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  • Writer's pictureMark Edwards

I Can't Lose Weight: Uncovering 12 Unexpected Barriers to Your Weight Loss Journey

Updated: May 12

Heavy middle aged guy walking on a country road

You might think you’re doing everything right, yet the scale won’t budge. It was moving until it wasn't. If ‘I can’t lose weight’ is your mantra, here’s the hard truth: hidden factors are often at play.

This article reveals these unseen forces and offers clear, actionable steps to power through your weight loss plateau.

One thing to get out of the way right off the start: CICO (Calories in, calories out) is real. If your progress is stuck, you're consuming too many calories. You aren't a special case defying the first law of thermodynamics.

Key Takeaways

  • Plateaus are a normal part of losing weight and can be overcome by adjusting diet, exercise, and recognizing non-scale victories such as improved body composition and health.

  • Stress and mental health are significant factors affecting weight; managing stress hormones, emotional eating habits, and incorporating stress-reduction techniques support weight loss efforts.

  • A combination of a healthy diet, consistent physical activity (including strength training), enough sleep, and proper hydration are key to overcoming common barriers to weight loss and achieving long-term success.

Decoding the Weight Loss Plateau

Man running up a shattered path

You’ve been sticking to your weight loss plan religiously, but suddenly your progress stalls. It’s a common challenge in the fitness journey. But keep the faith – such plateaus are a common part of the life-long journey to a healthier and fitter body. These plateaus occur when the extra pounds stop dropping despite feeling like you're making your best efforts. It’s not a sign that you’re doing something wrong; rather, it’s a signal that your body is adapting to its new, lower energy needs.

You need to adapt your weight loss plan to overcome this plateau. But how do you do this? Let’s unpack this barrier further.

Understanding Your Body's Adaptation

During your weight loss journey, your body undergoes pretty significant changes. For instance, women typically have a greater fat-to-muscle ratio than men, resulting in a 5–10% lower resting metabolic rate (RMR). When you lose weight, your body adjusts to lower energy needs, which may slow down your weight loss rate.

Some other changes that may occur during weight loss are highly dependent on the individual:

  • Increased or decreased appetite

  • Increased or decreased feelings of fullness after meals

  • Changes in hormone levels

  • Increased muscle mass (if strength training is incorporated)

  • Improved insulin sensitivity

You can see that some of the effects seem contradictory. That should tell you that physical feelings during weight loss can be highly variable.

It’s important to be aware of these changes and adjust your plan accordingly.

Understanding your body’s adaptation to weight loss can help you better manage your expectations and adjust your weight loss strategies.

Breaking Through the Plateau

Effectively breaking through a weight loss plateau requires a multi-faceted approach. One way is to adjust your calorie intake. For instance, lowering your carbohydrate intake and increasing your protein intake can help reduce hunger and lead to eating less. Tracking your calories and macronutrients can also provide concrete information about your intake, allowing you to modify your diet as necessary and avoid anything that might hinder weight loss progress. If you’re having trouble losing weight, consider these strategies to overcome the weight loss plateau.

Another approach is to increase the intensity or frequency of your workouts to boost your metabolic rate. More physical activity, more fat loss. Not only will you burn calories while exercising but you'll also increase your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) post-workout.

There are also the concepts of "reverse dieting" and "G-Flux." Those methods may seem counter-intuitive, but combined with increased time spent working out, these methods are very effective. You might gain weight, but that weight will be lean muscle mass, not fat tissue.

Increasing non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) by doing things such as using a standing desk can also help increase your metabolic rate. But remember, if self-led efforts to break through a weight loss plateau are unsuccessful, consulting a good nutrition coach and a personal trainer is going to pay big dividends.

Loose waistband jeans

1. Recognizing Non-Scale Victories

While it’s easy to get hung up on the numbers on the scale, it’s equally important to recognize non-scale victories. That said, I'm not a big proponent of the overused word "celebrate." Let's recognize and acknowledge improvements in your body composition and health that aren’t necessarily reflected by your weight.

For example, you might have increased your muscle mass or lost inches around your waist. These are indicators of progress in improving your body composition and health, even if your weight remains stable due to simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain. That's why it's essential to take waist and body fat measurements twice a month. I require that of all my clients. No exceptions.

And make sure you track these changes and wins in your food diary or journal.

