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Are You Sinking Your Weight Loss Efforts?

Nothing's more frustrating than making lifestyle changes and not seeing results. Here are a few reasons you might not be seeing the results you want to achieve.

Weight loss is tough. It's often easy to pack on a few extra pounds, but taking them off requires you to reverse some of the comfortable habits you developed as they accumulated. If you're stuck in your weight loss journey, take a moment to review the reasons listed below. You might have fallen victim to one of the "classic blunders" of weight loss.

Day Eating Less, Night Eating More

Many of my clients initially choose to work with a health coach to combat their constant struggle with the scale. They've been trying it on their own, but without guidance, feel lost or begin removing foods or meals from their diet. They start with something like this:

"I barely eat anything, Melissa. I skip breakfast and have a small lunch. I really only eat dinner, and by that point, I'm usually pretty hungry, but that's my only real meal of the day."

At some point, your body typically wants food. In my experience (and as research demonstrates), concentrating your calories at night is associated with higher risk of binging, overeating, and consequently obesity, larger waist circumference, and higher LDL cholesterol. Consider this: your body is used to running on a certain number of calories each day. When you purposely and significantly reduce your calories in the morning, it's as if your body wants you to "make up the difference" somehow. Think about it: the last time you didn't eat enough for breakfast, what did your lunch look like? Or if you skipped lunch, how big was your dinner portion?

Shifting your caloric intake to the end of the day is different from intermittent fasting (IF), which limits the hours within which you consume food. (New research suggests that IF may be effective for weight-loss. Yet, this approach isn't safe or effective for everyone, and is not for people with diabetes or those who need to maintain steady blood sugar levels.) Instead of helping you lose weight, shifting your caloric intake to the end of the day has the opposite effect. It actually sets you up for a higher risk of obesity and higher BMI.

Bottom line? Don't skip breakfast and eat sensibly throughout the day. Then, try to curtail snacking or eating at least 3 hours prior to bedtime, if possible. (I brush my teeth to stop snacking! What might work for you?)

Maintaining An "It's Everything or Nothing" Mentality

My husband mentioned to me a few weeks ago that he wanted to lose weight and asked for my thoughts on what he might change. While I make it a point to never coach my husband or family members, I asked him what he thought he needed to do. In response, he tossed his hands in the air and said, "I don't know! It feels like I'll need to eliminate eating chips FOREVER and NEVER enjoy a few beers make this happen!"

As I mentioned above, removing foods in a dramatic and permanent way appears to some people as the only chance for improvement (i.e., in order to see change, you need completely cut out anything else.) Not only is this approach unsustainable for most people, it also doesn't account for occasions in life that you might enjoy splurging, like a birthday party (cake), a hot summer day (ice cream), or a Superbowl party (so many options to mention here...!)

This is the point when I usually mention the 80-20 "rule": feed yourself with healthy, delicious, unprocessed, whole foods 80% of the time, and leave about 20% wiggle room in your diet to add in something special (some people do the 90-10 rule, too). For most people, it's unrealistic to become puritanical about food. Instead of setting yourself up for failure, reframe to reduce your junk food intake. In my husband's case, he decided to only have a serving of chips 2-3 times a week with lunch, and maybe only 1-2 beers on a Friday night get-together. What might you change in your approach to allow yourself moments to indulge while still staying on track?

Going ON A Diet

Diet plans all have one massive and fundamental flaw: they suggest prescribed and planned rules for changing the way you eat. I've read countless articles offering pre-made menus or lists of things you can and cannot eat. As I've discussed before in my blog Stop Dieting to Lose Weight, this leads you to temporary mentality. Your brain thinks, "this is only a month," or "I can do this for a couple of weeks" (Think about it: the Whole30 is meant to only be 30 days long.) Ultimately, your goal is to get through it and return back to normal.

The thing is, though -- "normal" is what got you here. Even if you lose weight while on the diet, returning to your original S.A.D. diet (standard American diet) will only help your body return to its previous state, too. None of these diets teaches you, as an individual, how to make healthy choices that fit real life.

Instead, consider rethinking your "normal". The key to modifying your diet is more about your mindset than your fork. Once you've committed to making a change, think about your meals and eating habits and ask yourself. What motivates you to eat what you eat? What parts of your dietary behaviors are you ready to lose?" Changes don't have to be grand or overarching. In fact, achieving a few small goals early on may help you stay motivated.

So, what's one small change you'd adopt to take a step toward healthier?

Putting All Your Eggs in the Physical Activity Basket

Over the past 20-30 years, significant efforts by food organizations and lobbyists shifted the focus of improving obesity rates from changing eating behaviors toward increasing physical activity. This promotion of physical activity did, as it turns out, impact the overall rates of physical activity in the US in a positive way. Americans engage in more leisure time physical activity now than ever before. Yet, even with adding more physical activity, the obesity epidemic continues to rage out of control.

