I have heard the same thing thousands of times.... "I am cutting calories, hitting the gym, and doing everything right but my weight just won't budge". Sound familiar?
Probably one of the least motivating feelings is seeing the number on the scale stay the same, or in some cases go up, when you are trying to lose weight. You feel frustrated, confused, and irritated that your weight is appearing to increase or not change at all, despite your hard work.
As frustrating as it may be, don't be discouraged. There are other things that you should be paying much more attention to than your weight. And just because you aren't seeing the scale budge as quickly as you'd like, doesn't mean you aren't losing body fat or dieting correctly. There are a number of factors at play here, and understanding what's going on in your body can save you a lot of stress and help you to be more successful in the long run.
Here's your complete guide to how weight loss works, why you aren't losing weight, and what you can do about it.
How Losing Weight Works
Eating a calorie deficit is still the most widely accepted approach to weight loss - we don't have any definitive research that has disproved this theory (1). It's physics! If you consume less than you burn, you will use up body stores of energy (either fat or muscle) to support your daily needs, which results in weight loss over time. But as simple as the calorie equation sounds, it is not an exact science.
In a perfect world you should be able to cut calories and see pounds fall off at a steady pace, but our bodies are much more complex than that. It is actually much more normal to see your weight go up and down as you progress through your diet.
Even with perfect calorie control and exercise, your weight can be influenced by nutrient storage, hydration status, electrolyte balance, hormones, digestion and much more.
This is completely normal, and with consistency and patience, your weight or rate of fat loss will decrease over time.
How to Track Your Weight Appropriately
A very important thing to recognize is timing. If you weigh yourself at the end of the day after 3-5 meals and at least 8 cups of water, you might notice a large difference in your weight than if you were to weigh yourself first thing in the morning. Also if you are weighing yourself right after you workout, you may notice a slight increase in weight due to the "swelling" of your muscles.
Fluctuations are normal and just because your weight changes from one day to the next, doesn't mean the scale isn't creeping down overall.
Consider plotting your weight each day and using averages each week to measure your progress. And give yourself at least 3 to 4 weeks to see a change.
3 Reasons Why You're Not Losing Weight
"Why am I not losing weight?" is a complicated question with a lot of different answers. No one answer is going to necessarily explain why you happen to be experiencing this. However, there are general ways that make it very possible to gain weight or plateau in the short-term while sticking to your diet.
The scale can only tell you one measurement - your total body weight. It can't tell you exactly where the pounds are coming from. Not seeing any change in weight could be the result of you increasing weight from water, muscle, or food storage - even while simultaneously losing body fat, causing your weight to stabilize.
Even more disheartening than not losing weight, is the appearance of potential weight gain.
There are three main reasons why your weight may stay the same or you are potentially gaining weight while on a weight loss diet.
- Your gaining something other than body fat
- You aren't being consistent
- You are tracking the wrong things
It's also very important to realize that this is a short-term circumstance, not losing weight long term while at a caloric deficit generally means that something just isn't adding up.
Calorie intake versus expenditure is the very basic formula to follow with any diet, if you are continuously burning more calories than you are eating or drinking, you will put your body into a caloric deficit which will result in some type of weight loss in the long-run.
1. Your Gaining Something Other than body fat
There are four different types of weight that can cause the number on the scale to fluctuate. This includes:
Most of the time when people are looking to lose weight, they are aiming to lose body fat over anything else. But depending on a variety of factors, you could be experiencing an increase or decrease in any of the above that will be reflected on the scale.
Water weight is actually a very normal part of fat loss and more than likely the reason why you're not losing more pounds. You see, your fat cells are pretty stubborn. Because fat is such an abundant source of energy for survival - if you're ever stranded without food for long periods of time, you will eat away at your fat stores. Fat is a much more desired source of fuel for this over carbs and protein which have limited storage and are needed for other bodily functions, which is why your body wants to hang on to this precious form of energy reserves.
As you lose fat, your fat cells often will fill with water to maintain their shape and in the hopes of acquiring fat to fill it again (2). But have no fear, if you continue to cut calories and lose fat, they eventually give up and shrink.
