Are you trying super hard to lose weight, and despite all your best efforts, you're still playing yo-yo with your weight?
Sabrina Alberghi, Registered Holistic Nutritionist in Canada, works with a lot of clients who are trying to lose weight. “Most clients tell me they eat super healthy most of the time and exercise, but they still struggle to lose weight.”
We’ve all heard the old ‘exercise and don’t eat junk’ advice that doesn't seem to do any miracles, so we decided to dig deeper and pick Sabrina’s brain to get the lowdown on what’s really keeping us from shedding those extra pounds.
First off, what’s the approach a holistic nutritionist takes?
S: Registered Holistic nutritionists are experts in nutrition focusing on a natural and personalized approach to help people with their health and diet. As a holistic nutritionist, I do take into consideration macros and calories when I coach my clients, but that’s not what we focus on. When people start talking about food, it’s never just about food - it’s about their lives: their body image, their self confidence, their relationships, emotional issues, childhood trauma. We unpack a lot when we talk about food. So what I work on with my clients is helping them understand why they eat the way they do and what their motivation is to make changes. Holistic nutrition coaching also looks at other lifestyle factors that go hand in hand with diet, like sleep, stress level, and hormones.
So why don’t diets work?
S: Diets are a lot like fashion. There’s always a hot new trend that everyone’s trying on. But just because a diet works for some people, doesn’t mean it works for everyone.
So what usually happens is this: You hear about a new diet. Someone you know tried it and saw amazing results. You decide to give it a shot. The first week is great, but then you start plateau-ing, realize it’s not maintainable with your actual life, and eventually fall off the wagon. You then hear about another diet and the cycle starts all over again. That’s yo-yo dieting.
The big problem with yo-yo dieting is that it messes with your metabolism, which is so counterproductive for weight loss. Your metabolism determines how efficiently you use energy, i.e. calories, for different body functions. In nutrition like in dating, nobody likes a player. When you yo-yo diet, it’s like you’re being a player with own your metabolism. You ghost for a little bit, come back, then don’t text for a few days... It’s like you’re telling your body, “maybe I’ll give you enough food, maybe I won’t!”. So your body responds by slowing down its metabolic rate, i.e. burning fewer calories, which can lead to fat storage. What your body and metabolism need is consistency, and that’s what sets you up for successful long term weight loss. Bottom line: what will help you lose the weight for good is a diet that you can actually maintain long-term.”
So how can a person find a type of diet that will help them lose the weight for good?
S: Finding a diet that works for you and your body is a little bit like looking for the perfect relationship: what works for your BFF is not necessarily your ‘type’ of diet and you have to date for a while and get to know yourself before finding the right fit. Going back to metabolism and weight loss, the right diet for you is the diet that is not only healthy but makes you feel happy and is ‘The One’ that you can see yourself following long term.
But there must be things that everyone should avoid doing or eating, right?
S: For sure! Even if you’re the most motivated person and you feel like you’re following a super healthy diet, they are still some common mistakes you’re probably making that are keeping you from losing weight. When I coach my clients, I see them fall into these typical traps, and they might not even realize it. Here are the top ones:
They’re eating ‘healthy’ processed foods.
100 calories snacks, granola bars, muesli, crackers. These are all foods that may seem healthy - plus they’re convenient - but they’re often full of refined sugar and flour, hydrogenated oils, and a bunch of other additives that you can’t pronounce or digest. The first thing I tell my clients when they’re trying to adopt healthier habits and lose weight is to remove processed foods.
These foods are mostly found in the aisles of supermarkets, so a helpful tip to avoid getting tempted is to shop around the periphery of the grocery store. Fill your basket with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. I encourage my clients to choose more plant based foods, but if you do consume meats, dairy, and eggs, do your homework and make sure you’re getting these products from quality sources. When you do wander into the aisles, check ingredient lists. If a product has more than 5 ingredients, consider putting it back.
They’re eating a lot of calorie-dense foods.
I never recommend calorie counting to my clients, but the concept of calorie density is an important tool to have in your backpocket. Meat, eggs, dairy products, nuts, and oils are some examples of calorie dense foods. Even a small portion of these foods can pack in a lot of calories. When you’re trying to lose weight, focus on foods that are more calorie dilute, like fruits and vegetables.
Think of it this way, what’s going to fill you up the most: two tablespoons of olive oil or some raw veggie sticks and hummus? Each option amounts to about the same calories but the second option gives you a much higher volume of food, so you’ll feel much more satiated.
They’re loading up on sodium.
Sodium and water go hand in hand, so the more salt you eat, the more water you retain, the more bloated you look and feel. While adding lots of table salt to your dishes is not the best, hidden sodium in processed foods is actually the biggest culprit. Sodium is used for enhancing flavour and prolonging shelf life and cutting back on it is just another reason to kiss processed foods goodbye. Another easy way to reduce salt without really noticing it is to stop cooking with salt, and only add it at the very end when you’re serving the dish. You’ll get that nice salty taste, but your total salt intake will be much lower.
They’re drizzling the oil everywhere.
A drizzle of oil seems pretty harmless, doesn’t it? In a pan, on a salad, over some steamed veggies. But the thing is, oil is one of those foods that doesn’t give you much bang for your buck. It’s pure fat, contains no fiber, and doesn’t satiate you much. Overall, I recommend to my clients to use it only occasionally. Instead, try adding a bit of water to your pan to avoid food sticking and use spice and herbs to season your dishes rather than relying on oil. Try making salad dressings without oil. Mustards, vinegars, guacamole, fresh herbs; all these foods make tasty dressings, no oil required.
