Why am I not losing weight? What to do to lose weight?


At some point during their weight loss journey, a lot of people may ask the question: why am I not losing weight.  What to do to lose weight may seem relatively simple: eat less and exercise more.  While this mantra may hold under ideal scientific conditions, as human beings there are other factors that go into the weight loss equation. Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day I still think weight loss is driven by how many calories you consume versus how many calories you expend.  Ultimately this comes down to diet and exercise.

Diet: One Way to Lose Weight

In my opinion, diet should be the key area of focus when it comes to what to do to lose weight.  While most people will just try to eat less calories, I actually think there are 5 separate factors that influence diet: calories, appetite, taste, emotional eating, and nature vs. nurture.

Calories

This is where it all begins.  For a minute, let’s just forget about the quality of calories you eat.  If you were locked in a cage and given one piece of chicken per day, you’d lose weight.  Instead of chicken, if you were given one candy bar per day, you’d also lose weight.  Just a brief anecdote:  I was recently at a conference and spoke to someone who lost 40lbs in 5 months.  Obviously that’s quite an achievement and people at my table were curious how he did it.  Well he’s a numbers guy so he finally figured out how much he could eat relative to how much he expended.  He didn’t completely eliminate his favorite foods (fried chicken and waffles), but instead focused on portion control.  Additionally, everyone was shocked that he hadn’t changed his exercise routine.  In fact, he has been with the same personal trainer for 2 years (side note: if your goal is to lose weight and you haven’t after 2 years of personal training, you might be doing something wrong).

I truly believe that the amount you eat ultimately matters more than what you eat.   However, if that was all there was to it, then I would end the diet section here…as with many things in life, there’s a “but” when it comes to what you eat.

Quick tip: to lose weight, try to eat 10 times your goal weight in calories.  Yes, that means if you want to weigh 150lbs, you only get 1,500 calories.  It’s low but you can always eat more calories if you’re losing weight too fast.

Other Diet Factors

If we were lab rats, it’d be pretty simple to just eat what was given to us.  Someone else would be in control of our calories and we’d weigh what we wanted.  Big news, we’re not lab rats!  In fact we’re humans who can independently think and make our own choices.  So why don’t we choose to eat less?   Because it’s really hard!  There are other factors that jab at us all day long, seemingly taunting us to eat more, not less.  It’s as if we’re hard wired to consume as much as we can for fear of not knowing when our next meal is.  Here’s what I’ve found to be the biggest deterrents to eating less.

Appetite

Hunger pains.  We’ve all had them before.  Your stomach tells you that it’s time to eat.  When you get hunger pains, does that mean your body actually needs to eat to survive though?  Not in my opinion.  Your body can go more than a day without eating before starvation mode kicks.  Frankly, I’ve found hunger pains are more about how your body has been conditioned to eat.  Almost without question, regardless of what I’ve eaten during the day, I’m always hungry for dinner at 6pm.  It doesn’t matter if I ate a whole pizza for lunch or fasted.  Years ago, when I changed from six meals per day to three meals, I would get hunger pains every few hours because my body had just been conditioned to eat.

Conditioning aside, your appetite depends on how full you are.  Fiber is a large driver behind this.  Try eating a large apple and see if you’re hungry 15 minutes later.  Try the same thing with candy and you’d probably find yourself at the vending machine begging for more.  In other words, what you eat does have an impact on how much you eat.  Personally, sugar and salt are my nemeses.  I have a candy bar, then feel like some buttery, salty popcorn, then back to something sugary.  It’s an endless cycle that can result in significant weight gain.

Quick tip: to curb your appetite, load up on high fiber foods and try to avoid those high in sugar and salt.  Drinking water can also go a long way.

Taste

Have you ever had a taste in your mouth that led to eating something even if you weren’t hungry?  For me, this always happens after I eat Italian food.  I could down an entire pizza or plate of pasta and still feel like I need ice cream or some other treat to balance the flavor.  It’s not because I need the calories.  It’s not because of my appetite.  It’s because there’s a flavor in my mouth that I want to change.  This is one of the hardest urges to fight.  It doesn’t even necessarily have to happen after eating.  You could be influenced by a commercial for your favorite food and suddenly have a growing desire to get that food.

