By now we all know that the healthiest way to lose weight involves sticking to a well-balanced and nutritious diet while also exercising regularly. However, sometimes even if you maintain a healthy lifestyle, losing weight can still feel like an uphill battle. It could be a weight loss plateau, but it could also be due to underlying health issues that often go unnoticed and undiagnosed.
There are a variety of health issues that not only have the ability to prevent you from losing weight, but they might also be contributing to unwanted weight gain. “It can be invigorating to decide to embark on a weight loss journey, but it can be extremely frustrating when the journey is getting derailed,” says Dr. Anna Cabeca, DO, who is triple-board-certified in gynecology and obstetrics, integrative medicine and anti-aging and regenerative medicine. “It’s true, some people have an easier time than others when it comes to losing weight.”
In an effort to understand why it might be more difficult for some people to shed a few pounds than others, we consulted a team of doctors and dietitians and asked them to explain a variety of health issues that could be impeding weight loss. The pros not only explained what these issues are, but they noted how these conditions contribute to one’s difficulty losing weight and even listed some symptoms to look out for.
If you’re encountering weight gain or are having trouble losing weight, you may be experiencing the following undetected health issues. As always, be sure to consult your physician if you think you’re suffering from a medical issue. Read on, and for more on how to lose weight, you won’t want to miss The Best Ways to Lose Belly Fat for Good, Say Doctors.
“Cushing’s Syndrome is a medical condition in which the adrenal glands produce way too much cortisol—otherwise known as your stress hormone,” notes Dr. Candice Seti, PsyD, CPT, CNC, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, a certified personal trainer, and a certified nutrition coach. “This can result from prolonged exposure to corticosteroid medication or from a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. Either way, the result of all this cortisol is a much slower metabolism. Specifically, fat tends to build up in the face, upper back, and abdomen.”
According to Dr. Seti, additional symptoms of Cushing’s Syndrome include acne, high blood pressure, and muscle weakness. “The condition is treatable with either medication or possibly surgery to remove the tumor,” she says.
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As it turns out, even just slightly elevated cortisol levels over time, which can be caused by chronic stress or anxiety, can wreak havoc on your body and thwart your weight loss goals. “A lot of people don’t realize just how much stress can impact your physical health, but it can take a huge toll. And most of us are leading pretty stressful lives, especially this year with everything that’s been going on,” says SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD.
“When you’re stressed, your body produces higher levels of a hormone called cortisol. In times of short-term stress, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It increases your drive to eat and helps you to conserve energy so that it’s there when you need it (just in case you’re starving or being chased by an animal). Unfortunately, high cortisol can be a real problem if you have chronic anxiety or stress,” Shoemaker explains. “It signals your body to store excess fat (especially in your midsection) and may increase your food cravings—especially for high-calorie comfort foods.”
Since stress is fairly common, it can be tricky to know if it’s impacting your weight. However, if you suspect that sustained stress is keeping you from slimming down, a visit to the doctor could help. “To know for sure if you have elevated cortisol levels, you’d have to have your cortisol level checked by a healthcare professional,” Shoemaker advises. “However, if you are often stressed out or have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, it’s definitely a possibility.”
Adrenal fatigue, which can be caused by stress, is a condition that encompasses a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances, and digestive problems. “Adrenal fatigue is a real problem with women that is caused by too much stress and it can have unwanted side effects such as weight gain, sweet cravings, and muscle weakness. In the initial phase of adrenal fatigue, weight often accumulates in all the wrong places and it is virtually impossible to lose it,” says Cabeca. “Women with adrenal fatigue often get frustrated because they feel they are doing everything to lose weight but the pounds are not coming off. Well, it’s simply a chemical imbalance that can be fixed.”
If you feel like you might be experiencing adrenal fatigue and are annoyed that you seemingly can’t lose weight, Cabeca suggests making changes to your eating regimen. “First and foremost, focus on a diet of mostly unprocessed foods with the right proportions of carbohydrates, protein, and good fats, and fruits and vegetables,” she explains. “Also, be sure that your diet includes enough zinc, which helps support adrenal function.”
Hypothyroidism occurs when the body lacks hormones to manage your metabolism, which can then cause the metabolism to slow down, thus making weight loss very difficult. The condition is typically diagnosed by a doctor, as blood tests are needed to reach a definitive conclusion. Hypothyroidism is treatable with the appropriate medications.
