Are you in a calorie deficit and have either not lost any weight or stopped losing weight?
Maybe you have been keeping a food journal or using an app like MyFitnessPal and you know for a fact that you are in a calorie deficit.
Unfortunately, the calories that you eat, are only one part of the equation. A very important part of the equation, but again only one part of the equations.
In this article, we will break down the top 8 reasons why you have stopped losing weight.
Stick around till the end for some helpful tips to get you back on track.
Table of Contents
What Is A Calorie Deficit?
Your body requires a certain amount of energy to maintain your daily living/activities and weight. The amount of energy YOU need per day is referred to as your total daily energy expenditure TDEE. (5)
The form of energy that your body needs is referred to as calories and we get these calories through the food that we eat. (6)
If you eat and drink fewer calories than what your body requires per day this is considered a calorie deficit.
Read Macros For Cutting to find your total daily energy expenditure.
How To Achieve A Calorie Deficit:
- Eat fewer calories
- Expend more energy
How weight loss works
A majority of people know that in order to lose weight you have to consume fewer calories than you expend throughout the day.
The opposite will is also true, if you consume more calories than your body needs for any given day you will experience weight gain.
The food and beverages that you consume contain calories and therefore eating or drinking is referred to as energy intake.
Now let’s take a look at how many calories you use per day.
As mentioned above how many calories you burn per day is referred to as TDEE or energy expenditure.
There are three areas that contribute to your TDEE:
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR):
Also referred to as your resting energy expenditure or REE.
Implied in the name, your BMR is the amount of energy your body uses at rest. Rest meaning, physically and mentally. (8)
This also includes being in an environment that isn’t too hot or too cool, requiring you to use energy to cool or heat yourself up (Shivering or sweating). (9)
Depending on the individual, your BMR will make up about 60-70% of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure. (10)
Factors that will affect your BMR:
- Body Composition
- Strength Training
- Body Size
- Hormonal Status
- Drugs and alcohol
Thermic Effect of Food: (TEF)
Depending on the food you consume the thermic effect of food contributes about 10% of your total daily energy expenditure.
Factors that affect TEF:
- Composition of diet
- Size of meal
- Spicy food
In addition to your basal metabolic rate and the thermic effect of food your body also needs enough energy to move around. The energy needed for physical activity can be broken down into two subcategories exercise activity thermogenesis and non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT):
- Calories and or energy are used to perform an intentional exercise. (12)
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT):
- Calories or energy that is used to perform daily living. (13)
The contribution of energy from physical activity (EAT and NEAT) to your total daily energy expenditure is the most variable of all three inputs.
Factors that are going to affect physical activity:
- Weight lifting
- High intensity cardiovascular training
- Steps per day
- Stationary hours per day (how many hours you sit per day)
A calorie deficit in addition to lifestyle modification is the most widely prescribed intervention for weight management. This is because a calorie deficit is the only way to lose weight. (14)
This theory has so far stood the test of time. When compared to any other weight loss theory whether that be a ketogenic diet, low carb or paleo, (Carbohydrate insulin model) being in a caloric deficit is the underlying driver for weight loss. (15, 16)
Is it possible to be in a calorie deficit and not lose weight?
No, If you consistently eat fewer calories than what you use through your total daily energy expenditure, your body will rely on stores of energy to meet your daily energy needs.
By relying on stores of energy, which include muscle and body fat, to meet your daily energy requirements over time you will lose fat and weight loss will be the final result.
Although this seems pretty straightforward, eat fewer calories than you burn per day and lose weight, the fact is we are not robots.
Even if we accounted for calories perfectly and controlled for exercise your weight will be influenced by muscle mass, hormones, bone density, nutrient absorption, hydration status, and digestion.
For that reason let’s now dive into why you are in a caloric deficit and not losing weight.
8 Reasons Why You Are Not Losing Weight
“Why am I not losing weight?” This is a question that I get on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there is not one straightforward answer, for that reason we’re gonna go through the top 10 reasons why you are not losing weight.
1. Weighing yourself
Self-monitoring by regularly weighing yourself is a great tool to make sure that you were aware of any weight changes. (17)
However, the scale only tells us one story and that is your total body weight.
