I’ve had a private practice for a long time, so I’ve coached many people on their weight-loss journeys. Sometimes they feel fantastic as the pounds drop off, as though they're on top of the world and have energy through the roof. But some people struggle with what I call weight-loss backlash, the physiological and psychological side effects of weight loss that are powerful enough to make you feel downright miserable. Here are three you may encounter (do they sound familiar?) and how to get through the rough patch:
According to research published in the International Journal of Obesity, environmental pollutants trapped in fat cells are released back into the bloodstream when you lose weight. The data collected from 1,099 adults looked at blood concentrations of six pollutants as people lost weight. Compared to those who reported gaining weight over a 10-year period, those who had lost significant pounds had 50 percent higher levels of pollutants in their blood. Scientists say the release of these chemicals as body fat is lost may account for feeling ill as you shrink your shape.
This study highlights why it’s particularly important to eat a “clean” diet that boosts immunity and optimizes health as you lose weight. In my experience, low-calorie diets comprised of processed foods or ultra-low carb diets that omit antioxidant rich fruits and whole grains can add to feelings of sluggishness or symptoms like headaches and irritability. My best advice is to eat on a regular schedule to give your body consistency, which plays a major role in regulating hormones, and focus on the quality of your food by building meals made from nutrient-rich balanced portions of veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, plant-based fats and antioxidant-rich seasonings.
Surging Hunger Hormones
Studies show that as people lose weight, levels of a hunger hormone called ghrelin rise. It may be a build-in survival mechanism since our bodies don’t know the difference between voluntary food restriction and famine, but one thing’s for sure—raging hunger hormones make it much harder to stay on track.
The most effective strategy I’ve come across for combating hunger involves these three steps:
1) Eating on a regular schedule – Eat breakfast within an hour of waking up, with meals and snacks no sooner than three and no more than five hours apart. Eating on a regular schedule helps train your body to expect food at these times to better regulate appetite.
2) Including lean protein, plant-based fat and fiber-rich foods at every meal – Each has been show to boost satiety so you feel fuller longer.
3) Getting enough sleep- Adequate sleep should be a key part of your weight-loss program, as getting too little sleep has been shown to increase appetite and boost cravings for fatty and sugary foods.
The Mourning Period
Starting a healthy eating program can put you on an initial emotional high. It’s exciting to make a fresh start. But as time goes on it’s normal to start missing your ‘former food life,’ from foods you enjoyed but no longer eat, to comfortable rituals, like curling up on the couch with crackers while watching TV. It’s also tough to let go of the freedom that comes with just eating whatever you want, whenever you want, as much as you want. Honestly, it really is a mourning period as you come to terms with letting go of the former relationship you had with food. Sometimes no matter how motivated you are to adopt healthier habits, these feelings can make you want to throw in the towel. Just remember, it’s not that you don’t have enough willpower – you’re just human.
Change is always difficult, even when it’s a healthy change. If you feel like giving up, think about all of the reasons why you’re doing this that really matter to you. It may sound cheesy but making a list can really help. Write down of all the 'pros' of staying on track. For example, maybe you're looking for more energy or confidence, or you want to be a healthy role model for your kids or family. When you feel like falling back into your old routines, remind yourself how important the things on that list are to you. And if your old habits were to meet emotional needs, experiment with alternatives to fill the void. For example, if you used to turn to food for comfort or to celebrate, try out other ways to meet those needs that don’t involve eating.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.