Based on the number of page views my post called “The Truth About Weight Loss” has gotten, people are far more interested in reading about losing weight than they are in cancer or the disastrous consequences associated with chronically elevated insulin. And, based on the comments that post garnered, right here on the blog as well as on various LCHF sites, this post and the next few in this mini-series are among the most hotly anticipated posts I’ve ever written. (Except for the next cancer post. I know, I know…I keep promising to get back to those, but then I get sidetracked by other equally fascinating things.)
With that in mind, I’m feelin’ the pressure, everybody. I’ll try not to disappoint, but, the truth is, I don’t have any magical formulas for you. I don’t have the secret to THE ONE THING you’ve never, ever heard of for kick-starting fat loss or breaking a stall. I haven’t discovered the only unsullied superfruit with mystical fat-melting properties, found deep in the Amazon Rain Forest, and known only to me and one indigenous tribe untouched by Western civilization. (But if I ever do stumble upon that, it’ll be available through my website for just $39.99, and you’ll have to order it by clicking on the obnoxious pop-up window that flashes in your face immediately upon the site loading. [Don’t’cha just love those?] It’ll also be available for purchase through an affiliate link in the sidebar of every single other LCHF, Paleo, Primal, and real food site you frequent. [This is the part where you express silent thanks for how terrible I am at marketing. :D])
Okay, let’s get down to business:
First, allow me to say that this little series will cover several possible answers to the “why am I not losing weight” question. There’s a good chance not all of them will apply to you. Maye none of them will. I suspect, though, for most of you, some will apply, while others won’t. So if you find yourself reading some of these ideas, and getting angry because you’re already doing that (or have already tried that a million times), then I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the people who haven’t already tried it. Today’s post, in particular, might anger some of you. I’ve got to cover some of the obvious, "no shoot, Sherlock," stuff, because, honestly, to some people out there, it’s not so obvious. So just stay with me. We're getting the simple stuff out of the way first. If nothing resonates with you today, sit tight. At some point, in one of these posts, maybe I’ll hit upon something that does speak to you. So, along that line, please, don’t throw tomatoes at me for what I say today. There’s no need to leave rude comments about what a special and unique snowflake you are, and how it doesn’t apply to your situation. If it doesn’t apply, it doesn’t apply. No sweat. Wait around until something does.
Since that was probably harsher than my usually more empathetic tone, let me get back to myself for a second. If you are struggling with fat loss, I am with you. I know how it feels. When you’ve already cut back on carbs, and you’ve already nixed corn and soy oils from your diet, and you’re already exercising more, getting good sleep, and carving out time in your life for relaxation, and yet, the weight refuses to budge.
The stigma, and cruel, knee-jerk stereotypes hurled at overweight people make fighting your body difficult enough. But when you’ve already adopted the dietary and lifestyle practices that “should” bring your weight down, yet you’re the same size as when you started, or you haven’t lost as much as all those ridiculous online graphs and charts say you should, feeling like a “fat loss failure” can be downright demoralizing. When you hit the gym faithfully, when you pack a homemade lunch to bring to work every day, and when you bring nuts and string cheese to the movies and walk right past the popcorn and gummy bears, but the weight still doesn’t move, it’s enough to make you throw in the towel. But DON’T. Don’t give up. Don’t give up on the process, and above all, don’t give up on yourself.
If you are at your wit’s end, at the end of your rope, and whatever idioms might be the equivalent in the native languages of my overseas readers, take heart. Let’s start off with two very important pieces of information:
1. Low-carbohydrate diets are extremely good for overall health, even in the absence of weight loss. This is very important to keep in mind. Believe me, I know…pretty much all of us want to look good naked, or, at the very least, look better naked than we do now. But you must, must keep in mind: even if you’re still carrying around extra weight, if your bloodwork is looking pretty good, there’s a strong likelihood that you are healthier than someone who is thinner than you are, but who is a walking metabolic trainwreck. (See this post for details on “TOFI” – thin outside, fat inside.)
LCHF is good for health, even if you’re still heavy.
If you don’t want to believe me, just some lil’ ol’ nutritionist, I’ll respectfully direct you to a few papers by some of the most prominent LCHF researchers, all of which emphasize benefits of carb restriction regardless of weight loss:
· Low carbohydrate diets improve atherogenic dyslipidemia even in the absence of weight loss (Full-text pdf available here.)
· Carbohydrate restriction improves the features of Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome may be defined by the response to carbohydrate restriction (Full text pdf available here.)
· Dietary carbohydrate restriction as the first approach in diabetes management: critical review and evidence base. (Full text pdf available here.)
