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Why can't I lose weight?

12 January 2022

Do you feel like you're doing all the right things and find you still can't lose weight? Or perhaps you were successfully losing weight, but have since reached a weight loss plateau?

Weight loss tools, including diet diary, low calorie food and tape measure
Keeping a diary can help you figure out what might be preventing your weight loss

A diet plateau occurs for one reason – you’re no longer burning more calories than you’re eating. However, there are certain aspects of our lifestyle that can impact how hungry we are, and how fast our metabolism is.

Read the points below to find out why you're struggling to lose weight and how you can fix it. Once you’ve pinpointed your problem it’ll only take a day or two before you’ll be right back on track, revealing a new even leaner, fitter you.

You started out very overweight

When you’re obese or very overweight your body has to work harder to simply keep you upright and walking – an overweight leg is heavier to lift than a slim one.

So at the start of your weight-loss plan, a simple 30-minute walk would have burned more calories than for someone who weighed less than you. And now that you’ve lost some excess weight the same exercises just aren’t blasting those calories.

Even the energy you burn just doing nothing is reduced once you are slimmer, and if you haven't adjusted your calorie calculations to suit your new TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) you may no longer be eating a calorie deficit, or your deficit might have shrunk. Various apps and online TDEE calculators can help you work out how many calories your body needs.

Unlimited access to a qualified GP with Saga Health Insurance - you'll have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to a GP consultation service. Find out more about our GP phone service.

You're losing track of what you're eating

We all start out with good intentions but as time goes on it’s easy to think you’ve got a handle on how much you’re eating, without making a note of it, when in fact you’ve let bad eating habits creep back in. Here’s how to get back on track:

  • Keep a detailed food diary for a week to make sure you’re not overeating
  • Keep checking those figures on the labels
  • Keep monitoring portion sizes
  • Keep an eye on calories in drinks

These days it's easier than ever to keep track of what you're eating. Apps such as Cronometer and My Fitness Pal allow you to record your food and assess your 'macros' (macronutrients, ie calories, protein, carbs and fat) and Cronometer also tracks micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). They can even synch up with other apps such as fitness trackers to estimate how many calories you are burning compared to how many you have consumed.

Your lifestyle has changed

Growing older can be a factor when it comes to weight-loss woes. A lot of people become more sedentary as they get older. As they become less active, they can have more fat and less lean muscle, so their metabolism slows down, primarily because fat burns off calories less efficiently than muscle.

Taking less exercise and having a reduced muscle mass means that your energy requirements change - you don’t need to eat as much as you used to. Carry on eating the same diet as you did ten years ago, and you’ll put on weight, because you just aren’t burning off the calories you’re taking in.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though - some people stay very active. And the good news is that if you take regular exercise you’ll build muscle and boost your metabolic rate, so look for an exercise you enjoy to work into your lifestyle, whether that's dancing, walking football or hiking. If you haven't exercised for a long time start gradually and build up.

Learn more about how to boost your metabolism

You're stressed

Money worries, relationship problems, too much or too little work – all of these and more, can raise our stress levels. If you’re stressed over a long period of time, it can play havoc with your weight.

When your body feels stress it reacts by releasing a number of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate and the fuel supplies to your blood stream. These changes are designed to keep us alive when we face danger, and are known as the 'Fight or flight' response.

Cortisol works on other areas too, it turns down the systems we don’t need when we’re running from a predator – our digestive, immune and reproductive systems among them. Long periods of stress mean these hormones trigger this response – and alter how our bodies work - for far longer than is healthy.

One of our responses to cortisol is to store fat around our middles, where it’s near our major arteries, and easily available as extra energy. Stress also affects our metabolic rate, slowing it down, so we don’t burn up our fuel supplies so quickly. The result? Your body hangs onto its fat stores.

However, not everyone responds to stress by piling on lbs. Some people react by losing their appetite and shedding weight, which is not as good as it sounds, as this too can have long-term health consequences.

Are your hormones making you fat?

