss and infatuated with slimness, and I have no desire to perpetuate this machine fuelled on our own insecurities. In general, I prefer to talk about muscle gain than weight loss, and lifestyle changes rather than diet.
But I would be lying if I said that nobody in the world needs to lose weight. We all know that carrying around excess weight leads to a whole host of health problems (I don’t need to describe them in detail). So I would like to frame this article in terms of working towards being healthier and fitter — whatever that looks like for you — rather than ways of getting to a size 0.
Because our environment really is against us — between the food-like objects being sold to us in grocery stores and the prevalence of sedentary desk jobs, amongst many other factors, staying within a healthy weight range is getting harder and harder. Below are some reasons why you might not be reaching your goals.
As with all things related to nutrition and fitness, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What works for one person may not work for another, so take all of these tips with a grain of salt. Some people respond well to more cardio and some to less, etc. The important thing is finding what works for your unique body.
Maybe You Are Losing Without Realizing it
Working out and eating healthily but your weight hasn’t budged? (Or worse, it has only increased?) You wouldn’t be the first one to complain of this problem, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t making strides towards your goal. The reality is, the number on the scale is not the only, or even the most reliable, measure of your progress.
First of all, our body weight tends to fluctuate by a pound or two each day. The foods you eat, the state of your hormones, and the amount of water you’re drinking AND retaining (particularly so for women) can all play a role here. You may find it more helpful to weigh yourself once a week rather than every day.
When you weigh yourself is also important. It should be before you’ve eaten or had anything to drink and ideally after elimination. Had a glass of water? That’s going to skew things, and by a lot more than you’d think. I’ve weighed myself first thing in the morning and then again after having water and a coffee, and the difference was 2 pounds!
More importantly, it is possible to gain muscle while losing fat, particularly if you’ve just started exercising. And this is exactly what you want: a change in body composition, not simply body weight.
For a true measure of your progress, use something other than the scale. This can be as simple as considering how well your clothes fit — your jeans never lie! — or as precise as taking body measurements and getting your body fat percentage measured each month.
You can also try looking in the mirror. Do you see more muscle than there was before? Then well done!
You’re Not Keeping Track of What You’re Eating
This one is tough, I know. Nobody wants to feel like they’re on a schedule or have to count every calorie, and I don’t recommend doing this all the time, because it can be unnecessarily stressful. I’m a firm believer that you should be able to enjoy a dinner with friends and family every so often without having to agonize over calories or macros or any of that. Life just doesn’t work that way, and you will eventually fatigue if you never give yourself a break.
Tracking your food intake for one week really should be sufficient to give you a snapshot of how much food you’re actually eating, and you can do this every few months to check in and see where you’re at.
The reason this is so beneficial is that it creates awareness and it forces you to be accountable to yourself. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or not, being conscious of what you’re eating is always a good thing. And despite what we may think, most of us actually have no idea how many calories we’re consuming. Study after study has shown that people consistently underestimate how much they eat in a day, often by around 30%! That’s a huge margin of error. It happens for a number of reasons: we don’t actually know how many calories are in a food item; we forget about snacks in between meals (which are often the problem, not our meals themselves); we downplay unhealthy foods (and maybe are ashamed to admit to eating certain things, or in certain amounts); or we don’t consider the calories in beverages. All of these and more make food diaries unreliable, particularly in the long term.
But studies do show that keeping track of your diet helps with weight loss. People who use food diaries or track their meals in other ways consistently lose more weight than people who don’t. (1, 2) Doing so forces you to take an honest look at your habits and to be conscious of what you’re actually putting in your mouth.
You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
Protein is an essential nutrient for both weight loss and weight maintenance, as it helps to reduce cravings for sugary foods and promotes satiety, ensuring you don’t feel the need to snack constantly between meals. Protein is much more satisfying than carbohydrates in general, and it has the added bonus of working with appetite-regulating hormones, such as ghrelin, to keep you feeling fuller for longer. (8, 9)
Protein is also, of course, essential for the building and maintenance of muscle mass, so getting enough of this nutrient will make your exercise regime more effective. It also helps prevent metabolic slowdown – a common side effect of losing weight – and weight regain. (11, 12, 13)
The easiest way to include more protein in your diet? Switch our your carbohydrate-heavy breakfast for something more substantial. Studies have shown that people who eat a high-protein breakfast are less hungry and have fewer cravings throughout the day (10). (I can certainly attest to this fact from personal experience. Anytime I’ve ever had pancakes and maple syrup for a special breakfast or brunch, my sugar cravings for the rest of the day are noticeably more intense.)
You’re Eating Too Many Calories
Many people who struggle with losing weight are simply eating too many calories, and while this does not mean that calories should be your main concern — eating 500 calories of potato chips is not the same as eating 500 calories of vegetables — it does mean you should be mindful of what you’re eating, even if it is healthy.
I’m a big fan of almond butter, for example, but I know that a 2 tablespoon serving (very easy to make disappear in an instant) clocks in at around 180 calories. If I smother my apple in almond butter the way I’d like to, what should have been a healthy snack turns into a full meal — and not one that is satisfying like a true meal.
