Why Am I Not Losing Weight In A Calorie Deficit?


Many people are confused, frustrated or even angry after working hard, tracking their macros, counting calories and still not seeing the results they want.

Why am I not losing weight in a calorie deficit?

In general, you may not be losing weight in a calorie deficit because your estimation of basal metabolic rate is inaccurate. People who are not losing weight, despite calorie deficit may underestimate their calorie intake, or overestimate their calories burned during exercise.

This is really common, and frustrating at the same time. In this article, I will explain why you may not be losing weight in a calorie deficit, and give you tips on how to fix that problem.

Why Am I Not Losing Weight In A Calorie Deficit And Exercise?

As a whole, people aren’t losing weight in a calorie deficit and exercise because they usually miscalculate and underestimate their food intake. Measuring metabolism using online formulas, calories in food based on labels, and calories burned using fitness trackers can be off, even by 20-30%.

I will break this down for you.

  • Measuring metabolism

Measuring metabolism is complicated. Unless you’re living in the hermetically sealed metabolic lab, your metabolism estimation using online calculators or fitness apps can be off by 20-30% for young healthy people, and probably even more for the rest of the population.

Our metabolism is an extremely dynamic, interchangeable process that shifts minute by minute. And unless you’re not assessing it under the strict laboratory conditions, you’re just guessing.

  • Calories from food

Calories from food will vary depending on the nutrient density, cooking method, meal composition, gastrointestinal microbiota, and hormonal signaling.

For example, proteins seem to have the highest thermic effect of food, which means they will burn more calories while being digested, compared to fats.

Different cooking processes will change nutrient profile for many foods. Cooking meat in boiling water will reduce amount of water and fat fro the meat. But stir-frying meat will add more fat into its content.

Protein and starchy carbs typically have higher satiety score, comparing to fats. This means, you feel fuller for longer after you eat them.

  • Fitness trackers

Calories burned during the purposeful exercise will vary from individuals, depending on their aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and their amount of lean body mass.

Plus, a big part of daily calorie expenditure also goes to non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Those are all the non-purposeful activities that you do during the day. Walking, stair climbing, moving around, carrying groceries, etc.

Why Am I Not Losing Weight When Eating Less Calories?

As a general rule, you may not be losing weight when eating less calories because eating fewer calories is very subjective, and hard to quantify. Eating less can mean different things for different people. And without accuracy and clarity, it is hard to measure.

Think about it.

What does it means eating less calories?

  • Less than normal
  • Less than you think you should eat
  • Less than your BMR
  • Less for dinner
  • Less on weekdays

As you can imagine, those numbers can vary. And it’s hard to guess what does eating fewer means unless you meticulously track and measure every piece of food you put into your mouth.

Plus, our perception doesn’t always reflect reality. An interesting study was done a while ago by the USDA Center of Nutrition Policy. They’ve compared people’s perceptions versus the actual food intake.

Not surprisingly, the results show that most people overestimate how much whole, unprocessed food they eat. And they underestimate how much processed food they eat (source).

Our perception is flawed. Research shows that unless we track and journal everything that we eat, without exceptions, we can’t really remember that and where we eat.

Solution: For the next 7 days use a food journal to track down what you eat. Don’t worry about calories. Just write down the food you consume. Leave nothing behind. You may be surprised how simple acts of writings stuff down can improve your self-awareness.

And self-awareness is all we need to create a change.

How To Be In A Calorie Deficit

As a general rule, to be in a calorie deficit there are several ways to track your food intake. You can do mindful eating, portion control using the plate, hand size portion control, counting calories, and weighing food portions using scales and tracking macronutrients.

Mindful eating

This is a skill where you are relying on internal body cues and signals. You listen to your body to know how much to eat when to eat, and what to eat. Components of mindful eating include eating slowly, eating when physically hungry, and stop eating till no longer hungry.

Pros:

  • It can be done by anyone, not calculator required
  • It helps to regulate the relationship with food, especially after long-term dieting (source)

Cons:

  • It may not be specific enough to reach some advanced level of body composition

Portion control using plate

This approach is simple because you’re using your plate as a way to measure your food intake and calorie deficit. Typically, you divide your plate into 4 quarters. One quarter goes for veggies, one for proteins, one for fats, and one for starchy carbs, depending on your current diet model.

Pros:

  • Doesn’t require any math or calculations
  • It’s accurate and can be adjusted based on your preferences (plant-based, keto)

Cons:

  • It may not be specific enough to reach some advanced level of body composition

Hand size portion control

Hand size portion control is been in the industry for a while and it’s an easy way to create a calorie deficit. You use your hands and a way to quantify the amount of food you eat. Palm for proteins. First for non-starchy veggies. Cupped hand for starches or fruits. Thumb for fats.

