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Why Is Losing Weight So Hard? Hint: We're Wired to Gain Weight

When it comes to weight control, balancing the amount of food you eat with the amount of exercise you get is only the beginning! A registered dietician explains how the body turns calories into excess weight.

feet on scale reading "HELP!" Our bodies are programmed to fight against losing weight. This evolutionary response guards against starvation.

If you’re trying to understand why and how you gain weight, or if you’re trying to lose excess weight or maintain a healthy weight, it helps to be aware of the roles that both your brain and body play in the process. It’s important to keep in mind that whenever you start to lose weight, your body resists, because it interprets weight loss as possible starvation.

It is your body’s natural instinct to maintain weight for the sake of survival, so it uses everything at its disposal to try to prevent you from losing. And therein lies the familiar struggle between the amount of weight you want to lose and your body’s refusal to let it go.

Calories and Fat: The Basics

Weight gain is inevitably a result of consuming more calories than you burn through physical activity. The word calories is used to describe the potential energy we get from food.

When you overeat, that is, when you consume more calories than you use up through physical activity. Excess calories are stored in your fatty tissue as excess fat cells. Fat cells not only increase in number, they can also increase in size. Excess fat begins to accumulate in areas where fatty tissue normally resides in your body but with additional weight gain, will begin to accumulate in organs such as your liver and heart. That’s one way excessive weight gain can lead to disease.

As you become an adult, and that stored energy is no longer necessary for normal growth, you become fatter because you are collecting more and bigger fat cells in your body. When you try to lose weight, those fat cells diminish in size but not in number. When you shrink your fat cells, you lose weight, but those shrunken cells are still there in your body, just waiting to be refilled. This explains why people who gain too much weight as children and into adulthood often spend their entire lives struggling to get it off and keep it off.

Your Metabolism

One key factor in weight control is your set point, or your body’s ability to adjust its metabolism—or the rate at which you burn calories—in an attempt to get you back to your original weight after you lose.

When you lose weight, your metabolism slows down so that you use less energy, or fewer calories, from the food you eat. That’s why severe weight loss diets don’t work; if you have been cutting back on calories to lose weight, and you increase your calorie intake by going back to your original eating habits, you will quickly gain back the lost weight, and possibly more.

tape measure around waist of woman holding saladWhen you lose weight, your metabolism slows down so that you use less energy, or fewer calories, from the food you eat. That’s why severe weight loss diets don’t work.(Photo: Unsplash, Rawpixel)

Another way your body adjusts to weight loss is to produce more of an enzyme known as lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which helps you break down and store fat. As you’re losing weight, the gene that produces LPL is getting a signal that says “produce more LPL so we can hold on to more fat!” At the same time, your body’s ability to oxidize, or burn, fat becomes less efficient.

Your Hormones

Hormones are chemicals produced by your body that move through your blood bringing messages from one organ or type of cell to another. Your body uses hormones produced by your brain, your fat cells and your stomach to regulate many processes involved in hunger and appetite.

Insulin is among the hormones that help regulate when you feel hungry, how much you eat, when you feel full and when you stop eating. While you are eating, your brain and your stomach constantly communicate via many different hormones and enzymes. A disruption or breakdown anywhere in that communication system can cause you to overeat.


Why We Overeat

In addition to normal feelings of hunger, your brain reacts to numerous environmental cues that make you think you want to eat even when you’re not especially hungry. It might be the time of day you normally eat lunch, the sight of a food cart, the smell of someone else cooking, or just the availability of food at a party or in your own fridge.

Psychologists say that emotions such as anger, sorrow, fear, and even happiness are behind most obsessive or uncontrollable eating habits. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, stress, and frustration all contribute to emotional overeating. When this is the case, you have to get to the root of the problem in order to fix the food problem.

The Bottom Line

Healthy eating habits develop not only from eating nutritious foods and getting enough exercise, but also from responding only to internal cues that signal true hunger. This pattern is sabotaged when you respond to external factors such as the mere sight of food, and eat arbitrarily and randomly, instead of consciously.

Other factors, such as the state of your health or the medications you take, and how much weight you’re already gained, can also affect your eating habits, your level of physical activity, and how your body responds to any attempts to loss weight.

As researchers try to figure out exactly how insulin regulation and other factors that are in and out of your control directly affect weight, your best solution is to do what you can to prevent further weight gain now. This is true no matter how old you are or how much you currently weigh. If physical or psychological issues are getting in your way, seek the help you need from a registered dietitian, diabetes educator, endocrinologist, or mental health professional.

Updated on: March 20, 2019
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