2. The Hidden Impact of Stress on Weight

Stressed girl eating pizza

Stress is an often overlooked factor that can significantly impact your weight loss progress. Whether it’s the emotional distress from significant life events or daily stressors like work or financial pressures, stress can prompt emotional eating, leading to weight gain.

Let’s delve deeper into how stress affects your weight and explore strategies to manage stress for better weight management.

The Role of Cortisol

One key player in the link between stress and weight gain is cortisol, a hormone your body produces in response to stress. Chronic stress can lead to high levels of cortisol, which in turn can contribute to weight gain by increasing your appetite. Elevated levels of cortisol are also associated with a particular preference for high-fat and high-sugar foods.

High cortisol levels have been associated with increased abdominal fat storage due to its effects on metabolism and fat distribution. This can counteract your weight loss efforts, especially since losing belly fat is a common goal.

Elevated cortisol can also lead to water retention, making it seem as though weight loss is stalling. This is often temporary but can be frustrating for individuals trying to lose weight.

Stress-Related Eating Habits

High levels of chronic stress can lead to emotional eating, which often results in the overconsumption of high-calorie, sweet, and fatty foods, creating a cycle of overeating and guilt. This can significantly undermine your effort to lose weight by increasing your caloric intake.

The cycle of stress and depression can also lead to reaching for processed foods for immediate comfort, thereby establishing a detrimental pattern that can cause further mental health issues. Therefore, understanding and managing your stress-related eating habits is crucial in your journey.

Sauna bucket

Stress Management Techniques

Effective stress management can greatly aid your efforts to lose weight. Practices such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing can help manage stress and control stress-related cravings, reducing the likelihood of emotional eating.

Additionally, adopting healthier coping mechanisms for stress, such as engaging in hobbies, adopting a positive mindset, and spending time in nature, can lower cortisol levels and support your weight loss efforts.

And why not kill two birds with one stone? Research has conclusively shown that exercising regularly using a combination of aerobic exercise, HIIT, and resistance training is more effective at reducing stress and depression than medication.

Exercise Myths and Facts

Balancing cardio and weight training

There's no denying that physical activity plays a crucial role in weight loss. But with so much information out there, it’s easy to fall prey to misconceptions about how to exercise effectively to lose weight. Let’s debunk some of these myths and shed light on the truths about cardio, calorie burn, and the importance of consistency in workouts.

3. Too Much Cardio, Not Enough Strength

Myth: Aerobic exercise is the key to losing weight.

While cardio is very beneficial, focusing solely on it while in a caloric deficit can lead to lower metabolism. Losing fat is then harder in the long run. In reality, effective fat loss requires a mixed approach:

  • Cardio (Aerobic exercise)

  • Strength training

  • Interval training

  • More calories from protein

This mix not only burns calories but also builds lean muscle mass, which can increase your metabolism.

So, how much of each should you do? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a proportion of two-thirds cardio workouts to one-third strength training for overall fitness. Including both cardio and strength training in your workout schedule can optimize health benefits and reduce the risk of injury.

4. Overestimating Calorie Burn

Another common trap in exercising for weight loss is overestimating the number of calories burned during exercise. It’s easy to think that a strenuous session of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), cycling, or running helps to burn calories effectively, but in reality, you might be burning less than you think.

On average, normal-weight individuals overestimate the calorie expenditure of their exercise sessions by about three to four times the actual amount. Being aware of this tendency can help you adjust your calorie intake and exercise routine accordingly.

And fitness trackers like the Fitbit and Apple watch? A study done by Stanford University has shown that the most accurate of them is off by about 27%, and the least accurate of the most popular trackers is inaccurate by a whopping 93%.

5. The Importance of Consistency

When it comes to exercise, consistency is king. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests a minimum routine of moderate aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week for a total of 150 minutes.

Scheduling specific times for workouts and treating them as essential daily activities is the best way to maintain consistent exercise habits. Once you get in the habit of scheduling your workout, it's no longer optional. Get up, get out there, and get at it.

If you've fallen off the health wagon for some time, it's not the end of the world as we know it. You can always get back on.

Diet Traps That Can Sabotage Your Goals

Surprised man eating too much pasta

While exercise is crucial, what you eat plays an equally, if not more important, role in losing weight. As the old saying goes, "abs are made in the kitchen."