Pros:

  • It is personalised and gives you consistent reference
  • It’s portable and always with you
  • It’s easy to use i any occasion with any food

Cons:

  • It may not be specific enough to reach some advanced level of body composition

Counting calories

Unless you’ve been living under the rock, counting calories is the industry gold standard in weight loss. It is much more accurate than mindful eating, using plates, or even hand size portions. It allows for high accuracy, more precise intake to get to the more precise outcome.

Pros:

  • It’s great for people who love numbers and specific data
  • It is specific and accurate to reach some advanced level of body composition

Cons:

  • Some research suggests that counting calories lead to disordered eating (source)
  • People get attached to the numbers and may lose the relationship with food
  • It takes away the joy of eating in the favor of short-term results

Weighing foods, macros and following the meal plan

This approach is regarded as the most advanced and the most effective way to measure your food intake. It typically involves following a numerically oriented diet that is written to reach a very specific goal and purpose. This method is usually used by elite bodybuilders, physique competitors, and movie actors.

Pros:

  • The most effective way to lower body fat percentage down to the single digit
  • You can get ultra-lean

Cons:

  • For most people, it is not sustainable
  • Impacts emotional and mental health
  • Impacts social life
  • It takes more effort and dedication

Why Is My Weight Not Going Down?

As a whole, your weight may not be going down because of daily water fluctuations or even fluid retention that is caused by stress hormones. Restricting food and calories is a stressor on the body, which can lead to higher cortisol levels and fluid retention.

Especially these days when we feel more stressed than ever.

Dieting in in itself can lead to stress and anxiety. And as you know, water fluctuates throughout the day. When you wake up in the morning you may look lean and toned. But after breakfast, you feel soft and less lean.

That’s why weighing yourself every day may not give you accurate numbers. Instead, it can create unnecessary stress.

Because if you know that your days will vary so much, seeing that your weight is not changing can trigger unwanted emotions and feelings.

Solution: Don’t step on the scale daily. Instead, focus on the behaviors that will lead to better outcomes. Move more, use a food journal, try to manage your stress in a way that doesn’t involve eating.

Related article: Calorie Deficit For Fat Loss Without Counting Calories

I Haven’t Lost Any Weight In 2 Weeks

In general, if you haven’t lost any weight in 2 weeks, it can be because you’re still too early in the process. The rate of weight loss isn’t linear, and it depends on the foods you eat, your non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and your purposeful physical activity.

Typically

However, those numbers are just the average estimations. This means your weight loss progress can be stubborn in the first couple of weeks until it really picks up further along the line.

The same goes other way around. Just because someone saw a huge progress in first seven days, it doesn’t mean it will continue with this pace.

picture of the graph

Another thing is expectations.

Also more often than not, we may be influenced by the media and marketing that promise us unrealistic numbers, misleading us to buy certain products, and in the end, leaving us more frustrated and anxious than before.

Solution: Remember that weight loss is a process, not an event. Just because someone else lost 10 pounds in 10 days (which is highly exaggerated) doesn’t mean everyone else will experience the same results).

Related article: Does A 500 Calorie Deficit Work?

Weight Loss Plateau Despite Calorie Deficit

Generally, weight loss plateau despite calorie deficit happens because people who already lost a significant amount of weight expend less energy. When we weigh less, our resting metabolic rate goes down, our digestion goes down and calories burned during physical activity goes down, too.

This is part of metabolic adaptations. After any weight loss you will notice that:

  • Metabolism slows down

Resting metabolic rate is related to the amount of weight and lean body mass we have. With lower body weight, our body doesn’t have to use up so much energy anymore.

  • Digestion

When you eat less food, naturally you will lower your thermic effect of food. Your body needs less energy to breakdown, absorb and transit the nutrients.

  • Exercise

With lower body weight, even if you do the same physical activities, your body will use less energy. So if you normally walk 1 mile every day and burned X amount of calories, after weight loss you will burn less.

But keep in mind that those adaptations (changes) will vary depending on many factors.

  • Your current body weight

People with higher body weight, and more weight to lose, will notice faster initial acceleration of the progress.

  • The amount of weight you already lost

If you’re already dieting for a while, but you hit the weight loss plateau, it may indicate some metabolic adaptations. As your body weight goes down, your metabolism will slowly down-regulate, causing you to burn fewer calories.

  • Physical activity

People who are generally more active will have a easier to lose weight. Also, people with higher lean body mass will have much easier to burn more calories.

  • Dieting history

People who are going on and off any diet that is available on the market may have hormonal changes that cause weight to plateau.

Related article: Can I Eat Carbs On A Calorie Deficit?

Conclusion

In summary, it is not possible to be in the actual calorie deficit and not losing weight.

The biggest reason why people don’t see the results is that they have either too high expectations, they don’t track all their food intake, they experience some mindless eating episodes or simply they are too early in the process.

People have a different perception of the foods they eat, versus the actual food intake. The easy solution is to use a tool that is best suited to fit your lifestyle, gives you less stress, and is easy enough that can be sustainable.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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