I know, I know…being healthy is of little comfort when all you really want is to slink into that size 6 dress, or feel comfortable in the middle seat on an airplane, or be confident enough to approach a hot girl and start a conversation. (Like I said in a past post, no one’s ever said, “Look at the HDL on that guy!”) Nevertheless, let’s agree that while being healthy may not count for everything in some of our minds, it darn well counts for something.
2. Here are two points that might blow your mind. They shouldn’t blow your mind, if you know anything about the human body, but because I know there are some folks out there who don’t know these things, here goes:
· It is possible to lose body fat while not in ketosis. Ketosis is not required for fat loss.
· It is possible to gain body fat while in ketosis. Ketosis does not guarantee fat loss.
I know these to be true because I have experienced both of them, myself. (Stop the presses! The person writing a blog about nutrition and weight loss is not perfect!!) Indeed, when I was in the very best shape of my life, I was following a low-carb diet, but was nowhere near ketogenic levels. And pretty recently, I was in ketosis (as measured via urine test strips), but was gaining weight. (It seems that can happen when you throw a little mayonnaise party every night. Who knew?! More on this in a bit.)
Blah, blah, blah, Amy. JUST TELL ME WHY I’M NOT LOSING WEIGHT!
The ho-hum phrases, “eat less, move more” and “calories in, calories out” make nice sound bytes, but they are basically useless when it comes to, as Gary Taubes says, "how to make a fat cell less fat." I have quoted before from Jonathan Bailor, author of the book, The Calorie Myth “Calories count, but that doesn’t mean you have to count calories.” The human body is not a bomb calorimeter. It is not a dime-store calculator. It is nearly impossible to measure the precise amount of food energy someone consumes, and the amount of energy they expend. Even in the age of calorie-tracking software, FitBits, and other devices designed to help people keep track of their food intake and activity levels, it is an exercise in futility to try to transform the complexity of human physiology and biochemistry into a mathematical equation. As nutritionist J.J. Virgin said, “Your body is not a bank account, it is a chemistry lab.” As I wrote in the previous post, we could also liken biochemical input—be it in the form of food, exercise, stress hormones, sunlight, sleep, or time spent outdoors—to be like dropping a bowling ball onto a water bed: There is a ripple effect. You can’t provide an input somewhere and not have it adjusted for somewhere else.
And yet, this being said, there is a point where consuming too many—or too few!—calories, can get people into trouble.
Individuals who adopt LCHF or Paleo diets sometimes mistakenly believe that the dramatic lowering of insulin levels these diets typically produce means that they can consume as much food as they desire, as long as they stay away from the foods these strategies prohibit. But lower insulin levels are not free license to eat a stick of butter or a pound of nuts daily in addition to normal amounts of food. Just because a particular food fits a certain nutritional paradigm doesn’t mean mass quantities of it can be consumed with impunity in terms of body weight. It might “fit your macros,” but it might also mean 2000 extra calories a day. I am generally opposed to weighing, measuring, and tracking every molecule of food we eat, but at some point, calories do start to add up. You cannot eat “unlimited amounts of fat.” Yes, you might be in ketosis, but so what? Like I said earlier, ketosis does not guarantee fat loss, and, in fact, you can gain weight in a state of ketosis if you are gorging on fat.
It is totally understandable that people sometimes go off the deep end with dietary fat, particularly when they’re new to a low-carb or Paleo approach. After years—decades, in some cases—of avoiding saturated fat and dietary cholesterol like the plague, it’s like entering a whole new world to suddenly be “allowed” to consume butter, macadamia nuts, bacon, avocado, red meat, coconut oil, and egg yolks. And while these foods are permitted, they are not necessarily permitted in unlimited quantities.
Like I said, my little mayonnaise excursions were not the best idea for me. Perhaps it was the total fat; perhaps it was something specific to the fattening properties of soybean oil. (Yes, it was Hellmann’s. Sue me. Or go find another nutritionist who would never deign to touch store-bought mayo. If you’re looking for dietary sainthood, you’re barking up the wrong blog.) Either way, I was in ketosis but gaining weight.
Check out this video by Australian doctor Zeeshan Arain, giving a talk called “Why Aren’t I Losing Weight on LCHF?” at the Low Carb Down Under event in 2014. At around 10:55, he addresses the idea that higher fat in the diet generally leads to higher ketones, but higher ketones do not necessarily correlate with (never mind cause!) higher weight loss. He gets to the best bit at 12:55. (The whole video is only 30 minutes, and his closing remarks are excellent.)
