You said goodbye to Friday beer and pizza. You kicked your ice cream habit. It’s been three years since you tasted a soft drink. Basically, you cleaned your diet of all the low-hanging fruit — the empty-calorie foods that are anything but fruit.
You started walking, then worked up to jogging, Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise three days a week? Check. But you noticed something funny. Even though you dropped a few pounds at the start and were feeling great, your progress stalled, then reversed.
So you cut carbs (or fat, or meat or calories) and got serious about tracking what you put in your body. You now know you’re consuming less energy than you’re supposed to be burning. According to all the charts, your weight should be trending down. It’s got to be middle age, you think, and you step it up. Six days a week, you’re front and center at spin class. On the seventh, you rest by sweating through a 90-minute vinyasa yoga practice.
After all this you should be slim and toned with a 5-years-younger glow. Instead, you’re tired but can’t sleep. You’re depressed and irritable. Crazily, you’re heavier than ever and your muscles seem to have wilted. You’ve done everything right. What gives?
Why? Most diets and weight-loss workouts are based on a very outdated model that fat is stored energy. If you reduce your calories enough, the theory goes, you will lose weight by burning off that big energy reserve.
It’s like you’ve stocked the fridge with butter and, if all you do for weeks is use butter and don’t go shopping to refill the fridge, soon you’ll be out of butter. Problem is, you and everyone else have a magic fridge designed to never run completely out of butter. It has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve to keep that from happening. It can sweet talk you into restocking it, it can ration out the butter super slowly, and it can all but dial out to EatStreet for more food on its own. If worse comes to worst, it will just start turning the shelves, the handle, the ice maker into butter to keep its stock full.
You see, when you eat less or exercise more for a few days or weeks, you may lose some weight. But when you seriously cut your calories and bump up your activity over time, you’re not doing what you think you are. You’re not telling the body to start a big fat-burning bonfire. In fact, you’re doing the opposite — you’re telling your body that fuel is getting scarce and it better start holding onto fat just in case. At this point, your body makes sure you start spending your energy on just the essentials, cutting corners on important functions in order to tuck away some more emergency fat. If you dial it back further, you really get the body’s attention. It looks around for what is both expendable and a big energy suck and it finds your muscles. So they get thrown on the fire and burned up for fuel instead. This is how you end up tired, weak, and heavier than when you started.
If you want to lose weight and keep it off, stop stressing your body
When women hit this dead end and can’t make progress, they often blame “their hormones.” The thing is, they’re right, but it’s not always the hormones they assume.
Excessive dieting and exercising (especially endless cardio) work counterproductively by driving up two hormones you don’t want to remain high for long. The first is cortisol, a stress hormone produced by your adrenal glands. Cortisol is useful for short-term emergencies, like running to your gate when you’re late for a flight. But, long-term, this highly inflammatory hormone can dial back essential processes and wreak havoc on your body’s systems, including causing anxiety and depression, insomnia, headaches and heart disease. Cortisol also pushes up a second hormone, insulin, which your body uses to pull sugar out of your blood after a meal so it can be burned or stored. At chronically high levels, insulin blocks your body from breaking down fat for energy.
If you want to balance your weight and energy levels, you need to normalize your cortisol and insulin levels. You don’t want to go back to nachos and Netflix, of course, but you want to find the appropriate amount of healthy food and movement that supports, not stresses, your body.
Here is an example of how thinking in terms of balancing your cortisol and insulin can help. First, you need to always make sure you’re taking in enough, consistent energy that your body can build muscle, run your reproductive system, think, digest, grow, repair, fight infections and do all of the many things you take for granted when you’re healthy. This means not restricting your intake of fuel — especially fat and protein — in an attempt to lose weight.
Second, you need to pay attention to your body’s cues. Insulin levels are dependent on the meal before the last meal. So, for example, if you feel like your energy is crashing in the afternoon, it’s because you didn’t fuel well enough at breakfast. Or, if you can’t stay asleep, it often means there was not enough fuel during the day to get you through the night. When your blood sugar drops in the wee hours, cortisol and insulin surge, causing you to wake up. This second scenario is a common problem and it leads to a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep stresses your body, the stress drives the fat storage that causes you to diet, and the dieting causes insomnia… and around and around you go.
It can be surprisingly easy to break this cycle by more quality food at regular intervals during the day. Your insulin and cortisol levels will fall and you’ll start getting some zzz’s at last.
If you’re wondering if other kinds of stress keep you from losing weight, you’re right. Dieting and too much exercise stress your body and raise cortisol and insulin, but so, too, does psychological stress. One way to lower this burden is to take a look at what you’re trying to accomplish in a day. Is it reasonable or doable, or are you unconsciously setting yourself up for failure? If you find yourself saying “I’ll try harder tomorrow / I’ll get it right tomorrow,” you’re probably trying to get too much done in a day and you’re asking too much of yourself. Manage your expectations and be kind to yourself. Your mindset is not only a big part of your success; it’s a big part of your health and a healthy weight.
Not all stress is bad. The right amounts of stress can actually make us stronger. Where jumping on the cardio bandwagon can raise your cortisol and signal to your body to burn muscle tissue, for example, other forms of exercise can give you an appropriate challenge that will prompt healthy adaptation rather than energy conservation. Think short high intensity workouts or short spurt interval training, or even just brisk walks. Although studies find that exercise has minimal effect on weight loss over the long term, and show that more isn’t really better for busting your belly fat, there are many other good reasons for moderate exercise — including reducing stress.
The low-stress way to a healthy weight
The key to finding and maintaining a healthy weight is to manage stress — both physical and mental. Adjust your mindset and remove any unnecessary stressors from your lifestyle. Then take care of the stress you’ve been putting on your body. Give it plenty of fuel, especially fats and proteins, and never let it go hungry. Take time to eat your food, chew slowly and give your brain and gut enough time to feel satisfied. Exercise, but not excessively. Play and do something you enjoy, or try short 30-second bursts of activity a few times during the day, like jumping jacks or squats.
When you have rebalanced your life so that you have enough fuel for your body’s needs, your sleep should return and you’ll start to feel better. The more rest you get, the more energy and motivation you’ll find to take good care of yourself. Your dieting doom spiral will reverse, and you’ll become healthier with each passing day.
Dr. Heidi Iratcabal, ND, IFMCP, is a naturopathic practitioner and co-founder of the , one of the largest functional medicine clinics in America. Her multidisciplinary, functional medicine approach helps patients read their body’s unique signals and get to the root of their chronic health conditions — from gut and immune illnesses to endocrine disruption to aging, memory and other brain health issues. Her core belief is that bodies are amazingly equipped to communicate their needs and heal when given the right conditions. Each day, she helps patients unlock their body’s messages, heal and thrive. You can learn more about her inspiring and integrative approach at https://scienceofthriving.com/