But the path to healthy eating is fraught with pitfalls that can easily derail your weight loss efforts.

Let’s uncover these diet traps and learn how to navigate them for successful weight management.

6. Misjudging Portion Sizes

One common diet trap is misjudging portion sizes. It’s all too easy to underestimate food quantities, resulting in eating more calories than you think you're eating. This is a very common issue with my clients. They often believe they're eating much less than they are.

In fact, the perception of normal serving sizes has been influenced by a significant increase in portion sizes and caloric content of common foods compared to the 1950's. This is an especially big deal since the percentage of people regularly eating out has exploded since the 1960's and it's a simple fact that restaurants are serving much larger portions than they were in the past, resulting in more calories consumed.

Controlling calorie intake can be addressed using a macro calculator or a hand portion guide.

7. The Perils of Processed Foods

Another diet trap lies in the consumption of processed foods. Processed foods cause weight gain. How? These foods are usually high in energy density, low in nutrient content, and hyper-palatable, which can contribute to overconsumption and weight gain. Ultra-processed foods with lots of added sugar may disrupt the balance of hunger hormones and fullness signals, leading to more calories consumed. For many people, constant hunger results.

Whole foods, on the other hand, are nutrient-dense and lower in calories. Because whole foods are minimally processed, this also means they take longer to digest. You'll feel full longer with fewer blood sugar spikes.

Whenever possible, choose minimally processed whole foods.

8. Skipping Meals: A Double-Edged Sword

The practice of skipping meals might seem like a quick way to cut calories, but it's a very bad idea. Skipping meals can lead to a disruption in the body’s regulation of hunger and fullness hormones, causing individuals to misinterpret hunger cues and overeat when they do consume food. Moreover, skipping the first meal of the day can make you hungrier later, leading to overeating at the next meal.

So don't skip meals. Instead, focus on balance. Eat balanced meals at regular intervals, and don't eat late at night. Those late-night meals and snacks are a surefire way to disrupt your sleep that night and decrease your appetite in the morning.

9. Sleep: The Unsung Hero of Weight Loss

Sleeping man

Sleep is often overlooked in the weight loss equation, but it plays a crucial role. Quality sleep can affect everything from your hunger hormones to your mental well-being, making it a vital component of successful weight management.

Let’s explore the connection between sleep, hunger hormones, and weight and understand the link between sleep apnea and weight.

Sleep Deprivation and Hunger Hormones

Insufficient sleep can lead to an imbalance in your hunger hormones. Specifically, lack of sleep is associated with higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite, and lower levels of leptin, a satiety hormone that signals feeling full. Chronic sleep deprivation may also lead to cravings for higher-calorie unhealthy foods.

Apart from affecting your hunger hormones, lack of sleep can also lower your metabolic rate and affect your overall stress management, further impacting your weight loss efforts. So, ensuring enough sleep is integral to maintaining a healthy weight.

The Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Weight

Sleep apnea, a condition that disrupts your breathing during sleep, is more common in those who are overweight or obese. Excess body weight can lead to the development of sleep apnea and intensify its symptoms.

On the other hand, weight loss can reduce fat deposits in the neck and tongue, opening up the airways and increasing lung volume to prevent airway collapse while sleeping.

Therefore, addressing sleep apnea can not only improve your sleep quality but also support your weight loss efforts.

10. Hydration and Weight Loss

Glass of water and water purifier

Hydration is another essential yet often overlooked component of weight loss. Drinking enough water can support your metabolism, reduce hunger, and even replace high-calorie beverages.

Let’s dive deeper into the role of water as a metabolism booster and the benefits of replacing high-calorie beverages with water.

Water as a Metabolism Booster

Drinking water can give your metabolism a boost and aid your body’s fat-burning process. In fact, drinking water may stimulate thermogenesis, leading to increased metabolism and energy expenditure, which is beneficial for weight management.

Consuming cold water can even accelerate calorie burning because your body uses energy to heat the ingested water to body temperature. I advise all of my clients to start the day with a glass of cold water, and I've done so myself for years.

Replacing High-Calorie Beverages

Replacing high-calorie drinks like soda, juice, or sweetened coffee with plain water can significantly reduce your calorie intake and help you lose weight. One study involving 15,765 adults found that replacing just one sugar-sweetened beverage or beer per day with water was associated with higher incidence of weight loss and less obesity over four years.

