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Expert Q&A

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I'm exercising; why can't I lose weight?

Asked by Carolyn, Washington

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I am a healthy 35-year-old woman who has been approximately 25 pounds overweight my entire adult life. I work out at my gym for an hour a day, five or six days a week doing various cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercises. I think I am more fit than I have ever been, but even though I have stepped up my activity level in the past eight years, I haven't lost a single pound. The last time I lost any weight was five years ago when I had to lose weight for my job. I ate about 900 calories a day, worked out two hours a day for a month and lost 7 pounds. I was tired, starving and had a constant headache. I work to monitor my calorie intake but I am literally hungry all day. My blood tests are normal. Is there something wrong with me?

Expert Bio Picture

Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert Answer

HI Carolyn -- Without seeing you as a patient, I cannot say with certainty that there is nothing wrong with you, but from your description, it appears as if you are healthy and there is no medical reason for your inability to lose weight. It is difficult to "troubleshoot" your weight loss efforts without more information, but your struggle brings up a couple of important points. First of all, I applaud your fitness routine and can assure you that research clearly shows that it is much healthier to be fit and overweight than to be thin and inactive. So keep up the good work in the gym. Not only are you healthier as a result, your comprehensive exercise program, which includes cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercise, is preventing further weight gain and allowing you to maintain muscle mass so your metabolism does not drop significantly as you get older.

Secondly, there is a strong genetic component to weight and metabolism (studies suggest that this can be anywhere from 30 to 70 percent) so you may be genetically programmed to carry a bit more weight or have more difficulty losing excess weight. There are hundreds of genes that play a role in weight regulation and many were designed for survival when food was scarce. The result is that it can be very challenging for some people to lose weight in our current environment, where food is plentiful and physical activity is minimal. If one or both of your parents struggle with weight, a genetic basis for difficulty losing weight is a strong possibility.

That being said, I think your past weight loss effort was far too aggressive and that is why you felt terrible and were hungry all day. You were literally starving your body by eating so few calories and exercising so much. This drastic reduction in calories can cause you to burn valuable, metabolism-boosting muscle, which can make it harder to keep the weight off.

In addition, you were not taking in enough calories to fuel your workouts and your brain properly, which is why you experienced headaches and fatigue. I recommend making much smaller changes over time for permanent weight loss. Keep a food journal and try not to drop below 1,200 calories a day. Make sure to eat lean protein and fiber to control hunger and keep blood sugar stable. You may only lose ½ pound per week but after 20 weeks, you'll be down 10 pounds, and it should be much easier to maintain this type of gradual weight loss. If you don't lose weight slowly, it might be best to just accept your current weight and focus on prevention of weight gain, continuing your terrific fitness routine, and eating the healthiest diet you can, which includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats for optimal health.

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