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Missing Piece to the Weight Loss Puzzle

missing piece in weight loss

3 Things You May Be Missing When Trying to Lose Weight

By Amy Carson RDN LDN IFNCP

Have you been trying to lose weight by eating less and moving more and not seeing the scale move? Have you been frustrated and wondering why this works for your coworker or neighbor but not you? Are you left wondering what you’re doing wrong? You are not alone, and I’m here to explain why it’s not you at fault – it’s the advice that is failing you. 

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2013-2016, 49.1% of Americans had tried to lose weight within the last 12 months. More recently, in 2023, Statistica.com states that 47% of men and 55% of women wanted to lose weight. With these data points, we can assume that at any given time, nearly one-half of Americans desire to lose weight. 

While weight loss is not necessarily a crucial component of health improvement, and the desire to maintain the same body shape and size throughout our lifespan is not only unattainable but also unhealthy, there’s no question that a large portion of the US population is currently trying to lose weight. 

As a Registered Dietitian that has worked in the weight management space for nearly a decade, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I hope to inspire clients to be confident and happy in their current bodies, if they desire to see weight loss for any reason, I also hope to give them the tools to do so in a healthful and safe way, and to be able to maintain that weight loss over the long term. 

I’ve worked with a wide array of clients with this same goal – to lose weight. They varied in age, gender, activity level, education level, occupation, socioeconomic status, pounds desired to be lost, number of weight loss attempts prior, past medical history, and more. But the one string that ties them all together is that they’ve read (or heard) the ”tried and true” way to lose weight: eat less, move more. They’ve come to me to learn how to make this work.

Fewer Calories, More Exercise

So, is that what it takes? Eat less, move more. That’s it? If only it were that easy. Certainly, many clients have had success with this strategy. Once we identify just HOW to reduce calories consumed and HOW to add more activity into their day, some do see steady weight loss week after week. However, it’s not that easy for many people. Often, they find me after trying this strategy and either seeing weight loss but not sustaining it or not seeing weight loss at all. This is because the concept of “eat less, move more” is not the full picture. The rest of your body needs to be in alignment and in a safe place to lose weight as well. This includes getting quality sleep, managing stress, having a regulated insulin response, an exercise routine that burns fat and builds muscle, a strategy that keeps your metabolism moving instead of slowing it down, and so on. THIS is why many people try to eat less and move more but are simply left hungry, tired, and frustrated. While there are many reasons I find that clients aren’t seeing success with this strategy, let me walk you through the 3 most common:

Carbohydrates are NOT the Enemy

If you Google “weight loss tips,” you’re sure to find one that tells you to cut out carbohydrates! While the type, amount, and timing of carbohydrates is certainly important (see: Blood Sugar Balance, below), most of the time I’m telling people to eat MORE carbohydrates to lose weight.

Carbohydrates come from a wide variety of foods – fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and also desserts, pastries, fried foods, processed foods, sweetened beverages, and much more. Much of the information I describe is based on all carbohydrates, but when I’m recommending clients to eat more carbohydrates, it is typically to eat more of the unprocessed, plant-based sources listed first. Here’s why I recommend eating carbohydrates during your weight loss journey: 

Carbohydrates are our brain’s main source of energy, not to mention the energy source for the rest of our body, including our muscles, during exercise. This allows us not only to move but also for our organs to function properly and our brain to be able to make high-level decisions (such as which food will fuel us best or what’s for dinner!). When we cut out carbohydrates, we DO see weight loss initially from water weight and calorie restriction, but over time, this restriction leads to poor functioning, poor energy, and a lack of ability to maintain the habits and, therefore, weight loss. Carbohydrates (i.e., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) are also where much of our needed nutrients and fiber come from. On a very low or no carbohydrate diet, one is most likely missing out on B vitamins, vitamin C, potassium, fiber (specifically soluble fiber), and more. I find that when clients add back in these plant-based sources of carbohydrates in a balanced way, they have more energy, are in a better mood, build muscle faster (see Strength Training below), and still see weight loss.

