If you asked most people what made them overweight in the first place, it was that sneaky, tricky combination of eating and, well, doing everything else but focus on the food. It’s eating while watching TV. It’s eating while driving (I’ve seen a man eat a bowl of cereal on the 405). It’s eating while cooking (not tasting to stay abreast of the dish; full-on eating). It’s popcorn at the movies. It’s beer and wings and more beer during the game. In other words, it’s mindless eating. Eating that feels like breathing, like something you just do. You take a few chews, rarely enough to qualify as real mastication, and down the hatch it goes, with a follow-up handful close on its heels. Since increased frequency of eating (i.e. mindless eating or snacking) is strongly associated with the United States’ steadily increasing average energy intake, it’s plausible that mindless eating leads to eating more food.
Be more mindful when you eat; practice mindful eating. Eat food with others, sit down to dinner, take the time to appreciate the food you’re eating. Just because you’re scarfing down grass-fed beef and pastured eggs doesn’t mean you can get away with mindless consumption.
2. You’re eating too many “pleasure foods.”
Paul Jaminet really has a knack for coining phrases, doesn’t he (“safe starch,” anyone?)? A lesser known one is “pleasure foods.” These are things like nuts, dark chocolate, and raw honey – all foods that have gotten the stamp of Primal approval in the past, all foods that are calorically-dense and easy to overeat. This is hard to grasp, because these foods also confer some health benefits. Nuts are rich sources of micronutrients like magnesium, vitamin E, and selenium, and multiple studies suggest that nuts help weight loss. Dark chocolate got an entire post devoted to its impressive polyphenol content (and its fatty acid profile isn’t too bad, either), while honey is quite possibly the best sweetener around. At the very least, it and its bevy of bee-related compounds outperform other sweeteners like maple syrup and plain sugar and result in fewer metabolic issues. All that said, these foods are delicious, packed with calories, and can be overeaten, particularly because they have the reputation as “health foods.”
If you’re not losing weight, moderate your intake of these foods.
3. You’re eating too little.
It’s well-established that prolonged dieting – taking in fewer calories than your body expends – will eventually lead to a downregulation in the basal metabolic rate. This is simple stuff, really. Reducing your food intake will lower your body weight, usually, but it’s not a simple matter of dropping them lower and lower as you lose weight. The body isn’t a passive thing that you’re merely adding to and subtracting from. Instead, it’s a living, breathing, reacting, adapting entity that responds to the lowered caloric input by lowering its energy expenditure. Since you can’t lose weight forever (you’re not just going to waste away into nothingness), perpetually lowering your caloric intake will eventually work against your desire to lose weight.
Instead of sitting at a chronic caloric deficit, consider cycling your caloric intake. Eat less one day, more the next. You might also look into periodic refeeds, which may be able to kickstart a stalled weight loss.
4. You’re under “hidden stress.”
In the previous article, I explained how stress can make us gain weight, or stop losing it. Cortisol – which we release as a part of the stress response – inhibits weight loss, catabolizes muscle, worsens insulin resistance, and promotes the storage of fat. Although back then I was referring to the obvious sources of stress in our lives, like bills, traffic, jobs we hate, bosses we hate, relationship strife, there are other “hidden” types of stressors that result in the very same physiological responses as obvious stressors cause. Foremost among the hidden stressors is the lack of nature exposure. In the literature, researchers often speak of “forest bathing,” or spending a day or two or three in a forest setting to reduce cortisol, enhance immune function, and improve glucose tolerance. I prefer to look at this a different way. Instead of nature exposure being a positive anti-stress agent, urban living is an active stressor. Spending a day in the woods is a return to normalcy rather than an “intervention.”
If you’re not doing this already, take a day or two out of the week to get outside, preferably amongst unkempt, wild nature. It needn’t be a forest or a craggy cliff. The beach, the desert, or even a park will do just fine. In a pinch, you can even listen to nature sounds and look at nature scenes on your computer.
5. You’re too focused on diet to the exclusion of all else.
When you realize the wool that’s been pulled over the collective eyes of society regarding nutrition, it’s easy to become obsessed with your newfound knowledge. It’s easy to stay up late, night in, night out, perusing nutrition blogs, reading comment sections, devouring PubMed articles. You’ll hear about some arcane but totally essential nutrient and think that it’s the Answer. Am I getting enough magnesium? What about boron – I need some boron, right? How about vitamin A? Should I go for the preformed retinol or rely on the conversion from beta-carotene? Should I drive fifty miles out of town to get goose liver, or should I just take a vitamin K2 supplement and call it a day? Choline – that’s the stuff! Nothing but liver and egg yolks from here on out!
