My genetics provided me with a booming metabolism so maintaining my weight was relatively effortless in my teens, 20s, and early 30s.
In fact, when I had my first child, at age 31, I wore my pre-pregnancy jeans home from the hospital. No joke! After I had my second daughter, at age 34, something shifted, and maintaining my weight suddenly took a lot more effort. Many people who didn’t have a metabolism as good as mine notice this at an even younger age.
In my former conventional practice as a family doctor, if you came to me with this complaint, I’d explain to you with the best of intentions and love in my heart that weight loss is simple math—calories in versus calories out. I actually created a handout (bless my heart) to explain the math.
The math is as follows:
A pound is 3500 calories.
So if you consume 500 calories less each day than you burn you’ll lose a pound a week.
Sounds easy enough, right?
The truth is this type of calorie restriction often does work in the short term, but sticking with a calorie deficit consistently day after day, week after week is HARD and unsustainable for even the strongest-willed individuals.
This type of dieting requires a lot of resistance which is like standing in a swimming pool and holding a beach ball underwater. You can do it, but it takes a lot of effort and if you lose focus even briefly it will pop up with vigorous momentum in the wrong direction.
It’s like eating no sugar for 30 days but dreaming of it regularly. Then on day 31, you eat an extra large bag of M & Ms or several donuts. On separate occasions, I’ve done both!
I want to live a life where I can fill my body with healthy choices most of the time, but indulge in treats occasionally, and still maintain my health and my weight. Intuitively, I knew there had to be a more sustainable way to lose weight and maintain the loss. There is!
It’s not a quick, easy fix. The solution is finding and fixing the root cause. It also requires committing to small repeatable actions regularly that you can sustain, not just for 30 days or 3 months, but for a lifetime. The approach that follows won’t get you to your goal as fast. But won’t it be worth it if it’s an easier path to take and once you achieve that goal weight, you can stay there? I sure think so.
What leads to a slow metabolism and difficulty losing weight?
Through my functional medicine training, I’ve learned about five key areas that need to be addressed in addition to considering the amount of calories you are consuming and burning.
By evaluating and addressing each of these potential problem areas, you can maintain a healthy weight in middle age and beyond.
1- MITOCHONDRIAL HEALTH
A critical thing to consider when trying to lose weight is the health of the mitochondria. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells and they deteriorate and become less abundant as we age.
Mitochondria are where the food you eat is converted into energy. Fats, carbs, and protein are broken down through a series of biochemical processes, and energy is produced as a result. Fats are broken down by a pathway unique to fat metabolism. Carbs are broken down by a pathway unique to carbohydrate metabolism. Protein is broken down by a pathway unique to protein metabolism.
In all 3 of these pathways, a common precursor is formed (Acetyl CoA) that then goes through the Citric Acid Cycle and the Electron Transport Chain to yield energy. When you have all the nutrients necessary to fuel this pathway you have a good metabolism and create 36 units of ATP (or energy) from just a single glucose molecule.
However, if you are missing just one of the many nutrients necessary to run this efficient metabolic pathway, a backup occurs and things slow down like a traffic jam during construction on the interstate. If this backup is severe, you’ll switch to a less optimal metabolic pathway, which provides much less energy from the foods you eat.
Why do we eat in the first place? The primary reason we eat is for energy. If your metabolism is running on this inefficient pathway your body will be low in energy, so you will be hungrier and want to eat more food. If you are attempting to restrict calories, this will become harder and harder.
Your entire body runs on energy. For example, your brain needs energy to think, your heart needs energy to pump blood and your liver needs energy to process toxins. The more energy you produce, the better your overall health. The key to optimal health and optimal weight is boosting mitochondrial health.
You can boost mitochondrial health through things like intermittent fasting, exercise, sleep, relaxation, sunlight, heat exposure, and cold exposure. Additionally, what has been helpful for me and so many of my patients is finding out precisely which nutrients YOU are missing and replacing them. This will restore your metabolism from the inefficient form to the efficient form, making weight loss so much easier.
Nutrient deficiencies and poor mitochondrial health are big reasons why many in middle age are struggling to lose weight. You are trying to lose weight by restricting calories but your body is sending signals demanding more fuel because your mitochondria aren’t working optimally.
