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This post is aimed primarily at athletes and those wishing to improve their body composition. I have worked with many athletes and am one myself. I know how hard the pressure can be to “look a certain way” and to perform our best at all times. Sometimes that pressure can lead us into unhealthy behaviors in order to achieve a certain goal.
I am by no means saying that having aesthetics goals are wrong or unimportant. I do think that there is potential for aesthetics goals to become all-consuming and turn into the focus of one’s life. I wanted to share some common road blocks to losing weight and offer solutions to individual prices of the puzzle. Keep in mind weight loss is highly individualized and often needs multiple healthy lifestyle factors to become effective.
Below I have listed some of the most common reasons I get while working with clients and their frustrations in weight loss. Please keep in mind that my primary client population are athletic women ages 18-45. Enjoy!
#1 You Aren’t Eating Enough
Hear me out on this one. We’ve all heard the old saying “calories in = calories out” right? Well I’m here to tell you that it’s complete bullshit. You heard me right. Calories in does not = calories out.
Other external and internal factors can work to either burn calories or cause us to hold onto calories. You see, it’s not as easy as diet culture and mass media wants us to believe. You cannot simply eat more and weigh less. This tactic might work for a short period of time and create a caloric deficit that promotes weight loss but this is not sustainable in the long-term.
In order to lose weight, our bodies must feel “safe” and in a position to do so. Feeling safe is different for every body and generally happens when you are eating a diet that agrees with your body (for more on this see #7), have low levels of stress and fuel your body properly.
When we don’t consume enough calories out bodies go into panic mode, also known as starvation mode. This could be a gradual shift or happen very quickly, but when our bodies aren’t getting the nutrition it needs to regenerate, rebuild, repair and function on a daily basis, things can really start to go downhill.
#2 You Are Over-Exercising
This goes hand in hand with under-eating. Exercise is a form of stress on the body. Pure and simple, the body does not differentiate between different types of stress, simply levels of stress. Pushing our bodies to the limit through exercise can seem like a great way to “burn off excess calories” to stimulate weight loss.
However, just like under-eating, over-exercising can cause our bodies to hold onto excess weight. This weight is typically in the form of inflammation weight. When we are overusing our bodies and under-recovering the muscles tissues become inflamed without adequate recovery time and can create a “puffy” look or feeling.
Ever feel like you should be more thin or weigh less because you’re exercising so much? It’s likely you’re exercising too much! Muscle fibers, tissues and tendons can only become stronger with rest. Exercise works to break down tissues and fibers creating small tears. These tears are crucial for building strength and stamina but only if they are given enough time to rebuild.
#3 You Aren’t Fat Adapted
Being fat adapted can be a huge bonus for the body. Our bodies only burn two things for energy: carbohydrates (sugar) and fat. All sugar breaks down into carbohydrates in the body and while these are great for quick energy, an excess amount of carbohydrates can be problematic. If carbohydrate intake doesn’t match activity level then carbohydrates will eventually turn to body fat. Don’t get freaked out here!
We need carbohydrates, athletes especially! They are a great source of fuel for activity, hormone balancing and feel-good for the brain. We can become fat-adapted and use carbohydrates to our advantage when timed properly and in the correct doses.
Ever feel hangry (hungry + angry) and feel like you NEED FOOD NOW? This could be due to not being fat-adapted and primarily relying on quick-burning carbohydrates as a fuel source. Fat used for fuel is a much slower form of energy and can keep you feeling full longer while keeping hunger (and hanger) at bay.
How do we get fat-adapted? Easy! Eat more whole food forms of healthy fats! Avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and ghee are all fantastic and healthy forms of fats that our bodies can use for energy. Once you can go longer between meals and snack less throughout the day you know you are fat-adapted!
#4 You Don’t Have Extra Weight to Lose
This one is so incredibly important! Those “last 5-10 lbs” that you just can’t seem to lose might be so incredibly important to your health. Maybe those last few pounds are helping you keep your menstrual cycle, keeping hormones balanced or keeping you from obsessing about food.
Sometimes the weight we think we “should be” isn’t a weight that our bodies thrive at. Surviving and thriving are two very different things. If your body weight seems to come back to or stays at a certain naturally then this is a pretty good indicator that this is a good weight for your body.
Pushing below this number for either an extended period of time or trying to lose too much weight can cause a whole host of problems: poor quality sleep, irritability, amenorrhea (loss of menstruation), hair loss, brain fog, muscle mass and strength loss, dizziness, mood swings and much more.
