# Can't lose weight? What don't people understand about that?

I’ve noticed a pattern in some of the weight loss threads. Someone will complain that they can’t lose weight, and someone else will take the position, “You just need to do x, y and z. Do that and you’ll lose the weight!” The person who can’t lose weight will have some objection, and the other person will start repeating themselves. Sometimes over and over again. After awhile people seem to be talking past each other and it can be hard to tell which side “doesn’t get it”.

If you are someone who can’t lose weight, what would you say it is that people don’t understand about it?
I better explain why I am asking this. I am curious about the question at face-value, yes. However, recently I had a sort of introspective realization about denial. The details don’t matter here, but basically I felt like by breaking through something I was in denial about, I got some insight into denial itself.

Here’s how it works: Say you have two propositions, A and B. Let’s say that B logically follows from A, which I’ll express as A->B.

Now, let’s say that a person has an entire list of mental associations with A (call them a1, a2 and so on). Same story with B, a long list of associations. While it may seem clear that A->B, my theory goes that a person may deny that if the associations a1, a2 etc. somehow clash with the associations b1, b2 etc. For example, maybe a1 through a10 are central points in a person’s worldview, and b1 through b10 somehow contradict all of that. To really face A->B means a big headache for the person who would rather deny it, as the clashing of all the associations would create a lot of inner conflict. In terms of stress it is easier to deny A->B than to deal with all that conflict.

To take it a little further, consider this empty sports bracket. The center ‘champions’ box is the -> part of A->B. The brackets on the left are the associations with A, the brackets on the right the associations with B. If these two sets of associations are completely contradictory, it may be easier simply to never admit A->B.

I think this might go down to a neurological level. If one set of associations are things you like or want to believe and the other set are things you don’t like or don’t believe, thinking too hard about A->B can cause contradictory mental constructs to neurologically ‘link up’ and perhaps partly destroy each other. This might change all kinds of things about what a person thinks or believes, leaving a feeling like this in the aftermath because neurological structures that were of a piece before have literally been broken up into pieces. Denial may be a more attractive option no matter how logical the central proposition may seem.
That’s it. I felt like I’d be unfair to run an experiment on you guys without letting you know what I was up to. I have my own reasons for thinking that I may find evidence of denial (or not) in ‘what other people don’t understand’, don’t worry about that.

I’m not saying people who can’t lose weight definitely are in denial. I Don’t Know. I’m simply looking to confirm a theory I devised, or else declare the whole thing delusional (I am always worried that conclusions reached from introspection may be a delusion). I plan to stay out of the discussion unless someone address their comment to me directly. I hope nobody is a jerk about people who can’t lose weight.

Also, if you have a lot of education about either psychology or philosophy, feel free to share your opinion of my theory of denial.

I think that in a lot of cases denial plays a roll. In other cases there’s a bit of equivocation about what ‘can’t’ means.

For example, to a lot of people ‘can’t lose weight’ means that metabolically they’re incapable of losing weight, which is clearly impossible. In fact, that’s probably the most logical interpretation and anyone who maintains it is purely in denial.

But I don’t think most people mean that. If you probe deeply enough you’ll realize that what people really can’t do is monitor intake correctly, or have wildly incorrect notions of what they need to eat to lose weight, or simply lack the will power.

Someone who ‘can’t’ lose weight because they lack the willpower isn’t really long. ‘having willpower’ isn’t really true or false the same way ‘every human body will lose weight if it’s starved sufficiently’ is true. Pointing out to people that they COULD lose weight if only they were force fed egg whites and cucumber doesn’t prove them wrong if what they really mean is they’ve been unable to stick with lasting diet changes.

Also there’s room for both denial and an unusual definition of ‘can’t lose weight’. For example, a lot of people claim they do track their caloric intake perfectly but it’s pretty obvious they’re wrong. If you could break through that you’d be left with a person who ‘can’t’ lose weight because they eat too much.

I think for some folks when they say ‘I can’t lose weight’ they mean ‘I can’t lose enough weight, based on my effort, to make it worth my while.’

Imagine someone who is 200 lbs overweight. Now imagine that they go on an 800 calorie a day liquid diet, go to the gym every day, walk everywhere, and don’t cheat, and still only manage to lose 30 pounds. Now, 30 pounds is a pretty good weight loss; however, when you have 200 to lose, and you’ve already cut down to the point that you’re drinking your meals, I can understand why a person would say ‘forget it, it’s not worth it, I can’t lose weight.’