Of course, fats play an important role in the body and are part of a healthy diet, but please, get your fats from whole sources, like avocado, nuts, seeds, and (actual) olives. These have a ton of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, so not only will you get in those good fats, you’ll feel fuller and get more nutrients, too.
They’re getting seduced by all the “free”, “low” or “reduced” foods.
Fat free. Sugar free. Gluten free. Cholesterol free. When food companies remove a component from a food product or reduce the quantity, they almost always add more of something else to make up for it so taste isn’t affected. Next time you’re tempted by a reduced fat product, check the sugar content. It’s probably higher than in the original version.
Food companies will also often mark a product as ‘low’ or ‘free’ of something when it never had that ingredient in the first place to make it seem like a ‘health food’. Gluten free yogurt? Of course, gluten is only found in grains. Cholesterol free breakfast cereals? I bet, since cholesterol is only found in animal-based products. Try to choose whole foods as much as possible to avoid the headache of confusing health claims, but when you do purchase packaged foods, read nutrition labels carefully.
They’re skimping out on their H2O.
Do you drink two coffees, a diet soda, and a glass of wine most days, but find it impossible to fit in two litres of water? You’re not alone. Beyond the fact that we need proper hydration for our bodies to work optimally, when we don’t drink enough water, we tend to eat more. Oftentimes, we think we’re hungry, but we’re actually thirsty. Next time you feel like grabbing a snack, have a tall glass of water, wait 10 minutes, and if you’re still hungry after that, then have that snack.
Always keeping water at your desk - or wherever you work - is a helpful visual reminder. Some people find it easier to drink more water by drinking from a straw (not a plastic one, please!), so that may be a trick worth trying, too.
They’re drinking their calories.
Almond milk latte, cold pressed juice, smoothie, homemade protein shake, kombucha. These are great healthy options, but they’re not made of magic calories. Although they can be part of a balanced diet, and I definitely enjoy these myself, I tell my clients to reach for water as often as possible (see tip #4) and when they do choose a more filling beverage, to think of it like a snack or a small meal.
They’ve got a weekday/weekend mentality.
This is a big one. Tell me if this sounds like you: you try to eat as healthily as possible during the week, but then Friday night rolls around, and it’s all wine, chips, and cookies. While balance is key to maintaining a healthy diet long term, I try to encourage my clients to shift their mindset away from that weekday/weekend mentality. It makes you feel restricted during weekdays, which will lead you to indulge even more on weekends. It also subconsciously gives you the impression that nothing counts on weekends and that everything is ok to eat. Haven’t you ‘earned’ your treat foods since you were ‘good’ all week? The weekday/weekend mentality leads us to indulge way more than we normally would, which can slow down - or halt - weight loss. Instead, try to eat healthily regardless of what day of the week is it, and when you do treat yourself, keep in mind portion size.
They’re just doing cardio.
I love cardio and I’d never hate on it. It gets your heart rate up, improves your endurance, and makes you break a good sweat. BUT, as we talked about, increasing your metabolism plays a big role in weight loss. How can you increase your metabolism, you ask? By increasing your muscle mass. So try to include weight bearing exercises into your routine. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Squats, sit ups, and lunges are a great place to start and you can work you way up to more challenging routines like HIIT workouts.
They’re not dealing with their stress.
Do work deadlines make you feel like you’re being chased by a bear? It’s cause you are - or so your body thinks. Chronic stress puts our bodies in a constant state of fight or flight. When we’re in that state, our bodies direct all of our energy toward survival. That means basic metabolic functions get shut down, like proper digestion, good sleep, and normal blood sugar regulation, all things that need to work properly for us to lose weight. So when we’re always stressed, that can translate to fat storage.
We live in a busy world and it’s useless for me to tell my clients to reduce their stress. They’d just laugh at me and walk away. Instead, I try to help them develop stress management techniques that will work for them. Those are different for everybody, but you could try: journaling, meditation, listening to music or a podcast, walking, developing an artistic hobby like drawing, doing yoga or taking a hot bath.
They’re not getting enough sleep.
It can be tricky to see the link between these two, but consistent and good quality sleep is key to helping with weight loss. While we sleep, our bodies are busy doing many things, one of which is producing the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which regulate metabolism by modulating our feelings of hunger and satiety. What does that all mean? It means that if you’re not getting enough sleep, this could be a factor that explains why you often have cravings or never feel full, even after eating. So get those 8 hours in as often as possible!
They have food sensitivities they’re not aware of.
If you experience bloating, gas, and fatigue after eating certain foods, you may have a sensitivity. Common food allergens include wheat (and other gluten containing grains, like rye, barley, and oats), dairy, soy, and eggs. Some tree nuts and fish/shellfish can also cause a sensitivity. Food sensitivities can slow down your metabolism, which in turn makes it harder to lose weight. What I recommend is to keep a food journal, write down what you eat at every meal and then colour-code your reaction in the hours that follow. Did you feel great after eating, satisfied and energized? That’s a green. A bit bloated and tired? Yellow. Horrible stomach ache and cramping? Code red. By doing this over a few days, maybe even a few weeks, it’ll be easier to identify the common denominator(s) between your yellow or red episodes.
They may have nutritional imbalances.
One last thing I always recommend to my clients is to get a full blood panel to find out where all of their nutrients are at and make sure they’re within healthy ranges. Most people actually have never done that. If you’re struggling with your weight and you feel like you’re living as healthily as you can, consider getting your nutrient levels checked to make sure everything’s top notch. That may be the missing link in your weight loss journey.