Along those same lines, they’re also able to maintain this way of eating for the long term because they learn HOW to fit in carbohydrates (even those less nutrient-dense ones named earlier) in a balanced way without feeling as though they’ve ‘cheated’ and need to start over. When they do have a piece of cake to celebrate a friend’s birthday, their body doesn’t gain 10 pounds because it’s forgotten how to process carbohydrates. They simply move on and eat more plants at the next meal. This balanced way of eating is much less stressful than restriction and also leads to a lifelong change in eating habits… win, win!

Blood Sugar Balance

Now that we understand the benefits of carbohydrates in a healthy diet, it’s important to understand how to build them to maximize these benefits. Many people who struggle with weight loss have an underlying condition called insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that lowers blood sugar, and in a person with insulin resistance, their insulin has to work really hard, really often, and it’s starting to wear down. When insulin is working really hard, it’s constantly putting your body in storage mode, which is why weight loss feels impossible. Many of the clients that I work with are reducing their intake of calories. However, their blood sugar is still imbalanced, and therefore, they’re not seeing the weight loss they were hoping for. In order to help out your insulin so it doesn’t have to work so hard, you’ll need to balance your blood sugar through diet & lifestyle choices. This is where carbohydrates come in.

When we eat carbohydrates, our blood sugar rises. This is a normal phenomenon and actually allows us to feel energized and a bit more focused after a meal. The key is to increase slightly, and decrease back to baseline within about 2 hours after the meal. How can you do this? Consume high fiber carbohydrates in proper portions (about a fist-worth per meal), and pair them with both protein and fat.

For example, a glass of orange juice will spike your blood sugar, making your body have to push out insulin in high amounts, putting you on a ‘blood sugar roller coaster’. If, instead, you had an orange (high fiber) and paired it with an egg scramble (protein) with a few slices of avocado (fat) on top, now your blood sugar will elevate slightly, give you some energy, and then decrease slightly, making you hungry again in a few hours instead of minutes. This more stable blood sugar will also allow your body to burn more fat instead of being in storage mode throughout the day. 

Strength Training

Another very common aspect of weight loss that many people miss is the importance of strength (AKA resistance) training. Strength training involves pushing or pulling against the resistance of an object (dumbbells, kettlebells, body weight, water, etc) and leads to building muscle mass. The more muscle in your body, the higher your metabolism, or the more calories you need to eat to survive. When losing weight, it’s not guaranteed that you’re only losing fat. More often, you’re losing a combination of fat and muscle. Without strength training, the amount of muscle you lose is higher, meaning your metabolism will slow down faster as you lose weight and you’ll need to eat LESS to continue to lose weight or even to maintain your weight loss. By incorporating strength training into your routine, you can maintain or even build muscle, making it easier to continue towards your weight loss goals and maintain it once you get there. Strength training has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, another lifestyle factor that can impact your blood sugar balance, as discussed above.

I’ve seen time and time again the impact strength training has on those on their weight loss journey. Not only does it help move the scale in the direction of their goal, but it (arguably more importantly) improves confidence and gives clients another measurement of success to focus on besides the scale. Imagine the empowering feeling when you can finally do the push up or pull up you’ve been working towards, or you can get up off the ground to chase your grandkids without anyone else helping you! 

In addition to the weight loss and maintenance benefits that strength training brings, having more muscle mass helps enhance longevity by protecting your bones from becoming more brittle and breaking more easily, and protecting your independence and ability to take part in activities like walking with friends and cooking your own food. 

Almost everyone I work with that wants to lose weight is doing so to improve their health, however losing muscle mass can unfortunately lead you in the opposite direction. During your weight loss journey, I recommend incorporating strength training into your routine for at least 30 minutes 3 times per week, in addition to your cardiovascular and flexibility exercises. 

If these spoke to you and you’re wondering about the other reasons the ‘eat less, move more’ strategy doesn’t work for everyone, reach out to work with me! I dive into all the aspects of weight loss when working with clients and hope to help you not only reach your weight loss goals, but be the healthiest, strongest version of you and maintain that progress for the long term.

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