Fairly regularly I hear people say they just can’t figure out why they can’t lose weight. They are doing everything right – exercising, eating nutritious foods, cooking at home more – but the weight just won’t budge. And without the scale providing positive reinforcement the interest in continuing with these changes starts to wane. They want to know the secret – what are they doing wrong???
It feels similar to the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Clark Griswold just simply can’t figure out why his millions of Christmas lights aren’t working when he plugs them in. He goes back and rechecks the bulbs, he checks all the plugs – and still no lights. He kicks over a few plastic reindeer in his “why won’t these work?!@#” frustration. Finally, his wife figures out a light switch has to be flipped – and voila.
Losing weight isn’t quite this simple, but it is in many ways like finding the right switch to flip (and sometimes it takes a person on the outside to help flip it). In reality, there are probably several switches that have to flip, such as identifying emotional eating and long-term coping skills, making time to plan and prepare meals, setting realistic wellness goals, and learning self-compassion. No one thing is the secret key. But here are 7 things you can look at if you are having difficulty losing weight:
1. Reality check your eating habits. You made the switch from iceberg to kale; you stopped buying lunch out and started bringing it from home; and you started having breakfast instead of skipping it. What more can you do?! All of these are fantastic, beneficial lifestyle changes, but they don’t tell the full picture. Sometimes our assessment of what and how much we consume is actually different than what is recommended.
I once had a gentleman tell me he was proud he was snacking on “healthy” almonds, but during the course of our discussion we discovered he was having about 3 cups of almonds per day. Yes, excess intake of a nutritious food can still contribute to weight gain. Consider experimenting with measuring foods to give you a visual of portion sizes – it is possible small overconsumptions throughout the day are adding up.
2. And while you’re at it, look at protein intake. While studies continue to banter back and forth on low-fat vs low-carb for weight loss, it’s quite clear that a higher protein intake is essential (up to 2.4 grams/kg body weight with an extreme caloric deficit in a recent study). Protein helps prevent muscle loss and is more satiating than carbs and fats which means you are less hungry after consuming it. It also appears to be best consumed periodically throughout the day in equal amounts, so aim for 20-30 grams per meal and 5-10 grams at snacks.
3. Assess daily movement. Most research indicates around 60 minutes per day of activity is necessary for long-term maintenance of weight loss. However, the nature of our sedentary lives calls into question the adequacy of this amount, not just for weight purposes but for our health. Running for 60 minutes every day is great, unless you are sitting for 10 hours the rest of the day. So be sure to strike a balance. Additionally, and unfortunately, the more planned exercise we do, sometimes the more our daily movement decreases. So consider tracking your movement for an entire day to see how much you “move”.
4. Watch out for undereating followed by overeating. So many folks believe a very low calorie plan like 1200 calories is the only possible way they can lose weight. So they skimp and restrict for a couple of days and then end up giving in and eating double that for the next several. If we could just loosen the grip to a more practical approach we could prevent overeating driven by true hunger and feelings of deprivation. And end up eating less in the long run.
5. Sharpen your mindfulness skills. Most of these tips require some sort of assessment, which means we need to work on our mindfulness skills. Mindfulness can range from remembering to check if you are hungry before you eat that snack, to questioning why your bad mood contributed to eating a bag of Oreos. If you feel disconnected from your eating experience, start simple by instituting a “pause” before you eat. Check-in to assess your hunger before you eat and fullness after – use this in conjunction with your newly found awareness of portion sizes (see #1).
6. Reassess your weight goals. Sometimes this is the most challenging. Some argue our bodies have a natural set-point at which they feel best – healthy, greatest energy and strength, etc. At some point a person may have to ask herself if losing more weight is worth eating less or exercising more, which may decrease quality of life. Do you want food and your weight to consume your daily thoughts? In fact, sometimes this sets people up for regaining even more in the future.
7. Consider medical possibilities. Sometimes an underlying medical condition, such as hypothyroidism or pre-diabetes, really makes weight loss challenging. If after considering the above you still feel something is fishy, have a discussion with your physician about other possibilities.