Weight loss is hard. Many people will tell you, “It’s calories in versus calories out that counts” — as if your body were a simple math equation. Honestly, if it were that easy, everyone would have aced this test.
“There are so many more factors at play, and these include genetics, environment, sleep habits, and muscle mass, among others. Weight management is incredibly complicated,” says Amy Gorin, RDN, who specializes in plant-based eating in Stamford, Connecticut.
While clearly difficult, weight loss is not impossible. It’s important to focus on the small successes (eating more vegetables, walking more). It can also help to work backward and pinpoint those factors that are standing in your way or causing a plateau.
Become aware of these eight common roadblocks and you may once again be on your way to winning at losing.
1. Your Gut Health Is Interfering
Emerging research is uncovering just how important your microbiome (the collection of bacteria in your gut) is for your health and potentially for your weight. A review published in June 2020 in Preventive Nutrition and Food Science found that probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics (blends of probiotics and prebiotics) may help prevent weight gain. It also reported that people with less diversity in their gut microbiomes were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI).
What to Do Begin by increasing the prebiotics in your diet, suggests Kirby Walter, RD, who owns The Nourish RD in Chicago. “Prebiotics are fiber that feeds the good bacteria in your gut. You could be taking all the probiotics, but if you don’t feed this good bacteria, it can’t proliferate and overtake the bad bacteria in your gut,” she explains. Increase prebiotics in your diet by focusing on fruit and vegetable intake. Embrace variety (green beans one day, kale the next, and then a tomato salad) to give your gut a range of prebiotics that will keep it happy.
2. Genetics Aren’t Working in Your Favor
It’s a tough reality: It may not be possible to choose the body type or shape you want and effortlessly land there with the right diet. When it comes to weight, “genetics matter a lot, although people don’t like to hear that,” says Jason R. Karp, PhD, the author of Lose It Forever. He calls out research on Swedish twins who were raised together or separately. “The results of this and other twin studies have shown that genes account for about 70 percent of the variation in people’s body weight. That’s a pretty large influence,” says Dr. Karp.
In addition, there’s the theory of the set-point weight range, which is the range that your body is essentially happy at. It’s where you might land if you’re living a healthy and happy life (translation: eating nutritiously without restricting yourself and exercising but not overly so). If you try to reduce your weight too far below your set point, “your brain — not your willpower or your conscious decisions — responds to weight loss with powerful tools to push your weight back up to what it considers normal,” says Karp. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center describes this idea of a set point and notes that slow, gradual weight loss is the key to altering your set point.
What to Do If you don’t want to gain the weight back after losing it, you’re going to have to continue to eat fewer calories, says Karp, and as Beth Israel notes, do it slowly. This means dropping no more than 10 percent of your body weight every six months; for a 160-pound woman, that would be 16 pounds in six months.
If this seems tough to swallow, consider that this knowledge can be hugely positive — and actually freeing. It can allow you the opportunity to give yourself grace for the body you’re in, rather than punishing yourself because you haven’t hit a goal weight or aesthetic or because you lack willpower. You can use it as reinforcement to practice healthy habits that make you feel good, regardless of what size of clothing you ultimately end up in. Research published in March 2021 in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism states that weight-inclusive interventions can improve cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar as well as body image, self-esteem, and some mental health conditions. It may take a lot of self-work, and a HAES (health at every size) dietitian can help you make this shift. The Association for Size Diversity and Health provides a search tool to find experts in your area (the tool is currently being updated and won’t be usable until September).
3. You’re Getting Older and Losing Muscle
“As women hit menopause and estrogen levels begin to dip, they lose muscle as they age,” says Gorin. In fact, muscle mass decreases 3 to 8 percent every decade after age 30, according to research. That’s a big deal, because, per the Mayo Clinic, muscle burns more calories than fat.
“Post-menopausal women are more likely to gain body fat and need fewer calories as they get older,” Gorin says. What’s more, natural changes in fat tissue that come with aging can prompt the body to gain weight, according to an article published in September 2019 in Nature Medicine.
What to Do You can’t control the clock, but you can control your health habits. “People of any age can lose weight and keep it off, as long as they create the habits that are necessary and have a plan in place for any slips in behaviors that can cause weight gain,” says Karp. Effective behaviors include making nutrient-rich foods the basis of your diet, limiting empty calories (such as processed and high-sugar foods), and adding resistance training into your weekly routine to rebuild lost muscle, advises Gorin.