Now, it's critical that you understand and value the importance of active living. Getting enough exercise keeps your heart, lungs, and brain healthy (not to mention the other organs as a result); improves mental and emotional health; offers stress reduction; and maintains muscle mass, bone density, and coordination (through weight-bearing exercise). Yet, it isn't always the magic button when losing weight. And it makes sense, too. Think about this: A Whopper Value Meal at Burger King (Whopper, medium fries and a drink) stuffs you with a whopping 1,430 calories. Just to burn these calories off, a 175-lb person would have to run 2hrs (about 10 miles at 12 minutes per mile). Moreover, this says nothing about the extra sodium, saturated fat, and sugar you're ingesting in these over-processed, high-calorie, low-nutrition meals.

In order to lose weight effectively, try combining both physical activity and changes in nutrition. This dynamic duo of healthy eating and active living (appropriately called HEAL), ensures your body gets healthy from the inside out. Because we have to be honest: until you're willing to review your dietary behaviors to see what needs to change, the numbers on the scale won't likely do so, either.

Forgetting About Stress Reduction

As I mentioned in my article on stress, the body responds to stressful stimuli by (among other things) secreting steroid hormones like cortisol. While some stress is good (eustress) and helps you achieve goals, meet deadlines, and stay motivated, other stress is in reaction to negative stimuli. When chased by a tiger, cortisol ensures that your body appropriates its resources effectively (e.g., you're not worried about digesting your dinner when you might become someone else's lunch). Unfortunately, that once-useful evolutionary trick now sets us up for failure since we no longer run from a tiger for 5 minutes. Instead, we endure stressful conditions for weeks or months, generating chronic stress conditions. Cortisol promotes the storage excess fat in abdominal (also known as "visceral") adipose (fat) tissue, just in case it needs to use it in the future. In essence, prolonged stress actually makes it harder for your body to lose weight and in fact helps you retain it.

Recent research also demonstrates that stress changes the function and complexity of the flora in your gut, called your microbiome, in significant and detrimental ways. Also known as your body's "second brain", your microbiome plays a huge role in how you process and digest food. When changed by stress, your microbiome changes its ability to counteract inflammation and release the appropriate chemicals your body needs to function.

Not Being Specific About "How"

Imagine this -- your boss asks you to do a project, but she doesn't tell you what type of project, how big or long it should be, what supports you might need to complete it, and how you'll know you've done a good job. Sounds pretty stressful, right? It probably also sounds unrealistic that anyone would set themselves up for achieving an undefined goal. Yet, when it comes to health, people do it all the time.

You might fall victim to this, too. Have you ever said things to yourself, like:

"I need to eat better"

"I should get more exercise"

"I want to lose weight"

While these signify the motivation for change, they provide no platform from which you can plan, measure or achieve your goals. Let's take "I should get more exercise" as an example:

  • What type of exercise will you do? (Running? Biking? Gardening?)

  • How long will you exercise each day? (30 minutes? 60 minutes? Or by distance, like 5 or 10 miles?)

  • How frequently will you exercise each week? (2 times a week? Four?)

  • How will you fit this exercise into your lifestyle? (After work? Lunchtime? Throughout the day?)

  • How will you realistically make time for your goal? (Will you split up your exercise time? Will someone else run the kids to soccer practice?)

  • How will you know you're successful in completing this goal? (Run a marathon? Lose 5 pounds?)

Tying Fun to Food

Quick -- what do you think of when I say these things:

  • Valentine's Day

  • Backyard

  • Hot day

  • Birthday party

  • Superbowl party

Did any of these things conjure ideas of food? As a culture, we value and prioritize eating delicious foods to celebrate special occasions and share time with friends and family. When these are once-in-awhile occurrences, you celebrate being with friends and family and enjoy some of the simple pleasures in life, like chocolate, BBQ, ice cream, cake, and wings.

Unfortunately, sometimes the food supplants the occasion itself, and becomes the thing valued. As a result, we no longer use food to celebrate specific occasions. Instead, we use the occasions as excuse to overeat and indulge. When this happens, the mental lines get blurred: Is it the occasion that makes this fun or the food? Breaking bread together has been a way to unite people since the dawn of, well...bread. As a result, food often makes the celebration even better. Yet, since these occasions are no longer as few and far between as they once were, try finding value in the gathering or celebration itself instead of focusing on the food. It may help you rid yourself of the need to over-indulge.

Final Notes

There you have it -- a few classic missteps that might be derailing your weight loss journey. The key to all of these, and really the whole process, is to take one at a time and find some patience for yourself. Remember, the weight gain didn't happen overnight, so give yourself time to make small changes that stand the test of time...and scale.

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