Why Can’t I Lose Weight? 3 Reasons + What to Do Instead
Tried everything to lose weight to no avail? Here’s what’s really going on in your body, the problem with weight loss, and what you can do instead to create sustainable health and wellness.
This guest post is by Sarah Newman, a holistic wellness and mindset coach who helps women ditch dieting, heal from food and wellness obsession, and reclaim their innate power and happiness. Sarah is a body image enthusiast and former disordered eater who learned to make peace with her body, food, and life. Now, she’s giving women the tools to do the same! Sarah helps women learn how to trust and accept their bodies at any size, including how to eat intuitively and become the experts of their own bodies.
Sarah is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, has a BA in Psychology from The College of William & Mary, and is a Certified Law of Attraction Coach from the QSCA. She’s also the editorial director here at Root + Revel! If you want to reclaim your body, mind, and life so you can focus on the things that truly matter, visit Sarah’s website at TheBodyReclaimed.com and on Instagram @thebodyreclaimed.
Over to you, Sarah!
For years, you’ve been dieting, trying ‘lifestyle changes’, detoxes, cleanses, and everything under the sun with the promise of weight loss. But no matter what you do, you always seem to gain the weight back–and then some.
All of this calorie counting, obsessing over food and your body, and having the scale determine your mood only leaves you feeling discouraged, tired and frustrated. If you’re honest with yourself, you recognize that this is not only unhealthy for your physical health, but also your mental and emotional well-being.
The truth is, fad diets and the pursuit of intentional weight loss only offer a quick ‘fix’–not a lasting solution. Did you know up to 95% of diets fail in the long term? Not only that, but studies also show that up to two-thirds of dieters gain back significantly MORE weight than they’ve lost. (source; source)
In other words, dieting is actually a predictor of future weight GAIN! In the long term, we’re often creating the opposite of our intended outcome, yet keep futilely trying again and again, crossing our fingers that, somehow, maybe this time will be different.
This might be a huge surprise to you if it’s your first time hearing this, but the research is clear that there is no evidence-based treatment that leads to sustained weight loss. The most consistent effect of weight loss at two years is weight gain (Mann et. al, 2007).
First, let’s look at three reasons why this happens. Then, we’ll talk about what to do instead if you’re ready to experience lasting health and well-being.
3 Reasons Why You Can’t Lose Weight
1) Our bodies try to maintain their weight “set point”
Research shows that our bodies have a weight “set point” they’re genetically programmed to try and maintain. Our weight set point is actually more like a weight range that spans a few sizes our bodies are happiest at throughout our adult lives (and where we’re at at any given point within this range depends on our life circumstances at that time, like how stressed we are). (source)
Our bodies’ weight set ranges are as genetic as our height: some 70% of individual differences in body weight are dictated by genes. (source)
This set range is so strong that, if your weight drops below it, your brain senses danger and initiates a series of biological changes to help you regain weight and prevent weight loss from occurring again. (For more research on this, I highly recommend the book Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon.)
So when you try to force your body below its set range, it may eventually increase that range in order to protect you against future famines (a.k.a. diets, which threaten the body’s survival), which leads to a higher weight in the long-term.
Which brings us to the next point.
2) The Body Experiences Dieting as a Famine
Dieting is a form of short-term starvation, even when it’s intentional. When we start restricting our food intake (which is exactly what a ‘successful’ diet looks like), your body perceives this as dangerous. Even the most gentle diets or protocols lean this direction.
Anyone who has ever dieted, short-term or long-term, can relate this pattern: after a certain period of restricting and ‘being good’ and adhering to your diet’s rules, you start to feel intensely desperate and uncontrollable around food. You start thinking about food a lot more, and may overeat to the point of discomfort (often on those exact foods that were deemed forbidden), binge, and start to feel scarily out-of-control with food, like you have no willpower. You conclude you are a ‘failure’ for not having the strength to stick with your diet/meal plans/food rules.
Here’s what’s actually happening: when you’re deprived of food, your body turns up its food-seeking signals, because it wants you to survive. It thinks you’re in a famine (because you are, even though it’s self-imposed), so to keep you from starving, it:
- pumps out the hunger hormones
- turns down the fullness hormones
- lowers your metabolic rate
This is a natural, biological, predictable, automatic response to famine. When you’re underfed, you will obsess about food. Your body is trying to protect you. Your mind isn’t failing and your willpower isn’t at stake; your body is simply taking care of you.
