For decades, leading weight loss experts have preached the same formula: Sweat more and eat less. And if you’ve ever thought that sounds too easy to be true, you may be right, and Canadian researchers called BS on this theory. Their study in the journal Obesity Research and Clinical Practice suggests a different take: It’s more difficult to shed fat today than any other time in the past 30 years, even when factoring out any changes in diet and exercise.
The study analyzed health and fitness data from 36,377 people who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. From 1971 to 2008, there was a 10 to 14 percent increase in BMI, carbohydrate intake, and overall caloric intake, while fat and protein intake decreased slightly over the same period. The study also found that even when holding caloric intake and physical activity constant, the predicted BMI was still 2.3 units higher in 2006 than in 1988.
This means that simply eating less or exercising more cannot fully explain our expanding waistlines over the last few decades. So, what factors are tipping the scales?
“For some people, there are a few large culprits,” says Jennifer Kuk, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and an associate professor of kinesiology at York University in Toronto. Kuk suggested that excessive eating and poor exercise habits are determinants of weight gain, but also adds that, “for most people, it’s the cumulative effect of countless daily habits, health choices, and environmental factors that cause us to burn fewer calories.”
Those environmental factors could be key in understanding why it’s harder than ever to lose weight. Today, we are exposed to more pollutants, pesticides, highly processed foods, and medications than previous generations.
3 Modern-Day Factors That May Make it Seem Like You Can’t Lose Weight
Exposure to certain chemicals
Chemicals from the environment around us and the foods we consume may disrupt certain body functions, potentially reprogramming your metabolism to favor weight gain. The researchers aren’t yet able to pinpoint exactly how the reprogramming happens, but they noted that the chemicals seem to activate the fat cell differentiation pathway in cells grown in vitro and in animal studies, and lead to larger fat cells — and more of them.
Risky chemicals identified in the research include bisphenol A (BPA), commonly found in plastic water bottles, and tributyltin, a component of PVC plastic that is sometimes used to make household pipes.
To lower your chemical exposure, wash fruits, veggies, and herbs before you eat them; use glass or stainless steel containers instead of plastic; and avoid PVC products. (Editor’s note: You’ll find neither BPA nor tributyltin in Beachbody supplement packaging.)
Use of antidepressants
Prescription drug use has been on the rise over the past 30 years. Antidepressants, such as Prozac, have flooded the market as the most commonly prescribed drug for people ages 18–44. One study revealed that depressed women taking antidepressants were more likely to be obese. A population-based study published in Diabetes Care noted an average weight gain of about six pounds over the course of about five years in users of antidepressants. This weight-gain trend may be attributed to the appetite-stimulating effect of the drugs.
Of course, a relatively modest amount of weight gain may not outweigh the benefits you might experience from prescribed antidepressants, so definitely consult with your physician if you’re taking these types of drugs and have concerns about potential weight gain.
Altered gut microbiome
Tens of trillions of beneficial bacteria, known as your gut flora, live in your intestines and have a huge impact on health. They are responsible for numerous metabolic reactions, protect against pathogens, and assist our immune systems with proper functioning. Accumulating research strongly suggests that the gut microbiota play an important role in the regulation of energy balance and weight in animals and humans, and may influence the development and progression of obesity and other metabolic disorders.
The gut microbiota is typically dominated by bacteria — specifically by members of the divisions Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes — although there’s a range of variability in microbial composition in the guts of most individuals. These variations are driven primarily by diet. Being overweight is a physiological state that has emerged as a major health concern in populations that have adopted a Western diet (characterized by a high intake of red meat, refined sugars, saturated fat, and little fiber); research suggests that part of the reasoning may be tied to the microbiota makeup of people following the Western diet.
Of the two most common gut bacteria, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes, there is a lesser proportion of Bacteriodetes present in the GI tracts of obese individuals compared to those who are leaner; this proportion was shown to increase when overweight study participants lost weight.