Additional changes in fluid storage can be caused by electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, increased carb or food intake, hormones, stress, sleep, increased activity, poor digestion, and cutting calories too low.
With all of these possibilities how can you tell if you are retaining water and what can you do about it?
- Drink more water: It might sound counter-intuitive, but drinking more water can actually help you flush fluid out of your system. In addition, some studies suggest increased water intake may promote more weight loss overall (3,4).
- Check your intake of salt and sodium: High sodium levels can cause you to retain fluid. And it's not just salt that's the culprit, there are a number of hidden sources of sodium including bread, meat, sauces, and packaged foods. Most nutrition tracking apps will show you how much sodium you are getting each day and overall in your nutrient breakdown, so take a look at your intake and what foods it's coming from. If you're over 2,400mg of sodium a day, consider decreasing the amount you eat.
- Increase your intake of potassium and magnesium: Magnesium and potassium are also electrolytes that can affect fluid retention, but unlike sodium, they help reduce water retention, even when hormones are at play (5,6). You can get more potassium in your diet from fruits and veggies, and look for magnesium in nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens and dark chocolate.
- Sweat it out: Exercise is a great way to get rid of excess fluid by sweating it out - and you use up excess nutrients that are causing water retention, like carbs and sodium. You can also sit in a sauna or take a hot yoga class. Just be sure to recover with plenty of water and keep your hydration status in check. And keep in mind that training too much can increase cortisol and inflammation that may have the opposite effect.
- Cut out sugar: Storing carbs as glycogen in your muscles and liver requires water, so eating a high carb diet may cause you to store more water. In addition, refined, high sugar foods cause insulin to spike which can cause you to store more sodium and more fluid (7).
- Increase your protein intake: Just as higher carb intake can cause you to store more water, protein has the opposite effect. Digesting protein actually requires water and a high protein diet can help remove fluid from your system.
- Check your fiber intake: Too much of certain fibers may initially cause bloating in some, but after an adjustment period increased fiber intake can support healthy digestion and help decrease fluid retention. Digesting fiber requires water - especially water soluble fiber from whole grains, peas, potatoes, fruit, veggies and beans, and increasing your intake of these foods may help with excess fluid.
- Get enough sleep: Sleep is not just important for maintaining energy levels, it also plays a role in fluid regulation (8). If you're not getting enough rest, it could be part of the reason why you're holding on to more body water. Aim to get at least 7 hours of quality sleep a night.
- Manage stress: Poorly managed stress can lead to excess cortisol production, which can directly affect water retention (9). Not to mention excess stress can promote more fat storage. So if you're having a hard time losing weight, it could be that you're overly stressed. Try to find ways to relax and release the tension, like mediation, yoga, get a massage, get outdoors, exercise or anything else that helps make you feel at ease.
- Drink coffee or tea: Coffee and tea both contain caffeine, a diuretic that can help flush out some water. If you're drinking plenty of water and finding that not much else is working, adding some caffeine or even a diuretic could be a potential solution. Just remember to not overdo it and to not rely on diuretics for weight loss.
- Check your calorie intake: Cutting your calories too low can also mess with your water retention by increasing cortisol (10). If you're putting yourself in a serious deficit - more than 20% less than your maintenance - and are feeling hungry all the time, you might need to let your calories creep up a bit.
- Be patient: You might just need time to adjust to your diet and rate of fat loss. You can't always control your hormones and body's response to dieting, but you can stay consistent and wait for things to even out.
Water retention can account for a lot of quick weight gains. If you find that you are gaining weight overnight or feeling a little bloated, it is probably not body fat - especially if you are eating better and increasing your physical activity level.
Water weight and fat gain are completely different. Water is gained temporarily and much easier to get rid of than body fat that requires much more time and patience.
Gaining a large amount of muscle mass typically takes a calorie surplus. However, it is entirely possible to put on a little bit of lean muscle even while in a calorie deficit. - especially if you are newer to fitness and started incorporating strength training recently.
If you are weight training or have increased your physical activity and protein intake, it could be that you are gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time, causing your weight to creep up or remain fairly stable. While this is pretty difficult to do in a calorie deficit and takes a lot of time, any muscle gain could certainly impact your overall weight.
