Body fat — Genetic?

Dear Alice,

I am a female, five feet tall and about 127 lbs. I am not satisfied with my size. I am not obsessed with weight but with the way I look. I am very strong and have plenty of muscle. It just happens to be covered by a thick layer of fat. Yes, it runs in my family. On my father's side everyone has trouble with their weight.

I am writing to you because I don't understand why I am not losing weight. I am a vegan. I have no dairy products and no fat content in my diet. Except for the occasional pat of margarine and fried falafel, I don't see why I haven't lost weight because I just cut the dairy products out about two months ago. I have been a vegetarian for 9 years. I ride a stationary bike twice a week in my target heart rate zone. I work out with weights and do calisthenics in my room every night. What is wrong? Is there another factor I am not considering? Glands? Do I just need to be patient? I like being big, I just don't want it all to be fat.

Thank You.
Gland Problem?

Dear Gland Problem?, 

As with any relationship, those with bodies are complex — satisfaction and fulfillment may ebb and flow, and the relationships tend to grow and change throughout the course of life. At times, it’s natural to experience dissatisfaction with parts of your relationship with your body. After all, any relationship requires consistent and intentional consideration, and it seems as if in your process you’ve identified some dissatisfaction with your weight and appearance. To dig into that more, as you note, weight loss isn’t as simple as eating healthy and being physically active — there are many factors including body type, health conditions, and history of weight loss that influence the ease of shedding pounds. To complicate matters further, weight alone may not be the best indicator of health status, and notions of what constitutes a healthy or desirable weight vary between cultures. Media portrayals of beauty and social stigma towards people considered overweight may shape how a person views their body. That being said, you may also want to reflect on in what ways making these changes to your appearance matches your values and how your behaviors align with them. If you’re concerned about your lack of weight loss being associated with a medical condition, a health care provider could assess that for you; there are some health conditions that may contribute to weight gain or making it difficult to lose weight (e.g., hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome, among others). However, it’s possible that there could be a number of reasons your body isn’t changing, so reflecting on your current eating habits, physical activity, and current size may all be helpful in understanding what changes may or may not be happening. 

If shedding pounds are central to your goals and aspirations, it may be helpful to understand a bit more about the physiological mechanisms behind weight loss. To lose pounds, a person needs to cut overall calories, which can be achieved by eating fewer calories or burning more calories through physical activity. A person’s metabolism (the process of converting food into energy) plays a role and is influenced by a host of factors, including weight loss. Consuming more calories and having more muscle mass are tied to faster metabolism. Since weight loss can lead to a lower caloric need and decreased muscle mass (along with fat), it may also cause the metabolism to slow down, a point called a weight-loss plateau. One strategy for overcoming a weight-loss plateau is to try altering up physical activity routines, such as changing the amount of strength training and cardio you do. For some people, a plateau could also occur if their diets aren’t conducive to further weight loss, whether they’re eating too much or too little. A plateau could also mean that the body is functions well at its current weight, especially if already eating a balanced diet and being physically active regularly. 

Speaking of patterns of eating, weight is impacted by a variety of factors. It's not necessarily just fat in your diet, so avoiding fatty foods may not inherently result in weight loss. In fact, eating a moderate amount of healthy fats can help make meals satisfying. Along those lines, consuming dairy products (whether conventional or plant-based) isn’t necessarily tied to weight gain. It’s recommended that people who adhere to a vegan diet eat a variety of whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), seeds, and nuts for adequate protein. Regardless of what type of diet you may be following, having an eating pattern rich with macronutrients such as fat, protein, and carbohydrates will ensure that you’re getting the fuel your body needs to function. Another factor that influences weight is body composition or the proportions of fat and muscle in the body. While the body mass index (BMI) is often used to assess weight status, many note how it overlooks fat and muscle (key indicators of health). For example, an athlete with ample muscle mass might have a high BMI while a person with too little muscle mass could fall within the normal range. People have varying percentages of body fat — and that's natural.

With these factors in mind, it may be good to take time to reflect. How do you feel in your body? Strong? Healthy? Sluggish? Some people choose to focus on maintaining a feeling of good health, rather than a specific body weight. It might be helpful to reflect on why you’re dissatisfied with your current weight. Are your perceptions of your weight influenced by images in the media? Can you think of a moment when you started to feel this way about your body? Have you felt this way for a while? What would make you more comfortable in your body? How do these feelings impact other parts of your relationship with your body? Additionally, you note that you're more concerned with your appearance than your weight. People can be the same weight but have varying body compositions, causing their bodies to look different. Have you considered any strategies that focus less on losing weight? For example, focusing on building muscle may be an option. You may also try different styles of clothing or hair that makes you feel better about your appearance. 

If you'd like to learn more, you might be interested in speaking with a registered dietitian. They can help you determine a realistic weight for your body and family history, and together you can craft a personalized eating and physical activity plan to reach your goal. If it's available to you, working with a personal trainer to increase your strength training to build more muscle may be of interest. If you’re navigating perceptions of your body and self-acceptance, you might find it helpful to speak with a trusted friend, loved one, or mental health professional. For more information about balanced eating patterns and staying active, you can check out the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives. Here's to continued nourishment, as well as a fulfilling relationship with your body! 

Last updated Jun 25, 2021
Originally published Nov 30, 1994