Research about weight and the human microbiome concluded that restoration of the gut microbiota to a healthy state may ameliorate the conditions associated with being overweight, and help individuals maintain a healthy weight. To keep your gut bacteria happy and healthy, reduce added sugar intake, eat foods high in fiber, use antibiotics only as prescribed by your doctor, and consider taking a probiotic supplement or eating fermented foods, such as kimchi, kombucha, and yogurt.
5 Strategies to Combat Weight Gain
What else can you do to counteract gaining weight in the digital age? In addition to considering how environmental factors may add pounds to your frame, incorporate the following five tips into your daily regimen.
Need another reason to embrace the mindful eating movement? Research has shown that eating slower may help reduce how much you eat, and feel more satisfied doing it. Try putting your utensils down between bites, sip water frequently, and aim to eat in calm environments with minimal distractions.
Looking for a wholesome snack that’s less than 100 calories? The best bang for your calorie buck: fresh veggies or fruit. The water and fiber content will keep you feeling full for longer. Depending on what fruit and veggies are in season, some great options include an apple (95 calories), 20 grapes (68 calories), a peach (58 calories), an orange (65 calories), one medium red bell pepper (37 calories), 10 baby carrots (40 calories), one cucumber (48 calories), and one cup of broccoli (31 calories).
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Drinking water can help fill your tummy for no calories. Soda and fruit juices can rack up about 140–155 calories per 12-ounce serving; replace them with sparkling water or still water flavored with sliced fruit, herbs, or even a splash or two of fresh-squeezed juice. A study published in the journal Obesity found that drinking two cups of water 30 minutes before a meal can result in moderate weight loss among overweight adults. Try carrying a reusable water bottle with you throughout the day so you can stay hydrated even on the go.
Hit the sack earlier
Getting a little more shut eye at night may help you shed weight. One study found that women who slept five hours or less gained 2.5 pounds more over the course of 16 years than women who slept seven hours. A study that examined the sleep patterns of 1,024 volunteers in the the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study showed that “short sleep” (sleeping less than eight hours a night) resulted in a reduction in the satiety-inducing hormone leptin and an elevation in the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, which was likely to increase appetite and contribute to increased body mass index. Another small study conducted on sleep-deprived young men found similar effects to the “hunger” hormones as well as increased appetite and hunger.
Also, if you’re tired, you might skip your workout and have a lower body temperature, decreasing the amount of calories you burn throughout the day.
“We move less [than previous generations],” says Kuk, adding that television watching and desk jockeying are only partly to blame. “Many of the conveniences we take for granted — even seemingly inconsequential things like automatic transmissions and blenders — result in less daily movement and a more sedentary lifestyle overall.”
Hate house chores? Maybe you will change your tune if you knew they could impact your health and weight… for the better. Small movements daily, such as taking out the trash, mopping the floors, doing yard work, standing at the computer, and even taking steps while grocery shopping are low-intensity movements that stimulate non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or the energy burned doing everyday tasks. While exercise is important — the Dietary Guidelines suggest at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week for good health — one study suggests what you do when you’re not working out can make or break your weight-loss goals.
Here are some ways to add more movement to your days:
- Turn up the music and shake it
- Tap your feet and fidget at your desk
- Get up and walk to your coworker’s desk instead of firing off an email
- Pace while talking on the phone
- Set a goal and track your steps. There’s an app for that
- Set an alarm to get up and walk every 45–60 minutes
- Take the stairs
- Schedule meetings where you walk to a coffee shop or around a park
The Bottom Line
The next time you step on the scale, keep in mind all the environmental factors beyond diet and exercise that may impact your ability to lose weight. Above all, eat smarter and pursue a physically active lifestyle — which should include exercise as well as more overall movement daily. When possible, control your exposure to harmful chemicals in the containers and foods you choose to eat. Evaluate your diet and how much processed foods you’re consuming. Nourish your gut flora, and talk with your doctor about medications that may be promoting weight gain.