I just talked about the possibility of consuming too much fat. But let’s not forget the starchy elephant in the room: too much carbohydrate. We’ve all been there. (Well, maybe not all of us, but certainly, many of us have, me included!) A little piece of this, a handful of that, and before you know it, you’re no longer the “fat burning beast” you were when you first started LCHF. This actually wouldn’t be that big a problem if you also reduced your fat intake while upping the carbs. The thing is, most of us don’t do this. We have carb creep combined with our usual very high fat intake. (‘Cuz eating fat doesn’t make us fat, right? Well, it does when you’re also eating too many carbs for your own individual tolerance.)
Indeed, carb-creep is disastrous in the context of a high-fat diet. This is a high-carb, high-fat diet, which resembles the SAD or modern Western diet, which is what was so effective at making most of us overweight and/or sick in the first place. BAD BODY FAT JUJU!
I know, I know…most of you out there who are struggling with fat loss on LCHF are probably extremely diligent about not having carb creep. And you’re probably not new to this. Okay, no problem. Just wanted to put the idea out there in case anyone is in this situation and maybe just isn’t quite ready to be honest with themselves. We’re all at a different place, and I am not one to cast stones.
On the other hand, there are many individuals—most often women, but sometimes men—who are chronically undereating. As I explained in the intro post, peri- and post-menopausal women struggle tremendously to lose body fat. It seems like every pound—every ounce—is a Herculean battle against a body that is clinging to a heavier set-point at all costs. These women face an uphill battle. (Both ways, in the snow, with no shoes!) Decades of entrenched institutional emphasis on a low-fat, low-calorie diet have resulted in generations of women who, intentionally or inadvertently, have been undereating for a substantial portion of their lives.
They had been led to believe that fat-free (but sugar-laden!) yogurt, bran muffins, granola bars, rice cakes, fiber cereal, and skim milk, were enough to fuel their bodies. Bodies that were working full-time, raising children, doing the majority of the grocery shopping and the lion’s share of the household chores, and still finding time for a few workouts a week. (Workouts that were composed almost entirely of “chronic cardio”—yet another stressor on an already taxed body—rather than weightlifting, which might have helped build critically important, calorically hungry skeletal muscle tissue.) Because of this chronic caloric deprivation, a great deal of these women’s muscle mass and bone tissue has been catabolized for the critical purpose of keeping them alive and functioning through all these demands. The end result is that their resting metabolic rates are now in the basement. (I’ll talk about ways to increase metabolic rate in a future post, but to save you at least some of the suspense, step two is for women—and men!—to get over the fear of the scary big-guy weight area at the gym, or head to the big-box store, procure a good set of weights, and use them. What’s step one? Stay tuned…)
In terms of the women-versus-men issue, it’s well-recognized that women have a harder time jettisoning unwanted body fat. Men can be much more liberal with their diet and still lose weight. (Son of a…!) Obviously, some of this has hormonal underpinnings. No doubt. But it also has something to do with the aforementioned critically important skeletal muscle mass. (Dr. Arain addresses the women/men issue at about 18:10 in his talk.)
Not Enough Carb Creep
I’m going to say something shocking. Something downright heretical. Something that could well get me excommunicated from LCHF-land:
Not everyone requires an ultra-low-carb diet for fat loss and/or maintaining an impressive physique.
Remember: Even Dr. Robert Atkins, a hero to many of us, never intended for people to stay at induction levels of carbohydrate intake perpetually, forever. The original plan, as written by the late, great Dr. A., included a “carb ladder,” with guidance on gradually increasing carbohydrate intake in order to gauge one’s individual level of tolerance. He did write that some people would need to stay at induction levels for longer than the initial two week phase, but even those people were encouraged to experiment with increasing their carb intake sometime down the line. Not with pasta and bagels, of course, but in 5-gram increments per week (if I recall correctly…been a while since I read the book), which would more likely consist of larger servings of vegetables or reintroducing low-glycemic fruits that someone may have excluded during induction.
Remember also: In medicine, in nutrition, with pharmaceutical drugs, and with dietary supplements, there is a therapeutic strategy, and there is a maintenance strategy. The therapeutic strategy you use to hit something with everything you’ve got, to stop something in its tracks, and reverse it, is not necessarily the same strategy that will be best for moving forward after things are in a better place. For example, if you’re extremely deficient in, say, vitamin B12, maybe you take very high-dose supplements for a while, until your levels come back up. But once you’re B12-replete, you don't remain on that super-high dose forever. You titrate down to a lower maintenance dose, and possibly reach a point where you stop supplementing altogether. Another example: let’s say you break your leg. You end up in a cast for a few weeks to let the bone rest and heal, but at some point, the cast comes off, and you move around in order to rebuild and strengthen the leg. You don’t stay in the cast for the rest of your life because it happened to be very helpful for achieving one specific goal at one particular point in time.
