“Eat less. Exercise more.”
If you’re reading this article, you’ve undoubtedly heard that phrase, and perhaps even reading it makes you cringe.
Doctors are notorious for over-simplifying weight loss. Why? Well, I wish I knew.
This is not going to be a super simple, quick-fix answer leading you the holy grail of weight loss. Because weight loss is challenging. Because of real life, human biology, and sustainability (or weight loss maintenance).
But all that you already knew, else you wouldn’t still be looking for answers.
So, if the conventional weight loss advice doesn’t work, what does?
If you’re otherwise healthy, then you focus on nutrition quality, sleep, mindset, lifestyle and habits, and exercise. If you have deeper metabolic, hormonal, or digestive challenges, then you also need to consider hormone balancing, gut bacteria, liver health, and perhaps, macronutrient ratios. Let’s explore in a little bit more depth,
What Matters for Weight Loss
This seems so fundamental to me, I just can’t understand why this isn’t the first thing doctors mention. Nutrient-dense, whole foods fill you up faster, keep you satisfied longer, and provide essential nutrients for every cellular process, whereas crap food (processed, refined, packaged, sugary, white) doesn’t. Think about it this way, what’s going to make you want to eat again sooner, a plate of chips or a plate of broccoli?
Here are two more reasons why nutrition quality matters for losing weight. First, crap food tends to be loaded with sweeteners which will increase cravings for sweet foods, raise blood sugar quickly, and be immediately converted and stored as belly fat. Second, choosing real, nutrient-dense foods will actually help to reset the satiety and hunger hormones, leptin and grehlin, so you don’t feel as hungry as quickly. You are better off cooking at home fresh, colorful foods, where you control the ingredients and know how they’ve been prepared–things like vegetables, roots and tubers, legumes if you tolerate them well, fresh fruit, organic meat, when possible, and nuts and seeds.
This may be surprising, but study after study shows inadequate (or poor quality) sleep leads to weight gain. If you sleep A LOT you’re not off the hook either, sleeping too much is also a predictor of long term weight gain. Researchers suggest a number of possible reasons for the increase in weight, among which include changes in leptin and ghrelin, reduced dietary restraint (eg low willpower), and reduced ability to make good decisions.
Therefore, stick to a regular nightly 7-9 hours of quality sleep for easier weight loss or weight maintenance.
Perhaps the most nebulous or woo-woo of the concepts presented here, mindset, beliefs, and self-talk, are, nonetheless, among the most important components of successful weight loss. As discussed in a recent newsletter your attitude toward your body, food, and your weight impact how you look and feel. A 2005 study found that people who BELIEVED they had control over their food and body shape had greater reduction in BMI and waist circumference after 8-weeks on a low-calorie diet. Having confidence and self-efficacy around achieving a desired weight makes you more likely to be successful.
Another way to think about it is this: if you’re constantly saying, ‘I’m fat, I’m overweight,’ your body gets the message that’s what you are and what you want to be. Just like kids, our bodies respond to love and encouragement, not stress and pressure. An attitude of gratitude, love, and respect for your body will make you want to treat it well with quality nutrition, adequate sleep, and movement that feels good–all things that lead to weight loss.
Lifestyle and Habits
When it comes to long-term success and weight loss maintenance, nothing matters more than your lifestyle and habits. But in order for them to become lifelong habits and to have a lifestyle that matches how you want to look and feel, you have to start changing during your focused weight loss period.
Some ideas where to start… Cook at home instead of take out or drive-through. Choose unsweetened tea or water instead of juice and soda. Have a go-to strategy when a snack attack or temptation comes up, such as, taking a walk, calling a friend, making a cup of tea or having a healthy snack (handy and already prepared). Bring a real-food, healthy, perhaps vegetable-based dish to all parties and potlucks. Incorporate movement into your day–lunges or a walk in between meetings, push-ups first thing in the morning and last thing at night, squats or wall sits while you’re on the phone. Meditate daily for stress management, easier self-restraint, inner peace, and more positive self-talk.
As far as lifestyle, think about who your friends are–what do they eat, do they move regularly, how do they talk about food, weight, and their bodies? Do you work night shift and never get enough sleep? Do you hate your job, your life, your partner? Are you in an abusive relationship? That stress adds up and oftentimes people comfort themselves with food. Do your coworkers bring junk food to the office everyday and push it on you? Do you have unresolved emotions, such as anger, guilt, or feelings of inadequacy that send you straight to the cookies to stuff your feelings with food? As with mindset, any of these types of thing must be dealt with in order for the weight to stay off long-term.
I could write a whole post on exercise, but I’ll try to keep this brief. If you’re not used to exercising and you’re starting on a weight loss program, skip the exercise for now. Focus on nutrition, sleep, mindset, beliefs, attitude, habits and lifestyle first. The other things are more important–exercise will come. The second reason to avoid exercise at the outset is because some people compensate for the extra energy expenditure (of exercise) by overcompensating and eating too much. If you’re eating fresh, real foods, that’s unlikely, but not unheard of.