However, most of us start to think of our ‘failure’ to control ourselves as a character defect, and we slowly erode trust in ourselves with food. This causes us to think that we must need another diet in order to reign in our lack of control and keep ourselves in check, and thus this cycle repeats again and again.
The solution? Get off the pendulum and stop fighting biology. We need to stop pushing our bodies into starvation mode and start nourishing them to allow them to heal. More on this below!
3) Dieting Slows Your Metabolism
Each diet teaches the body to adapt better for the next self-imposed famine (another diet). Metabolism slows as the body efficiently utilizes each calorie as if it’s the last. The more drastic the diet, the more it pushes the body into calorie-pinching survival mode.
Case in point: A study on Biggest Loser contestants found that, six years later, their:
- metabolism was still blunted by an average of 700 calories per day
- muscle mass was lower than their baseline by over ten pounds (source)
Most people get caught in the seduction trap of dieting because, often, your first-ever diet is ‘easy’, where the pounds melt right off (at first). But as we can see, the weight comes back as the body goes into famine, slows your metabolism, and goes into primal survival mode. With each diet, the body learns and adapts, resulting in rebound weight gain.
In a nutshell: if we don’t eat enough, our bodies will compensate and slow down. Part of that compensation is that the body will cannibalize its own muscle tissue to use as an energy source (plus less muscle = lower metabolic rate), and muscle is obviously hugely important to our overall health and longevity.
Are you a yo-yo dieter?
The constant gaining and losing weight from dieting is called “yo-yo dieting”, or “weight cycling” in the research. (And because we know that intentional weight loss doesn’t work for the overwhelming majority of people, we can say that ultimately, almost all dieting is weight cycling.)
Weight cycling increases your body’s set point, slows your metabolism, and increases your risk of disease.
Weight cycling itself is an INDEPENDENT risk factor for cardiovascular disease, inflammation, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. Yet, it’s rarely controlled for in many large studies that associate weight with health issues.
Two large studies showed that weight cycling accounts for all the excess mortality risks for certain diseases that had previously been linked to body size. (source)
For example, a 32-year study of more than 3,000 men and women (the Framingham Heart Study) showed that regardless of initial weight, people who weight cycle have a higher overall death rate and twice the normal risk of dying of heart disease–and these results are independent of cardiovascular risk factors and held true regardless of a person’s weight. (source)
I know that’s a lot to take in, but once you start looking at the truth about weight loss, I hope you can recognize that your weight loss ‘failures’ are not your fault, and that the best thing you can do for your health is to STOP dieting!
What to Do Instead of Pursuing Weight Loss
1) Start Intuitive Eating
Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based, self-care eating framework with over 125 studies to date. It’s all about getting to know and trust your own body and learning to listen to its wisdom. Eating intuitively is a way of eating that has nothing to do with diets, meal plans, discipline or willpower.
Intuitive Eating is a process to help you get out of your head when it comes to food and body image, and instead, tune into the signals your body is sending. During this process, we also want to remove anything that takes away from your attunement to your body—like diets you’ve tried, food rules you’ve carried with you over the years, and negative body image.
Intuitive Eating has been shown to increase:
- Well-being and optimism
- Body appreciation and body acceptance
- Pleasure from eating
- Proactive coping
- Unconditional self-regard
- Psychological hardiness
- Awareness of body sensations
- HDL (good cholesterol)
Intuitive Eating has been shown to decrease:
- Disordered eating
- Emotional eating
- Self-silencing (suppressing your thoughts/feelings/needs)
- Internalized culturally thin ideal
- Triglycerides (lipids that cause clogged arteries)
- Insulin resistance
- BMI* (*BMI is inherently flawed and not a good predictor of health, but it’s still commonly used in the research so it’s included here)
(See some of the studies on Intuitive Eating here.)
So many of us feel guilt or anxiety about eating the ‘wrong’ things. We worry and beat ourselves up for that doughnut we had last week. Intuitive Eating helps break down arbitrary food rules and restrictions and external influences over what you can and can’t eat so you can focus on internal cues. It’s about relearning how to eat from the ground up!
The only way to truly build a healthy relationship with food and your body is to let go of the diet mentality that reinforces feelings of success or failure. The good news is that you can’t fail at Intuitive Eating! It’s all a learning process with guidelines, not black and white rules.
Maybe you’re super intrigued by the idea of Intuitive Eating but don’t fully understand it or where to start. Maybe this is your first time hearing about it!
Get started by downloading my free Intuitive Eating Assessment here to learn what’s holding you back from being an intuitive eater.