What works for you at one point may not be what’s suitable for you forever.
When you’re not getting where you want to go with your weight, it is very scary, but you just have to muster up the cojones to try something different. (Yes, even if you’re a woman. Muster up some figurative cojones, or borrow your husband’s, which some of you probably keep in a glass jar on your nightstand anyway. Wow…I am in rare, take-no-prisoners form today, aren’t I?)
We have seen this over and over again in the LCHF world. Listen, you know me. I’m not jumping ship here. I’m simply pointing out that there are an awful lot of accounts of people who had not had great success with LCHF, who mustered up the courage to add in more starch, along the lines of Perfect Health Diet, and they’re doing great. Who am I to say they’re “doing it wrong?” Just because LCHF works well for me doesn’t mean it’s the optimal strategy for everyone else. (If you’re new here, I’ve written about this approximately a zillion times.)
Perhaps you lost a great deal of weight when you initially adopted a LCHF diet. Perhaps your indigestion, your acne, your fatigue, your joint pain, your erectile dysfunction, and your brain fog went away, too. And perhaps you felt so great, that the mere thought of adding back in just a bit more carbs terrifies you. I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY.
But perhaps now, a few months or a few years later, you’re not feeling so great anymore. And your weight hasn’t budged in a long time. (Assuming, that is, that you have weight to lose, and aren’t suffering from body dysmorphia.) I have been there, dear readers. I won’t bore you with the details, but several years ago, I experienced a renewed fat loss, improved energy levels, and a much better mental/emotional outlook by increasing my carbohydrate intake. (Largely from fruit, steel-cut oats, and lentils.) Based on my total carb intake, I would still most definitely classify that time in my life as “low-carb.” It wasn’t ketogenic, but it was low-carb compared to what the average person eats. At that time, it suited me. It suited my lifestyle and my activity levels. And yes, it took some doing to get over my fear, but I did it, and it worked very well. (I did it by following Rob Faigin’s Natural Hormonal Enhancement, which is the single most unknown and underappreciated book in the LCHF/Paleo world. This book came out years before any of the ones that are now considered the go-to guides of our various approaches. Faigin had a carb-cycling approach, similar to Kiefer’s CarbNite®, except the refeeds occurred every 4 days or so, rather than once a week, and they weren't uncontrolled orgies of pastries.)
To reiterate: just because something worked for you in the past, or is working great for someone else, doesn’t mean it is the best strategy for you, right now.
I would be a pretty dishonest nutritionist if I didn’t acknowledge the incredible success people are having on Kiefer’s CarbNite® and Carb Backloading™ programs, all while enjoying donuts, cookies, ice cream, pastries, and, of course, Kiefer’s favorites, cherry turnovers and McDonald’s filet-o-fish. People can eat crappy carbohydrates and still lose weight and maintain great blood markers. They can, they can, they can. Maybe not everyone can, but some people can, and maybe you’re one of them. If you are stuck in a long-term plateau/stall, and you still have a significant amount of weight to lose, don’t be afraid to try a carb refeed once in a while. You don’t have to do it with junkfood; stick with potatoes, rice, beans, plantains, or winter squash if you prefer, but for goodness sake, if ultra-low-carb isn’t getting you where you’d like to be, then maybe it’s time to try something different. (But don’t do it willy-nilly. I would recommend checking out the books & programs I’ve linked to above. Full disclosure: if you purchase the Faigin book or Perfect Health Diet by using the links in this post, Amazon will ever so kindly throw a couple cents my way.) Another program where even menopausal women and others -- including men -- with seriously stubborn fat loss are losing weight (finally!) using a variation of carb cycling, is Jason Seib's AltShift. I lurk on the Facebook page, and people who had all but given up on ever getting weight off (including Jason's wife!) are having great success.
Overeating, undereating, carb creep, and increasing carbs, are the low-hanging fruit. Like I said early on in this post, there’s a good chance none of those apply to you, but we had to get them out of the way. Now that we’ve done that, the next posts will start chipping away at the endless array of other obstacles to fat loss, even when it seems like you’re doing all the right things.
UPDATE (12/7/2015) -- Just came across this post, which echoes some of what I've written here. Excellent information!
*Continue to part 2 in this series: http://www.tuitnutrition.com/2015/12/why-not-losing-weight-2.html
UPDATE (12/7/2015) -- Just came across this post, which echoes some of what I've written here. Excellent information!
*Continue to part 2 in this series: http://www.tuitnutrition.com/2015/12/why-not-losing-weight-2.html
Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.