Once you’re reaching your target weight, or are at a point where it’s about becoming lean and toned (instead of just dropping pounds), then it’s time to think about exercise. Steady-state cardio, eg running or biking at the same pace and same intensity has been shown to reduce lean muscle mass, and even cause weight gain (you’d need access to the full article to read the results of loss of lean mass). Crazy, right? If you like hiking, biking, running, please do that and enjoy it. Movement of any kind that you enjoy will be good for you–it just may not create the results you want.
So, what does work? As the above linked article showed, high-intensity interval training–ie alternating slow jogging with brief sprints, or some form of exercise you can alternate pushing yourself to maximum effort for a few seconds (or up to a minute), then have a period of “rest” at an easier, lower intensity. That combination is going burn fat like crazy, particularly if you have more fat to lose. And, you only have to do it 3 times a week to see results!
The second exercise that’s going to give you a defined, toned look is lifting weights. Don’t get all scared. You can do body weight exercises: planks, push-ups, squats, lunges, tricep dips, yoga, etc. Depending on what your goals are, you may want to include free weights because that’s really where you’ll get muscle definition, and in the case of men, bulkiness with strength. Women, you’ll just get a nice butt, and defined shoulders–pretty sweet, right?
The right exercise will make you feel good, help you sleep better, and make you want to choose fresh, healthy, nourishing foods.
For Weight Loss Challenges
Some cases of weight loss are more challenging, and those require going deeper and taking a closer look at biology and potential physiological imbalances.
This seems to be more of an issue for women because their hormones are more complicated and tend to be very sensitive to outside changes. While following all of the above steps can, in many cases, overtime, also get the hormones balanced, sometimes additional help is needed. To determine if this is an issue for you, you’ll need to contact a functional or integrative health professional and get hormones like estradiol, testosterone, cortisol, etc tested. Oftentimes, excess testosterone and high blood sugar can be linked in women and prevent weight loss, particularly from the torso. Sometimes excess estrogen and poor liver function will keep weight on women’s hips. But none of these are diagnostics themselves–please see a health care provider for testing.
If you prefer to go a more natural route, herbs such as dandelion root, wild yam root, sarsaparilla, black or blue cohosh, red raspberry leaf, nettle, lemongrass, comfrey, etc, can be helpful, but again, working with someone one-on-one will ensure the safest and most targeted approach for your specific issues.
Both overweight men and women can struggle with weight loss because of ‘wrong’ gut bacteria (believed to be an excess of the bacteria firmicutes). If you’ve been on a lot of antibiotics over the years (or didn’t pass through the birth canal or weren’t breastfed), the balance of gut bacteria may have shifted so that your microbiota is extracting excess sugars, calories, and fat from the food you eat, instead of letting it pass through to waste. For more on this, see this article.
To rebalance gut bacteria in favor of a leaner you, supplement with a high quality probiotic, such as Eaze or VSL #3. If probiotics haven’t worked for you, you can try a homeostatic soil organism. Eating fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut, kimchee, kefir, and miso can also help boost ‘good’ gut bacteria. To give the good bacteria the food they need, resistant starch may be helpful; look for unmodified potato starch. It’ll take some time for changes to happen, and you might need high doses of probiotics to start, but scientists are discovering that microbiota might be one of the missing links in the obesity issue.
Poor liver health and a buildup of excess toxins can keep the weight on, or put it back on, despite all other efforts. Toxins are stored in fat cells–it’s the body’s method of protecting vital organs from harmful toxins and chemicals. When losing weight, the fat cells get broken down and the toxins are released into the body. Then, that’s where the liver comes in, to sort out the toxins and send them out through the digestive tract. If you lose a lot of weight quickly, or have a congested liver, the liver can’t process all the toxins, the body goes back to protecting the vital organs and shoves the toxins back into fat. Quite smart of the body but can be quite frustrating to keep off the weight.
Again, this is where eating a nutrient-dense diet matters–high quality plant foods will nourish the liver for better detoxification, and plant fiber binds to the toxins in the intestines to remove them from the body, thus preventing re-absorption. But sometimes the liver needs extra help–look for glutathione, D-Glucarate (see “Immune”), or herbs such as dandelion root, milk thistle, nettle, pau d’arco, burdock root, etc.
If you’re eating primarily real food cooked at home and including adequate protein, macronutrients shouldn’t be too big of a concern, unless you have blood sugar issues. For those with elevated blood sugar, pre- or diagnosed diabetes, reducing carbohydrates significantly may be necessary. You can still get some carbs from low-carb veg or resistant starch, but you should avoid all starches and sweeteners, until (and if) weight loss occurs, bringing down with it your blood sugar markers. For someone with dysregulated blood sugar and metabolic issues, a low to very low carb diet may be the only way to lose weight.
Unless blood sugar is clearly the cause of the impeded progress, I’d recommend working through the above approaches first, as it can be very difficult to transition in and out of a very low carb diet without significant consequences.
Of course this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the things that can help (or potentially hinder) weight loss. These are just some of the most common and most accessible. Other things to think about include stress, food intolerances, fasting, eating too little, emotional resistance to weight loss, and more.
As I said at the beginning, this wasn’t going to be a short or simple post. But hopefully it helps you understand why conventional weight loss advice just doesn’t work, and gives you some other clearly defined paths to follow instead.
Please leave a comment below if you’ve found this helpful or tell us which approach has worked best for you to take off the weight and keep it off long-term.