Which nutrients are YOU deficient in? It’s hard to know without a comprehensive test showing where the problem lies in you. Testing like this isn’t offered in conventional medicine but is offered by many functional medicine providers like me.
My motto is “We don’t guess, we test to figure out exactly which nutrients your body needs for an optimal metabolism.”
This is a lot to take in, I know. What is important to understand is if you are struggling to lose weight, assessing the health of your mitochondria and your nutrient status is key. It’s common that these won’t be ideal and that is a big reason people unnecessarily struggle as they get older. Check out this YouTube video where I explain this in detail complete with a diagram!
2- ADRENAL HEALTH
Stress is a big deal and it takes a huge toll on your body. Our bodies were designed to handle acute stress but not the chronic stress we experience today. And let’s face it, we are all under stress.
Stress sends a signal to our adrenal glands (small glands that sit on top of each kidney that produce the hormone cortisol in response to stress) that danger is lurking.
With the resultant cortisol release, many physiological changes happen to protect you, including a purposeful slowing of the metabolism and the storage of body fat. Your body doesn’t hate you. It’s trying to keep you alive. This makes sense and is helpful if you are being chased by a tiger and your survival is threatened.
If, as you are trying to escape the tiger, you have to hide in a cave for days on end, you need to preserve your energy and the extra body fat will be useful. Body fat, after all, is stored fuel for later use.
Thankfully, I’ve never been chased by a tiger and I hope you haven’t either, so these adaptations aren’t as helpful for you and me dealing with the chronic stress that comes with our modern-day life.
If you are struggling in middle age to lose weight, I urge you to have your adrenal glands tested and treated. In my practice, the results are rarely optimal. Like mitochondrial testing, this is not likely a service your conventionally trained doctor will offer but most functional medical practitioners like myself do.
Fixing the adrenals doesn’t cause short-term weight loss but it’s foundational for feeling great, having amazing energy, balanced hormones, and a healthy body that will slowly release weight.
My mentor, Dr. Kalish says, “You don’t lose weight to get healthy. You get healthy and then lose weight.” Read more about the adrenal glands here: There is no such thing as Adrenal Fatigue. Or is there?
3- GUT HEALTH
A healthy gut is also necessary for weight loss. To put it simply, bad bacteria send signals demanding bad food. Good bacteria thrive on a whole-food, high-fiber diet. Having a favorable balance of bacteria in the gut helps to facilitate weight loss. Read more about gut health here: 5 Signs of a Healthy Gut
The thyroid needs to be not just normal, but optimal for weight loss. Read more about the thyroid here: It’s Not Your Thyroid. Or is it?
Stress keeps your sympathetic nervous system turned on. If you are a busy bee taskmaster like me, you are likely in sympathetic overdrive. This is the chronic stress state referred to earlier that keeps us in “fight or flight” mode.
For a booming metabolism, you need abundant nutrients from digesting the foods you eat. It isn’t enough to just eat the right foods, you also have to adequately digest them.
Digestion occurs when the parasympathetic system is activated. The parasympathetic system is characterized as the “rest and digest” system. You need to be calm to digest food properly. Take 3 deep cleansing breaths before eating your meal and chew your food thoroughly to make it easier for your body to utilize the nutrients you are providing it. Learn more about how to manage your mindset, which is key to a healthy parasympathetic nervous system here: Controlling What You Can Control
A final word on weight loss
Maintaining a healthy weight isn’t easy, but when the root cause is found and fixed it’s much less difficult. Your body is designed to feel amazing. When it doesn’t, there is a reason and there is so much more to it than I understood from my conventional medical education.
Fewer calories in or more calories out are all that you need to do to lose weight is another lie I learned in medical school that I no longer believe.
P.S — Before you go, I want to share some insight on other helpful weight loss tactics I’ve researched.
I’ve seen a lot of people have great success with GLP-1 weight loss injections, but the problem is what happens when you stop them? Unless you fix the underlying problems, as I explained above, the weight will return.
Consider Carnitine Supreme.
Carnitine is what shuttles fat into the mitochondria to be burned for fuel. Many people are lacking in this amino acid which hinders their weight loss efforts. Carnitine deficiency is a common root cause of weight loss resistance.
In my recent article published in eWellness magazine, you can learn about why Carnitine Supreme is my top pick that I recommend to patients struggling with weight loss.