Quick tip: try to cleanse your pallet by drinking water.  If that doesn’t work, try sugar free gum.

Emotional eating

Emotional eating is all about eating when you’re not necessarily hungry.  There are going to be days when you seemingly binge for no reason.  Of course, there is an underlying reason.  Sometimes you eat excessively when you’re tired to try to energize yourself.  Other times you’ve had a stressful day.  Maybe you’re just bored.  All of these result in excess caloric intake since we tend to binge on junk food.

Quick tip: be cognizant of emotional eating.  Get a good night’s rest, try to reduce stress around you, and keep active enough that you’re not eating just because you’re watching TV.

Nature vs. Nurture

Here I’m referring to genetics and upbringing.  I think genetics do have a role in weight loss, although far too often they’re used as an excuse.  Most people have the capacity to lose weight but aren’t willing to put in the effort.  Others just never learned any good habits when they were younger.  This is what I mean by nature vs. nurture.  Do thin people have thin parents due to genetics (nature) or because their parents raised them to eat the right way to be thin (nurture)?

Quick tip: don’t let genetics get in the way of weight loss.  If you have bad eating habits, make a conscious effort to change them.  Everything takes time.  Be patient.

Exercise: Another Way to Lose Weight

Personally I’ve found that diet plays a larger role in weight loss than exercise but people often like to think of ways to burn more calories rather than reduce calories.  Cutting to the chase, exercise is a great way to lose weight.  In my opinion, cardio in general is a good way to burn fat while resistance training is a good way to add muscle.  I think HIIT is a more efficient way to burn calories than steady state cardio and even resistance training.  However, if your resistance training includes circuits or other high intensity intervals, then it can be an effective fat burner as well.

Again, in isolation, exercise looks like an ideal weight loss solution.  So what’s the downside to exercising more to lose weight?  I’d say there are two primary problems.  One, there are only so many hours in a day.  How much time you can commit to exercising will go a long way toward how much potential weight you can lose.  Remember though, your body needs recovery time.  Second, are exercising and dieting really independent of one another?  How many times have you exercised intensely only to find yourself starving later?  It’s natural for your body to want to replace nutrients after expending all that energy.  What if exercising actually causes you to eat more calories though?  You may find yourself gaining, not losing weight.

Quick tip: when you exercise, watch out that you don’t compensate by overeating.  Ensure that you don’t eliminate all the potential weight loss benefits of exercise by ruining your diet.

Why Am I Not Losing Weight?

I laid out a lot in this article so I think it’s important to summarize the key points behind why you might not be losing weight:

  1. Eat less, exercise more is great in theory, but difficult in a world full of choices.
  2. Calories are a key driver to losing weight; not necessarily what you eat but how much you eat.
  3. However, what you eat can influence how much you eat (appetite, taste).
  4. Understand how your psychological state (emotional eating, upbringing) and genetics influence how much you eat.
  5. Exercise has a tendency to increase appetite and may result in increased caloric intake.

What To Do To Lose Weight

Wrapping everything up, now I’d like to summarize a few things that you can do to lose weight:

  1. Try to limit your calories to 10 times your goal weight.  You don’t necessarily need to eliminate any food groups; just find a way to cut out enough junk to help you get there.
  2. High fiber foods like fruits and vegetables will keep you satiated longer than other foods.  Conversely, sugar and salt tend to increase your desire to eat.
  3. Drink a lot of water.  Aside from cutting out liquid calories from sugary drinks, water will help you feel full and provide a nice clean pallet so that you avoid some taste temptations.
  4. Understand that diet and exercise are part of your overall health and lifestyle.  Sleep and stress management are important components of any fitness program.
  5. It can take a month to change bad habits.  Don’t try to go cold turkey all at once.  You’ll likely crash and burn.  Gradually make positive changes that contribute to weight loss.
  6. Don’t exercise excessively.  Around 3-4 hours per week should be enough to remain healthy and get in good shape.  Watch how much you eat after exercising though.