WHY YOU’RE IN A ‘CALORIE DEFICIT’ BUT NOT LOSING WEIGHT

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If you’re in a calorie deficit, you will (eventually) lose weight.

This is a fact.

You are not special and your body is not exempt from the laws of thermodynamics.

Now we’ve got that slightly passive-aggressive intro out of the way, let’s look at a few explanations as to why you might be in a calorie deficit (or so you think) but not losing weight.

The Possible Problems…

1. The Deficit Doesnt Exist

This is the most common scenario and will be the situation for 99% of people that think they’re in a calorie deficit.

I’ve had people tell me in the past that they’re in a 1,000 calorie deficit and not losing weight. This simply isn’t possible – if you’re in a 1,000 calorie deficit per day, you WILL lose weight. No question about it. In fact, at that rate, you’d lose about 1lb every 3.5 days.

Your body will tell you if you’re in a deficit, not the other way around; i.e. if the scale is going down consistently, it means you’re in a calorie deficit, if it’s not, then you’re not.

It’s that simple.

If you start eating fewer calories, your metabolism may adjust slightly to compensate, but not to the degree that it would actually stop you losing weight.

If you’re not losing weight, you either need to drop your average daily calorie intake, increase your activity, or both until you start losing weight – as soon as that starts happening you KNOW you’re in a calorie deficit.

So why might you don’t actually be in a calorie deficit, even though you think you are?

2. Youre Not Tracking Your Calories Accurately

If you’re so damned sure that you’re in a deficit, your tracking had better be on point. There are many mistakes people making with tracking; including

  • Not tracking everything – if you’re going to track, track EVERYTHING. That includes coffees (yes your Starbucks triple twatachino does have calories in – and lots of them), mayonnaise, that cheeky Fanta; all of it.
White rice cooked vs raw calories
  • Not tracking at weekends – contrary to what Karen in accounts says, weekend calories do count – your body doesn’t acknowledge that you deserve a ‘treat, so make sure you’re tracking every day.

3. You’re Overestimating How Many Calories You Burn Each Day

TDEE stands for total daily energy expenditure, i.e. the total amount of calories you burn on average per day – you can work it out here.

The problem is, many people take their TDEE estimation for granted – just because the calculator says you burn 2000 calories per day doesn’t mean you do.

How do you know how many calories you burn each day? You don’t.

Pick a calorie amount that you’ll stick to each day -if you lose weight, you’ll know that this is less than your TDEE, if you maintain your weight, you’ll know that calorie amount is roughly your TDEE, if you gain weight, you’ll know that that calorie amount is more than your TDEE.

If you want help calculating how many calories you burn each day (so you can get an idea of how many you be eating), pop your email address in below and I’ll send you my free e-book that tells you how to do exactly that.



The other thing to be aware of is that if you lose a lot of weight, your TDEE will change because as you get lighter, your metabolism will come down so you’ll need to reassess your calorie intake at regular intervals, which leads me on to the next point….

4. Metabolic Rate Has Reduced

Contrary to what most people believe, as you lose weight your metabolic rate will come down.

Yes, the lighter you are, the lower your metabolism will be. This is because your bodt doesn’t need to work as hard (and use as many calories) to move your body mass around, simply because there’s less of it.

This means that, if you weigh 80kg, eating 2500 calories per day may be enough to lose weight, but when you’re down to 70kg, you may well maintain your weight eating 2500 calories, so you’ll need to reduce the number of calories you eat to carry on losing weight.

There are many factors that make up your overall metabolsim however, and the one that will reduce as your weight comes down is your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate).

This makes up the largest percentage of your overall metabolism, but you can get around it by doing more formal exercise and upping your NEAT (non-activity thermogenesis e.g. fidgeting, general movement).

metabolism (NEAT, BMR, etc)

So, for example, if you’ve gone from 80kg to 70kg and you now need to eat 2000 calories per day to lose weight (rather than 2500), you could carry on eating 2500, but negate the extra 500 with 500 calories worth of exercise.

In short, the more weight you lose, the fewer calories you’ll need to eat. to maintain the same rate of weight loss.

5. You’re Eating Less Protein

This is more of a sub-point to the one above, but protein has a high ‘TEF’. TEF is the ‘Thermic Effect of Food, i.e. the number of calories your body uses digesting that food. Protein is more difficult for the body to breakdown than carbs or fat, so you’ll burn more calories digesting protein-rich foods than you will with carb or fat-based foods.

In fact, this study found that the TEF of protein can be 20%-30%, i.e. if you eat 100 calories of protein, 20-30 of those calories will be burned just digesting the protein!