“The main priority is to get the thyroid hormones within normal limits, otherwise trying to achieve a normal weight (whether via weight loss or gain) will be extremely difficult,” notes Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, who serves on the advisory board for Fitter Living. “Once hormones are more controlled, people with hypothyroidism often desire to lose weight, so a calorie and carbohydrate-controlled diet is helpful.”
Still, she notes that finding the right diet could be difficult and may require more consultations with your doctor. “One thing with thyroid medications and diet is that there are several drug-nutrient interactions that can cause medications to be less effective. That’s why proper medication timing and food timing is important,” Miller explains. “Your doctor will be able to tell you the best time to take your medications and how you need to space it around your meals.”
“Hashimoto’s is often confused for hypothyroidism because the outcome is very similar. With Hashimoto’s the thyroid gland becomes chronically inflamed and ultimately ends up under-functioning, similar to hypothyroidism,” says Dr. Seti. “The difference is that Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease. In this case, the white blood cells in the body start attacking the thyroid and cause inflammation. Similar to hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s is also treatable with medication.”
Related: 14 Tips to Reduce Inflammation to Lose Weight Faster, According to RDs
“Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition involving hormonal imbalances in women. Women with PCOS are more likely to be insulin resistant, meaning their bodies are less effective at converting sugars and starches into energy,” explains Megan Wong, RD, a registered dietitian working with AlgaeCal. “Because the body isn’t getting energy from these foods, it thinks it needs to eat more and remains hungry. This can lead to overeating and weight gain.”
Wong adds: “Excess androgen (‘male hormone’) production is another characteristic of PCOS, and higher androgen levels are associated with weight gain, particularly around the belly area.”
Common signs and symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, excess body hair, severe acne, weight gain around the belly, and depression. Women who suspect they may have PCOS should consult with their gynecologist.
As women age, the onset of menopause can often lead to weight gain and/or make it increasingly difficult for women to lose weight. “Hormonal shifts can trigger the body to hold on to weight and this is especially true during menopause and perimenopause,” says Dr. Seti. “During this time, most women’s metabolisms slow down, and fat storage increases, especially around the abdomen. Fortunately, this weight gain is controllable with the right balance of eating, exercise, and self-care.”
“It’s not just women that struggle with these hormonal changes leading to weight gain. Men get some of the burden as well,” Dr. Seti continues. “As men age, testosterone levels can begin to naturally decrease. As testosterone decreases, abdominal fat storage starts to increase. Additional symptoms of low testosterone reduction in muscle mass, fatigue, low libido, and concentration issues.” According to Dr. Seti, low testosterone can be remedied with hormone supplements, which can bring testosterone levels back within a normal range.
“Syndrome X is a cluster of health conditions that are related to insulin resistance. Weight gain is often common,” says Lisa Young, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, and an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. “The body does not recognize and respond well to insulin. Insulin resistance seems to affect other hormones in the body, including those that regulate metabolism. Often people with syndrome X have elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, and weight gain.”
“With congestive heart failure, the heart muscles weaken and cause the heart to pump inefficiently. So the heart doesn’t pump enough to meet the body’s needs and the blood and fluid start to build up. This causes swelling and rapid weight gain,” says Dr. Seti. “Additional symptoms include joint swelling, excessive urination, and coughing or wheezing. There are many medical treatment options depending on your stage of heart failure.”
“In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, people take steroids to decrease the inflammatory effects of rheumatoid arthritis, causing water retention and increased body weight,” explains Dr. Andrea Paul, MD, and the CEO of Health Media Experts. “Moreover, joint stiffness makes it difficult for you to maintain any physical activity; thus, it becomes difficult for you to lose weight.”
“Insomnia is a disorder involving frequent and debilitating sleep issues—either the inability to fall asleep or the inability to stay asleep. The problem with this is not just that you are incredibly tired and irritable, but also that you throw off your body’s natural circadian rhythms,” notes Dr. Seti. “When this happens, it, in turn, throws off several of your hormones, including the ones that control your hunger and satiety. So, you end up eating more, not registering your fullness, and sometimes impacting your metabolism in the process. In addition, when you are sleep deprived, it is much harder to stay active.” For help with your nighttime routine, don’t miss these 13 Food Hacks That Will Help You Sleep Better Tonight.