Diet is the obvious primary arbiter of body composition, but there’s more to life than worrying about what you put in your mouth. It’s counterintuitive, and there aren’t any randomized controlled trials showing it, but you might have more success just enjoying life, getting some exercise, and hanging out with good people instead of micromanaging your nutrient intake. Relax.
6. You’re getting too much exercise.
Although regular exercise is a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle, and smart training that includes lifting heavy things, walking lots, and sprinting occasionally can speed weight loss and improve body composition, there is such a thing as too much exercise. After all, effective exercise is effective because it’s stressful, because it challenges our physiology and propels us to rise to the occasion and improve ourselves by getting stronger, faster, and with more lean mass and less body fat. Taken to the extreme, exercise becomes a chronic stressor and a steady source of cortisol release (which as we discussed above makes us insulin resistant and promotes the accumulation of belly fat). Chronic stress in any form can also induce a hypothyroid-like state, where metabolic rate is lowered and weight loss slows or stops altogether, and exercise-induced chronic stress is no different.
7. Your macronutrients and training are mismatched.
For most people who stay reasonably active, doing lots of low-level movement as well as some lifting, a low-carb Primal way of eating is generally the most effective way to lose body fat. It tastes good, it’s easy to stick to, and, most importantly, it works. But some people like to push the envelope. They like waking up early and going for a run, then coming home at night and hitting the weights. They’re avid CrossFitters. They like seeing how far their bodies can go. They’re concerned with performance, above all else, and they want to maximize every last drop of physicality their bodies can muster. In that case, more dietary carbs are probably called for – especially if they’re trying to lose weight at the same time. Certain activities just require glycogen. I do plenty of activities that use up glycogen, but I’m not doing them day in, day out, so I don’t need to eat a lot of carbs.
If you are, if you’re doing WODs every day and playing in a basketball league on the weekends and doing jiujitsu twice a week, you’ll need to replenish those glycogen stores more often or else risk that chronically-stressed state that stops weight loss.
8. Your eating schedule is too disordered.
I tend to get hungry at different times throughout the day, and I have no issues eating meals at different intervals depending on when hunger strikes. That seems to be pretty typical. Although many Primal eaters relish the freedom from having to keep snacks on hand in order to stave off hunger and enjoy the fact that they can skip a meal or two and just rely on their hunger signals, there is a considerable amount of evidence that maintaining a regular eating schedule can improve the metabolic response to meals in some people. Women in particular seem to benefit most from a “regular meal pattern.” In one study of lean women, an “irregular” meal pattern resulted in lower postprandial energy expenditure than a regular meal pattern. In another study, lean women who ate meals on a regular schedule had better insulin sensitivity and improved blood lipids. And in one other study of healthy obese women, regular mealtimes increased postprandial thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and blood lipids.
Sometimes, you might need a little order to your eating, whether you’re IFing or not. And that’s totally fine.
9. You’re actually at a healthy weight and your body is “keeping” you from dropping any more.
I know, I know: your body is a huge jerk and he says mean things to you. But sometimes the body knows best. Sometimes, our current body composition is where we’re supposed to be, even if we only have a four or a two-pack (or none at all). Recall the natural bodybuilder who, upon dropping from 14.8% body fat to 4.5%, also dropped his metabolic rate, his body temperature, his heart rate, his testosterone levels, and his moodiness. Recall that women deposit fat differently than men and actually need some body fat for optimum fertility and health. Instead of obsessing over a few more percentage points on the body fat scale, think about how good you’re feeling, how your health issues have cleared up, and how you enjoy movement more. And if you want to alter your body composition, focus on addition – lifting heavy things, sprinting – rather than subtraction. You might be right where you’re supposed to be.
One final point: Note that I’m not saying eating too few calories or exercising too much or focusing too much on diet to the exclusion of all else will make you gain weight. I’m saying that it can lead to or exacerbate a stall in your weight loss. It’s a small distinction, but an important one.
That’s it for today, folks. Anything look familiar? Anything jump out at you? What have I forgotten? Be sure to skim the last article after reading this one to make sure it’s not something I’ve already covered.
Thanks for reading!
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.