As I mentioned before, we tend to underestimate the calories we consume, consistently and significantly. (14, 15, 16) So if you are eating healthy foods and exercising but still not losing weight, you might want try tracking your calories, just for a little while. You may be surprised by how much you’re actually eating.
Here are some helpful resources:
- Calorie calculator – Use this tool to figure out how many calories to eat.
- Calorie counters – This is a list of 5 free websites and apps that can help you keep track of your calorie and nutrient intake.
Tracking in this way is also beneficial when trying to reach a certain nutrient goal, like getting 30% of your calories from protein, as mentioned above. It’s really difficult to do this all in your head.
And as I mentioned previously, you only need to do this exercise for a short period of time to gain a sense of how much you’re actually eating.
You’re Not Eating Whole Foods
This may be the most important one of the list. The calories-in-calories-out theory is all well and good, but if your calories are nutritionally void, you aren’t going to lose the weight. More importantly, you will not achieve optimal health.
Eating healthy foods will make you feel and look better, regardless of your weight, and feeling this way can motivate you to make other changes in your life.
Eating healthy foods also helps regulate your appetite and reduces your craving for junk food, particularly as your palate adjusts to the taste of real food.
But keep in mind: “health foods” and healthy foods are not one and the same. Healthy foods are minimally processed and whole foods which contain as few ingredients as possible. Healthy foods require you to cook at home. “Health foods” are often quite unhealthy, full of sugar and processed ingredients disguised as beneficial ones.
You’re Not Lifting Weights
I cannot stress this one enough. The very best thing I ever did for myself — for my health, my physique, and my confidence — was take up weight training. It makes me feel so strong and so powerful, and I always walk away feeling like I can take on the world. That sense of empowerment affects every single area of my life, motivating me to work harder at everything that I do, including maintaining a healthy diet. And it makes working out fun, because seeing myself get stronger is more rewarding than spending an extra 5 or 10 minutes on the treadmill ever was.
Then of course there are the physical benefits. Muscle burns more calories than fat, meaning the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate, so you’ll continue to burn calories even after you’ve left the gym. It can also help prevent metabolic slowdown. (18)
And let’s not discount how great muscle tone looks on the body. I would rather be muscular and weigh a little more than skinny for the sake of skinny, with no tone or strength.
You’re Binge Eating (Even on Healthy Food)
We’ve all been there before. We were really ‘good’ for a whole week, or a month, eating only the foods we deem to be healthy. And then a special occasion comes up, or we simply decide we’ve earned the right to indulge a little. But we lose control, eating way more than we meant to or ever should in one sitting.
If we’re operating in a state of deprivation, binging is going to be the inevitable consequence. This is why diets don’t work. You need to think in terms of making a lifestyle change — something that is sustainable in the long term and allows you to feel like you’re still enjoying food and enjoying life.
You’re Not Doing Cardio
Cardio has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and I know I’m at least a little guilty of perpetuating that in my own life. I used to do tons of cardio and very little weight lifting, and accordingly saw negligible results at the gym. Lifting weights turned everything around for me, so the challenge now is finding the right balance between lifting and cardio. Because getting your heart rate up is still really important, both for weight loss and for achieving overall health.
Here is what an optimal and balanced training program which incorporates both weight lifting and cardio might look like, courtesy of Girls Gone Strong:
- Strength training two to four times a week, generally lasting 45 to 50 minutes
- High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)/Metabolic Conditioning one to two times a week, generally lasting five to 20 minutes
- Moderate Intensity Cardio (MIC) one to two times a week, generally lasting about 30 minutes, with your heart rate at 120 to 140 bpm.
- Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) Cardio, whenever possible. This is any kind of leisure movement you enjoy—from yoga to hiking to biking to walking—and should be restorative, not strenuous. Your heart rate should remain below 120 bpm, and this activity should be relaxing, and not stressful to your body. This also includes general human movement like taking the stairs, standing instead of sitting, etc.
Keep in mind that some of these days can be combined to allow for two to three full days off each week.
You’re Still Drinking Sugar
This one should be a no-brainer at this point, but unfortunately, many people still haven’t gotten the memo. Our brains don’t process liquid calories in the same way they do solid food, and so that soda, or fruit juice, or even your favourite green juice contributes to your daily caloric load without making you feel as if you’ve eaten any more. You therefore don’t compensate for these extra calories by eating less, and you certainly don’t feel any less hungry after consuming them. (21, 22)
And this says nothing of the terrible effects of processed sugars on the body.
Even fruit juices or green juices with fruit juice in them can cause problems, containing way more sugar than you’d ever imagine and contributing to an expanding waistline in the process.
The takeaway here is to be mindful of everything you drink and reduce where you can. A typical latte at Starbucks, unflavoured, can clock in at 100 calories or more easily, and this really does add up over time. One solution is to have a cappuccino, which has significantly less milk in it, and to do without the sugar, or work to slowly reduce the amount of sugar you include over time. A touch of cinnamon can go a long way here!
