When we think of health, we’re so programmed to immediately think of weight loss, as if a number on the scale or the size of our jeans contain secret insight to the health of our organs or how long we’re going to live. For decades (and even centuries), women have focused on how to look healthy, using diets, restrictions, and mental stress that actually left them unhealthy. So this preface is my plea to you, dear reader, to care more about the factors that make you feel healthy: eating an abundance of foods that give you an abundance of energy, moving the body in whichever ways feel best on a regular basis, and prioritizing your mental well-being, however that looks like to you.
But if weight loss is a goal because you feel out of touch with your body, lack energy or confidence, or because it was recommended by your doctor to improve your health, that’s OK too. Let’s stop judging all women for the health goals they have and instead focus on what will make us feel like our truest, happiest, most energetic selves, whether that means weight gain, weight loss, or no weight change at all. If your goals do have to do with weight, you should know there’s way more to the equation than just diet and nutrition. And if you think you’ve tried everything with no success (or are exhausted trying to find answers), I got you. Here’s why diet and exercise are not the only factors of weight loss and what to look for as well.
Why are there more factors than diet and exercise?
We’ve been taught for years that the “eat less calories and burn more calories” is the one and only weight loss formula, but that’s just not true. For one reason, not all calories are created equal (300 calories from a frozen Lean Cuisine meal do very different things to the body than 300 calories of nutrient-dense, fresh fruits and veggies) and our bodies need an abundance of high-quality calories in order to survive, much less to do a hard workout, ace a work presentation, or chase after kids (PSA: calories are a good thing, not something to limit or restrict). Also, every body is different—the types of food, habits, and exercise that is best for your body will be different from what’s best for someone else.
Finally, the body is a living, breathing, digesting organism. The way it works, holds onto weight, and loses weight are much more complex than a system of measurement created in a lab (i.e. calories). So if you’ve been going off of the diet-and-exercise equation with no success, as a health coach, I’m not surprised (rest assured that I see it all the time). I asked doctors, nutritionists, and other experts to weigh in (pun intended) on the crucial factors you may not have been told about from diet books or exercise programs. Read on for some expert advice, and then talk to your doctor about what plan, routine, or changes may be right for your body.
We’ve been taught for years that the “eat less calories and burn more calories” is the one and only weight loss formula, but that’s just not true.
Other factors for weight loss:
Proper hydration is crucial for every function of the body, so of course it can affect your weight too. “When the body becomes dehydrated, it slows down the metabolism,” stated Dr. Allen Conrad, BS, DC, CSCS, the owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center. “The amount of water you drink is directly coordinated to helping your body function at its best, and this is especially true for helping weight loss.” Also, besides just the physical effect of hydration, hunger cues are often times thirst cues, which means we may be eating more than the body needs when we’re not properly hydrated.
If you start feeling hungry soon after eating a big meal, drink a big glass of water before reaching for a snack, and drink more consistently throughout the day. How much water you need depends on your body and activity levels (listen to your body’s thirst cues and talk to your doctor to find what’s best for you), but a good rule of thumb to start with is to drink at least half your weight in ounces per day.
Let me introduce you to a fact that changed my relationship with my body: Stress over weight gain is worse for your body than the actual weight gain. It sounds like an unfair cycle that stress about our bodies can actually prevent us from losing weight, but it’s also an important reminder that the way we feel emotionally is more important for our health than what we eat and how we move.
“Chronic stress can result in increased inflammation, high blood pressure, and brain fog, which impacts both our emotional and physical health and leads to weight gain,” said Kayla Girgen, RD, LD, a registered dietitian specializing in weight loss and founder of Nutrition Untapped. “Find quiet time to relax and partake in hobbies you enjoy to help reduce stress and mental strain.” Whether you’re constantly stressed at work, going through a tough time in your relationship, or put pressure on yourself to look a certain way, get curious about how it might be affecting your body and work with a therapist to come up with a stress-relief plan that’s best for you.
Bad news for night owls or early risers: Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for maintaining a healthy weight. “One of the most undervalued steps in weight loss is the importance of sleep,” said Jamie Hickey, a NASM, FMS certified trainer, registered dietician, and founder of Truism Fitness. “Insufficient sleep contributes to obesity and weight gain in many ways. For one, when we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies release hunger hormones like ghrelin. Sleep also affects thermoregulation, and how the body regulates its temperature affects weight. Lastly, sleep enables lipogenesis (fat synthesis) in the digestive system, so we can better use fat for energy instead of storing it.” In other words, not getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night can make you eat more than what your body needs, and it can also affect how your body is able to regulate temperature and encourages fat storage, which can make maintaining a healthy weight more difficult.