This means, the higher the ratio of protein in your diet, the more calories you’ll burn doing nothing. Conversely, if you start eating less protein (but the same amount of overall calories), your TEF will reduce, which could be enough for your bodyweight to plateau or even increase.

6. You Could Be Gaining Muscle

losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, also called body recomposition is quite hard to achieve, and quite a rare scenario.

It is definitely possible to build muscle and lose fat in a calorie deficit, which could mean that your weight remains static or even goes up slightly.

Unfortunately, measuring your body fat percentage is a very time-consuming and expensive task. A DEXA scan is the most accurate way to get this data, but you’re looking at £150 a pop, and even this isn’t totally accurate.

You could be exactly the same weight and BMI and look completely different depending on the amount o muscle vs fat you’re carrying

What is means is that your probably won’t be able to objectively measure if you actually building muscle in a deficit, but you can eyeball it in the mirror – and if you’re looking better, who cares what the numbers on the scale say?

It is normally complete beginners that can build muscle in a deficit, so it may be common for people who start lifting at the same time as they start their diet to experience slower or even no *weight loss* – in reality what’s happening is they’re losing some fat, and building some muscle.

Both of those things add up to a better physique.

7. You’re Weighing At Different Times Each Day

Weighing yourself everyday is a really good idea, regardless of whether your goal is weight loss, gain, or maintenance.

You should however do this at the same time everyday.

This is because eating and drinking throughout the day will make you heavier simply because the liquid and food is in your gut.

If you weighed yourself, drank a litre of water, then weighed yourself again, you’d be roughly 1kg heavier (1 litre = 1Kg).

This means that if you weighed yourself on Monday morning, lost some fat (it would only be a tiny amount over the course of a day – but this is for demonstrative purposes), then weighed yourself again on Tuesday evening, you’d likely be quite a bit heavier than you were despite losing some fat.

weight fluctuations
Body weight can fluctuate wildly at the best of times, if you weigh yourself at different times each day, it’ll be even more confusing

8. You’re Retaining Water

High stress levels can have both an indirect and direct efect on your weight.

Indirectly, stress can lead to overeating as a coping mechanism. This study looked at the relationship between perceived stress levels and body weight in two groups. One group was subjected to intervention methods which included breathing and relaxation techniques. The intervention group reduced their BMI by twice as much on average compared the control group.

The study suggests….

“The reduction in perceived stress levels in the intervention group, could have led to the adoption of healthier dietary habits and subsequent weight loss”

Xenaki et al, 2018

Stress management could therefore indirectly lead to more wieght loss since there is less temptation to overeat.

From a direct point of view, increased water retention can happen if you’re stressed, or haven’t slept well (which can in itself create stress). Water retention can of course increase bodyweight and while it may not be fat, it can give you a bloated look.

9. You’re Eating Back Exercise Calories

If you’re using My Fitness Pal to track your calorie intake, that’s awesome, well done (that wasn’t meant to sound sarcastic).

There are a few things that lots of people get very wrong with My Fitness Pal however. One of these is tracking ‘cooked’ rather than ‘raw’ or ‘dry’ weights of food (e.g. meat, pasta, rice), another common one is ‘eating back’ exercise calories.

My Fitness Pal will show you something like this;

See the ‘remaining’ number? Ignore it.

My Fitness Pal is saying that based on your calorie goal, and the calories you’ve burned working out, you can eat another 418 calories and still hit your goal.

The problem is, the estimates of calories burned for a workout could be totally off. The goal could be totally wrong as well (i.e. it might only be low enough to allow you to maintain your weight rather than actually lose weight), if the goal is too high for weight loss, any calories you eat back could tip you into a calorie surplus and actually result in weight gain!

Definitely use My Fitness Pal to TRACK calories, but you can ignore the calories ‘remaining’ – listen to your weight loss coach when it comes to target calories and when your calorie intake or activity should change, based on your goal.

10. Your Mensural Cycle

For women, the menstrual cycle can also play a part in weight fluctuations. Again this is usually down to water retention, so take this into account if your weight increases on or around your period.

11. You’re Not Sleeping Enough

There is a strong correlation between lack of sleep and higher bodyweights. It is thought this is because lack of sleep stimulates ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger. This study found that less sleep meant greater ghrelin production

Another study found that calorie intake was 14% higher in a group that got 4.5 hours sleep compared to a group that got 8.5 hours sleep.

Of course, getting less sleep doesn’t automatically result in weight gain on it’s own, but it could mean that sticking to a calorie goal is more difficult because the drive to eat is greater.

