Why We Don’t Lose Weight Despite “Doing Everything Right”

I routinely hear individuals lament that they are unable to lose weight despite eating “healthy”.  They understandably get frustrated that they’re not making progress despite “doing everything right.”  Are they lying?  Are their bodies somehow broken?  How can this be?!?

Obviously, one person’s idea of “healthy” could be very different from another person’s.  As proof of that, there are dietary strategies running the gamut from vegan to carnivore, and still there is endless debate about what lifestyle is healthiest.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that someone is in fact eating “clean” and is physically active, but just doesn’t see any progress in regard to fat/weight loss.  Instead, this person is able to just maintain his/her weight and is perpetually frustrated about no progress despite “doing everything right.”

What this situation tells you is . . .

That’s what it takes to maintain weight.

It is likely just that straightforward.  Our idea of a healthy lifestyle is usually good enough to maintain weight, but not enough to lose weight.  This “maintenance mode” may well be healthy, but it often takes a more potent stimulus for weight loss.

Weight trends

The problem is that we are really good at gaining weight.  When an indulgence comes along, e.g. holidays, celebrations, etc., people tend to gain weight.  On average, American adults gain 5.7 lbs (men) to 11.9 lbs (women) over a 10-year period.

The problem is that, after a splurge that causes weight gain, they then go back into “maintenance mode” and generally don’t do anything substantial to lose weight.  In other words, their idea of healthy eating and exercising is not enough to achieve the fat loss that they desire in the long term.

Our ancestors faced adversity

What about our ancestors?  They didn’t struggle with weight; obesity in the US didn’t increase substantially until the 1980’s.  The difference is . . . In our modern world of comfort, we do not face adversity.  We live in the land of comfort, unlike anything our ancestors ever experienced.

The further back you go, the more adversity there was in the human experience.  In primitive times, the early humans were likely focused primarily on survival, as there were constant threats to the acquisition of food, shelter, and safety.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1900: Prehistory – Neolithic – Reconstruction of daily life and environment of primitive people, hunting scene. Drawing. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images)

I think it’s safe to say that we do not struggle to acquire nourishment like our ancestors did.  Imagine having to hunt or forage for all of your meals.  That might have required walking great distances to find a food source or track an animal.  Finding food or making the kill is one thing, then one has to carry the bounty back to one’s camp to share with the tribe – a physically demanding activity.  Simple injuries or changes in weather may have derailed the food-finding missions, forcing the tribe to go hungry for days at a time.  C’est la vie.


Toward a culture of abundance

The nature of adversity faced by our ancestors has changed greatly over time.  War, famine, plague, pandemics, etc. all have created periods of adversity.  Tumbling financial markets triggered the Great Depression, leading to many families having to ration food, grow their own food, or hunt.

In the last several decades, however, modern refrigeration has made food increasingly available in the home, and the first 24-hour convenience store opened in 1963 in Las Vegas.  Now, there is remarkable availability of food at all times, including delivery services that make food available to us 24-7 with little to no effort required.

Comfort kills

I contend that our physiologies are meant to cope with periodic adversity.  We are meant to endure some sort of stress in our lives in order to function at our best.  That may look like a feasting/fasting lifestyle or that may be strenuous physical exertion – something to keep our bodies in check.

For every splurge that causes weight gain, there should be some sort of sacrifice to bring us back to baseline.  In our world of comfort, however, we can easily avoid the sacrifices.  Since there are very few natural challenges to acquiring nutrition in our world of abundance, our population now suffers from diseases of excess.  Our declining health is perhaps the curse for not having to work hard for our food.

How to thrive in the modern world

If we are to achieve optimal health in this modern world, we need to move away from the trends favoring comfort.  We need to incorporate some artificial hardship into our lives, essentially mimicking the struggles that our distant ancestors faced in their unending quest for quality nutrition.

Our physiologies are remarkably adept at handling periods of fasting, which can be a powerful tool to counter episodes of feasting.  If you consume an excess of food at Thanksgiving, for example, you can certainly afford to skip a day of eating.  A day of fasting may be just what you need to make up for the day of excess.

Physical activity can also make up for an indulgence, but is less effective than fasting.  A 30-minute walk is not going to make up for a holiday feast; that might require a strenuous 3-hour hike instead.

For every indulgence in which we partake, there should probably be some sort of activity to serve as a counter-balance.

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