One pound of muscle and one pound of fat weigh the exact same. However, muscle takes up a lot less space than fat and is more metabolic - making muscle gain an ideal situation for body composition and overall fitness. Muscle is the tissue behind the lean shredded look most dieters are going for!
The only real way to tell if you are gaining lean mass is by getting your body fat percentage taken. You may see a dramatic decrease in your overall body composition but not necessarily your weight.
Other Types of Weight Gain
Food itself can also be causing excess weight. Eating a large meal leads to the infamous "food baby" and depending on your overall diet, different foods can contribute to water weight gain. But constipation can also be a factor.
Bottom line if your digestion is out of whack, your weight might be too. If you're feeling like this might be the case, drink some more water, adjust your fiber intake and wait it out. Or take a laxative to get things moving and see if that helps.
2. You Are Not Being Consistent
If you have checked all of these reasons off the list and still find yourself gaining weight/ struggling to lose weight or inches, while dieting, be honest with yourself about your diet. Are you actually eating exactly what you should be eating to see the expected results? Are you portioning things out right? Are you weighing your food?
It may seem like a really over the top practice to weigh and portion out everything you eat but even small bites can add up in a big way! For the first 3-4 weeks of a diet you should be portioning things out correctly and weighing them if need be. And tracking your intake using a food tracking app to help hold you accountable and ensure you are actually hitting your calorie goals. Even if you don't intend on weighing things out forever, it will at least get you comfortable with the correct portions so in the future you can better eyeball these portions.
You should also be tracking your calories every day and using weekly averages. If you are sticking to your diet during the week but allowing a lot of wiggle room on the weekends, you may be doing more harm than you thought.
3. You're Measuring the Wrong Things
The scale is only one way to measure progress and sometimes it's not the best way - especially if you do not have that much weight to lose.
Many of us get laser focused on a specific goal weight or number we want to hit and this tunnel vision causes us to miss the other non-scale victories we are achieving.
Here are a few other things to consider when trying to lose weight.
Pay Attention to How You Feel
Most importantly, how do you feel? Do you feel deprived? Do you feel like you have more energy? Is the food enough for you? Is it not enough? Really ask yourself these things because it will give you a good starting point and how you feel physically and mentally is usually a good indicator of how your diet is going.
Take the time to reflect on how you feel through the process. You shouldn't be feeling excessively deprived. You also probably shouldn't feel excessively bloated regularly. A little bloat every now and then is very normal, however if you are noticing excessive bloat it may be due to something else.
If you find that the diet you're on doesn't make you feel that great, consider changing things up and finding a new approach or meal plan, one that you feel you can stick to.
Track Changes in Body Fat Percent
Consider getting a body composition test done at the beginning of your transformation and repeat the test every eight to 12 weeks to see how much fat you are actually losing. You can also track any potential muscle gain in the process, giving you much more clarity than the scale can provide.
After all, most reasons for dieting are to lose body fat. So pay more attention to these details versus your weight overall.
DEXA scans are the most accurate form of body composition testing and will run you about $50 per scan.
Track Your Physical Measurements
Get out a tape measure and track physical changes in your body. You might be losing inches without realizing it.
Paying attention to how your clothes are fitting is also a great way to measure how successful your dieting is going.
Take Progress Photos
Even though you are likely staring at your body every day in the mirror, the small changes happening before your eyes can be hard to see day to day.
But taking progress photos allows you to visibly see the changes in your body over time which can be incredibly motivating.
Even on days you are feeling bloated or out of sorts, you might surprise yourself by looking back at where you started.
Trust The Process
Most importantly, trust the process. When dieting, it can be very difficult to feel empowered. You may feel so irritated to not see progress. However, results do not come instantaneously, they take time.
The best thing you can do for yourself is stick to your diet, put in the work at the gym, and ask for help! If something doesn't quite seem right to you, reach out to personal trainers or nutritionist to get advice. More than likely they will adjust a few things here and there that may make big differences for you. However, like all great things, results take time! Trust the process, trust the professionals, and relax.
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