Q&A: Why can't I lose weight?

Question: I'm eating right and exercising, but the scale isn't budging. I want to see results. Help!

Answer: Weight loss can be so frustrating. Men often (though not always) have an easier time of weight loss than women, and the reason for that is both simple and complicated: Hormones. Though there is some evidence that men have a hormone cycle of their own, female hormones have their own intricate balance that seems especially sensitive when it comes to weight gain and loss. We are particularly sensitive to stress, which does not always come in the form we associate with the word stress.

Consider my experience (which is common among women marathoners). I developed a potbelly during and after training for a marathon. Some people are quick to attribute this phenomena to increased calorie intake, but that was not the case for me. I tracked my calories, so I knew I was not overeating.

A better explanation was stress hormones. The increased training raised my stress hormones, and chronic high stress is known to increase belly fat in some people, though not everyone. In the same situation, other people might have lost weight, maintained their current weight, or gained weight all over their bodies instead of only in their bellies.

People react differently to similar stimuli because everyone is unique. We experience stress differently, and our perception of stress affects our brains and bodies differently. Our bodies make different amounts of stress hormones and have different numbers and sizes of stress hormone receptors. Basically, stress can cause some of us to gain weight, some of us to lose weight, and some of us to stay put. (Before we skip away from this topic, let me inform you that calorie restriction is its own form of stress. Remember this tidbit the next time you're tempted to go on a 1,000-calorie a day diet.) 

So, what can you do to finally move the scale? {C}{C}Healthy weight loss is an indicator of balanced body, so we need to look at your mind, body, and spirit as a whole rather than focus entirely on the scale and measuring tape. 

1. Assess. 

  • How is your health in general? Do you have chronic health problems: difficult digestion, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, feel fatigued often, have body aches and pains that prevent you from being active? Chronic health problems put the body in a state of chronic high stress, which we already learned can cause weight gain or prevent weight loss. If you have unresolved health problems, I recommend seeing a functional diagnostic medicine practitioner, doctor of integrative medicine, or naturopathic doctor. These medical professionals are trained to find the root of a problem and treat it instead of offering medications to mask symptoms, which is standard in American health care today. 
  • How much movement do you get in a day? Many people have a "clock in, clock out" attitude toward exercise. Once their hour at the gym is over, they are content to sit for the rest of the day. Yet what you do with your body during your other 15 or so hours of waking time during the day count more than that single hour you spent sweating in your workout gear. Consider getting a standing desk, finding ways to walk more, and sitting on the floor instead of using a sofa. (Getting up from the floor is great exercise.) Insert quick bursts of movement during your daily routine, such as a few push ups before you shower or lunges while you make breakfast for your kids. In fact, playing with your kids is a fantastic way to build more movement into your day. Run, skip, climb, hop, crawl, -- it all counts. 
  • Are you doing too much? Our bodies require restorative time, and when they don't get it, they can go haywire. "Doing too much" can come in the form of the work we do to earn a paycheck, the work we do to keep our children healthy and happy, the work we do to keep our bodies fit, and many other kinds of work. Too much work without enough rest makes a body very, very unhappy. I commonly see women who are trying to lose weight work harder and harder without recognizing that they intense stress they're inflicting on themselves could actually be preventing weight loss.Our bodies do not know the difference between running to make it to school on time and running a 5K for enjoyment . Humans respond well to quick bursts of stress followed by a recovery period. Don't cheat yourself of a recovery, even if that means skipping a workout in lieu of a warm bath and early bedtime. If you are an athlete, build some restorative yoga or stretching into your workout regimen to mitigate the stress of your sport as well as encourage more thorough recovery.  
  • How's your diet? Quality counts more than quantity when it comes to food. One thousand calories of fast food have a far more negative effect on your body and are more likely to cause weight gain than one thousand calories from a meal you made from actual food, which will leave you more satisfied and nourished for hours. That same caloric intake of fast food will do a number on your digestion and probably put your blood sugar into a tailspin. Balancing blood sugar is one of the best possible ways to influence your weight (and your overall health). Eat real food (not packaged or premade foods) as often as possible, and experiment with eating to your appetite instead of measuring portion sizes or counting calories. 

2. Based on your assessment, make changes. To reach and maintain a healthy weight, you need to be sleeping well, feel reasonably balanced energy during the day, have good digestion, balanced hormones and blood sugar. I'm not saying you can't lose weight if you don't have all these ducks in a row, but you will have the best sustained health if you work toward improving them. None of these measures really has a finish line; they are part of the process of making lifestyle changes that support a healthy body and a healthy weight. 

3. Look beyond the scale and the mirror. It is quite possible to be healthy while also carrying some extra body fat. I'm a firm believer that good health is more important than hitting a particular number on the scale when it comes to living with vitality. It can be challenging, given that so many of us have mental programming that tells us skinnier is better, but viewing your health and well being as your highest priorities can set you free from the feeling that you'll never be happy until you hit that goal weight. Resolve to move your body and eat the way you think is the best choice for you in that moment. You might just be surprised to learn that you know exactly what you need.