5 Weight Loss Challenges—And How to Get Past Them

Taking off a few pounds can be challenging, here are some tips to help you succeed.

Three friends running together, smiling, and listening to music in the park.

Updated on August 22, 2023.

Whether you're trying to lower your risk for heart disease and diabetes or want to fit back into those favorite jeans that have gotten a little snug, trying to lose weight can feel like an uphill battle, with both emotional and biological challenges. Here are six weight-loss obstacles many people experience, along with tips that can help you meet your goals.

Challenge 1: Stress

Almost everyone feels stressed at some point in their life—work, family responsibilities, financial challenges, watching the nightly news, and many other factors can add up, sending stress levels soaring.

This can put your body in a chronic state of fight-or-flight, increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect your appetite and lead to cravings for high-fat, salty, sugary comfort foods. That, in turn, can cause you to store more fat.

Tip: To help keep stress from sabotaging your weight loss plans, work on developing a daily stress reduction habit. Just a few minutes can make a difference. Here are some simple strategies:

  • Walk for 10 minutes. If you can, walk outside. Seeing nature—even if it’s a tree-lined street—can relax your mind and body.
  • Breathe deeply 10 times.
  • Tense and then relax each muscle group. Start at your toes and move up. This is a practice known as progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Find a quiet place to meditate for a few minutes.

Challenge 2: Sleepless nights

Many people don't get enough sleep. Many factors can affect sleep—particularly stress, which can contribute to anxious thoughts that interfere with sleep. If you happen to be going through menopause, vasomotor symptoms such as night sweats and hot flashes can make it even harder to get a good night’s sleep. Undiagnosed and untreated obstructive sleep apnea can also keep you from getting the restorative sleep you need. Restless leg syndrome is yet another common condition that can disrupt sleep.

Even if you are getting what seems like an adequate total number of hours of sleep, the quality of your sleep could be off. If you feel exhausted during the day, you could wind up napping, which can throw your nighttime sleep schedule off.

Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep may in turn affect levels of the hormones ghrelin (which makes you feel hungry) and leptin (which makes you feel full). When levels of these hormones are off, it may make you feel hungrier and tempted to reach for junk foods with higher calories and more sugar and fat.

Tip: Establish a sleep schedule by going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. Follow a nightly routine that helps you wind down, starting about 30 minutes before bedtime. Put blue-light sources (like your phone, tablet, or laptop) away 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. It can also help to make your bedroom into an oasis that is cool, dark, and quiet. Remove clutter and electronics and invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow if you can. Avoid daytime naps, limit caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, and try to make regular exercise a part of your routine, as it may help foster better rest. Talk with a healthcare provider (HCP) if occasional insomnia becomes more frequent, or if you find yourself feeling drowsy most days of the week.

Challenge 3: A sluggish thyroid

About 20 million people in the United States have a thyroid disorder (people born as females are five to eight times more likely to develop this condition than those born as males). The thyroid helps to control your metabolism, and if it is underactive (which is called hypothyroidism), you may feel tired and depressed, and experience other symptoms like constipation and dry skin. An underactive thyroid can also lead to weight gain, though it is estimated that hypothyroidism is usually only responsible for 5-10 pounds of weight gain, which is mostly the retention of salt and water.

Tip: Talk to an HCP about whether you have signs of a thyroid disorder, and whether you should have your thyroid levels checked. If you do have an underactive thyroid, the condition can be managed by taking synthetic hormone medication.

Challenge 4: Declining muscle, increasing fat

Your body chemistry and composition may also affect how hard it is for you to gain or lose weight. Muscle burns calories at a higher rate than fat does, even when you are just sitting on the couch watching TV (thanks to your resting metabolic rate, which is how much energy your body burns just keeping up functions such as breathing and digesting).

Your assigned sex at birth can play a part, too: The female hormone estrogen tends to increase fat storage, especially around the hips and thighs, while the male hormone testosterone increases muscle mass. As people who were born female age, their estrogen levels drop and metabolism slows down. And, regardless of whether you were born female or male, metabolism may tend to slow down starting around age 60, related to a loss in muscle mass with age, according to one study published in the journal Science in 2021.

Tip: To lose weight, you’ll need to burn more calories than you take in. Usually, this requires a combination of diet and exercise. Unless recommended by your HCP, avoid very low-calorie or crash diets that may not provide all the nutrients you need, as they can slow down your metabolism and make your body burn fewer calories. You may lose weight right away on such eating plans, but you could be more likely to regain it later on.

A healthy diet should be low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and salt, and include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and lean proteins. Eating breakfast and smaller meals or small, healthy snacks throughout the day may help you practice portion control. It can help to use smaller plates or bowls and avoid eating snacks straight from the package.

Exercise may also up your metabolism by building muscle or helping you keep what you have. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week (like brisk walking) and do muscle-strengthening activities (like push-ups or sit-ups) on two or more days each week.

Challenge 5: Social media stress

Scrolling through carefully photoshopped images of social media influencers—and your Facebook friends—can lead to comparisons. While it’s true that sometimes spotting, say, a classmate from middle school completing her fifth marathon, or a TikTok star showing off his sculpted abs can inspire you on your weight-loss journey, it can also make you feel worse about yourself, which can throw you off your healthy eating plan.

Tip: Limit your exposure to social media sources that promote an ideal of unhealthy body composition. Research shows that exposure to body positive media may improve self-esteem and mood.  When you have an occasional treat, be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that you can get back on track, and that it takes time to see results. If it took three years to put those extra pounds on, it's not unreasonable to give yourself enough time to get them off.

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