It’s 6 AM and you trudge toward the bathroom like it’s the gallows.
The cold winds of despair howl. Shadowy fingers clamp around your throat.
Today you face judgement. Today is weigh-in day.
You shuffle onto the scale and wait, like a deer gawking at the hunter’s rifle.
The number flashes onto the screen. Not a number but the number. That same…damn…scowling…mocking…number.
Why? Why the hell are you not losing weight?
You’re doing everything right, you scream. You’re following all the rules! Your diet is “cleaner” than an operating room. Your “carbohydrate curfew” begins at 7 PM sharp. You’re cycling this and restricting that…for what?
Well, I have good news for you:
The real reason you’re not losing weight is very simple. The solution is likely simple too.
So say goodbye to weight loss “secrets,” “tricks,” “hacks, ” and other quackery. You’re about to meet the real science and physiology of weight loss and trust me–you’re going to fall in love.
I know, I know. You don’t believe me yet but give me ten minutes and I’ll give you the keys to the weight loss castle.
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Table of Contents
The most common reason people lose fat and not weight is fluid retention.
This is particularly true for women, who are hormonally inclined to retain fluids and who also have to deal with large fluctuations due to menstrual cycles.
What happens is very simple: you lose a pound of fat in a week but you “pick up” an additional pound of water along the way. Obviously it’s not always 1:1 so, when it comes time to weigh in, it can look like you only lost a negligible amount of fat that week or even gained some.
If you want to see how much water retention can affect your weight, double your sodium intake for a few days and watch the scale. You can easily gain 1 to 2 pounds per day for several days.
Fortunately, water retention issues are fairly easy to fix. It usually requires little more than balancing sodium and potassium intake, drinking enough water every day, and keeping your cortisol levels under control.
Once these things are in–when your electrolytes are balanced, you’re properly hydrated, and your cortisol levels are normal…and you’re not about to get your period…you can rest assured that your fluid retention levels are stable.
Another common reason why people lose fat but not weight is they’re new to weightlifting.
This matters because when you’re new, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time, and building muscle means adding weight, of course.
Furthermore, when you first start training your muscles intensively, they soak up and hold quite a bit of additional glycogen and water. This too adds weight.
These “newbie gains” are so predictable that I often tell people new to weightlifting and proper dieting to expect not to lose weight for their first 3 to 6 weeks.
Sure, keep track of your weight, but your waist measurement is a more reliable indicator of fat loss progress during this period. If your waist is shrinking, you’re losing fat regardless of what the scale says.
Now, if you have any real amount of fat to lose, you eventually need to see your weight go down. Unfortunately the joyride does come to an end and your body simply can’t continue building muscle as quickly as it can lose fat (and eventually you can only do one or the other).
That said, I have seen people properly train and diet for 2 to 3 months and come out only ~5 to 6 pounds lighter but with dramatically improved physiques. Depending on your genetics and compliance to your exercise and diet programs, you can build quite a bit of muscle and lose quite a bit of fat in the beginning.
Alright, now that we have the “low-hanging fruit” out of the way, let’s get into the more likely reason you’re not losing weight…
I’m going to start this section like a good story–in media res.
The reason you’re not losing weight is you’re eating too much.
Seriously. That’s the climax. The big reveal. The way out of the haunted house.
Okay…flashback time. Now I get to explain how we got there.
The first stop on our journey is the most important, so listen up. It’s the scientific principle of energy balance, and it alone controls weight gain and loss.
Energy balance is the relationship between the energy you give your body (via food) and the energy it expends (via processes required for life and physical activity), often measured in kilocalories.
Think of energy balance as a checking account.
And what does your body do with the surplus of energy? It stores a portion of it as body fat.
How can the body fill this deficit and zero the account? It can tap into body fat stores. In fact, body fat’s primary purpose for existing is serving as a source of energy for surviving periods of energy deficit.
I know, I know–the TV hosts chasing ratings and the authors selling books and pills have very different stories to tell but don’t be so quick to buy into the hype.
Energy balance isn’t a theory or antiquated belief. It’s scientific fact based on the clinical findings of nearly a century worth of careful metabolic research.
Now, this brings us back to why you’re not losing weight.
I said it’s because you’re eating too much, but there’s a bit more to this story. It’s not actually as simple as “you’re not in an energy deficit.”
What’s missing from this familiar weight loss trope is the element of time. That is, meaningful weight loss requires a net energy deficit over a given period of time.
Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds of fat.
Each pound of fat contains somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 calories’ worth of energy (how much exactly is a matter of dispute, but we don’t need to get into that here).
Thus, you need to strip 30,000 to 35,000 calories’ worth of fat off your body and the only way to do that is to, over whatever period of time, burn that many more calories you’ve eaten.
Now, the average person eats maybe 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day, and you don’t want to dramatically cut your food intake and starve yourself, so as you can see, this is going to take some time.
Time…that’s the real devil in the details. Here’s what I mean:
That’s a weekly calorie deficit of about 3,500 calories and simple math tells us that losing those ten pounds will take somewhere around 8 to 10 weeks.
You’ve now shrunk your total weekly calorie deficit to 1,500, which means those ten pounds will now take about 20 weeks to lose.
You’ve now reduced your total calorie deficit since starting your diet from 10,500 to 500 and thus have more or less “reset” the entire process.
Now, real world weight gain and loss isn’t as mathematically predictable as this–there are other factors to consider such as body composition, genetic and hormonal predispositions, and the thermic effect of food–but this is more or less how it works.
