I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times, and my understanding of the problem and the advice I give has changed over the years.
Let’s start with a quick look at the problem and finish with some practical tips to get you going in the right direction again.
You’re following your diet to the letter but you’re not losing weight. Or you were, but now it’s stalled. Or worse, you’re gaining weight! What’s going on? Has your metabolism slowed, or been “damaged” from dieting? Has your body gone into “starvation mode”? Are your hormones to blame? Or can you actually cause weight gain by under-eating?
Many of us working in fitness and nutrition coaching have been guilty of telling people these things in the past. A lot of us thought “metabolic damage” was a thing, or that the human body somehow defied the laws of thermodynamics.
But research has shown many times that energy balance determines bodyweight. You’ve probably seen this as “calories in, calories out.”
We take in energy in the form of food, and we expend energy through things like digestion, movement, and our basic metabolic functions.
If we take in more energy than we expend, we gain weight.
If we take in less energy than we expend, we lose weight.
But what if you’re tracking everything precisely, and still not losing weight? Or worse, you’re gaining weight!
What’s going on?
There could be a number of reasons for this.
For example, on the “calories in” side of the equation:
- Calorie counts on food labels can be out by 20-30%.
- Errors when weighing or measuring food.
- You’re forgetting to account for some of the food you eat.
- You’re absorbing more energy from your food than you realise. For example, your gut bacteria might be really good at extracting nutrients.
- Your energy needs might be lower than suggested by the equation you used to predict your intake.
And on the “calories out” side:
- You’re probably burning fewer calories through movement than your smart watch or exercise machine tells you.
- Your metabolism has dropped and you’re no longer in a calorie deficit. Most diets set a low calorie intake to ensure weight loss, but as you lose weight your metabolism slows. Eventually, it will reach the point where there is no longer a calorie deficit and you stop losing weight.
- Your activity levels have dropped. Your body is sneaky, and automatically reduces your activity levels when you’re losing weight.
Could it be caused by a medical problem?
There are certainly medical problems which can make the fat loss process harder.
Basically, they change the “calories out” side of the equation by reducing the number of calories you expend.
If you suspect this might be the case, speak to a medical professional. But note, it is far more likely that the issue is related to what I’ve discussed above.
The good news is that weight loss is still possible, but it does tend to be slower because it’s harder to create a calorie deficit.
What can I do about it?
Here are a few ideas which might help address the issues discussed above:
- Measure your intake. Use your hands, scales, pictures, food logs, or whatever works for you. In my coaching practice, I recommend hands as it’s easy and you have them with you all the time!
- Record your intake for a few days to see if it adds up to what you expected. Make sure you include weekdays and weekend days. I’m sure you can guess why 😉
- Experiment with your diet. There’s no single best diet for everyone. We all have different preferences, and even different responses to foods and macronutrients. This is one of the reasons I never give out meal plans and don’t recommend any particular diet. Instead, I help you to find what works for you.
- Play with macronutrient ratios. Generally speaking, most people feel fuller for longer when they get protein levels right. Beyond that, some people respond better to higher carbs and lower fats, while others respond better to higher fats and lower carbs. The only way to find out what works for you is to experiment.
- Base your diet on whole foods. Processed foods are often hyper-palatable and seem to bypass our natural systems which regulate intake, and we find it very hard to stop once we start eating them. Pringles weren’t wrong when they said, “Once you pop, you can’t stop”!
- Set a daily step count to combat the problem of reduced activity levels.
In summary, no matter how much we’d like to blame something outwith our control, it’s highly likely that a failure to lose weight is related to an imbalance between calories in and calories out.
Hopefully some of the tips above will help you get on track.