I was recently scrolling through Facebook with my mind elsewhere, and noticed an article from our local paper. The article was talking about a lady who had recently lost quite a bit of weight, after having bariatric surgery. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the article that got my attention, rather, the comments that had been made underneath the article, that mostly went in this kind of vein: ‘so she ate less and lost weight?’ ‘all you’ve gotta do is eat less and you’ll lose weight’ ‘don’t overeat and the weight will just fall off’.
Whilst this might be a natural assumption to make, reading these kinds of comments really highlighted to me just how much we tend to misunderstand how weight loss actually works. In the clinic I see many people who are frustrated at their lack of progress in losing weight – and quite often these people aren’t eating very much at all (in fact, they’re often eating far less than many slim people out there!).
Weight loss can be more of a complex issue than it seems on the surface, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are more factors at play than the old ‘calories in, calories out’ dogma that we have been subscribing to for many years. Thankfully, we are starting to realize that different individuals have different, unique needs where weight loss is concerned.
As with many other health conditions, clinically I have found that more often than not, weight gain can be a symptom of something not quite right going on under the surface. And it is important to locate and address what isn’t quite right, if long-term, sustainable weight loss is to be achieved.
Here are just a few reasons why you may be having difficulty losing weight:
1) You aren’t eating enough. Funnily enough, you actually need to eat in order to lose weight. One of the first things most people will do when they want to lose weight is cut down on their food intake. And this approach WILL work - in the short-term. Your body will dig into its stored energy reserves (your body fat) in order to keep your body functioning at the rate at which you need it to. The trouble is, your body is the result of many thousands of years of evolution – which means it is smarter than you are! After a short period of time, your body will compensate for your lower food intake, by slowing your metabolism. You’ve given your body a clear signal that there is a shortage of food around, so can you blame it when it responds by holding onto the little that you give it? Have you ever seen ‘The Biggest Loser’? The participants in this show lost a phenomenal amount of weight, through a low-calorie diet and lots of exercise – however they didn’t keep it off in the long run as they had slowed their metabolism right down. You can read more about their story here.
2) You are eating enough, but not in quite the right way. So, we’ve established that you need to eat enough food to keep your metabolism firing away and burning the food you eat for energy – but what I often see is that people aren’t eating the right kinds of food needed to do this. You might be eating the right amount of calories that your body needs, just in the wrong proportions. Here’s what I mean: our typical Australian diet consists of quite a large quantity of carbohydrate foods – bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, breakfast cereals, as well as sugary foods. The trouble with our intake of these foods is simply that we eat too much of them, too often. We tend to start our day with a bowl of cereal, snack on a muffin or some biscuits with our morning cuppa. We then have a sandwich for lunch, some crackers for afternoon tea, and a big bowl of spaghetti bolognaise for dinner, all topped off with our favourite chocolate-chip ice-cream for dessert. Unfortunately for us, our bodies can only deal with and break down a certain quantity of carbohydrates at a time. Whatever we can’t break down at the time is converted into fat and stored on the body. One of the simplest weight-loss strategies I encourage in my patients is to replace some of their normal carbohydrate foods with vegetables and protein – in most people this quite quickly leads to a noticeable weight loss. They usually feel more energetic too!
3) You are stressed. Stress can certainly be a reason why you have gained weight (particularly if you tend to carry fat around the stomach area), and why you find it difficult to shift. The ‘fight or flight’ response causes your body to release stress hormones (which in prehistoric times would have possibly have ensured your survival by allowing you to run away from a man-eating animal) but the chronic stress you experience in the 21st Century puts your body into a state of fat-storage. Chronic stress can also interfere with your thyroid function (which I will mention next) and it often causes you to seek out sugary foods as a self-calming tactic.
4) Your thyroid is slooooow. Your thyroid is a small gland in your neck, and to a large degree it is in charge of your metabolism, or the rate at which you burn food for energy. It is possible (in fact, it is quite common) for your thyroid to be functioning at a lower rate than is ideal. And before you march off to your doctor to have your thyroid checked – you can have an underactive thyroid without it showing up as abnormal on a test. In fact, a slow metabolism is often the first sign that the thyroid isn’t working as well as it should. It also pays to bear in mind that the ‘normal’ ranges for thyroid on routine pathology tests are quite broad – meaning that you can be experiencing signs of an underactive thyroid even if your doctor says ‘everything is fine’. This is something I see quite a lot of, and I am always on the lookout for signs of underactive thyroid in my clients (particularly those who are experiencing issues with their weight).
5) Your gut is not happy. New and fascinating research is coming to light all the time about our microbiome (ie our unique collection of gut bacteria), and how this is influencing our health – including, quite surprisingly, our weight. There is evidence that having an overgrowth of undesirable types of gut bacteria can influence our appetite, and drive us to crave unhealthy foods (‘you are what your microbes eat?’). An unhealthy gut microbiome can also be a source of inflammation in the body – which can interfere with effective fat-burning. Looking after your gut health by eating plenty of fresh vegetables, drinking water, ensuring regular intake of probiotics (‘good bacteria’), reducing stress and getting some exercise can often go a long way towards helping restore a healthy gut flora.