Why Can’t I Lose Weight? The Weight Gain & Loss Conundrum
Updated: Feb 9
As a naturopath, I frequently have patients walk through my office door speaking of stubborn weight they can’t seem to lose. They have tried low calorie diets, different kinds of diets such as Keto or Paleo, Weight Watchers or other point systems, different kinds of exercise programs, and the list goes on. It works for a while… but then the diet stops working or they get tired of counting points, and the weight returns. The problem isn't that these programs don't work, it's that none of these approaches are sustainable. Yes, they will work for a period of time, however, studies show most people put the weight back on within a couple years.
I will not pretend there is a ‘key’ to weight loss or a list of golden rules you must follow to ensure you can. No such thing exists. What we do have are research studies showing how the body adapts to low calorie diets, macronutrient manipulation, exercise, and stress.
What we know is that when you try to lose weight, caloric restriction, or eating less calories than you burn, helps you lose weight. However, the body doesn’t just let the extra weight go freely - it adjusts itself to reduce how much you lose. We see this by:
A decrease in Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). Your RMR is a measure of how many calories your body needs to function at rest. So, if your RMR decreases with caloric restriction, this would mean you need fewer calories to maintain your current body weight. Yes, you will lose weight initially but once you hit that plateau, you will have to decrease your calories further or you won't shed a pound. This isn't always possible, especially if you are already eating a 1,200 calorie diet.
An increase in transit time. Your body will slow down how quickly you digest your food to ensure it extracts every. last. calorie. out. of. it.
A decrease in movement. With less food being consumed, mental and physical energy levels can decrease. We notice that most people will move around less in their homes, not go for that afternoon walk, take an extra nap, etc. because they are tired. However, this could also be seen as the body’s effort to conserve calories.
This isn’t a bad thing- it’s just how the body works. It’s our body’s way of conserving energy for survival. Knowing this information is important as there are things we can do to offset this metabolic adaptation.
So what CAN you do?
First things first - exercise. You may hate it, but it’s necessary. Exercise helps keep your RMR from dropping and can actually increase it. If you reduce the amount of calories you are eating but the amount of calories you need to fuel your body stays consistent, this will result in steady weight loss, and your energy levels are more likely to stay stable.
The kind of foods you are eating is important. Yes, calories matter but where you are getting them matters more. You can eat 1,700 calories of processed powders and calorie free sweetened products but this will just leave your body feeling confused, irritable, and hungry. Research shows that consuming processed foods leads to an average overconsumption of about 500 calories per day. That is a lot of calories. If you don’t think so - try burning that amount!
Processed foods also tend to be lower in the food components we find the most filling. The components of our foods that are most satiating (or filling) are protein and fibre. You can find protein in foods such as meat, beans and legumes and you can find fibre in foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. You don’t find protein or fibre in great quantity in foodstuffs such as crackers, pasta, muffins, etc. By eating more protein and fibre, you will stay fuller for longer. This usually means less calories too.
As I brought up earlier, we notice people tend to move around less when they are trying to lose weight. This is usually due to the calorie restriction combined with little exercise. As you reduce calories, you reduce energy availability and can feel tired. Not to mention, food can act as a ‘pick me up’ for increasing mental energy levels. If you are just starting to eat well and exercise, give yourself a couple weeks of feeling tired and drained before you call it quits. It is normal to feel fatigued for the first few weeks when you are starting to exercise. However, your energy should rebound after that. If the fatigue continues, it may be time for an assessment into why you are tired. Some of the tests your naturopath may order include:
TSH: marker of your thyroid function
Fasting insulin & glucose: helps to measure your level of insulin resistance
Cortisol levels: measure of stress in the body
Lipid profile: basically your cholesterol levels and can help guide what foods to prioritize for heart health
Iron & B12 levels: when these nutrients are low, it is normal to feel rundown and tired
There are many conditions that cause fatigue and lack of energy. Although your thyroid, or high cortisol levels may partially play a role in weight gain, they are not necessarily the cause of it. What we do know is that people who have energy, move more. When we correct any underlying processes that are struggling, you feel better, move around more, and expend more calories.
Some gastrointestinal conditions may cause fatigue and/or make it difficult to eat certain foods or food groups (ex, IBS). If there are underlying conditions that affect food intake, these of course need to be managed. For example, a high fibre diet may not be good for some individuals but on the other hand, high fibre helps keep them full. There may be ways around this so talk to your naturopath about potential food swaps, food sensitivity testing, and ways to manage intestinal health so that you can diversify your diet.
Stress plays a huge role in our behaviour, not to mention weight gain and loss. What we know from studies is that mild, chronic stress results in higher cortisol levels leading to more visceral weight gain (ie, belly fat). As well, chronic stress results in changes in dietary behaviours. We know that when stressed, we opt for higher calorie foods than we normally would. Now stress is unavoidable, but how we manage it is our choice. It’s important you figure out how to manage your stress for the long term, or at least find someone you can talk to that can help sort things out in this area.
I won’t lie - losing weight is hard. If it was easy it wouldn’t be a multibillion dollar industry. There will be days when you eat enough junk food your garbage can will look like it was Halloween the day before. There will be times when you don’t go to the gym for a week. And you know what? It’s all okay! The part that isn’t okay is when you ditch all of the effort you put into your health because of a bad day, week, or month.
Everyone’s weight loss journey is different but there are a few things that almost everyone endures, and a few things that are almost always helpful.
A few things research has noticed that can help include:
Have someone who keeps you accountable. Preferably, someone assertive who can keep you in check when you don’t want to go for a walk, or have been eating like crap for a week.
Have a few ‘staple meals’ in place. What I mean by staple meals are food items you have available for when things get busy, because they will. This can include making meals ahead of time and keeping them in the freezer, having pre-cut vegetables in the fridge for when you don’t want to make extra for dinner, or protein bars in your purse for when you’re running errands and it’s been five hours since your last meal.
SMART goals. You don’t have to change your whole diet and lifestyle overnight. Start small and work your way up with small, attainable goals. If it isn’t something you can maintain for 3-6 months, then it isn’t sustainable.
Please remember that some is better than none. You can’t revamp your whole diet and lifestyle in 8 hours and expect it to go seamlessly! Learning what your nutritional needs are and how you’re going to fuel yourself daily takes some practice. You’re going to slip and eat junk food - perhaps often. The point is that your next meal can be different and is an opportunity to try again.
If losing weight has been difficult, or you feel that you have tried everything and it hasn’t worked, don’t lose hope. There are practitioners out there that can help.