The disconnect comes in when folks on the other side can’t accept that there are people for whom the above scenario is realistic - someone with PCOS, for instance, can diet and exercise until the cows come home and they still won’t be able to lose large amounts of weight. They may be able to lose a few pounds, but the effort required will be too much to sustain it.

Its a bit like how anyone can lose weight by cutting off a limb - most people don’t think it’s worth it, even if they will lower their BMI.

Yeah, pretty much what the above two posts said. The view is that “I can’t lose weight” is untrue; it’s impossible. And if people do do X, Y, and Z, they *will *lose weight. Therefore the view is, contrary to the original claims, the person is not doing X, Y, and Z.

That might be due to denial, or it might be due to innacurate or inconsistent application of X, Y, and Z; but the consensus tends to be that if X, Y, and Z are being done correctly then weight will be lost. If they’re not, it won’t.

That’s why you get the continual repetition, at any rate, whether or not you agree with them. To those posting X, Y, and Z, there really isn’t anything else to say.

The moral judgement side of it, though, is a bit unpleasant. Just because someone can’t do X, Y, and Z doesn’t mean that there might not be a good reason why they can’t.

You lost me at the mental associations section of your post, though. I couldn’t follow it. So if you’re saying something else entirely, I apologise.

I think what you are talking about is referred to as “cognitive dissonance.”

If I get your point anyway, you think the issue is that accepting one proposition means more than just accepting the one proposition if it conflicts with (is dissonant with) other propositions that one believes. Changing a1 would create “disequilibrium” with a2 to an and one way to deal with that is to deny accepting a1.

Not sure how much applies to this subject actually though. Usually the obese person isn’t actually saying it is physically impossible, they are saying it is, within the environment they live in, for practical purposes impossible. At most they are stating things mildly hyperbolically and the other side is often then stating how “simple” weight loss is, which triggers others to jump in with comments discussing how complex the subject actually is, which is dissonant with the “weight loss is simple; fat people are lazy” proposition held by some of the second group, so they can’t engage in any discussion of the complexities and keep repeating that anyone who says it is complex is “in denial.”

There’s really more than that to it, though. It is quite possible for a person who’s overweight to follow prevailing advice and not get anywhere, for a host of reasons. Weight loss in the real world is complicated for a lot of people. Sure, there’s nobody that won’t lose weight if restrained and denied food indefinitely. That doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to figure out the problem if you’re following a weight loss regimen and nothing is happening.

At the same time, let’s say X, Y, and Z are normal pieces of weight loss advice: write down everything you eat, restrict calories, and start exercising regularly. Great. However no two people will find the exact same results or even any results from such a program because of all the factors involved.

Some people are doing things wrong, for example. They might mistake the number of calories they’re eating because of honest errors, or they might be forgetting foods, or their calorie goal isn’t right, or their workouts aren’t doing much for them. Telling that person to do X, Y, and Z doesn’t help because they’re already doing those things; what you need to find out is what specifically they’re doing and what’s happening. Just repeating the same advice doesn’t help. Other people may be doing everything right but they don’t see the results on the scale due to lots of other fluctuations (like water weight, especially for women); they’re not doing anything wrong, but they’re getting bad feedback. Repeating the advice and telling them something is wrong with what they are doing isn’t helpful either. Lastly there are people who can do things right but there are other medical issues involved that are related to their weight gain; in fact they need to go to a doctor, not just continue to do X, Y, and Z.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of true believers out there that assume that because X, Y, and Z worked for them, they must work for everyone – and they just repeat those things indefinitely. This can be extreme; for example I see people on fitness boards recommending that people who weigh 600+ pounds go out and start doing barbell squats and deadlifts, without any knowledge of the person at all or their health. Sure, lifting is a great idea, but really, that’s the best place to start? Well, that’s where the advice-giver started, so it’s clearly the best plan – even though they started at 200 pounds and 20 years younger. So that’s the advice that gets given.

