“It’s simple,” they say. “Just eat well and exercise!” It’s the age-old weight loss formula, but we all know better: Losing weight isn’t that black and white and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Maintaining a healthy diet and spending time at the gym are just two of the many factors that play a role in weight. And, let’s face it: Whether you’re trying to lose weight to improve your overall health, feel more in tune with yourself and your body, or fit into your old go-to pair of skinny jeans (no matter what Gen Z says!), losing weight can be a struggle even when you’re doing everything “right.” So what gives? To get down to the nitty-gritty, I asked Andi Lew, a certified food, lifestyle, and wellness coach and author of Connected: A Paradigm Shift in How We View Health, to weigh in on underlying causes that may be hindering your weight loss efforts.
BTW, the purpose of this article is not to make you believe that weight loss has to be a goal (it doesn’t) or that you need to obsess over these factors or else you’ll gain weight (you won’t). Instead, this article is meant to show you that trouble losing weight has absolutely nothing to do with your willpower, laziness, or worth. If weight loss is your goal and you feel like there’s no hope, read on for five eye-opening oversights to watch out for.
1. You’re reaching for foods you think are healthy but really aren’t
Step into any grocery store and you’ll be met with labels that read “all-natural,” “gluten-free,” and “low-fat” (I could go on and on). A word to the wise: Those buzzwords don’t give the whole picture. “A lot of health claims are placed on packages to sell you products,” Lew said. “For example, gluten-free or low-fat packaged goods often have added sugar, oils, and sodium, so read the nutrition facts carefully.”
Also, these packaged (AKA processed) imposter health foods are void of nutrients. “Processed foods have been stripped of their vitamins and minerals so you end up overeating as you’re never satisfied on a nutritional level,” Lew said. “They’re usually packed with sugar, which is addictive and creates an inflamed gut and acidic environment. Cutting down or eliminating these foods will help the body regulate itself.” Bottom line: Swap health halo-wearing foods with whole foods (read: foods that exist in nature and that you’ll find in the outside perimeter of the store) or check the nutrition labels and make sure it’s all ingredients you recognize.
2. You’re not getting enough nutrition
Between the high fructose corn syrup, refined oils and sugars, and trans fats found in today’s processed foods, it’s no wonder more than 90% of Americans aren’t getting enough vitamins and minerals, like magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C, in their diets. “Poor diet combined with emotional or chemical stressors often results in leaky gut syndrome,” Lew explained. In other words, if you don’t have a healthy gut, it can’t properly absorb nutrients. The good news? You can improve your gut health by staying hydrated, consuming whole, unprocessed and high-fiber foods, managing stress, and catching quality Zzzs.
Then, they’re not giving your body the nutrients it needs because you’re under-eating or restricting foods, thanks to being conditioned by diet culture to think that we need to eat less in order to lose weight. But eating too little can have the opposite effect by drastically slowing down your metabolism and causing hormonal shifts (more on that to come). Instead, make sure you’re eating enough to fuel yourself with the proper vitamin and mineral intake. (If you’re experiencing symptoms like sluggishness, hair loss, irritability, or feeling cold all the time, those could be signs you’re not eating enough.) Consider getting a blood panel to check your nutrient levels, eat the rainbow, choose locally-grown and organic food sources when possible, and listen to your body’s hunger cues and eat whenever you’re hungry.
3. You’re not prioritizing sleep
A holistic approach to wellness includes more than just nutrition and exercise. Lew stressed the impact sleep and stress have on maintaining a healthy weight. “When we don’t get quality sleep–due to stress or environmental stress like blue light emitted from phones–we release stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, which slow down our body’s self-healing and functioning capacity,” she said.
Ever noticed how you reach for junk food when you’re stressed or running on little sleep? That’s no coincidence. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived individuals tend to choose foods that are high in sugar and trans fat to compensate for feeling a lack of energy. What’s more, not getting enough or quality shut-eye is linked to increased hunger and portion sizes and decreased physical activity. On the other hand, waking up on the right side of the bed can help you make healthier food choices and feel more motivated to get your movement in. So take stock of your sleep habits and see where you can make improvements. Can you set a realistic and consistent sleep schedule? Or consider bidding adieu to your afternoon pick-me-up and favorite nightcap or lighting a candle while listening to soft music to relieve stress and unwind. Get your beauty sleep on and you just might get over the hump in your weight loss journey.
4. You have a hormonal imbalance
Let’s be real: A lot of the times it feels like our hormones have a mind of their own, but hormone health is critical. Hormones facilitate nearly every bodily process, including metabolism, hunger, and fullness. Because hormones play a role in our appetites, some influence our body weight (looking at you, insulin, leptin, and cortisol). And when they’re out of whack (hello, fatigue, sugar cravings, weight loss resistance, stress), there’s no denying their effects. “An imbalance of hormones like excess cortisol may make the body go into fight or flight mode and induce the production of fat cells, which will cause a declining metabolism in an adaptive way for the body to store food for later use,” Lew stated.
So how do you strike the right hormonal balance? Tackle stress with meditation and yoga, scrap the processed foods and refined carbs and and sugars (sound familiar?), go for workouts you enjoy and that stabilize cortisol (Pilates, anyone?), and get a good night’s sleep on the reg. If you’re still not able to hit reset on your hormones, Lew suggested scheduling a general check-up and working with your doctor or a health professional to address any underlying health conditions or hormonal imbalances you may have.
5. You have chronic inflammation
More than just a major buzzword in the health and wellness space, inflammation is the common denominator of most chronic diseases and has a major impact on weight; with increased inflammation comes more weight gain. “If you regularly ingest inflammatory foods, such as sugar, alcohol, and refined carbohydrates, or processed foods, you’re creating a toxic environment in the body that doesn’t have the ability to digest, absorb, or excrete nutrition,” Lew affirmed. She also pointed out that food intolerances can be a source of inflammation, so pay attention to common symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea and seek out a naturopath to test for foods you may be reacting to.
So if you’re checking all the weight loss boxes with nothing to show for it, inflammation may be to blame. While ditching the weight-gaining culprit doesn’t happen overnight, you can start by passing on the processed eats, loading up on anti-inflammatory produce and fats (think: leafy greens, berries, and salmon), and taking hot girl walks to get your body moving.