You’re eating healthy, drinking plenty of water, working out, but can’t seem to lose that last little bit of belly fat, even with all the sit-ups in the world...
It used to be that we believed the key to losing was just eating less and exercising more. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple (and if anyone tells you it is, back away slowly!). For one, not all calories are created equal. But even if you’re eating (what you think are) good quality calories, you still might not be able to lose weight (and you might even put on weight).
So what’s the deal?
Based on my research and experience with clients, I’ve found there are 8 hidden reasons for unexpected weight gain, or not being able to lose weight, despite doing everything ‘right’. (There may be other factors too, but these 8 seem to be the most common).
If a client comes to me wanting to lose weight, despite cleaning up their diet and exercising, these are the factors I would typically work through with them, that may be preventing them from losing weight.
Inflammation is likely the root cause of most of current lifestyle diseases, and weight gain is no exception.
What causes inflammation?
Most often, it’s the result of an inflammatory diet, toxins in our environment (including heavy metals, pesticides, and toxic chemicals in our personal and homecare products), and/or stress. Symptoms of inflammation include rashes or breakouts, bloating, and joint pain.
How does inflammation cause weight gain?
Our bodies know that toxins are bad for us, so will try to get rid of them in various ways, including through the liver, urine, faeces, and sweat. But if the liver is congested or dealing with too many other things, the body will put the toxins someplace it thinks is safe, which is in fat cells. So your body might be holding on to fat because it knows that if you lose this fat the toxins will be free to circulate in the body again and cause damage. In such cases, losing weight without the guidance of a health professional may actually do more harm than good.
There are many ways to deal with inflammation – starting with reducing the inflammatory substances we’re exposed to and ingesting (i.e. eliminating the most inflammatory foods from our diet, choosing organic produce wherever possible, using natural toxin-free beauty and homecare products, purifying our air at home, etc.). We can then help support the liver as much as possible by: doing a detox/cleanse protocol, reducing or eliminating substances that take a toll on the liver (such as alcohol and caffeine), and taking specific herbs and supplements that help support the liver*.
2. Not being in touch with your cycle
The second reason I see women not being to lose weight, or even gaining weight, is because they are out of balance with their feminine cycle. By this I don’t mean dancing under the moon, or acting ‘feminine’ (although if you want to do these things, all power to you!) - I’m talking about biohacking our female biology through ‘cycle syncing’ (check out this article on cycle-syncing if you’ve never heard of it before).
There are 3 common habits I see that can throw women out of alignment with their cycle and prevent weight loss: overexercising, practicing intermittent fasting during your period, and following a keto diet long-term.
While there is no doubt that exercise (I prefer to call it ‘movement’) is vital to our health and wellbeing, like most things, too much can be just as damaging as too little. That’s because certain types of exercise (such as High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT, running, and any other kind of very intense exercise) act as a form of stress on the body, and therefore raises cortisol levels. While this kind of stress (and moderate amounts of stress in general) may be fine in certain circumstances, if you are chronically stressed out, you don’t want to be adding more stress to the mix. The result of all this stress is that it actually pushes the body into fat-storing mode – the very opposite of what you’re trying to achieve by all that exercise! The same is true when we exercise whilst on our period or in the latter half of the luteal phase – our cortisol is naturally higher in these phases so we don’t want to be increasing it with intense exercise. Instead, this is a time for peaceful movement (if any) such as yin yoga, tai chi, walking, and so on. However, if you’re experiencing intense stress in your life at the moment, I would recommend you stick to these kinds of gentle exercises at all times of the month, until the stress has passed.
Similarly, while intermittent fasting (IF) has many health benefits when done correctly, it can cause more harm than good for women when done during their menstrual and luteal phases. During the last half of our cycle, our metabolism tends to be faster, and we actually need an extra 200 calories (approx.) per day. So fasting during this period is only going to leave you cranky and starving! If you want to do IF the best time is during follicular and ovulatory phases, when our metabolism is naturally a bit slower.
Like many dietary trends, there are some good aspects to following a keto diet (short-term), but there are also lots of problems with it. While I won't go into all of them here, for the purposes of our discussion on weight loss, one of the main issues with keto is that, again, it is not great for women during the latter half of their cycle (luteal and menstrual phases). Luteal is often when we get cravings, and one of the best ways we can address this is by eating high quality complex carbs (like brown rice and sweet potato) during this time. Ideally we would maintain blood sugar levels throughout the month by following a whole foods plant-based diet that includes plenty of unrefined, complex carbs (such as veggies, brown rice, quinoa, and so on). How much of this you need is unique to you – that's another problem with keto – every body is different, and the proper ratio of macros for you depends on numerous factors (including your body type).
There is also some research on keto affecting the production of T3, which, as we’ll see later, could be an issue since thyroid health is also important for weight loss/maintenance, and many women struggle with thyroid issues.
If you’re interested in trying keto, I would recommend only doing it in the first half of your cycle, and following a plant based keto approach such as “Ketotarian”.
