So you’ve started your weight loss journey. You’re eating healthier and trying to exercise consistently, but, when stepping on the scale, you realize that you’re not losing any weight.
You’re confused and annoyed, and considering just giving up altogether.
And who can blame you? That’s what most people (would) do.
Hey, if I was putting in the work and wasn’t getting good results, then I would probably quit too.
Rather than giving up altogether, though, it’s better to take a step back and try to figure out what you may be doing wrong that’s preventing you from losing fat.
Before we go any further, let me first make it clear that the following are probably not to blame for your lack of results:
- Carbs, sugar, or insulin spikes.
- That you’re eating too little and have “damaged” your metabolism.
- That you’re not taking the “right” fat burning supplements.
- Your (old) age.
Instead, what’s more likely going in is that you’re getting a few basic things wrong that are preventing you from losing fat, despite all your hard work.
Worry not, however, because in this article, you will learn about:
- The four most likely mistakes you’re making that are keeping you from losing weight.
- What you can do to avoid these mistakes, so that you actually start dropping weight and getting great results.
Let’s get to it!
1. You’re not losing weight because you’re underestimating your calorie intake
The most common mistake people make is underestimating the amount of calories they are getting. Simply put, they are unknowingly eating more than they should be, which is why they are not losing weight.
Perfectly illustrating this is an older study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (1).
In this study, the gold-standard doubly-labelled water technique was used to measure the energy intake of a group of women who were struggling to lose weight.
While the women reported that their average daily intake was just 1407 calories, their actual calorie intake was found to be 2584 calories instead (see graph below). Essentially, the women were under-reporting their calorie intake by 1177 calories, which was clearly why they were not losing weight.
Unsurprisingly, when the women were put on the calorie intakes that they were claiming to be at, they started losing weight at a rate of around 1.6 pounds per week.
Multiple other studies have found results similar to the study above. In fact, one study found that even registered dietitians under-reported their true calorie intake by around 430 calories per day (2)!
The reason this happens is because people just aren’t that great at estimating the number of calories that they are getting.
This can happen because they are:
- Underestimating portion sizes. See an example of this in the image below by my friend Ben Carpenter, who you should definitely follow on Instagram!
- Being “good” on weekdays, but vastly underestimate their calorie intake on weekends.
- Underestimating the caloric value of just a couple of foods that they are eating often.
- Eating 2-3 moderate sized meals per day, but keep snacking all day between meals. You know, a few nuts here, a biscuit or two there. Well, these add up!
How to fix it:
To fix this problem, it’s a good idea to start monitoring your food intake, and, ideally, try to accurately track your calorie intake by weighing foods using a food scale.
You can then use an app like MyFitnessPal to track your calories. Just keep in mind that MyFitnessPal has a user-created database, which means that many of the entries are inaccurate or just plain wrong. If in doubt, search the USDA Food Database!
How long should you track your calories for, you ask?
Well, personally, I recommend you track your calories for at least 3-4 weeks. Doing so is going to help you get a much better estimate of how many calories you’re eating, and will improve your ability to estimate the number of calories in foods in the future.
Something that’s also important to mention is that you should make sure that you don’t forget about “hidden” calories.
Examples of these are:
- The oil you use to cook your food.
- The milk or cream you put in your coffee.
- Sauces that you may use on your food.
- Small snacks you eat here and there.
Calories from these can easily add up and could be why you’re not losing weight.
2. You’re not losing weight because you’re not properly weighing yourself
The next, also very common, reason why you’re not losing weight is that you’re not properly weighing yourself.
When trying to track their progress, most people just hop on the scale on random times of the day sporadically every few days or weeks.
Well, the problem is that weight loss is almost never a linear process. To help me explain, here’s an example of the daily weigh ins from a client.
As you can see from the graph at the bottom, this client’s weight fluctuates quite a bit, which is completely normal, while the overall trend is downwards. Weighing daily allowed us to see this.
However, if this client was weighing themselves sporadically every now and then, a different picture could have been painted.
For example, it could have been the case that they happen to weigh themselves first on a “low” day, and then on a “high” day (like in the graph at the top). This would give them the impression that they aren’t making progress, and that they are even gaining weight!