Interestingly, dehydration associated with daily underconsumption of water also increases hunger signals.

Drink more water!

11. Navigating Hormonal Changes and Weight Gain

Hormonal changes in both men and women as they age can significantly affect weight gain and fat accumulation. But understanding these changes and how to navigate them can help you manage your weight and maintain your health.

Let’s delve into the relationship between hormones and appetite control, and the need to adjust for a slower metabolism.

Hormones and Appetite Control

Hormones play a significant role in controlling our appetite. Satiety hormones such as cholecystokinin (CCK), glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), and pancreatic peptide YY (Peptide YY) induce fullness and reduce the urge to eat by signaling the brain to stop food intake.

Aging can decrease the effectiveness of these hormones, leading to increased food consumption and decreased energy expenditure, increasing the tendency to gain weight.

Conversely, ghrelin, often called the ‘hunger hormone,’ stimulates hunger and is involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle and glucose metabolism. Ghrelin levels tend to increase with weight loss, stimulating feelings of increased appetite.

This increase can make continued weight loss pretty challenging, often contributing to the weight loss plateau.

The adaptive responses to weight loss, including increased ghrelin and potentially altered levels or responses to CCK, GLP-1, and PYY, work together to increase appetite and decrease satiety.

These hormonal changes are part of the body's natural mechanisms to defend against weight loss, as it perceives weight loss as a stressor and attempts to restore lost energy reserves.

The interaction of these hormones is complex and can be affected by aging and weight loss. Understanding these hormones and their roles can help you better control your appetite and manage your weight.

So the plateau you might experience often has some very definite hormonal causes.

Adjusting for a Slower Metabolism

As we age and attempt to lose weight, energy expenditure decreases due to hormonal changes I've already noted, which may lead to metabolic changes and increased body fat accumulation. To counteract this metabolic decline, it’s vital to adjust your eating habits to a diet rich in nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants, along with consistent physical activity.

Being more conscious of the food we eat as we age is an absolute necessity. The diet that we may have gotten away with when we were younger won't cut it as we age.

Finally, engaging in resistance training is particularly effective in preserving and building muscle and burning calories. There's no substitute for moving some weight.

12. Setting Realistic Weight Loss Expectations

Setting a realistic weight loss goal is crucial for success. Overambitious or unrealistic goals can undermine your efforts and weaken your motivation.

Instead, focus on setting achievable, meaningful goals that align with your personal health priorities and life situations, as part of a well-structured weight loss program.

Let’s discuss the importance of defining a healthy rate of weight loss and embracing individual variability.

Defining a Healthy Rate of Weight Loss

A healthy weight loss rate is generally considered to be in this range:

Extreme: 1% - 1.5% of body weight per week

Reasonable: 0.5% - 1% body weight per week

Comfortable: < .5% body weight per week

So aim for steady, healthy weight loss rather than rapid, drastic weight loss. Play the long game when trying to lose weight. This prevents the dreaded weight regain.

Embracing Individual Variability

Weight loss outcomes can vary widely between individuals due to various factors:

  • age

  • sex

  • starting body mass

  • baseline energy requirements

  • thermogenic responses to food intake

It’s vital to recognize individual variability and adjust your weight loss goal and strategy accordingly. That's why you should work closely with a good coach.

Remember, achieving weight loss is dependent on maintaining a negative calorie balance, meaning consuming fewer calories than are burned, and the size of the calorie deficit will influence the pace of losing weight. One effective way to do this is to eat fewer calories.

Summary of I Can't Lose Weight

If you want to lose weight, it's not just a matter of diet and exercise. It’s a complex interplay of various factors, including sleep, hydration, mental health, hormones, stress, and even the misconceptions surrounding exercise and diet.

By understanding these factors and learning how to navigate them, you can overcome the barriers to your weight loss progress. Remember, the journey to weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint. So, stay consistent, patient, and positive, and you’ll be on your way to achieving your weight loss goals.

If you want better results than others, then you have to do what they're not doing. The fact is that the vast majority of people trying to lose weight and get fitter attempt it on their own. If you want better results, don't follow the crowd. Get a good nutrition and training coach!

Disclaimer: All information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. No information provided is to be construed as medical advice. If you have medical issues, always consult your doctor..


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