On Your Health

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Why Can't I Lose Weight?

For people who struggle with the physical or mental image of themselves, the difficult nature of losing weight can leave them speechless and dumbfounded. Yes, many people succeed in their weight loss journey, but there are plenty of others who struggle even when they think they’re doing everything correctly – diet, exercise and operating at a calorie deficit.

We explain how weight loss works and cover some of the most common reasons why people can’t lose weight no matter what they do.

How weight loss works

Fat typically earns a bad reputation due to its association with obesity, but your body needs fat to carry out basic human functions. At 9 calories per gram, fat is a slow, but efficient source of fuel – more so than carbs or protein. This combination makes fat attractive to store in cells for future use.

These cells, called adipocytes, are full of triglycerides, a type of fat that consists of glycerol and 3 fatty acids (hence the prefix “tri”). 

To lose weight, operating at a calorie deficit triggers the body to tap into the extra fat cells for energy. Enzymes break down the fatty acids before they’re transported to organs such as your lungs to provide energy for respiratory function. This process produces water and carbon dioxide that leave the body when you urinate, sweat and breathe.

The resulting empty fat cells have a short lifespan and die without being replaced. If you continue to operate at a calorie deficit, enough fat cells will eventually die so your body starts to use the calories you consume instead of relying on reserve fat cells.

 The challenges of losing weight

Although weight loss, healthy habits and dieting are common in today’s culture, the human body wasn’t meant to live in a state of decreased caloric intake. In fact, the body is smart and adaptive enough to react and fight against calorie restriction, a conflict that can make losing weight difficult. This compensation is known as metabolic adaptation.

During metabolic adaptation, the brain interprets prolonged calorie deficits as a danger and responds by slowing down metabolism to more efficiently use the energy it has access to. In other words, if you consistently consume 2,000 calories a day and all of a sudden drop to 1,500 to lose weight, your body flags this behavior and adjusts to your new habits. Plus, when you eat less, you have less energy to maintain bodily functions.

For example, a small trial of 65 women found metabolic adaptation after weight loss increases the length of time necessary to achieve weight loss goals. With each 10-calorie drop in resting metabolic rate (the calories your body burns at rest), researchers found it took an additional day for the women to reach their goals.

Some people attempt to lose weight through diet alone, although many people incorporate some kind of exercise. Metabolic adaptation has an impact on your muscles and body movements, making them work more efficiently to lower how many calories are burned. As a result, the more weight you lose, the fewer calories you burn when exercising.

In addition to metabolic adjustments, hormones can also make weight loss difficult. Leptin, a hormone produced by adipose tissue, helps regulate hunger by telling you when you’re full. However, weight loss shrinks fat cells and therefore produces less leptin. Because you don’t get the feeling you’re full, you may notice yourself overeating. People who are obese or overweight can become resistant to leptin, which further complicates matters when trying to lose weight.

Similar to leptin, ghrelin is a hormone produced by the stomach that tells your brain when the stomach is empty and triggers you to eat. People on restrictive diets can have high levels of ghrelin, which makes them want to eat more.

Why Am I Not Losing Weight in a Calorie Deficit?

A calorie deficit means you expend more energy (calories) than you consume. For most people, a deficit of 500 calories per day can help you lose 1 pound a week. 

However, there are many factors that can prevent you from losing weight. If you don’t start to see some type of weight loss a month into your journey, one of the following reasons may be to blame.

Eating habits: Even if you are at a calorie deficit, the type of calories you consume matters. Sure, you may only consume 1,500 calories a day, but if those 1,500 calories come from chips or a burger and fries, then the scale may not show the results you want. This is mainly because processed and salty foods lead to water retention.

Poor hydration: Staying hydrated is key when trying to lose weight. Since your body consists mostly of water, it makes sense that you need fluids to help burn fat and stimulate your metabolism. Drinking water can also help flush sodium and other nutrients responsible for fluid retention.

Lack of sleep: Poor sleeping habits can cause a litany of problems, including disrupting your ability to lose weight. Sleep issues can alter your metabolic function and decrease energy levels needed to burn fat.

Not tracking calories properly: Many people contend they track every calorie that goes into their body, but the reality is it’s easy to miss drinks, quick snacks or extra bites at the stove during dinner. It may not seem like much, but it can add up over the course of a week and impact your goals.

Stress: Stressful situations cause your body to produce hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that can lower your metabolic rate. Stress can also cause you to make poor dietary choices, which in turn increases fluid retention.

Underlying health conditions: Sometimes, a previous medical condition can make it difficult to lose weight regardless of your routine. For example, hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones, causes metabolism to slow down. As a result, you can’t burn as many calories and you don’t have enough energy to exercise.

Gaining muscle: Muscle weighs more than fat, so people who use strength training as part of dieting may have added a few pounds of muscle mass that alters the scale.

Tips to stay on track

Since water retention can be a problem for people during their weight loss journey, consider boosting your intake of potassium and magnesium. These minerals are important electrolytes that have the opposite effect of sodium and help reduce water retention by increasing urination. Many fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, nuts, seeds and leafy greens, contain potassium or magnesium. 

Foods high in fiber can also help reduce water retention. Sources of fiber include whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and berries.

Whenever you diet to lose weight, be patient and consistent. Count your calories diligently and weigh yourself at the same time. For example, the scale can show a 5- or 6-pound difference if you weigh yourself at night compared to the morning. That is because digestion takes 24 to 48 hours, so the food you eat is still in your body. Plus, sodium intake retains fluid, which can add water weight at night.

Losing weight takes commitment, grace and motivation. If you are having a difficult time finding your ideal weight, talk to your doctor and ask them for more resources in your area. They may be able to provide a referral to a nutritionist or dietician. For more news on nutrition and healthy eating, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

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