How to fix it:
The way to “fix” this is quite simple.
In our experience, the best thing to do is to weigh yourself every morning (at least for a while) after using the toilet and before eating/drinking anything. Then you record your weight using an app such as Libra (for Android) or Happy Scale (for iOS).
After a few days, these apps can show you a trend line of your body weight by calculating the rolling average of the last few days of your weigh ins. As you can understand, this trend line is a much more useful and informative measure of progress.
Other benefits to doing the above include that you will:
- Realize that your weight will fluctuate daily and that this doesn’t necessarily reflect how much you had to eat the day before.
- Start noticing how things such as extra sodium, stress, hydration status, etc. can affect your body weight.
- Realize that a general downward trend won’t turn into an upward trend with just a couple of days-worth of higher weigh-ins.
- Eventually develop a less emotional and more objective relationship with the scale. Stepping on it won’t be scary anymore!
3. You’re not losing weight because you’re overestimating your calorie output
Many people find that they feel significantly hungrier after working out, and are under the impression that they should eat a lot to compensate for the calories they burned during their workout.
However, some research suggests that many people eat so much that they end up exceeding the calories they burned during their workout session.
To make matters worse, some research (see graph below) also suggests that people often vastly overestimate the calories burned during exercise (3).
This may be partly due to the fact that activity and calorie tracking devices can overestimate the calories burned during a cardio session by up to around 25% (4).
Simply put, many people are overestimating the calories they are burning during exercise, and then eating enough to compensate for the calories they think they’ve burned. This results in them being in a calorie surplus, which is why they’re not losing weight.
How to fix it:
There are three steps to fixing the above problem. Rather than estimating your calorie expenditure during your workout and then eating back the calories you think you’ve burned, it’s probably better to:
- Keep to a set weekly training plan and use that to estimate your average daily calorie expenditure.
- Set an average daily calorie intake that you think will result in a sufficiently sized deficit, and stick to that.
- Start tracking your weight like I’ve described in reason #2 above, and adjust your calorie intake over time accordingly to cause fat loss.
4. You’re not losing weight because you’re building muscle
When most people think of fat loss, what they immediately think of is the number on the scale going down, and assume that if they are not losing weight, then they are also not losing fat either.
However, this isn’t always the case, as what may be happening is that you may be experiencing what we call “body recomposition”.
In short, body recomposition refers to losing fat while building muscle, which is generally a good thing. It can, however, result in your weight staying the same, even though you’re doing everything right.
It’s no surprise, of course, that this tends to throw off most people.
When does body recomposition happen, though?
In general, you should expect that you may experience body recompositioning when you:
- Are overfat and relatively new to resistance training. This is because muscle building happens at a faster rate in beginners, while body recomposition is more likely to happen when you are carrying too much body fat (5).
- Have recently corrected an important aspect of your training/nutrition. For example, you were training with too little intensity or you were eating too little protein.
- Are returning to exercise after a layoff. For reasons related to myonuclei numbers in training and de-training, it’s easier to build muscle while losing fat when returning to exercise after a layoff (6).
How to fix it:
The way to fix this involves using more than just the scale to measure your progress.
More specifically, what we usually recommend is using a combination of tools, including the following:
- Record your weight as described in reason #2 above.
- Measure your arm, waist, and thigh circumferences using a tape measure.
- Take progress photos every 2-4 weeks in the same clothing and under similar lighting conditions.
Doing the above will help you get a better idea of whether you’re losing fat even though you’re not losing weight.
For example, if you’re not losing weight but your waist circumference has decreased while your arm circumference has increased, then it’s likely that you’re dropping fat while building muscle.
This means that you should rest assured that you’re making progress and that you should keep doing what you’re doing.
Remember, consistency and patience are key!
The bottom line on not losing weight
Weight loss can be hard, and not seeing any progress is undoubtedly frustrating and demotivating.
If you’ve been putting in the work and not losing weight, then try taking a step back and reviewing the four points described above.
Doing so, while properly applying the fixes should help you see the changes you’re after.
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