4. Your Medicine Cabinet Is to Blame
Some medications cause weight gain or get in the way of your efforts to lose weight. Among them, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York: insulin to treat diabetes, certain antipsychotics or antidepressants, some epilepsy therapies, steroids, and blood-pressure-lowering meds like beta blockers. These may cause weight gain because they mess with your metabolism in some way, alter your appetite, cause water retention, or contribute to fatigue, making you less active.
What to Do If you or your doctor notices that you’ve unintentionally gained weight, talk about it. Don’t stop taking your meds just because you’ve gained weight, advises the University of Rochester Medical Center. In some cases, your doctor may be able to switch you to a different medication or adjust your dose. If that’s not possible, connect with a registered dietitian who can guide you toward healthy choices in your diet.
5. You Underestimate Your Portion Sizes
The problem with portion sizes on the packaging is that they’re pretty random. While there’s been a move to adjust serving sizes on packaging to be more realistic (like changing from a half-cup of ice cream as a serving size to two-thirds cup, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), it’s still an outside guide that has no relationship to how hungry you are or what your body really needs.
What to Do Gorin recommends planning what you’ll eat for the day. “This can be done by either logging your food in a food diary to see how many calories you’re actually consuming, and adjusting portion sizes if needed, or working with a registered dietitian to create an easy-to-follow meal plan,” she says. Gorin has created mix-and-match meal plans that cut through the confusion and eliminate the portion-size guesswork. There are also plenty of meal-planning apps at your disposal. One highly rated option, Lose It (free on the App Store and Google Play), lets you track calories, goals, and progress.
6. You Eat Mindlessly or When Distracted
Repetitive snacking while you’re in a daze watching TV or on your smartphone can make you wonder, What did I just eat? A meta-analysis published in September 2022 in the journal Appetite found that distracted eating is associated with a higher BMI. When you’re aware of what you’re eating, you can make the brain-body connection that you’re full and satisfied.
What to Do Gorin recommends preparing your own meals when possible. “When you spend the time to cook or even assemble ingredients, you know the care that goes into preparing the foods you eat — and you may be more likely to sit down and savor your food versus simply wolfing it down,” she says. And set aside at least a few minutes away from electronics to eat, Gorin adds.
7. You Skip Meals, Then End Up Overeating
In an effort to cut calories, it’s tempting to go through the day trying to eat as little as possible and even skip meals. But if you do this, your body will push you to eat — and this deprivation can backfire, says Walter. “Ninety percent of my weight loss clients are not eating enough during the day, and then they end up bingeing,” she says. If you restrict yourself all day, your body’s protective mechanisms will kick in — the ones that drive you to get food adds Walter. As a result, it’s not surprising if you eat an entire bag of cookies quickly late at night.
What to Do Eat on a predictable food schedule, advises Walter. If you eat regularly throughout the day, your body will be able to anticipate that you’re going to provide adequate nutrition for it. What’s more, she says, even if you’re trying to lose weight, make a plan for how you’re going to include a variety of foods into your day so you don’t feel deprived. For instance, can you have an Oreo after lunch? Will you let yourself have a scoop of ice cream when you go out with the kids on Saturday?
8. You Overestimate Your Calorie Burn
When you’re trying to lose weight, what and how much you eat is more important than your exercise habits, says Karp. And yet, “exercise is the secret to keeping weight off,” he says. That’s because exercise stimulates the synthesis of mitochondria within muscles, research shows. (Mitochondria are the energy powerhouse of cells, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.)
Ultimately, this “makes you a better fat- and carbohydrate-burning machine,” he says. What’s more, says Karp, the people who are successful in weight loss are exercisers. “Most National Weight Control Registry members [those who have maintained weight loss long term] — 89.6 percent of women and 85.3 percent of men — exercise as part of their weight loss and weight-maintenance strategy,” he says.
What to Do Exercise shouldn’t be used as a form of punishment for eating something, says Gorin. “Exercise is a celebration of the movement that your body can achieve, and it’s a beautiful thing,” she says. Better to figure out enjoyable ways to incorporate physical activity into your life, activities that make you feel capable or that build in social interaction (if you like) — all these factors can help you stick to a routine, according to a study published in August 2016 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.