You’re Not Sleeping Well
Getting enough sleep is arguably the single most important thing you can do for your physical and mental well-being, and this includes managing your weight.
Studies show that poor sleep is one of the single biggest risk factors for obesity. Adults with poor sleep have a 55% greater risk of becoming obese, while children with poor sleep have an 89% greater risk of becoming obese. (23)
Sleep deprivation creates a cascade of reactions which all promote weight gain. Short sleep duration is associated with decreased leptin — the hormone which promotes satiety — and increased ghrelin, the hormone which promotes hunger. In other words, not getting enough sleep makes you feel hungrier and causes you to eat more food to feel satisfied, particularly foods with a high carbohydrate content — a double whammy.
Just one sleep deprived night also leads to raised levels of glucose in the blood and can increase our risk for type 2 diabetes:
Recent work also indicates that sleep loss may adversely affect glucose tolerance and involve an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
In young, healthy subjects who were studied after 6 days of sleep restriction (4 hours in bed) and after full sleep recovery, the levels of blood glucose after breakfast were higher in the state of sleep debt despite normal or even slightly elevated insulin responses. The difference in peak glucose levels in response to breakfast averaged ±15 mg/dL, a difference large enough to suggest a clinically significant impairment of glucose tolerance.
Poor sleep also affects digestion. As someone who has struggled with IBS for a number of years, I can say confidently that inadequate sleep worsens my symptoms significantly. So not only am I hungrier when I don’t get enough sleep, I am more bloated and less able to eliminate regularly, too.
You’re Not Cutting Back on Carbohydrates
And you’re not eating the right kinds. You might think that by avoiding sugary treats you’re in the clear, but most breads and pastas do just as much damage, causing blood sugar spikes and raising cortisol, both of which lead to increased belly fat.
Focus on eating unprocessed whole grains like oats, millet, and brown rice (not whole wheat or even whole grain bread, which is still full of starchy flours) and eating them in small portions. This may require you to measure out your servings for a while, but eventually you should be able to visually determine what a proper serving looks like.
Whole grains won’t create blood sugar spikes the way refined carbohydrates will, and they help promote satiety.
How you prepare your grains is also important. Most people don’t realize that it is necessary to break down whole grains (and beans, nuts, and seeds) before consuming them by soaking them in water. For thousands of years, traditional cultures have practiced sprouting grains, somehow knowing that cooking simply isn’t enough to render them digestible. Grains on their own are dormant seeds, with all their nutrients waiting to be ‘activated’ by water. They contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid which bind to minerals in the gastrointestinal tract, preventing the body from absorbing them, which can lead to mineral deficiencies. Unsoaked grains are also much more difficult for the body to digest; a lifetime of eating grains in this way can lead to a whole host of digestive problems. Simply by soaking your grains in warm water overnight, preferably with a splash of something acidic, like vinegar, you make the nutrients in the grains more bioavailable and make their digestion much easier on the body.
You’re Not Drinking Water
Drinking water is incredibly important for maintaining optimal health in general, and for achieving weight loss.
In one 12-week weight loss study, for example, overweight people who drank half a liter (17 oz) of water half an hour before before meals lost 44% more weight (32) than people who did not. One reason for this could be that they needed to eat less during the meal in order to feel full.
Ever stand up too quickly and feel dizzy or lightheaded for a minute? That’s your body telling you to drink more water.
Feeling hungry is often the first sign that you’re thirsty, too. The next time you feel like you need a snack or are ready for your next meal, try drinking a glass of water first. You may be surprised to find out that you weren’t hungry after all!
You’re Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Alcoholic beverages are notoriously high in calories, particularly when combined with sugary mixers to make our favourite cocktails. Beer, wine, and sugary mixed drinks and liquors are the worst culprits here, almost inevitably leading to bigger bellies when consumed regularly or in excess.
Because alcohol is a liquid calorie, we also tend to underestimate how much we’ve ingested. One night of heavy drinking really can undo a week’s worth of efforts in the kitchen and in the gym. And it’s no secret that we tend to eat more after a night of drinking, and pick the worst foods, too. So not only are we consuming extra calories from the alcohol, we’re compounding the problem by eating greasy, fried foods afterwards.
If you want to enjoy the occasional drink while still maintaining or losing weight, stick to pure spirits like vodka or gin, and skip the sugary add-ins, opting instead for sparkling water and a splash of lemon or lime.
You’re Too Focused on “Dieting”
As I mentioned previously, diets are rarely, if ever, successful in the longterm. If anything, they actually cause people to gain more weight over time, and yo-yoing between between weights puts a major strain on the body, too. (42)
Putting all your attention on the foods you can’t have will only make you crave them more. It’s like telling yourself not to think about elephants. You can’t think about anything other than elephants now, can you?
Focus instead on the new, healthy lifestyle you are cultivating. Think about all the foods you get to include in your diet — more vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats — rather than the ones you must exclude. Let weight loss be the natural and happy side effect of nourishing your body properly.