The scale will not tell you what percentage of your total body weight is coming from, undigested food, hydration, bone density, or muscle.
So regardless of your scale moving up or down, with all the variables that will affect your weight, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why you are not losing weight.
One of the biggest issues with weighing yourself is doing it at different times of the day. This is because your weight is going to fluctuate throughout the day depending on how much you eat and drink.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released when we encounter threatening or stressful situations. Its role is to dump calories or energy into our bloodstream to help us navigate a stressful situation. (19)
Back in the day when our ancestors would run into a mountain lion, cortisol would be released. Giving them enough energy to fight the loin or run from it. This is where we get the term fight or flight.
Fast forward to today our stressors are much different.
Instead of encountering a mountain lion, you may have a boss that is riding your tail to get a project done.
And Instead of fighting your boss or running away from them, you sit in your chair and get the project done.
Even though you have this hormone coursing through your veins dumping energy into your system. (20)
Not only does stress affect cortisol production but it is also going to have an effect on your emotional state and how you cope with those emotions may be through food, therefore, leading to extra calories to be consumed. (21)
Stress can also affect your sleeping patterns which we will get into more detail next.
Lack of adequate sleep it’s especially detrimental to weight loss.
A lack of sleep will also negatively affect weight loss by disrupting your body’s ability to produce insulin. Increasing the likelihood of developing diabetes.
In one study, middle-aged men and older who reported >5-hr of sleep per night were 2.5 times more likely to develop diabetes.
Not getting enough sleep cannot only be detrimental to your weight loss but can also be detrimental to your overall health.
Hormones play a role in the regulation of hunger and body weight.
Some of the hormones that affect weight loss include:
These hormones work together to regulate your hunger and the storage of calories consumed.
Think of these hormones working together like a well-performing orchestra. When they are all in sync and working together they can help us regulate hunger and body fat.
On the flip side, when something disrupts one or more of these hormones, as the sleep example above, they are no longer working together. In fact, they might be working against us.
The amount of muscle that you carry around will vary throughout your life.
Depending on your lifestyle with regards to whether or not you lift weights or strength train and eat enough protein, you can either increase or decrease muscle mass.
If you are working out and eating sufficient protein chances are you are gaining muscle. And that will reflect on the scale.
6. Not Tracking Accurately
Nutrition can be complicated because there is so much variety and not only that there different cooking methods. Both of which can make it difficult to pinpoint your daily calorie intake.
Some common mistakes that I see when people try and track their calories are:
Underestimating portion sizes:
I was shocked when I learned the difference between what I thought was a serving of ice cream vs an actual serving of ice cream. When I log it into my tracking app, I was almost eating 500 calories a night.
When research took 177 young adults and had them self-select portion sizes for breakfast lunch and dinner.
The research found that:
“Typical portions sizes in this study tended to be significantly different from those selected by young adults in a similar study conducted 2 decades ago” (24)Schwartz J, Byrd-Bredbenner C. Portion distortion: typical portion sizes selected by young adults. J Am Diet Assoc. 2006;106(9):1412-1418. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2006.06.006
What the research called portion distortion and what I call a normal bowl of ice cream. Has the potential to increase daily calorie intake hindering weight loss and weight management.
Not Tracking Mindless Snacking:
Working from home over the past two years I can not tell you how many times I have gone to my kitchen opened the cabinet and grabbed a box of crackers, a handful of nuts, or a cookie without thinking twice.
Not releasing it that stuff adds up.
I want to be clear, snacking is not inherently going to make you gain weight. But regularly snacking does contribute to your overall calorie intake which is going to affect your weight. (25)
One study identified that on average snacking makes up roughly 25% of total daily energy intake. (26)
Not Tracking Calories Accurately:
OK so you are tracking calories and logging all of your foods into a calorie tracking application like Cronometer or MyFitnessPal, but not getting the results you want. Often times this comes down to inaccuracies.
Common tracking inaccuracies include:
Not weighing or measuring portions.
Tracking your calories and estimating how much you are eating, might be giving you an idea of your total daily calorie intake.
However, if you are not weighing and measuring your portion sizes there is no way for you to know exactly how many calories you’re taking in.