12. You’re Eating ‘Clean’ or Doing Keto

‘Clean Eating’ is a diet methodology that prioritises whole, unprocessed foods and maximising nutrient density. From an overall health point of view, this is sensible, but it may not go hand-in-hand with weight loss. A ‘clean’ diet is one that includes lots of fresh veggies, fewer carbs and more high-fat foods like salmon, nuts, oils, eggs and avocados; these are all fantastic foods to include in your diet BUT they are all high in calories (gram for gram), this means if you purely focus on nutrient density, you might think you’re eating healthy, but still gain weight because your calories are too high. Regardless of WHAT you eat, calories are still important if you want to lose weight. So track them!

Summary

There are very few reasons why weight may not decrease despite being in a calorie deficit, and those reasons are quite rare – so if you think you’re in a calorie deficit, check all of the above first.

And yes, for most people, a 1,000 calorie per day diet WILL result in weight loss, even if you’re inactive.

The Solution…

As mentioned, If you’re not losing weight, then you’re not in a deficit.

In order to test how many calories is enough to put you in a deficit, you need to measure and track.

Measure your calorie intake, steps, and weight on a daily basis. If your weight hasn’t decreased after 10 days, reduce the calorie intake, monitor for another 10 days. Keep repeating the process until your weight starts coming down – then you’ll know for a fact you’re in a deficit.

  1. Find Your Maintenance Calories Use a tool like the TDEE calculator to help you do this. But remember, the number it gives you is an ESTIMATE, so don’t treat it as gospel truth

2. Create a Calorie Target Whatever number the TDEE tool gives you, take 10% off. So if the TDEE calculator says you burn 2000 calories in a day, take 200 calories off, leaving you with a target of 1,800 daily calories

3. Track Stick to that calorie amount daily for 3 weeks. Weigh yourself every morning and write it down or record it. Track your calories ACCURATELY in My Fitness Pal. Make sure you do about the same amount of exercise each week.

4. React If after 3 weeks, your weight hasn’t started coming down, take another 10% off your daily calorie target. Repeat until weight loss starts to happen.

When your weight goes down – you know you’re in a calorie deficit!

Other Calorie Deficit FAQs

Is it Possible to have a Calorie Deficit and Not Lose Weight?

No. At least not over a long period of time. Regardless of whether you’re in a deficit or a surplus you weight will fluctuate on a daily basis, but if you’re genuinely in a deficit over a long enough period of time you WILL lose weight, gauranteed.

Why Am I Eating Less and Not Losing Weight?

Just because you’re eating less than you were before doesn’t mean you’ll definitely lose weight. Calorie balance is about calories in AND calories out. If you eat less, but you do less activity as well, your weight could stay the same or even increase.

Why Am I gaining Weight While Dieting and Exercising?

if you’re training with weights, you could be gaining muscle. If your level of bodyfat stays the same, this does mean that you’ll gain weight, BUT you’ll end up looking better because the fat will be spread over a larger surface area.

How Many Calories Should you Eat to Lose 5 Pounds (roughly 2kg) a Week?

Losing that much weight on a weekly basis is unsustainable. Most people should look to lose around 1-2lbs per week.

How Do I Know If I’m In a Calorie Deficit?

If over a 2 week period, you’ve lost a significant amount of weight (2lbs and upwards) you can be pretty sure you’re in a calorie deficit.

Should Women Eat Any Less Than men to Lose Weight?

When it comes to weight loss, women’s bodies don’t work any different, but women will GENERALLY need to diet on fewer calories than men, because they weigh less which means they have slower metabolisms.

Is 800 Calories a Day Safe?

It’s safe, but for most people it’s going to be unsustainable. You should look to diet on as high a calorie amount as possible. Dieting on super low calories will only lead to a binge and restrict cycle, and eventually giving up and going back to the way you were eating before.

Can Eating Too Little Make You Gain Weight?

No.

Refrences

Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6296480/

Diet induced thermogenesis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC524030/

Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2951287/

Sleep and obesity: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632337/#R43

Joe is an online coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose weight and build muscle.

Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.

If you want to know more, check out the about page, or get in touch

18 Responses

  1. Sharon Lamont

    I’m a 58 year old female, using a fitbit to track my exercise and calorie intake, which is consistently lower than energy expended, but, I’m not losing weight. I have around 2.7stones to lose. Do you have any advice?

    • Joe

      Hi Sharon.

      It sounds like your fitbit could be overestimating the number of calories you use on a daily basis.

      I’d be happy to jump on a call if you want to chat it through?

