Barriers to Weight Loss

By Michelle Donovan, MS, RD, LDN

Do you feel like you are doing all the right things and still not seeing the scale budge? What could be impacting your weight journey? Surprisingly, there are many things that impact your weight and metabolism besides just food and exercise. Obviously, you want to be eating a healthy diet and exercising. However, there are other things in your life that you can take a look at.


The first thing is to look at how much sleep you are getting. If you do not get enough sleep, you are hungrier. A study published in Sleep Medicine (2008) found that perceived hunger increased substantially along with a possible change in your hunger hormones. You may be eating more than you realize. Lack of sleep also was shown to change hunger hormones in a 2018 study in Metabolism. Sleep restriction also leads to decreased insulin sensitivity and increases the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

How much sleep should you get? According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult should be getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Teenagers and children need more than that. One study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that with sleep restriction, people ate more and usually more fat and less protein. Get more sleep and be careful of your intake on days you sleep less than 6 hours.


Stress also plays a role in working against weight loss. It may cause you to eat more, exercise less, or engage in other behaviors like having an extra cocktail or two that adds to calorie intake. Stress also releases the hormone cortisol which has been associated with that dreaded weight gain around the middle. Cortisol is higher in people who are experiencing chronic stress.

Stress has many impacts on the body and trying to combat it can go a long way to improving health. We cannot avoid it, but we can do our best to lessen it. What helps decrease stress will help decrease cortisol levels, so exercising not only helps to burn calories, but also helps you to decrease stress. Just don’t overdo it. Getting enough sleep (see above) helps reduce stress. Getting outside in nature helps reduce stress. Meditation and mind-body techniques like Tai Chi are great ways to reduce stress.

Strength Training

Metabolism is key to burning calories. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. As you lose weight, if you lose too much muscle mass, you may see a significant decrease in your metabolic rate. This is why it is important to exercise and eat right to lose weight. To gain muscle and maintain it, strength training is key. It does not have to be Olympic power lifting. Doing body weight exercises such as planks, push-ups, and air squats can help if you don’t consider yourself a “gym” person.


Not exercising enough can also contribute to a slow down or plateau in weight loss. Many of us consider ourselves much more active than we really are. In our computer driven world, many of us sit at work and then sit more at home. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 300 minutes of exercise a week for weight loss; that is 1 hour 5 days a week. It does not have to be an hour at once, you can break it up. Try to do strength exercises before your cardio exercises.

Weekend Eating

Are your weekends working against you? Do you make it through the week and feel like you deserve a treat on the weekends? Most people eat differently on the weekend, eating or ordering out more is a big thing. Your calorie debt during the week may be wiped out by your weekend eating.

Be mindful of how you eat on the weekend. Is Friday pizza night? You don’t have to skip the pizza, but only have one piece of pizza and have a salad or some vegetables. Or are you consuming extra liquid calories on the weekends, like a glass or two of wine or a soda with that pizza? Alcohol calories can add up quickly. The average 12-ounce beer has about 150 calories. That is close to a cup of pasta. The average 5-ounce glass of wine has close to 125 calories. Be careful of consuming liquid calories as they don’t fill you up the same way.

Food Labels

Don’t believe everything on a food label. If you see sugar-free, it does not mean calorie or carbohydrate free. It just means they have not used sugar, which is defined as sucrose or white table sugar. The food can still have lots of carbohydrates and other sweeteners. The same goes for low-fat or fat-free; many low-fat foods do not have that many fewer calories. When fat is removed, sugar and salt often are increased to make it taste better. Look at calories and serving sizes. Serving sizes are important because even too much of a healthy food will pack on the calories.

Be sure your weight loss goals are healthy and realistic. It did not take you one month to put 20 pounds on so you should not try to lose weight 20 pounds in one month. Slow and steady weight loss is more sustainable. It should be a lifestyle change that leads to weight loss so you can continue to do what you need to do so you maintain the loss. Remember to get enough sleep, combat stress through exercise or meditation, beware of the weekend and liquid calories, and last, but not least, watch your portion sizes.



Michelle Donovan, MS, RD, LDN
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