Cooked vs Uncooked
When weighing and tracking any food group it is important to always use cooked and ready-to-consume foods.
Different cooking methods require different ingredients. Different ingredients could contribute to an increase in total daily calorie intake.
For example, if you’re cooking a chicken breast and using olive oil but you didn’t log cooking with olive oil you could be consuming an extra 200 to 400 cal without knowing it.
7. Losing Weight By Exercising
Using exercise as your main form of weight management is not a good idea.
This is because your body is pretty efficient when it comes to movement and the amount of calories that you actually burn during a bout of exercise is minimal.
With that being said, exercise and being physically active are associated with improving your overall health.
So although exercise should not be your main weight management tool, it is a behavior or habit that should be included in your plan.
8. Changes in TDEE
As you progress through a fat loss phase and lose a percentage of body weight your total daily energy expenditure will change.
Typically as you lose weight your TDEE will decrease. This is because as you lose weight you lose both body fat and muscle mass or lean body mass.
As mentioned above, your muscles are a very energy/calorie demanding organ. If you are losing weight (which may mean losing muscle) you are decreasing the number of calories you burn per day.
This is not always the case.
If you are losing body fat and increasing your lean body tissue this is referred to as body recomposition.
In this case, your TDEE may increase due to the additional muscle has you have added. (27)
In a calorie deficit but not losing weight? Here are 7 things you can do about it:
1. Weighing in and measuring progress
It is important to measure and track your progress but in doing so it is important to:
- Weigh in at the same time
- Take progress pictures
- Take body measurements
This will give you a better idea of where you are at in terms of your progress.
For example, if you noticed that the scale is not moving but you have been taking progress pictures and noticed that your body fat is decreasing.
This may be helpful especially when you are feeling frustrated with the journey.
Plus often times our weight is going to fluctuate. Normally do to how much water we drink and how much water retention we have.
So if you’re experiencing a weight loss plateau or even weight gain, know that it could potentially be water retention new muscle mass or undigested food.
2. Manage stress
Being overly stressed is detrimental to your weight loss journey and your overall health.
Finding stress management techniques will help mitigate the detrimental effects of stress on weight loss.
Great stress management techniques
- Being physically active
- Gratitude practice
Practicing stress management will have a domino effect on your health.
Getting enough sleep is just as important as consuming a healthy diet and engaging in physical activity.
Improving your sleep includes:
- Following a bedtime routine
- Setting an alarm to go to bed
- Complete darkness
- Cool temperature
- Getting at least 7-9 hours per night
It is important to realize that your body is a complex system that works together.
In order for the system to work like a well-performing orchestra, you want to ensure that you are maintaining healthy habits like getting enough sleep, being physically active, and regularly consuming a balanced diet.
5. Accurately Track
The only way to know exactly how many calories you’re consuming is to weigh, measure, and track everything you eat.
You do not have to do this for the rest of your life.
Instead using this method as a tool when you are trying to lose weight will provide you with feedback and will expose you to what a serving size really is.
6. Move Your Body
The current recommendation by the USDA is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
Getting in a 30-minute walk five days a week would sufficiently fulfill this recommendation.
7. Adjust Calories
After you have lost a percentage of your body weight and you were no longer losing weight on the same amount of calories, it might be Time to re-analyze your TDEE.
There is a lot to take into consideration when you are trying to lose weight.
By now you have a good understanding of your total daily energy requirements, including basal metabolic rate, thermic effect of food, and physical activity.
Knowing that if you’re not losing weight, you are not in a calorie deficit.
Also knowing that your total daily energy requirements are only one part of the equations, we investigated the top 8 reasons why you think you are in a calorie deficit and not losing weight.
Bringing to light the other factors that play a role in weight loss including stress, sleep hormones, and accuracy to name a few.
You can level up your weight loss journey by, weighing and measuring food intake, managing stress, getting enough sleep, and moving your body.
If you read this up until this point, (Thank you!!) but are still feeling lost please feel free to schedule an appointment with me. (Noah Quezada registered dietitian nutritionist)
Click the button below to schedule a FREE 15 min call.
Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.