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6 Reasons You’re Still Having Trouble Losing Weight

You think you are doing everything right, so what's the problem?

By Maureen Callahan

Since your fiftysomething body needs fewer calories than it did when you were cruising through your 20s, 30s, and 40s, chances are you’ve made some diet and exercise changes to counteract this metabolic slowdown. Yet, sometimes the pounds keep creeping on. What gives? Recent findings shed light on six lesser known lifestyle and environmental factors that could sabotage weight control efforts in small but significant ways.

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1. You are not sleeping enough

“The bottom line is that not getting enough sleep can lead to weight gain,” say Dr. Donald Hensrud, medical director for the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program. “One explanation might be that sleep duration affects hormones regulating hunger — ghrelin and leptin — and stimulates the appetite.”

Hormones are probably one of many factors though, he adds. Take behavioral issues, for example. When sleep proves elusive that can loosen inhibitions and lead to unhealthy middle-of-the-night snacking or overeating the following day. In fact, a 2016 meta-analysis of 11 different studies averages out exactly how far people fall off the calorie wagon the day after being sleep deprived. They eat an average of 384 extra calories, a sure way to tip the scales in the wrong direction.

Lack of sleep can also make you too tired to exercise. Preliminary reports even suggest that sleep restriction can cause insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. The National Sleep Foundation recommends aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Fewer than five hours is risky as it puts you in sleep deprivation territory.

2. You’re getting too much light at night

It’s well known that exposure to light promotes weight gain in animals, even when food intake and activity levels are held constant. A 2015 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests prolonged artificial light exposure in rats decreases levels of brown fat, the kind of adipose tissue that plays a key role in burning calories. Could this be driving weight gain in humans? Stay tuned.

Scientists are only starting to build a case for how late night light pollution — from electronic devices, night shift work, or even nightlights in the bedroom — might be setting people up to pile on the pounds. In 2015, U.K. researchers observed a strong connection between exposure to light at night and obesity in a cohort of 100,000 women in the Breakthrough Generations Study. In a recent Harvard study, using e-readers for four hours before bedtime each night for five consecutive nights decreased levels of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep.

While that study wasn’t looking at weight loss, we already know (see above) sleep deprivation can mess with hormones and weight. So it makes sense that anything impacting sleep quality impacts weight gain. Looking to improve lighting habits? The Harvard Health Letter suggests taking these steps to minimize blue light exposure and its negative impact. Shut off electronic screens (phones, computers) at least two to three hours before bedtime. And opt for nightlights that generate dim red light since the red spectrum won’t wreak havoc with sleep.

3. You are under chronic stress

In the presence of physical threats, it’s natural for the body to kick into “fight or flight” mode, raising levels of the main stress hormone cortisol. Unfortunately, chronic low levels of stress from financial worries or a tense work environment can do the same.

So too can weight discrimination. In 2016, British researchers linked higher cortisol levels in overweight older adults to negative attitudes about obesity, leading them to speculate that experiencing prejudice about weight and size might create a vicious cycle of elevated cortisol levels, biochemical stress and continued weight gain.

The problem with all these stressors: they keep cortisol levels elevated enough to drive overeating. “People handle stress differently,” says Hensrud. “Some people eat when they’re stressed.” Some don’t. But often what people reach for when stressed is junk food or calorie-dense comfort foods, he says. Think you could be a stress or emotional eater? Here are tips from the Mayo Clinic on handling excess tension so that it doesn’t lead to weight gain. On their suggestion list: meditation, yoga and exercise.

4. You are taking these common medications

Some drugs create a “perfect storm” when it comes to weight gain, either by driving cravings, increasing appetite, or making metabolism more sluggish.

“For diabetics, it’s well established that insulin therapy causes weight gain,” says Kelly Lee, associate professor of clinical pharmacy and associate dean for assessment and accreditation at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC San Diego.

“Steroids, anticonvulsants, antidepressant drugs, antihistamines, some beta blockers and 99 percent of seizure drugs also cause weight gain.” It’s a long list, so Lee suggests checking for weight gain side effects when any new drug is prescribed. “Often there are weight-neutral alternatives and even some drugs that promote weight loss,” she says.

Taking meds for poor sleep? According to Lee, “Antipsychotics are being used frequently in older populations for inducing sleep,” but people don’t realize they’re big drivers of weight gain. “We’re not talking about one or two pounds,” she says, “but more like 20 pounds.”


5. You are doing too much negative self-talk

All of us have a voice in the head that narrates practically every moment. When this internal dialogue turns negative, it can hinder all kinds of efforts, including weight control.

A 2010 study in NeuroImage takes a physical look at what’s happening. Using MRIs, scientists tracked areas of the brain involved with self-talk. With negative self-talk, brain activity was linked to areas known for error processing and behavioral inhibition. But when self-talk was reassuring, it engaged areas of the brain that express compassion towards others. In other words, talking kindly to yourself when you eat an extra helping of pie or those cookies in the break room might help you move on from the slip-up rather than let it derail weight loss efforts.

Another tip with self-talk: Don't use the “I” word. University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross and his colleague Ozlem Ayduk, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley, find it helps to switch to the second or third person with internal dialogue, maybe saying something like "you can do this” or using your name to encourage efforts.

“Not only does non-first-person self-talk help people perform better under stress and help them get control of their emotions, it also helps them reason more wisely,” they write in Harvard Business Review

6. You have been exposed to chemicals and pollutants

Animal studies suggest the chemicals we are exposed to daily — air pollutants, flame retardants, pesticides and plastics like those that contain BPA (bisphenol A) — may promote weight gain. Called obesogens, these substances are potent endocrine disruptors, messing with fat cells and hormones, including the ones that regulate metabolism.

A big part of the damage occurs with early life exposure when fat cells and metabolic pathways are developing. Experts aren’t ruling out that poor eating and exercise habits contribute to weight gain, but exposure to these chemicals over the course of a lifetime might also play a role.

Could they be making some fiftysomethings more susceptible to packing on the pounds? ”Yes, but in many cases the damage has already been done,” explains Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine. “It doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from limiting your exposure” going forward.

Blumberg offers three ways to cut exposure to these chemicals by 80 to 90 percent:

  • Filter water with carbon filters;
  • Don’t use plastics at home, switch to glass, stainless steel or ceramics;
  • Use fresh foods (not packaged processed foods) including fresh produce, preferably organic when you can find it.

For more background on obesogens, check out this report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

The final take-away: Regardless of how big an impact any of these six factors have on your individual weight loss efforts, perhaps the real message here is that it’s time to stop defining weight loss as solely “diet and exercise.” Improve your chances of shedding pounds by expanding the picture: clean up how you think, your environment, your whole lifestyle. In the end, it’s all intertwined.

Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the diet book review series. She is a two-time James Beard Award winner. Read More
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