3. Pre-diabetes (high blood sugar)
Speaking of blood sugar, another reason I see women struggling to lose weight is because they are (unknowingly) pre-diabetic or close to it. This might be the case for women who have become vegan but still not lost any weight, as they might be over-relying on refined carbs. (You don’t have to be vegan for this to be the case – most of us who eat a standard Western diet eat far too many refined carbs, but even health-conscious people may be eating more refined carbs than they realise.) This might look like eating toast or cereal for breakfast, a sandwich or wrap for lunch, and pasta, noodles or white rice for dinner. Even if you are eating the whole wheat or brown version of these foods, that still adds up to far too many refined carbs (brown bread is not much better than white bread in terms of its impact on blood sugar levels). This can lead to an issue known as “skinny fat”, where you might look thin (with a little belly fat), but inside you have lots of visceral fat, which is the most dangerous kind, as well as dangerously high blood sugar levels.
In general I encourage women to take gluten out of their diets, which not only addresses the problems associated with gluten, but it also forces you to be more creative and, usually, to eat more veg (swapping a lunchtime sandwich for a soup or salad, for example). Complex carbs are fine (great, even), but be wary of gluten-free breads (and muffins, wraps, etc.) as they are often still extremely refined and contain other questionable ingredients.
4. Underactive thyroid
Something that should always be checked if you are struggling with weight (and have addressed diet and exercise) is thyroid function. In particular, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can often present as weight gain, as well as sensitivity to cold, fatigue, depression, and irregular or heavy periods. Because these can be symptoms of many other things (including hormonal imbalance) it’s important to get your thyroid function checked by your healthcare provider or a functional medicine practitioner if you suspect this might be an issue for you.
Another hidden cause of weight gain is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Besides weight around the tummy, common symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, excess body hair, acne, thinning hair on the head, and obviously cysts on the ovaries, which may also cause painful periods. There also seems to be a connection between diabetes and PCOS – women with PCOS are more likely to go on to develop Type 2 diabetes, and may also be pre-diabetic or have elevated blood sugar levels alongside their PCOS symptoms. If this applies to you, follow the advice above for pre-diabetes, and seek the advice of a health coach, naturopath, or functional medicine practitioner who can help you address your underlying hormonal imbalance.
6. Stress & caffeine
We’ve already touched on this but it’s worth re-iterating; that stress can lead to weight gain (or prevent you losing weight). This is because stress raises cortisol levels in the blood, which pushes the body into fat-storing mode. In addition, stress causes the release of adrenalin, which raises your blood sugar level (which then triggers the release of insulin). Insulin will try to use the sugar in the blood but any leftover sugar will be turned into fat. So stress causes fat storage through 2 mechanisms!
Most of us are chronically stressed these days, and instead of dealing with it in a healthy way, too many people turn to caffeine to get them through the day, which, unless you have the gene for metabolising caffeine, actually makes the problem worse, by stimulating more adrenalin production, as well as congesting the liver (which we already saw can then lead to weight gain as well as other problems), and potentially causing cysts, nutrient depletion, and so on.
All the more reason to prioritise finding a stress-reduction practice that works for you (I love hot baths and yoga!). If you need more suggestions or personalised meditation practices, book in for a coaching session with me.
Besides caffeine, many of us also over-consume alcohol in an attempt to switch off from the stresses of the day (or week), or to socialise. However, regular alcohol consumption can also contribute to weight gain (or stop us from losing weight), not only because alcohol contains calories (which we don’t normally think about when we’re consuming that second beer...) but also because it tends to have a high sugar content, which can then lead to all of the blood sugar issues mentioned above. It also adds another burden to the over-congested liver... (you start to see the picture!).
While you don't necessarily have to become teetotal and never drink again in your life, become mindful of your alcohol consumption, and get really honest with yourself about how much you're actually drinking each week. If it's more than 2-3 glasses (or units) per week, consider the reason why you drink, and whether you could find that same benefit from something else. Or try swapping one glass/unit of alcohol for a glass of kombucha or sparkling water.
8. Inadequate sleep
Everyone nowadays seems to be talking about the importance of sleep to our health and our lives, and yet I still see so many people struggling to get enough good quality sleep each night. While most people associate getting good sleep with having energy and being in a good mood the next day, less well known is that it has a vital role to play in weight loss/maintenance. This has to do with the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which control for hunger (ghrelin) and feeling full (leptin). Just one night of sleep deprivation has been shown to increase ghrelin and decrease leptin, meaning you will be hungrier the next day and more likely to overeat (as these changes also encourage us to seek out more calorie-dense foods that are high in carbs and fat). Also, the more time you are awake, the more time you have to eat! Yet another reason to put yourself to bed early.
For more tips on improving your sleep, check out my other article on my top health hacks, or book in with me for more personalised advice on how we can get you sleeping like a baby and waking up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world.
Have you thought about any of these weight loss factors before? Is there one you're struggling with? Let me know in the comments below!
If you suspect one of these things might be holding you back from your health or weight loss goals, get in touch with me about personalised health coaching sessions. *Please consult with your GP or healthcare provider before taking any new herbs or supplements.