2) Put Your Desire for Weight Loss on the Backburner
I know, I know. You don’t want to hear this.
But you’ve now learned the truth about how, not only are the majority of weight loss attempts futile, but they’re harmful in the long run–AND how you’re more likely to gain weight by trying to fight your biology.
Letting go of attempts to control our food, our weight, and our lives is scary!
Fear arises when we challenge our beliefs. It’s normal to be concerned about weight gain. It’s normal that your brain freaks out. We live in a fatphobic society. We publicly shame women for being in large bodies, and we celebrate them when they lose weight. It’s normal and expected that you would be afraid of gaining weight!
I’ll bet you’ll be surprised to learn that a person in a smaller body with a lot of weight-based self-loathing may actually be at GREATER risk for poor health outcomes than a person in a much larger body who has learned to accept their size? (Yep–read that again!)
This could be due to weight stigma, which is our internalized and externalized devaluation of people perceived to carry excess weight (meaning the negative thoughts, stereotypes, and treatment of people in larger bodies).
Weight stigma has been independently linked as a risk factor for increased mental-health conditions such as disordered eating, emotional distress, negative body image, low self-esteem, and depression. (source) Plus, there is abundant scientific evidence showing that weight stigma is also an independent risk factor for an array of negative physical health outcomes, such as diabetes and heart disease, regardless of people’s actual body size! (source)
In other words, arguably more important than your body size or weight is how you FEEL about your body. We’ll talk more about that in the next point.
So what should you do instead of focusing on weight loss for your health? Focus on health-promoting behaviors like reducing stress, getting better quality sleep, emotional balance, positive mindset, developing a healthier relationship to food, exercising, and self-care.
If you were to improve each one of these areas even just a little, how do you think your health would respond? How would you feel? Would you be more motivated to sustain new healthy habits if you felt better?
3) Improve Your Body Image with Body Acceptance
The truth is, you can learn how to accept your current body without it needing to shrink or change—really! A focus on weight loss and dieting only keeps you stuck in the belief that your weight is a measure of “who you are”—which is not true! Your weight does not define your value, worth, or who you are.
As we started talking about above, research shows that body image is a much stronger predictor of health than body size. A 2008 study of a representative sample of the U.S. population (more than 170,000 people of all races, education levels, and ages) looked at how participants’ body image related to their health. They found that, the larger the difference between someone’s current weight and their perceived “ideal” weight, the more mental and physical health problems they’d had in the past month, regardless of their actual BMI. (source)
In sum: two people of the exact same size could have wildly different health outcomes depending solely on their degree of body acceptance. No matter your size, wanting to shrink your body means poorer health.
Is your mind blown by this too?!
This shows how treating all bodies with respect, learning how to have a compassionate relationship with your body at any size, and prioritizing the healing of your own body image should take precedence over any attempt to change your body on the outside.
What if you could recognize that the problem isn’t your body, but how you’ve been made to feel about your body?
The ball is in our court to start asking bigger questions. Here are some journaling prompts to get you started:
- Why do I even worship thinness to begin with? Where do these thoughts come from?
- Are the stories I tell myself about my body true?
- What do I want to believe about myself, my worth, and my body?
- Who profits off my negative beliefs around weight?
- What would my life look like if I started focusing on self kindness, practicing self-care, and other things besides weight loss?
- What would be possible in my life if I decided my body wasn’t the problem?
- Complete this sentence: if there was no more waiting for me to reach my ‘desired’ weight, shape or size, I would…
- If I didn’t think about or worry about my body all of the time, what would I want to be doing in my life?
Next Steps to Get Started with Intuitive Eating
Are you ready to be done with diets? Do you want to improve your relationship with food and your body to be your healthiest self? Do you want freedom to eat what sounds good to you, freedom to stop obsessing over food and your body so you can simply be present with your life, freedom to love and respect your body, and—ultimately—the freedom to live a fulfilling life on your terms?
If this resonates, I invite you to join my free 5-day Intuitive Eating Challenge January 18-22, 2021. There will be educational videos, a workbook with prompts, live Q&A calls, a live intuitive movement session, and prizes! Sign up here!
If you’re reading this after the challenge, you can join our free supportive Facebook community where I go live weekly with trainings, education, and Q&As, or you can set up a free 30-minute discovery call with me here to talk about your personal needs and goals.
I look forward to helping you reclaim your body and your life in 2021!
Thanks, Sarah, for sharing your wisdom with us!
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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