I definitely struggle with my weight. I do restrict calories, I work out, I log what I eat. Nonetheless I tend not to lose much weight anymore no matter what I seem to do. I don’t use it as an excuse; I keep eating right and working out mostly for the health benefits. At the same time, it’s frustrating at the same time to be told “well, you’re obviously just not doing it right”. I’ll describe the calories I eat per day, the workouts I do, and the results I get, and people automatically just assume I’m lying or somehow mistaken – but I’m not. I’m really not. Unless someone is giving me IVs full of maple syrup every night when I’m not looking, I’m just someone who has a very adaptive metabolism and has a very difficult time losing weight (or some as-yet undiscovered medical issue, as I am pursuing again). There are definitely bullshitters who use this as an excuse to just not be bothered, but there are people who have to go to fairly extreme measures to lose weight.

I’m in this boat. I have PCOS, which is an endocrine disorder that involves insulin resistance and increases your risk for diabetes. I had struggled with my weight since puberty and eventually got up to almost 200 pounds at 5’4", at which point I realized that my health was at risk and I needed to lose weight. I listened to the most common weight loss advice of finding your BMR, dropping 500 calories a day below that, and increasing exercise. I did that for a couple of months without any cheating, and at the end of two months I had lost four pounds.

So I threw in the towel for a while. All that effort, not just physical but mental and emotional too, for such little payoff? Forget it, I just can’t lose weight!

Then I did research into my medical condition and decided to cut out starches and sugars (basically the South Beach diet). No calorie restriction, no increased exercise, just a change in the macronutrient breakdown of the food I ate. I lost (IIRC) ten pounds in the first two weeks, and after four months of following this diet, I had lost 30 pounds (at which point I stalled at 155 for months for reasons I have not been able to deduce, but whatever).

My takeaway lesson from this is that 1) it’s not denial or delusion at work when certain people say that they can’t lose weight, and 2) everyone can lose weight; they just have to discover the particular conditions that will allow them to. If you have insulin resistance, a thyroid condition, or something else going on with your metabolism that’s abnormal, then you have to do some research on what is recommended for you to drop the pounds when simple calorie restriction isn’t working. It might be eating a certain kind of diet, it might be going on medication to balance out your hormones, or whatever.

So it does no good to shout, “Just to X, Y, and Z!” at them and then when they shout, “BUT I ALREADY AM!” back at you, to shout, “YOU MUST BE LYING OR DELUSIONAL!” No, for serious, X Y and Z does not work for every single one of us. But something will work, and that person should be encouraged to find out what it is.

fluiddruid, well maybe that Jr. Assistant Pie Coordinator position is not the best job for you to have …

Seriously though you make the point well. The group that states “if people do do X, Y, and Z, they will lose weight …” often keep trying have an argument with a position that others are not actually taking. Yes, it is possible for anyone to lose weight if calories in are controlled enough long term. AND yes the body unleashes extremely strong forces to prevent that weight loss and to encourage regain, such that for many who are obese achieving a normal BMI is not realistically achievable even with great self control and discipline. The cognitive dissonance occurs there: some of those who keep repeating how simple it is, just do X, Y, and Z, hold the additional belief “fat people are fat because they are lazy and/or undisciplined.” Accepting that even the application of huge amounts of self discipline will not be enough to the majority of the obese to become normal BMI (even though it is physiologically “possible”) is in disequilibrium with that belief. The way for them to avoid dealing with that dissonance is to keep repeating that the obese are in denial and just “not doing X, Y, and Z.”

The good news, that you seem to be already are aware of, is that you do not need to lose much weight to have substantial impact on your long term health outcomes. If you lost merely 5 to 10% of your peak body mass, and have and continue to keep it off with a combination of healthy eating habits and regular exercise, you have done your health a great deal of good. Increasingly medical experts in obesity research recognize that setting a goal other than that may in fact be of more harm than benefit to most who are obese.

I think there’s also an issue that people don’t lose weight in a nice, even line from highest weight to lowest weight. There are always going to be bumps and valleys in any weight chart, and that’s entirely normal: either one’s retaining water or solids, or your scale is demonstrating its very normal standard tolerances. (Case in point: I have a pretty good scale and yet if I don’t put my feet in the same place on it I can have a two-pound difference just seconds apart.) I can totally see someone dieting carefully having a five-day period where they either gain or don’t lose weight and think, screw it, this ain’t working.

Then there’s the enormous explosion in portion sizes in America–people underestimate how much they’re eating, I think. I know I’ve been guilty of that.

