Sometimes losing weight can seem impossible.
This problem is actually fairly common and can be extremely frustrating.
Read on to learn why achieving your weight loss goal can be so difficult — and whether it’s a good idea to keep trying.
This article specifically addresses women, but most of the principles here apply to everyone.
Weight Loss Is a Billion-Dollar Industry
Losing weight is big business on a global scale.
It’s estimated that weight loss programs and products generate more than $150 billion in annual profits in the US and Europe alone (1).
Programs that require you to purchase special food, supplements and other products tend to be the costliest.
Unfortunately, even those who aren’t very overweight appear willing to risk the potentially harmful consequences of taking diet pills.
A study including more than 16,000 adults found that about one-third of those who took weight loss pills weren’t obese before they started taking the pills (3).
Clearly, many people spend a great deal of effort and money trying to lose weight.
And even if you don’t join a weight loss program or buy diet pills or products, you may end up devoting much of your free time and energy to the pursuit of being thin.
Summary:The weight loss industry generates billions of dollars a year by capitalizing on many people’s desire to be thin at any cost.
Why Many Women Can’t Reach Their Goal Weight
Many women spend a significant amount of money, time and effort on trying to lose weight.
Nevertheless, some seem to make little progress.
Several factors influence your ability to lose weight.
Certain diseases or disorders can make weight loss extremely difficult, including:
- Lipedema: Believed to affect nearly one in nine women worldwide, this condition causes a woman’s hips and legs to accumulate excess fat that is extremely difficult to lose. It often also causes easy bruising and pain (4).
- Hypothyroidism: Low levels of thyroid hormone lead to a slowdown in metabolism that can impede weight loss efforts (5).
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): This condition is characterized by insulin resistance and hormonally driven fat accumulation in the abdomen. It’s believed to affect up to 21% of reproductive-aged women (6).
Dieting and Weight Loss History
If you’ve lost and regained weight several times in the past, or yo-yo dieted, you’ve likely found it more challenging to lose weight with each subsequent attempt.
In fact, a woman with a long history of yo-yo dieting will tend to have greater difficulty losing weight than one whose weight has remained relatively constant.
Research has shown that this is mainly due to changes in fat storage that occur after periods of calorie deprivation.
Essentially, your body stores more fat when you begin eating more after a period of deprivation, so that it has a reserve available if calorie intake decreases again (7).
In addition, a recent animal study suggests that yo-yo dieting may cause an immune response in fat tissue that makes fat loss more difficult (8).
Gut bacteria may play a role too. Repeated cycles of losing and regaining weight seem to promote changes in gut bacteria that lead to increased weight gain over the long term (9).
Aging presents many challenges for women, including making it harder than ever to lose weight.
Moreover, women who have never been heavy in the past may struggle to maintain their usual weight as they get older, even if they eat a healthy diet.
Most women gain about 5–15 pounds (2.3–6.8 kg) during the aging process due to a reduction in muscle mass and physical activity, which result in a slower metabolism.
Unfortunately, your tendency to carry excess weight may be partly due to factors you have no control over.
One of these is genetics, but other, lesser-known factors include the conditions you were exposed to in the womb.
These include your mother’s diet and the amount of weight she gained during pregnancy.
What’s more, a pregnant woman’s dietary choices may affect whether her child develops a weight problem in the future.
A recent animal study found that rats that were fed a “Western” diet while pregnant gave birth to babies that had slower metabolisms and that became obese at several points during their lifetimes (13).
Summary:Many factors can affect your ability to lose weight, including certain health conditions, your dieting and weight loss history, age-related changes and your mother’s diet and weight changes during pregnancy.
“Ideal” Body Sizes Throughout History
Although your diet and exercise habits play a role in determining your weight, your basic shape and size are largely determined by your genes.
In fact, research suggests that both how much you weigh and where you tend to store fat are strongly influenced by your unique genetic pattern (14).
Taking steps to reduce belly fat is a healthy and worthwhile goal. On the other hand, if you try to force your body to conform to whatever size is currently in vogue, you’re working against nature, and your efforts may ultimately lead to frustration.
Throughout history, different body types and sizes have been considered “ideal.”
As recently as 100 years ago, being somewhat plump was a desirable, feminine trait in women. Thin women even tried to gain weight to become more appealing.
However, it is just as difficult for a naturally thin person to put on weight as it is for a naturally larger person to lose it.
During the Renaissance, Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens became well known for his nude paintings of full-figured women, whom he believed were the epitome of beauty.
To this day, the term “Rubenesque” is used to describe a beautiful, full-figured person.
In the 1800s, the French Impressionists, including Monet, Renoir and Cézann, painted women of the day who were considered beautiful.
Looking at these paintings, you can easily see that many of the women were much larger than today’s runway models.
There’s no denying that the “ideal” female body has changed considerably over the past 60 years, becoming slim and toned as opposed to rounded and soft.
However, women of the past weren’t bombarded with often unattainable images on the Internet and TV.
Today’s women are also faced with an overwhelming number of ads for programs and products that promise to help them achieve today’s “ideal” body.
Summary:During many periods in history, larger women were considered feminine and attractive. However, the modern “ideal” body is smaller, thin and toned, which may not be attainable for everyone.
