Weight loss is one of the trickier subjects out there. On the one hand, we know there can be many negative health consequences if you don’t manage a healthy weight, from a greater difficulty fighting off infections to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, and certain types of cancer. But on the other hand, we know that you can be skinny and seriously unwell (there’s so much more to health than weight!), and crash diets only harm your physical and mental health in the long term.
So what’s the solution? Wanting to lose weight is completely valid if you’re approaching it with the right mindset. But the key is to focus your energy and attention beyond the scale and toward sustainable, nourishing habits that don’t involve eliminating food groups or require counting calories.
We spoke with registered dietitian and health coach Jess Cording, RD, and did some research to help us determine some of the best ways to optimize overall well-being — which also supports healthy weight loss.
1. Eat to nourish, not restrict
Weight isn’t simply dictated by eating too much or too little (despite what we thought in the 1950s, it’s way more complex than calories in, calories out). “Overall adequate nutrition matters,” says Cording. “If you’re suffering from nutrient deficiencies, it’s hard for your body to function optimally, and that may impact metabolic rate.”
When your typical diet relies on too many highly processed foods — or when it doesn’t contain enough food — you’re at a greater risk for deficiencies that might prompt weight gain. For example, about 46% of Americans are low in magnesium, which is needed to help regulate blood sugar. Low intake of this mineral may contribute to fatigue, anxiety, and cravings. Similarly, 76% of the population has low vitamin D, a deficiency of which has been linked to obesity and a higher percentage body fat. Other minerals, including selenium and iodine support healthy thyroid function, says Cording, which is key for a healthy metabolic rate.
All of this just scratches the surface of various nutrients’ impact on weight: you can’t prioritize just one aspect of your nutrition and expect to have success — you need to cover all your bases.
Here’s the truth: the optimal eating pattern for overall wellness and healthy weight is all about balance and variety.
Not only does this mean eating a healthy balance of macronutrients (protein, complex carbs, and good fats) to promote satiety, balanced blood sugar, and energy, but it also means prioritizing micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, polyphenols), which are abundant in whole and minimally processed foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, raw fermented foods, olive oil, fish, meats, and plain dairy.
Pro tip: Instead of focusing on what to cut out of your diet, focus on eating more of the good stuff. A good strategy for most meals, followed also by the American Diabetics Association: aim to fill at least 1/2 your plate with veggies, 1/4 with fiber-rich carbs such as whole grains, 1/4 with protein, and be sure to include healthy fats somewhere — whether that’s sprinkling pecans on your salad or drizzling a little EVOO over everything.
2. Avoid late-night snacking
You don’t have to go as far as intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, but avoiding snacks and treats late at night is generally a good idea. Some studies have shown that eating late is associated with increased body fat, while others have found an association between eating after 8 p.m. and having a higher BMI, regardless of sleep habits. Why the hour is relevant to weight loss has to do with your hormones: when insulin levels rise at abnormal times (say, when you have a carb-rich snack when you should really be sleeping), research demonstrates that your body’s natural circadian rhythms become disrupted — which, in turn, may affect other hormones and contribute to weight gain and type 2 diabetes.
Pro tip: Aim to finish up your last meal or snack 2 to 3 hours before you go to bed; and if you really need to nibble something, make it a small (150 calories or less), nutrient-dense snack like berries and yogurt or apples and peanut butter, which is less likely to contribute to weight gain.
3. Get more sleep on a consistent basis
Almost any health issue is easier to tackle once you’re getting enough sleep, and weight loss is no different. In one research review, people who regularly got less than seven hours of sleep were more likely to have a higher BMI and develop obesity than people who snagged more shut-eye. Specifically, poor sleep seems to mess with two hormones that regulate how hungry or full you feel: ghrelin and leptin, which sound like the names of two especially mean-spirited demons, but are, in fact, real. Ghrelin is triggered when your stomach is empty and makes you feel hungry, while leptin curbs hunger once you’ve had enough to eat. But when sleep is restricted, ghrelin levels tend to be increased and leptin levels are decreased, which can prompt overeating because you legitimately feel hungry.
Pro tip: Aim for at least seven hours per night, but ideally try to get eight to nine. Going to bed and waking at consistent times will make it easier to settle into a healthy rhythm.
4. Create a stress-busting self-care routine
Thanks to the unrelenting hustle of modern life, many of us are living with chronic stress. This isn’t just bad for our mental health either. Over time, chronic stress — whether from work demands, money problems, or any perceived hardship — can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, which promote weight gain for two big reasons: Elevated cortisol has been shown to both increase food intake and reduce energy expenditure, or calorie burn.
To counteract this, you must halt the stress cycle (or at least stop it once in a while). This is where simple self-care routines come in: Anything that brings you joy, brings your attention to the present moment, or gets your body moving is usually a good strategy.
Pro tip: Try stacking a self-care habit onto something you already do (aka “habit stacking”) so it becomes ingrained into your routine. For instance, between sips of your morning coffee, practice box breathing (in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, out for fourseconds, hold for 4 seconds, repeat); during your short work breaks, do some stretches, push-ups, or squats; when you’re unwinding in bed, read a book for 10 minutes instead of scrolling Instagram.
5. Consider cortisol-conscious workouts
Going harder at the gym doesn’t always equal greater weight loss. In fact, the opposite can be true. When you’re living with a lot of stress, certain intense workouts like HIIT and running could make it even harder to lose weight because they temporarily pump out even more cortisol into your already taxed system. This doesn’t mean intense exercise is bad: If your stress levels are in check, these workouts can also be a great option — HIIT, for example, has been associated with increased metabolic rate and calorie burn compared to other workouts.
Pro tip: If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by life lately, consider a low-intensity workout such as walking, yoga, pilates, slow jogging, or swimming (and pause the HIIT workouts for the time being).
6. Supplement as needed
While everyone’s supplement needs will vary based on their diet and lifestyle, most can benefit from Vitamin D, which Americans notoriously do not get enough of. As mentioned above, low levels of this nutrient may lead to weight gain, but some research suggests supplementing with vitamin D promotes weight loss and decreased body fat in overweight individuals.
Additionally, many people may benefit from an adaptogen supplement, like ashwagandha. Adaptogens refer to herbs and mushrooms that help you react to and recover from mental and physical stressors and restore homeostasis in the body. They’re believed to act on the body’s HPA axis, which regulates cortisol release. Because of this, adaptogens may indirectly support weight loss: Ashwagandha, for example, has been shown to reduce the output of cortisol during stressful situations.
If nothing’s working…
So many health conditions, hormonal imbalances, and micronutrient deficiencies can affect your body’s metabolism and whether or not you gain or lose weight easily. If you’ve already adopted the healthy dietary and lifestyle practices above for a period of time and you’re having no luck — especially if you’re also experiencing symptoms like fatigue — seek out the help of a medical professional who can take a full patient history, test key micronutrient levels, and test for hormonal imbalances.
This post originally appeared on Clean Plate on September 13th, 2022