While it is true that there are health benefits to having a lower body weight, there are also negative health consequences to being too thin (for your own individual body). While a lower body fat percentage might seem ideal, many women lose their periods around 12% and this is highly individual. Some may be able to have a lower body fat percentage and feel fine while others may lose their cycles around 20%.
Get honest with yourself and maybe you will find that the “last 5-10 lbs” isn’t really even there.
#5 Your Hormones / Thyroid Aren’t Functioning Properly
While this certainly applies mainly to women, thyroid and hormonal problems can happen to men too. However, I will primarily be addressing women in this section. As I stated in the above section #4, having balanced hormones is crucial to a healthy menstrual cycle. Why does this matter? Because a woman’s cycle is one of the best markers of health. A relatively symptomless period is an excellent indicator that hormones are balanced.
In order for hormones to be balanced, the body needs to be able to process hormones like estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol. These hormones give feedback to the brain and control what our bodies prioritize like: reproduction, digestion, weight loss, strengthening the immune system and much more. If our hormones are unbalanced and are constantly giving that feedback to our brain, our bodies become chronically stressed and weight loss goes on the back burner.
What can we do about this problem? Get educated! This article is awesome by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne as well as Beyond the Pill by Dr. Jolene Brighten. Start reading, experiment with seed cycling (I have a post here), get your hormone levels checked and find ways to reduce stress in your life.
#6 You Aren’t Sleeping Enough
Have you noticed how obsessed with sleep I am yet? If you aren’t clocking at least 8 solid hours of sleep a night your body is unable to repair and rebuild properly. Not to mention all the neurological effects that come with chronically under-sleeping: increases insulin sensitivity, increases risk for obesity, increases hunger hormones and more.
Hormones again? Oh yeah. Sleep is crucial for keeping our hormones in balance and can negatively affect hormones insulin, leptin, ghrelin and cortisol.
Insulin is the hormone responsible for transporting glucose from our food into our cells. This signals the liver to convert excess glucose to glycogen to be used for immediate energy and also into triglycerides to be stored as body fat.
Insulin is also responsible for communicating to the brain about how much we should or should not eat and how much body fat we have. See how this could be a negative if we are chronically sleep deprived? The communication between insulin and the brain can easily become confused and inaccurately relay how much body fat we have or need.
Leptin is similar to insulin in the way that it communicates with our brain how much fat we have in our bodies and helps our brains to calculate how much we need to eat.
Ghrelin is sort of the opposite of the insulin and leptin in the fact that it is the satiety hormone and helps to regulate our hunger sensations. Ghrelin is released once the physical contents of our stomachs are empty and stops being released once the stomach is full of food again.
Finally, cortisol as mentioned above, communicates with the brain what bodily processes are most important and could care less about weight loss when cortisol levels are chronically elevated.
Soooo how do we sleep more? First of all, prioritize it! It can seem easier to blow sleep off but it is just as important if not more important than diet when it comes to a healthy body composition.
Sleep in a cold, dark room and limit screens ~2 hours before bed to help the brain naturally wind down and prepare for rest. Get in tune with your circadian rhythms (rise with the sun, sleep with the moon) and try to get to bed at a consistent time every night. While naps can be awesome to catch up on sleep, consistency is key here.
#7 You Aren’t Eating in a Way That Agrees With Your Body
While there are countless diets on the market and way of eating out there, it is incredibly hard to make any blanket statements about what the perfect diet is. Everyone is so different and unique and while one way of eating might be awesome for one person, it could accelerate disease in another person.
This being said, there are some things that aren’t debated and are generally considered to be healthy: eat vegetables, get outside and get moving. Beyond this it’s hard to really nail down any concrete health advice.
However, I firmly believe that eating real, whole foods is beneficial for just about every person out there. I’d be hard pressed to find a person that thrives off processed and junk foods.
How do we chose how to eat in a world full of diet culture and information? I’ve got a simple (and yet not so simple) answer: get educated and get experimenting. I highly recommend reading books like Genius Foods by Max Lugavere, Food: What the Heck Should I Eat by Dr. Mark Hyman, Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf and Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo. After that, get experimenting with yourself! Try eliminating foods, try adding different foods, play with macronutrient ratios and start becoming an expert at what makes YOU feel awesome.
Knowledge is power and this is no exception. Having the wisdom and insight into what fuels your body best is valuable information. Once you determine your boundaries you can get so creative and start feeling and performing at your best.
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