Different Cultural Views of Weight
Although people across the US and most of Europe consider a slim body to be attractive, people in various parts of the world prefer a larger, more rounded shape.
In many cultures, carrying some extra weight is associated with fertility, kindness, happiness, vitality and social harmony.
Interestingly, the wealthiest countries tend to value thinness, whereas the opposite is true in less wealthy countries (15).
For instance, researchers who studied data from several non-Western societies reported that 81% preferred plump or moderately fat women, while 90% preferred women with large hips and legs (16).
However, even among developed countries, what is considered the “perfect” body seems to vary greatly based on personal and regional preferences.
When 18 graphic designers from around the world were asked to modify a plus-size model’s body into the “ideal” body, the range of results was somewhat surprising.
The modified versions had body mass indexes (BMIs) ranging from only 17 in China to 25.5 in Spain, which is consistent with weights between 102–153 pounds (about 46–69 kg) for a woman who is 5’5″ (165 cm) tall.
With the exception of the BMI of 17, which is considered underweight, this shows that a wide range of body sizes and shapes are viewed as attractive and desirable, regardless of how closely they resemble what is often considered “ideal.”
Summary:The “ideal” body varies greatly from country to country and is often influenced by a society’s wealth and the diversity of its residents.
If You Truly Need to Lose Weight
If your size is affecting your health, continuing to pursue weight loss makes sense.
Obesity, especially morbid obesity, may increase the risk of disease and lower life expectancy. Even further, it can make day-to-day living difficult due to decreased mobility, low energy levels and social stigma.
Here are a few additional practices that may help you take some weight off:
- Support groups: Joining one can provide encouragement, accountability and motivation. In addition to general weight loss groups offline, online and on Facebook, you can find online communities for lipedema and PCOS.
- Recognize progress, even if slow: Realize that you will likely lose weight slowly and experience some weight loss plateaus. Losing even a couple of pounds a month is still an impressive accomplishment.
- Be realistic when setting a goal weight: Don’t strive to reach your “ideal” weight. Losing as little as 5% of your body weight has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, and further loss can lead to additional benefits (17).
- Celebrate non-scale victories: Focusing on improvements in mobility, energy, lab values and other beneficial health changes is important, especially when weight loss seems maddeningly slow.
Although incorporating these strategies into your life can’t guarantee that you will lose weight, they can help improve your chances.
Summary:If being obese is affecting your health, mobility and quality of life, taking steps to lose weight is a good idea. Joining a support group, setting realistic goals and celebrating your progress may be helpful.
Shift Focus to Optimal Health — Not Weight Loss
For many women, weight loss goals have less to do with health than wanting to look better.
Perhaps you have already lost some weight, but haven’t been able to lose “those last 10–20 pounds.”
Or maybe you have always been a bit larger than average, but have been trying to slim down to a smaller dress size.
You’re not alone if you feel that you have tried every diet and weight loss recommendation, yet still haven’t been able to achieve results, despite your best efforts.
If that’s the case, it may be best to shift your focus to being as healthy, strong and vibrant as you can be.
- Focus on fitness: When it comes to health, studies have shown that being fit is more important than being thin. What’s more, working out regularly can provide many other benefits (18).
- Develop a better relationship with food: Rather than dieting, work on choosing nourishing foods, paying attention to hunger and fullness cues and learning to eat intuitively (19, 20).
- Consider the results of your previous dieting attempts: Remember that losing and regaining weight often leads to increased fat storage and weight gain over time (1, 7, 21).
Aside from reducing stress and frustration, shifting your focus to make optimal health your primary goal might even potentially lead to natural weight loss over time.
Summary:If you want to lose weight to look better, but haven’t had success despite doing all of the “right” things, it may be best to shift your focus. Instead of trying to achieve a certain weight, aim to be as healthy as possible.
Learn to Love and Accept Your Body
Developing an appreciation for your body can be beneficial for your health, happiness and outlook on life.
Research suggests that repeated weight loss attempts may not only lead to weight gain, but they may also cause mood changes and increase the risk of developing unhealthy behaviors like binge eating (22).
On the other hand, there’s evidence that being happy with your weight may result in healthier behaviors and better overall health, regardless of your size (23).
Here are some tips for learning how to love and accept your body:
- Stop letting numbers define you: Instead of fixating on your weight, measurements or clothing size, think about how you feel, who you are and your purpose in life.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others: Never compare your own body to someone else’s. You are unique and have many great qualities. Focus on being the best you can be.
- Exercise to feel and perform better: Rather than working out frantically trying to burn calories, engage in physical activity because of the way it makes you feel. You deserve to feel your best now and in the years to come.
Realize that it may take some time to learn to appreciate your body after years of trying to change it. That’s understandable. Just take it one day at a time and do your best to focus on the positive.
Summary:Rather than continuing to prioritize losing weight, learn to love and accept your body so you can stay healthy and highly functional throughout your lifetime.
The Bottom Line
In a modern-day society that values being thin, the inability to lose weight can be a source of frustration for many women.
And it’s true that losing excess weight is important when it jeopardizes your health and well-being.
But trying to achieve an unrealistic size can do more harm than good.
Learn to love and accept your body, exercise and adopt lifestyle behaviors to keep yourself as healthy as possible and avoid comparing yourself.
Doing so may greatly improve your overall health, self-esteem and quality of life.