  2. Melvyn

    Hi there i am a 67 small male i walk one hour a day i do 20 mins of pilates 6 days a week and 3 days a week i do 1hour of full body workout on dumbbells Monday to Friday i stick to 1200/1300 calories sat and sun I stick to 1500/1700 calories i don’t count my exercises calories so why am I not losing weight

    • Joe

      Because you’re not in a calorie deficit.

      You either need to lower your calories or up the amount of activity, you do.

      If you want some help, get in touch

  3. Alex Chahine

    I’m am 16 years old and started a calorie deficit when I was 15 weighing in at 164 lbs. I now weigh 142 and eating 1600 calories a day. I still have a good amount of fat on me but I don’t want to drop anymore calories. I am maintaining weight at 1600 calories but I am also building muscle while maintaining. My brother suggested that I up my calories by 100 and keep weight training. But I feel like I would just get less lean. (I’m 5’11) ( I’m not hungry on 1600 calories because I’m eating low calorie dense foods). Idk what to do.

    • Joe

      If you’re building muscle and maintaining your weight, I;d say carry on. That’s a great place to be.

  4. Alice

    Just want to say this is an excellent article. I was curious to know if it was possible to be in a calorie deficit and not lose weight and this is the first article I found that was willing to call a spade a spade and say if you’re not losing weight you’re not in a deficit! Every other article I found was waffling on about other things, “don’t just cut cals” “do this” “do that” but none clearly laid out the basic fact that if you have a deficit of a 1000 a day you will lost weight for sure. (Though of course I get that how healthy or unhealthy you are depends on other factors as well)
    Apart from that you gave so many interesting tips like the one about cooked vs raw. I’ve been reading about weight loss for what seems forever and that was new to me. Thanks, great job!

    • Joe

      Thanks Alice, I like to call a spade a spade – there’s so much disinformation out there and I’m trying to simplify weight loss for people!

      If you need any 1-2-1 help you know where to find me!

  5. Nadia

    I’m trying to lose a few pounds that I’ve put on during lockdown. I’m 42 and pretty active. I generally watch what I eat when I’m trying to shift some weight but despite trying for a couple of months, I haven’t lost a pound. I aim for 1200 calories a day and I’ve been tracking what I eat religiously- it was showing I wasn’t eating enough – it was around 800 calories a day so I’ve upped the intake with sensible choices but still no change on the scales.

    • Joe

      Hi Nadia,

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment!

      This is a really common issue and I’d love to help you out – I’m going to drop you an email!

  6. Sarah

    Is there a post about dry/cooked/raw food and inputting these onto calorie counting apps?
    I’m trying to lose weight, have altogether lost about 8.5kg, but have another 11kg to lose – for the last 2 weeks i’ve lost nothing, despite keeping to my calorie deficit – i am going to start ignoring the number of excess calories burnt on my fitness app as this suggests to see if that works for me. But it’s so infuriating to be putting in all the work and see no change when it was working just fine for me before these last 2 weeks!

  7. Marco Roberto

    Hi Joe. Hope you are OK. I’m 187 cm tall, 104 kg, with +-23% body fat. My TDEE is 2957, less 10% is 2661. If I reduce it for 500, to lose weight, I will eat 2161. I was eating 2300 and not droping weight. I have a desk job but I do 50/60 minutes of bodybuilding 6 times a week and I also try to walk a litle. This month my average is 8.807 steps, accourding to my watch app. I will try to eat 2150 and see what happens. I track my food with myfitnesspal. (40% protein+20 fats+40 carbs). Whats your opinion on this? Thank you and regards.

    • Joe

      Hi Marco,

      There’s some more information I need before I can make an informed judgement, I’ll shoot you an email

  8. George

    Hi Joe,

    Fantastic article. Like many here, I’ve been a victim of the lockdown and made some new years resolutions that I’ve stuck to thus far to get back to my weight from my early 20s.

    Since 4Q 2020 (5-6 months), I probably lost a good 40-45 pounds. I was less active and didn’t count calories, but i was conscious of food choices and saw good results. around the last week of March, I stepped up my exercise from 20 mins to 75 mins (average) per day and began counting calories on Fitbit. My daily deficit is (showing) close to 1300-1500 cals but i haven’t lost a single pound in over 3 weeks (actually i’ve gained 1-2 lbs). I’m hoping this is a re-comp issue as I’m pretty sure my tracking is spot on. I’d like to lose another 40-45 more. Any advice?

    • Joe

      Hi George, thanks for the comment, I may be able to help – I’ll shoot you an email

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