For too many people, it doesn’t seem to matter what they eat or how much exercise they do, their clothes just seem to keep getting tighter. But weight loss is as simple as burning more energy than the calories you consume, right? Well, unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. The calorie equation—the measurement that’s been used for measuring our energy needs for over 100 years—is very much outdated.

The discovery that there was a basic level of energy (measured as calories or kilojoules) required for the body to survive, and the subsequent creation of a mathematical equation that could calculate this, was ground-breaking in its day. In 1918, it literally saved lives. If you think about what was happening around that time, World War I was only just coming to an end and for many people, food was scarce. I too have been fortunate to see it in action in modern times, when I worked as a dietician in the emergency department of a hospital and, at times, with athletes.

However, many inaccuracies and problems arise when we apply this calorie equation in more modern times. For starters, an equation that was founded on a minimum level requirement for survival is now used conversely to help people keep their energy consumption down. It also fails to take into account the other elements that contribute to whether the body decides to store fat or burn it as a fuel. Of course you can’t eat like a piglet and expect to not notice changes in your body! That goes without saying. But there is much more to our nourishment, and by extension weight loss, than simply counting calories. Here’s a few approaches to consider exploring to switch your body from fat storing to fat burning.

How are your stress levels?

Regularly feel tired, stressed or overwhelmed? Are you on the go from the minute you wake up until the moment you rest your head on the pillow? Well it’s possible your body could be in a stress response. Stress, particularly the unrelenting and persistent kind, sets off a cascade of hormones that communicate to our body that we should store fat instead of burn it. Additionally, stress sets our body up to prefer glucose (sugar) as an energy source so we’re more likely to reach for sweet and sugary things that give us a quick energy fix. So not only can stress drive a fat storage signal, it can also lead us to make more unresourceful food choices. Regular and/or excessive coffee consumption can also activate these stress pathways. So, if you feel that stress might be contributing to your body fat struggles, look for ways to switch off the stress response more often. The best way to do this is to breathe diaphragmatically—with an emphasis on extending the exhalation. You might like to add a daily breathing exercise or set reminders through your day to prompt you to think about your breath. Other things that can help us unwind include yoga, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, reducing or eliminating caffeine consumption and scheduling in some time to just relax and rest (aside from sleep).

Do you have a thyroid problem?

If you’re experiencing unexplained weight gain, in addition to other symptoms such as deep fatigue, often feeling cold, menstrual problems/infertility, brain fog and a tendency to constipation, you may be suffering the effects of an underactive thyroid.

The thyroid gland is a little butterfly-shaped gland that sits in your throat area. It makes hormones that play an enormous role in your metabolic rate as well as temperature regulation.

There are a number of nutrients essential to optimal levels of thyroid hormones. These include iodine, iron and selenium. Iodine is found in seafood, seaweed and iodised salt. Foods that contain iron include red meat, eggs, green leafy vegetables and legumes, and the best dietary source of selenium is brazil nuts.

However, the thyroid gland is also susceptible to autoimmune diseases which can cause thyroid dysfunction, so consuming more of these nutrients won’t be beneficial for all thyroid problems. If you suspect you have an underactive thyroid, visit your doctor to discuss having your thyroid hormone (and perhaps also antibody) levels tested.

Muscle up your metabolic rate

Muscle mass typically accounts for around a third of total body weight and a quarter of your body’s metabolic activity. In contrast, body fat usually accounts for at least twenty percent of your body weight (and more for many people these days) but only five percent of metabolic activity. Your ratio of muscle to fat mass therefore greatly impacts your metabolic rate. This means that if you have a higher proportion of muscle mass, your body uses more energy (calories) simply to sustain these muscles—ultimately, this can lead to less body fat being stored.

Ditching restrictive diets and managing stress can help to prevent muscle breakdown, however we also lose muscle mass gradually as we age (from about the age of 30 onwards) unless we do something to maintain or build it. Embrace some kind of resistance training. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to the gym. Pilates is a great form of resistance training and yoga uses your own body weight as resistance. Above all, don’t avoid movement—look for more opportunities to move throughout your day.

Consider your emotional eating habits

Do you ever find yourself wandering into the kitchen and opening the fridge door looking for something? Or pouring a glass of wine at the end of the rough day to make yourself feel better? If so, chances are you have a tendency to emotionally eat.  

When you have eaten and yet you still feel hungry, no food will fill the void for the type of hunger you feel. Usually we recognise that we are eating for non-hungry reasons (and perhaps also that we are driven to eat less than nourishing foods), and feel hopeless, which only leads to wanting to eat more to escape the feelings of your perceived worthlessness that you won’t usually even be aware that you’re feeling. Some emotions don’t surface until you start going without what has been your numbing device: too many sweet foods, bread, coffee or alcohol.  

When we eat in a less nourishing way, we usually feel lousy. Whether it’s because we get the guilts after we overindulge or because consistently not getting enough nutrients puts a drain on our energy and health. Whether we are eating emotionally or noticing that we’re just feeling flat, we can benefit from taking a look at what we’re consuming. One of the most obvious changes is to reduce the amount of processed foods that we’re consuming and instead replace them with whole, real foods. If you’re someone who craves carbohydrate-rich foods, or is regularly hungry, try integrating more whole food fats into your diet and see if that helps to sustain you. Good sources of whole food fats include (organic) avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut and butter from pasture-fed cows.  

One way to begin to explore an emotional approach to eating is to go digging for what food means to you. Finish the sentence “Food is…”. You will probably find that food falls into the ‘pleasure’ category and that’s how we end up turning to food when we feel lousy. Food either needs a new meaning, such as nourishment, or you need to look for other sources of pleasure you can turn to instead. Even just being aware of what food means to you is a great first step.