While the number of calories you consume each day certainly plays a role in your ability to drop a few extra pounds, the battle to lose weight is actually much more complex than a simple calories-in vs. calories-out approach. Your hormones, stress levels, sleep, physical activity and food allergies are important factors, too — and they may explain why the scale hasn’t budged even when you’ve seemingly been doing everything right.
If you can’t quite shake the excess weight no matter how much you diet and exercise, these five strategies may just get the scale moving in the right direction.
1. De-stress and Get More Sleep
Research shows that stressed-out and sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to choose larger portions of snacks and unhealthier foods (those that are high in sugar and fat) than those who sleep about eight hours at night and manage their stress effectively. This is because chronic stress and lack of sleep can increase hormones — including the primary “stress hormone,” cortisol — that affect your food choices, cravings, energy and willpower. And, unfortunately, anything that triggers a negative mind state, like anxiety, worry, anger or frustration, can elevate cortisol levels.
According to many studies, stress and glucocorticoids (stress hormones) act to control both food intake and energy expenditure. In animal studies, high-cortisol responders (those who release more in response to stress) have greater propensity to weight gain and obesity than low-cortisol responders. In fact, experts now believe that cortisol responsiveness may be used as a marker to identify individuals who are at risk of weight gain, obesity and accumulation of fat around the abdomen.
So what are some healthy habits that can keep cortisol levels in balance? Some of my favorite all-natural stress-relieving activities include: yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, journaling and prayer. You should also make it a priority to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night to keep stress under control, while switching to an anti-inflammatory diet filled with whole foods and using adaptogen herbs and relaxing essential oils to build your body’s defenses against stressors.
2. Incorporate High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) into Your Workouts
It’s generally well-accepted among obesity researchers that simply adding more exercise to someone’s routine won’t automatically lead to weight loss, as exercise tends to increase hunger and may also reduce physical activity at other points throughout the day. However, vigorous, high-intensity training seems to work differently than steady-state exercise and offer unique benefits.
HIIT workouts typically last just 20-30 minutes, but have serious, ongoing fat-burning potential thanks to their “afterburn effect.” This term refers to the body’s tendency to keep burning calories for hours after a vigorous workout session, as your body must continue to work hard to repair muscle tissue and prepare you for future workouts. Certain studies have found that HIIT burns more visceral belly fat compared to standard cardio exercise, and according to researchers, “HIIT appears to be the predominant strategy for controlling obesity because of its time efficiency.”
3. Keep a Food Journal
A number of studies have found that people who keep a food journal or log tend to stick to their diet better (and lose more weight) than those who don’t. Tracking your food intake can make your progress clearer, point out weaknesses you might not otherwise notice and motivate you to keep going.
Even keeping a food journal short-term, for just 1-2 weeks, can be really eye-opening — for example, by revealing that your portion sizes are much bigger than you thought, or by pointing out times when you may be consuming “sneaky calories” that are halting weight loss.
A food journal is also a great way to spot any potential food allergies/sensitivities you may not realize you’re struggling with. Leaving food intolerances untreated can potentially contribute to digestive issues like leaky gut syndrome, malabsorption of certain nutrients, fatigue and autoimmune responses. If you suspect that food allergies are messing with your metabolism, mood and hormones, you can discuss findings from your food journal with your doctor or a dietician and consider trying an elimination diet.
4. Give Intermittent Fasting (IF) a Try
Fasting — or purposefully going for extended periods of time without eating any solid food — is a health-promoting practice that has been utilized by populations around the world for thousands of years. Meanwhile, in recent years, fasting has been shown in dozens of studies to promote weight loss and improve metabolic health because it encourages the body to burn stored fat, helps to improve insulin sensitivity, enhances digestion and detoxification, and may even promote longevity.
Intermittent fasting (IF) looks a bit different for each person, but all types generally fall into one of these categories: time restricted eating (for example, eating only within an 8-9-hour window per day, and fasting for the other 15-16 hours), alternative-day fasting (fasting on non-consecutive days), or short-term fasts (total fasts usually lasting 2-3 complete days, or sometimes more). Some people even choose to eat just one meal per day and then fast for the remaining 23 hours.
If you’re new to IF, you’ll likely have the most success if you attempt to fast for 13-16 hours overnight. To give it a try, eat dinner by 6 p.m. and don’t eat again until sometime between 7-10 a.m. the next day.
5. Try a Short-term Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet is a very high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein diet that forces your body to use fat instead of glucose (carbs) for energy. It requires you to drastically restrict your carb intake to just 20-30 net grams per day, which represents about 5% of your daily calories. In place of carbs, you eat lots and lots of fats — ideally from healthy sources, like coconut and olive oil, grass-fed butter, grass-fed beef, eggs and fatty fish. Non-starchy veggies, avocados, full-fat dairy, nuts and seeds round out the diet and provide plenty of essential vitamins, minerals and fiber. Many people wonder how the keto diet differs from other low-carb diets, such as Atkins. But on the keto diet, fat is the main calorie source, rather than protein.
The reason the keto diet promotes weight loss so reliably is that it tends to reduce hunger and kill cravings, plus it encourages your body to burn stored body fat for fuel. Additionally, the diet offers benefits like protection against diabetes, neurological disorders and hormonal conditions such as PCOS. (An added bonus of the ketogenic diet is that it makes fasting easier to stick with, since it naturally reduces hunger.)
Is the keto diet safe? Researchers report that “this nutritional approach has a solid physiological and biochemical basis and is able to induce effective weight loss along with improvement in several cardiovascular risk parameters.” Because it’s not yet clear how a long-term keto diet can impact heart and liver health, it’s recommended that people follow the diet for no more than 6 months to one year.