It is possible not to be able to lose weight because of metabolic problems. My Weight Watchers leader, who is a retired nurse, will tell you to see your doctor if you’re not losing weight (or losing too fast) and you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Some people may have metabolic or other problems that make it difficult to lose weight until treatment and/or a proper diet has been started.

But I also agree with Duke. Many people really don’t know how to estimate their caloric intake accurately, and they make assumptions that turn out to be faulty. For example, a friend of mine likes a particular salad at a particular restaurant. When I sat down with her to figure out the points in that salad, she was shocked to find out that what she thought was a fairly low-value food was actually worth half of her day’s allowance. Once she found out, we figured out ways to make the salad lighter, and for her to eat half now and save the leftovers for another meal.

And I’m just as guilty of this, but I’m learning. Eyeballing serving sizes (“Yeah, that looks about right”) doesn’t work for me. I have to weigh and measure to make sure my portion sizes are appropriate. When I eyeball, my estimates are always off, either by too much or not enough, but they’re always off. An ounce here and an ounce there add up, especially when a serving size may only be a few ounces to begin with.

I think people confuse “simple” with “easy”. Weight loss is simple, but it is not easy. If “calories in” is less than “calories burned”, you will lose weight. That’s simple.

What is not easy is, once you lose the weight, making sure that “calories in” = “calories burned” so that you don’t gain it all back, which is what people usually do.

Regards,
Shodan

Right. The distinction between “simple” and “easy” has been made many times here before, but people don’t always accept it.

On a related note, I’ve found that most people here DO accept that some people have glandular issues that make fat loss much more difficult. These people are in the minority, but they do exist, and we can’t always tell who they are.

BTW… and I know this will offend some people… I think that much confusion can be prevented if people would avoid saying that they “can’t” lose weight. Yes, I understand that it’s verbal shorthand, and that these people aren’t necessarily speaking in a literal fashion. Why not be honest and accurate though, and simply say that they find fat loss to be very difficult? Clear communication is the key, whereas the use of “can’t” tends to make someone look like a quitter.

Perhaps you could also be careful with your words. “Glandular issues”? If by that you mean that there are hormonal processes that make it difficult that make it difficult for someone who is obese to lose weight … the science is very very clear: that is not the minority, that is every obese individual to some degree. The body has adapted to that degree of fatness as the norm and the longer someone has been obese the more the body’s hormonal and metabolic processes will resist lasting change from that perceived norm. These “glandular” processes go from the levels of hormones to metabolic processes to the brain’s reward centers. Yes, there are also some few who have some more dramatic “glandular issues” that contributed mightily to the obesity in the first place, such as PCOS. And there are others who are more or those who are less genetically predisposed to develop obesity in a modern environment, such that it could with great accuracy be stated that they became obese in part because of “glandular issues”. One easy to understand example of that are those who were born small for gestational age (SGA) who are wired to both catch up in size, to become insulin resistant, and to develop central adiposity and relative decrease in lean body mass, all as a result of prenatal undernutrition often secondary to placental insufficiency. We do not yet have a full understanding of all the factors that predispose one person to become obese when raised in the same exact modern environment versus another who will not. We do know that preventing obesity is going to be more effective than trying to reverse it once established, and that preventing it requires a system wide intervention, from the individual, to the family, to the community and society levels. And that significantly reducing the health consequences of obesity requires modest, not dramatic, weight loss maintained, along with lasting healthy behaviors; not achieving a normal BMI.

Definitely agree with this statement. I was a pretty hefty kid, and I lost quite a bit of weight in college.

While I’ve managed to keep that weight off, for the most part, I could still stand to lose maybe another 20#. I’ve just accepted it as part of who I am, because I already go to the gym 5x per week and I don’t want to cut chocolate out of my diet :o

I know an overweight person who eats “right”. I have never seen her pig out, and she is so conscientious about everything else in her life that I have a hard time seeing her being a slob when it comes to diet. But she is extremely sedentary. She knows this, but in her mind it is unavoidable. If you suggest she wake up early to work-out, she says she already wakes up at the “butt crack” of dawn as it is. If you suggest she work out right after work, she says she’s too tired and wants to go home and relax. If you suggest she work out after she relaxes, she says that’s when she’s getting ready to go to bed.

I don’t like talking to her about weight issues because of all the excuses, but she brings the topic up constantly. Almost as a way of defending herself against accusations no one has made. I think in her mind, she probably does think it is impossible to lose weight since she’s eating right yet she’s still fat and that’s not fair! And I guess I can see where she’s coming from, even if it is exasperating listening to her.

