“I exercise a lot every day, but why have I gained weight instead?”
“I eat a lot of vegetables and only healthy snacks, but why can’t I lose weight?”
If you have encountered the above situations, it might just be that your “healthy habits” are keeping you from losing weight.
‘Healthy Habit’ 1: Doing a Lot of Exercise Every Day
In order to build muscle and lose fat, many people put in a lot of effort to exercise, and they even do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) every day. After exercising for a period of time, they unexpectedly find that instead of losing weight, they are feeling increasingly tired.
According to obesity specialist and endocrinologist Dr. Ming-Chieh Tsai, there are two main reasons for this phenomenon:
The first reason is exercising without controlling the diet.
Many people eat after exercising, and often we actually overeat after the exertion of a workout. “This is the most common [reason],” said Dr. Tsai.
A 2010 study found that people tend to overestimate the amount of energy they consume during exercise.
The study asked participants to estimate their caloric consumption, which turned out to be three to four times higher than the actual amounts consumed. When they were asked to eat some food to compensate for the calories burned during exercise, they ate two to three times the actual calories burned.
The second reason is that high-intensity exercises can affect metabolism.
Most people today suffer from sleep deprivation, and exercise is then an additional stressor on the body, and there can even be a negative cycle.
Excessive high-intensity exercise promotes the secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone. The increase in cortisol levels in the body will cause fatigue, sleep disorders, mental deterioration, and declined immunity. It can also cause the accumulation of abdominal fat, reduce the level of leptin, and increase the secretion of ghrelin. Leptin promotes a sense of satiety, while ghrelin increases appetite.
Therefore, it is best to make sure we’re getting enough sleep first, so that our body can handle and respond positively to exercise.
A small-scale study in 2021 showed that excessively frequent HIIT can overstress the body and suppress metabolism. The study, published in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism, found that 90 minutes of HIIT per week was effective, but increasing the exercise time to 152 minutes per week affected metabolism and caused oxidative stress in the body.
Therefore, Dr. Tsai stressed that we should not do exercises when we feel extremely fatigued, and we should do a suitable amount of exercises. Excessive exercise does not help shed weight, he said.
If you sleep less than six hours and still exercise excessively, it is detrimental to your body. People who don’t sleep well on a regular basis shouldn’t do intense exercises.
‘Healthy Habit’ 2: Consuming a Lot of Vegetables and Salads
Whether or not you want to lose weight, eating a lot of vegetables and salads is always a good thing. However, after doing so, some people find they haven’t lost weight. Instead, they even gained weight. Why?
The seemingly refreshing salads can make people ignore two major calorie traps:
First, the proportion of ingredients: Under normal circumstances, the amount of vegetables in salads should be more than the amount of fruits, nuts, and other ingredients. However, some people put an excessive amount of fruits and nuts into their salads. Furthermore, some ingredients tend to be high in calories, such as nuts, dried fruits, cheese, and avocados. In Caesar salads, baked or fried croutons are also added.
Secondly, there’s the dressing: Salad dressings such as ranch dressing, Thousand Island dressing, and Caesar dressing are mainly composed of oils. The addition of mayonnaise can cause an explosion of calories.
The relatively healthy salad dressings include vinaigrettes, Japanese-style salad dressings, and yogurt dressings. Although vinaigrettes also contain some lipids, as the sauce is liquid, it can flow to the bottom of the bowl, unlike Caesar dressing and other types of salad dressings, which are easily absorbed by the ingredients.
In addition, some people eat a lot of vegetables at each meal, or eat vegetarian meals, without consuming enough protein or starch. Although this type of diet can help them slim down in the short term, in the long run, they’re prone to regaining fat, or becoming even fatter than before. This is because they will experience muscle loss.
The benefits of protein foods, in addition to increasing satiety, also include helping maintain and grow muscles.
Vegetarians are prone to inadequate protein intake, and there are high-calorie “land mines” in plant-based protein sources. For instance, processed foods, such as vegetarian meat alternatives and tofu, are made with a lot of fat and soybeans.
