Why Shedding Pounds Is Tough for Some Women

You've been dieting diligently to try to lose some weight but the scale won't budge. It may not be that you aren't working hard enough; your body's ability to regulate itself may be sabotaging your efforts, says psychologist Margo Maine, PhD, FAED, CEDS and author of The Body Myth. Produced by fat cells, leptin communicates to your brain that the body is hungry. Low levels of leptin and hunger pangs seem to go hand in hand.

The Set Point Theory Explained

Maine says that according to a concept called the "set point theory," each person has a specific weight range where her body is genetically programmed to stay. This means that if you increase or decrease your food intake, your metabolism will adjust to keep you steady, since this is where your body is happiest. As a result, on the weeks when you overeat, your body compensates by burning more calories so you don't go above your comfort zone, while during those times when you carefully watch what you eat, your metabolism adapts by slowing down to conserve calories thus preventing it from dipping below that set point threshold.

You May Be the Victim of Too Much Dieting

All of this is especially frustrating for women attempting to lose weight but finding that in spite of their best effort, they can't get move below their "normal" range. Further complicating the situation is a problem that develops as a result of too much dieting over the years. A Diet Trap occurs when you have unintentionally confused your body's set point because of earlier habits. If you've been a yo-yo dieter—withholding food for periods to get desired results but not being able to permanently keep off the weight—it may be that you've trigger your metabolism to stubbornly cling to every calorie because it's fearful of going into starvation mode. "For this reason, I tell high school and college age students that the easiest way to develop a weight problem forever is to diet as a teenager," Maine says.

A Lifetime of Weight Loss Frustration

Once the set point is adjusted, it may never go back to the way it was. In fact, Maine says she treats women with eating disorders who weigh much more than they should based on what they eat just because their bodies hang on to the calories. She also finds that many very overweight people can't lose weight without going to drastic measures such as bariatric surgery because their body successfully fights attempts to change their weight naturally.

"A lot of people try to recalibrate their set point by eating less and exercising more which works initially by causing water weight loss but that strategy usually doesn't work over the long term," she says.

Shifting the Focus to Health

While you may not be able to undo the problem that years of dieting has caused, Maine says you can change your mindset. To this end, she suggests that you stop worrying about the number on the scale and start thinking about your health overall.

"People can be healthy at many different weights," she stresses. What this means is that in some people the weight recommended on their doctor's BMI chart may not be aligned with other numbers indicating good health. She says that the best weight for you should be where your blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, blood glucose levels, and other factors are in the healthy range.

Body Talk

Maine also recommends learning to listen to your body and trusting it so that you eat when you are hungry and stop when you've had enough. Another effective strategy is to get accustomed to eating smaller portions and emphasizing meals that consist mainly of whole foods and are heavy on the fruits and veggies. Research has also shown that regular exercise is also a key component to overall health.

"One way to know if you're in your ideal set point range is that you eat healthy meals based on hunger and fullness and you aren't preoccupied with food all of the time," she says. On the flip side, if you find yourself waking up hungry during the night or craving certain foods frequently, you probably aren't feeding your body enough.

Other signs that you could be below your set point include: being cold often, difficulty falling asleep, feeling irritable and depressed and having a low sex drive.

Learn More

When you find yourself struggling with your eating patterns or your weight, Maine says you may benefit from seeing a nutritionist or therapist. She also suggests reading Health at Every Size, and visiting the websites of the National Eating Disorders Association, the Binge Eating Disorder Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Margo Maine, PhD, FAED, CEDS, reviewed this article.


Margo Maine, PhD, FAED, CEDS, Maine & WeinsteinSpecialty Group, LLC. Phone interview 12 November 2013. http://www.mwsg.org