The truth is, a lot of people eat well in public and binge in private, and are very ashamed of it. It’s a shame spiral and a very sad situation. The excuses might come from a deep well of “as long as I eat an entire box of Ho-Ho in my car, getting up early to walk around the block isn’t going to help anything.” Not to say the excuses aren’t annoying, just adding something.

What I find interesting is what the “starvation mode” conversation* signals - that the person thinks of losing weight as a short-term proposition. Because the end result of actually eating too little all the time is starving to death, not endless fatness.

*don’t eat too little- you’ll go into starvation mode and never be able to lose weight!

Well, it’s technically true. Ask Karen Carpenter…wait, no, ask a living former anorexic. Once you’ve reached about 1% body fat, there is literally nothing left to lose and your body starts turning muscle to emergency energy. I have seen this up close and it is not pretty. But obviously this is not what we are talking about here.

It’s an in-joke with myself. I’ve shifted to low-carb.

Sure, I’ve definitely lost from peak weight, I’m just mired about 30 pounds lower and have been for years. I fluctuate but it’s become intensely difficult to lose any appreciable weight. FWIW I suspect PCOS, and based on the questions my doctor asked, I think he does as well. We’ll see at the followup. Nonetheless I do continue to watch what I eat and I exercise frequently, and do my best, but I do get aggravated when people just assume I’m secretly partaking of buckets of fried chicken every time their back is turned. It really can be quite difficult for some individuals.

In general you’re absolutely right, and that’s why I make a distinction between “I can’t lose weight, so I don’t bother trying” type people and “I can’t lose weight, what is wrong?” type people. The problem is that the same advice gets given to both people and it’s not terribly helpful.

I would argue it’s not even terribly simple. Calories in can be difficult to compute in some circumstances (though it’s easier now with the Internet, but even then, there’s plenty of conflicting nutritional info out there) but calories burned is even worse. It’s variable and the body does attempt to adjust.

Saying “well just take in less than you burn” is basically saying “well just lose weight”. It doesn’t actually tell a person what to do and what not to do, what to eat and what not to eat, how much to eat, how much to exercise. It’d be so much easier if people could go to the doctor, get plugged into a machine and told “your BMR is X, do exactly Y and you will lose Z pounds per month”, But that’s just not reality.

I’ve been on diets since I was less than one year old; I’ve gotten no end of conflicting and useless advice from doctors, nutritionists, etc. We don’t seem to have a good way to treat severe, chronic obesity; I don’t think we’ve quite cracked the nut of some of the rough cases. Sure, I’m sure you could point to Aunt Mabel who ate nothing but ice cream by the gallon and endless pizzas, but for every glutton there are a lot of well-meaning people who do struggle with it.

On the bright side, doing keto/low carb does seem to quash my sense of hunger, so that’s nice. I’ll keep at it, try to do the right things, and hope for the best, but I’m honestly not all that encouraged by my actual results and I truly believe there must be a medical reason. I don’t get why I, as an infant, became overweight so quickly if obesity is wholly or even mostly behavioral. I was a freakin’ baby, after all. I’ve only been in normal weight at one time of my life – as a child, my parents literally locked up the cabinets and I was constantly, painfully hungry. And I was, at that time, “normal”. Not sustainable, since I couldn’t stand the sensation of desperate hunger all the time, and all the thinness in the world doesn’t help when you feel that way. So sure, I’m sure if you locked me up and forced me to do that again, I could lose weight. I just don’t know how to do anything more than what I’m doing and actually have a functional life.

As I am fond of saying in wiehg tloss threads, it’s easy to dunk a basketball. All you have to do is jump three feet in the air and put the ball in the basket.

And yet few people seem able to do it.

All you have to do to lose weight is eat fewer calories. But damn, it’s HARD.

Sorry, I don;t think you understood me, maybe you have never heard this particularly stupid assertion. Some people will inform you that if the average plump american with 35%+ bodyfat reduces calories, they will instantly enter “Starvation mode” and will become UNABLE to lose weight. This is totally different from saying that a person who is actually starving cannot lose more weight because they are dying from not having enough weight.

They appear ignorant of the fact that actually starving to death can occur. Seriously, they will insist if you eat too little, you will remain at your current (medically overweight) weight! Forever!