Twenty years, and several clients later, I’ve recently shifted my thinking. I’m now convinced that there are lesser known– but more powerful reasons why people can’t lose weight and keep it off.

For years, the prevailing wisdom on weight gain and weight loss has typically been associated with the calories in versus calories out formula. But over the years I found that clients who were training extremely hard or subscribing to various types of (often restrictive) diets, would be gaining or plateauing rather than losing weight. Twenty years, and several clients later, I’ve recently shifted my thinking. I’m now convinced that there are lesser known– but more powerful reasons why people can’t lose weight and keep it off.

Don’t get me wrong while eating too much and exercising too little definitely contributes to weight gain, there are other factors, all too often overlooked that play a major part too. 

The Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system or ANS is the part of our brain that regulates bodily functions behind the scenes and is not under our conscious control. It’s responsible for functions such as our heart rate, digestion, breathing, blood pressure, immune and hormonal functions.

The ANS has two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) our ‘fight or flight’ system and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) our ‘rest and repair’ or ‘rest and digest’ system. The SNS’s main function is to prepare the body for stressful or emergency situations while the PNS’s main function is to maintain normal body functions during ordinary situations. While both of these systems should work in balance –the reality is that for most of us they don’t.

Arguably, most people exist in a state of SNS dominance which means they’re constantly in the fight or flight response. This can cause adrenalin overload and result in the body using primarily glucose as a fuel source instead of body fat. This also means that most of us are spending less time in calming restorative states which ultimately leads to improved digestion and overall restfulness (PNS)– and more time in stressful states. One of the implications of this can be stagnated weight loss.

I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times: chronic stress is directly correlated to obesity. It’s also one of the primary reasons why people struggle to lose weight. Acute stress–which can be characterized as the type of stress that we don’t exist in for long periods of time–like when we’re working out,  can actually be healthy. But chronic or persistent stress is a different issue. 

When we’re under prolonged stress we’re constantly pumping out the stress hormone adrenalin which historically prepared our bodies to fight or flee from attacks. The blood supply is shunted away from processes such as digestion to the muscles, limbs etc. and causes the body to use glucose, not body fat, as its fuel. This can affect our digestive systems in a variety of ways. It can cause our esophagus to go into spasms, increase the acid in our stomachs and cause indigestion.

Another implication of remaining in constant states of stress is that the body can begin to make another stress hormone called cortisol which breaks muscles down. Having less muscle subsequently slows down metabolism. Various studies, such as one conducted at Yale University in November 2000, have found that people with high cortisol levels tend to put weight on around their mid-sections.

So what’s the solution? Well…sometimes the biggest of problems can posses the simplest of solutions and it’s no different in this case. One of the best ways to calm your central nervous system is through the use of intentional breathing exercises and mindfulness and meditation practices. These relaxation practices elicit the opposite bodily reaction from the “fight or flight” response — a state of deep relaxation in which our breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure, and metabolism are decreased or slowed. Training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve states of relaxation through these practices, can lead to enhanced mood, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, a reduction of stress and ultimately, weight loss.