4. Gut health
Nutrition and diet are not just about what you eat but also about how the body digests whatever you eat. In fact, multiple recent studies have proven a direct correlation between weight gain (or loss) and the gut microbiome, including that gut health can predict the body’s response to weight loss efforts. In other words, a healthier gut means a healthier weight, and vice versa. “Your gut health can greatly affect weight loss,” agreed Heather Hanks, a nutritionist and expert for USA Rx. “The more good bacteria you have in your gut, the easier it will be to lose weight. For example, one study found that taking a probiotic was linked to significant decreases in fat mass, weight, and BMI.” Especially if you have healthy diet, exercise, sleep, and stress levels and still have difficulty with weight, talk to your doctor about testing gut bacteria through stool tests or taking a probiotic to improve the health of the microbiome.
5. Vitamin levels
Gut bacteria is not the only thing to check if you’re looking to reach a healthy weight. For patients who are struggling with weight loss, Dr. Judson Somerville, MD, a pain medicine doctor and best-selling author, recommended checking vitamin levels, particularly vitamin D3. “Optimal vitamin D3 levels are crucial for weight loss for three reasons: Lack of vitamin D3 can increase hunger levels and appetite, vitamin D3 speeds up metabolism by 20-30% so you can burn more fat, and vitamin D3 blocks non-essential fat absorption,” he explained. Weight loss can be a symptom of insufficient vitamin levels or your body’s way of telling you it needs something, and that something might be a certain vitamin or nutrient. Who needs a dangerous diet pill when the nutrients your entire body needs for optimal health help with weight regulation too?
You might have heard of hormones like estrogen and progesterone (related to menstruation and reproductive organs), stress hormones (like cortisol), or even happy hormones (like serotonin), but the hormonal circuit is actually quite complex and affects a wide variety of functions throughout the entire body. They can affect many aspects of health like mood, sleep, hunger, reproduction, sex drive, and—you guessed it—weight.
“The many hormonal circuits in the body can cause weight gain or loss,” explained Dr. Carrie Lam, MD, FAAMFM, ABAARM, a physician specializing in nutritional and anti-aging medicine. “Particularly the thyroid regulates the metabolism of every cell in the body, and thyroid issues can result in inexplicable weight gain (especially weight gain around the middle). Dysregulation of the bioenergetics circuit can cause weight gain and slow the metabolic rate. As with every circuit in the body, hormones exist in a delicate balance, so when one becomes dysfunctional, the others often follow.” Talk to your doctor about thyroid health or if you suspect you might be suffering from a hormonal imbalance.
7. Food sensitivities
Food sensitivity is another reason why diet is not just about what you eat but also how your body responds to what you eat. Even what a nutritionist or doctor has deemed “healthy” may not be healthy for your body (read: every body is different and needs different things), so getting to know what is healthy for you can be key to maintaining a healthy weight. “Identifying any food sensitivities can help you get rid of stubborn weight,” suggested Maru Dávila, a celebrity weight loss expert, best-selling author, and integrative nutrition coach.
“When you eat foods that you are sensitive to, your body reacts as if the foods are invaders, causing inflammation and water retention that will make you gain weight and eventually damage your cells and organs. Eliminating the foods that you are sensitive to can result in a rapid and dramatic weight reduction.” Check with your doctor about food sensitivity tests (like traditional allergy tests or stool tests) or try an at-home kit.
8. Your emotions
Beyond getting stressed about a busy schedule, long to-do lists, or short deadlines, how happy you are or past emotional trauma can result in unhealthy weight too. Dr. Adrienne Youdim, MD, FACP, is an internist who specializes in weight loss and owns her own weight management practice in Beverly Hills. She looks at all the physical elements from diet and exercise to sleep, stress, hormone levels, etc., but what makes Dr. Youdim so unique (and successful) is that she acknowledges that emotions are often a factor of weight (in fact, she wrote an entire book about it). “Adverse childhood events have been linked to excess weight,” she said. “In a study on obesity conducted by the CDC, nearly 66% of participants reported at least one adverse or traumatic event in childhood. Any abuse increased the risk of obesity by 8% and the risk of severe obesity by 20%.”
What do all these statistics mean? There’s a proven link between obesity and past traumatic events, AKA emotions can affect weight (Dr. Youdim often prescribes therapy as part of weight loss plans). Emotions are not just mental and the mind is not its own entity; the mind and body are connected and emotions are felt physically as well. Always seek out professional help if you’re dealing with emotional distress (whether it’s past or present) so you can be your happiest self, but also know that weight is one of the many ways our bodies communicate with us what they need—and often, what that is is comfort, relief, and joy.
This article is intended to provide inspiration to help you reach your health goals, not as treatment for an eating disorder. If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.