You're not filling up at meal times

When you’re salivating at the sight of doughnuts or sausage rolls it’s hard to say no to your body and dieting becomes a painful experience, which can mar your success. So don’t let yourself get hungry, fill up on foods that keep you full for longer without adding too many calories.

Choose high-in-water-content foods with plenty of fibre, such as vegetables, oats, beans, wheat pasta and brown rice. You’ll be amazed at how much willpower you’ll gain – next time you see a doughnut it’ll still look tasty but you won’t be drooling over it in the same way.

You aren't getting enough sleep

Burning the candle at both ends? If you haven’t been getting enough sleep, it could be one reason why you’re struggling to lose weight. Research by Dr Shahrad Taheri of the University of Birmingham found that people who sleep for less than eight hours a night have a greater risk of being overweight.

It seems that hormonal changes, brought on by lack of sleep may be the root of the problem. When we don't get enough sleep, our bodies produce a hormone called ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and create less of a hormone called leptin, which suppresses appetite. The result could well be that when we're sleep-deprived we feel hungrier, and are more likely to raid the kitchen cupboards. When we're hungry we're prone to making unhealthy choices - a bacon butty for breakfast might be a lot more enticing than yogurt and fruit or porridge, for example.

You're skipping meals

If your scales are refusing to show the weight-loss you’ve been hoping for, it could be that your diet is too extreme. Skipping meals in a bid to shed pounds is a no-win situation.

The body just makes use of its glycogen stores (smaller stores of carbohydrates) for such eventualities. As soon as you resume normal eating, these stores are replenished. The fat you are trying to burn off stays put, as it isn’t used. Instead glycogen and water are lost, hence the possible drop on the scales. This can continue for a few days – which is why short term, very low calorie fad diets don’t work.

Avoid this problem by altering your eating habits sensibly, taking smaller portions of your favourite foods and bulking up on fruits and vegetables instead. A steady, slow, weight loss of about 1-2lbs per week is a tactic that’s more likely to be successful in the long run.

You started exercising

Weight isn't always the best indication of health, and calculations like BMI can be flawed. The reason? Muscles weigh more than fat because muscles are much denser. If you recently increased your exercise levels you might be finding the scales haven't budged even though you're feeling better.

It's good to use a tape measure and measure your waist, thighs and arms - you may well find the inches are reducing even if the number on the scales have stalled! You could also try on some old clothes you hadn't been able to get into for a while - you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. You will also improve your cardiovascular health and tone your body, and as muscles burn more calories than fat it will benefit long-term weight loss (perhaps better described as 'fat loss').

You aren't calorie smart

All calories are not created equal: it's far more important to focus on the nutritional worth of food, rather than cutting calories alone. It's vital to curb your intake of 'empty calories' – those solid fats and added sugars that have little or no nutritional worth.

Top of the list of culprits? Alcohol. Drink a large glass of wine with your otherwise healthy meal at night, for instance, and you'll be consuming 228 calories – approximately the same found in an ice cream.

You're on certain medication

It may not seem fair, but your prescription drugs may be making it more difficult for you to lose weight. If you have diabetes, for instance, and take one of the sulfonylurea group of drugs, you may find that you put on weight. Taking Metformin, however, (one of the biguanides group of drugs), and a commonly used diabetes medication, may help with weight loss, or at least help you stop gaining any more.

Steroids are prescribed for a range of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, severe asthma and cancer. One side affect of taking steroids is that you may feel hungrier than normal, and so eat more than usual, and put on weight. The effect is dose-related so your doctor will try to get your dose down as low as possible. If you’re taking under 7.5mg, you shouldn’t be getting significant weight problems.’

Anti-depressants may also make you put on weight, depending on which you take. There are a number of anti-depressants that can make it more difficult to lose weight, but no pill will make you put on weight unless you eat more. The weight gain is usually appetite and activity related. If you manage to eat the same amount and do the same amount of exercise, you’ll probably weigh the same.

Never go off medications without consulting your doctor. If you have any concerns about your medication or dosage speak to your GP.

Visit our weight loss section for more diet tips, including tips for reducing water retention and the best healthy snack foods

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.