Starch can be broken down into glucose, which is a source of energy for the body.
Nutritionist Aeris Chen pointed out that not consuming starchy foods will make the body dehydrated and lose weight, and when the body has consumed all of its own carbohydrates, it will start consuming muscles. “The most frightening thing is the consumption of muscles,” she said, adding that muscle loss decreases the basal metabolic rate, making it easier for the calories consumed to become fat and accumulate in the body.
Plus, many people frequently eat out. When they eat vegetable dishes instead of starchy foods, they will also consume excess salt and fat. This is because, in order to make the dishes delicious, restaurants use a lot of spices and unhealthy cooking methods, such as frying and deep-frying.
Some people do not eat starch, believing that white rice and bread are high in calories and can make them fat. Dr. Tsai stressed that not all starches are equal, and we have to compare them. Although white rice is not as wholesome as five-grain rice or oatmeal, it is still a natural food and better than processed foods, such as white toast, pasta, and pizza.
Compared to white bread and bread with a high sugar content, whole wheat bread can be healthier. Whole wheat bread is made with whole grain flour and has a higher nutritional value, so you just have to pay attention to ingredient combinations. “One of the participants in my weight loss program lives in Australia and eats whole wheat bread every day, but he still managed to lose weight with a healthy plate ratio,” said Dr. Tsai.
If you pay attention to ingredient combinations and cooking methods, eating a lot of vegetables will not cause you to gain weight.
“If you replace half of your meals with vegetables, you’ll definitely lose weight,” said Dr. Tsai. He has helped 1,000 people lose weight through his online courses. Their combined weight loss is more than 6,000 kilograms, and nobody has gained any weight back. The key to a weight-loss diet is to have the portion of vegetables close to half of every meal.
‘Healthy Habit’ 3: Snacking on Only Nuts, Dark Chocolate, and Other Healthy Snacks
Many people at weight loss consultations will say, “I don’t eat a lot of things,” or “I don’t eat a lot at meals,” but they still have trouble losing weight. After careful questioning by medical professionals, it is discovered that the problem may lie in their snacks.
Compared to cookies and cakes, nuts, dark chocolate, and dried fruits are healthy snacks. Nevertheless, people often overlook their calories and accidentally eat too much of them or don’t count them in their daily calories.
The cocoa butter in dark chocolate is very high in calories. After drying, fruits are only smaller in size, but their sugar content and calories remain the same. Nuts are fatty foods. A handful of nuts can have as many as 200 calories, close to the calorie count of a bowl of rice. When watching TV, many people open a bucket of Costco nuts to eat. And as a result, they consume a lot of fat.
For people who want to lose weight, “I tell them that they already have a lot of oil in their body, so they shouldn’t consume excess oil,” Dr. Tsai said. He cited the example of people who enjoy drinking avocado milk. Avocados are a type of fatty food, and milk also contains fat.
Since meals are cooked with oil, it is not recommended to consume additional snacks with high fat content, even if they are good lipids. If you want to eat them as snacks, you should limit the number of servings and pay attention to the amount of fats and oils consumed at meals.
As the above tips imply, not all calories are equal.
But once we are eating whole and healthy foods, the key to weight control is a calorie deficit, which means that the amount of calories eaten is less than the amount of calories burned.
“As long as you have trouble losing weight, you must have been eating more calories than you burn,” said Dr. Tsai. Therefore, when you find yourself gaining weight or having trouble losing weight, instead of blaming it on your age, poor metabolism, or endocrine disorders, first audit what you eat, and you may find the culprit there.
First, start by recording your diet. Taking a photo is the easiest way to record your meals to review.
According to Dr. Tsai, research has shown that when a person recalls and narrates the food items he or she consumes, it will be about 30 to 50% less food than actual consumption.
In contrast, a photo is a very objective record, and it’s also convenient for medical professionals to help identify the problem.
Many people have blind spots in their “healthy habits.” In fact, as long as you keep a balanced diet, and perform appropriate exercise, while creating a caloric deficit, you can gradually lose weight.
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