Weight loss is cumulative in nature. Every calorie that you burn beyond what you eat is a tiny step toward your goal and every calorie that you eat beyond what you burn is a tiny step backward.
Now that we have a good chunk of weight loss physiology under our belts, we can state a bit more accurately why you’re not losing weight.
The only reason you haven’t lost weight over the last week, month, quarter, year, whatever, is you haven’t created a large enough energy deficit over that period.
Let’s look at another example just to make this crystal clear.
Let’s say that you haven’t lost weight in a month despite regular exercise and “dieting.” Although we could never know the exact number, let’s “play God” and say we know that you burned 82,000 calories in that month.
Approximately how much weight would you have lost if you had eaten about 78,000 calories? Yup, about a pound. How about 73,000 calories? That would have yielded about 2.5 pounds of weight loss. 69,000 calories? 3.5 pounds. And so forth.
Now, why do you think you didn’t lose any weight? You got it–your intake was too close to the 82,000 calories you burned to cause any noticeable change in your total fat mass. And what would have happened if you would have eaten significantly more than 82,000 calories? Weight gain.
Again, the real world can’t be predicted so perfectly and calorie intake isn’t the only thing that matters when we’re talking about losing fat, not just weight, but you get the point. Quantities vary but underlying mechanisms don’t.
So, if the inability to lose weight is merely and inability to manage energy balance properly, what are the most common ways people mess this up?
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If you’re struggling to lose weight, I have good news for you: you’re probably just eating too damn much.
Here’s how it usually plays out.
They underestimate portion sizes, assume foods contain fewer calories than they do, measure inaccurately, and, in some cases, simply lie to themselves about how much they’re actually eating.
This is why so many people fail with diets that deal in rules and restrictions instead of numbers.
Yes, you can lose weight without counting calories but it’s a bit of a crapshoot. It also becomes less and less viable as you get leaner and leaner (eventually you have to start planning and/or tracking intake).
There are plenty of ways to screw up calorie counting too.
For example, the calorie counts we’re given for various restaurant and packaged foods are often inaccurate. In fact, food manufacturers can under-report calories by 20% and pass FDA inspection and you’d better believe many are unscrupulous enough to use this to their advantage.
This only affects people that eat a lot of pre-packaged foods, however. People that know better and stick to foods they prepare themselves often screw up by measuring foods improperly. Here’s an all-too-common example:
How did this happen? Simple.
That (slightly heaping) cup of oatmeal that you scooped out contained 100 grams of dry oats, which contains 379 calories. The “cup” on the label, however, contains only 307 calories because it assumes 81 grams of dry oats per cup. You’ve eaten 72 more calories than you thought.
That tablespoon of peanut butter? You packed in 21 grams for a count of 123 calories but recorded only 94, which is your app’s “tablespoon,” which assumes 16 grams of peanut butter.
Meal after meal you make these errors and when you hang up your utensils for the day thinking you stuck to the plan, you’re completely unaware that you actually ate several hundred more calories than you intended.
Play this out day after day and there’s your reason why you’re not losing weight.
The lesson here is simple:
The more accurate you are with measuring your calorie intake, the more likely you are to succeed in losing weight.
Here’s how to do it right:
Cooked weights can vary too much depending on various factors.
I like to use Calorie King for this. Make sure you don’t accidentally use numbers for cooked food if it’s raw and vice versa or your numbers will be all wrong.
Yes, everything counts as far as calories go: vegetables, fruits, condiments, dabs of oil and butter, and every other bit of food that goes into your mouth every day.
This ensures maximal accuracy and ensures you don’t under-estimate actual intake.
“Cheating” on your diet has nothing to do with eating “bad” foods–it’s erasing your calorie deficit by overeating, whether with cauliflower or candy (although the latter is much easier to overeat, of course).
The most common cheating mistakes I see are…
Cheating too frequently.
Look back to the big picture of calories and weight loss.
If you moderately overeat and thus zero out your calorie deficit a few days per month, your overall results are barely going to be affected.
If, however, you do it a few times per week, you’re going to slow down your weight loss considerably.
Indulging in cheat DAYS, not meals.
If you throw all dietary restrictions out the window for one meal, you can only do so much damage. Your stomach is probably going to be begging for mercy by the 2,000-calorie mark.
Eat everything your hungry little heart desires for an entire day, however, and you can easily put down many thousands of calories and erase the weight loss progress of several days, if not an entire week.
Eating too many calories or too much dietary fat in cheat meals.
I know I just said you can only do so much damage in one meal but if really go for the jugular, it can be enough to noticeably impact your weight loss.
Specifically, the worst type of cheat meal is one that is very high in dietary fat and total calories (which tend to go hand-in-hand given the energy density of dietary fat).
The reason why is dietary fat is chemically similar to body fat and thus requires very little energy for conversion (between 0 and 2%). This is why research shows that a high-fat meal causes more immediate fat storage than a high-carbohydrate meal.
This point is particularly relevant when you’re lean and wanting to get really lean. You simply can’t afford many days in a large calorie surplus and especially not when the surplus is primarily from dietary fat.
Drinking alcohol while cheating.
In short, it’s not the calories from alcohol that can make you fat, but all the crap that you eat with it, which is hard to resist when you’re hammered.
The bottom line is high-fat, alcohol-inclusive cheat meals that put you in a calorie surplus are the ultimate recipe for gaining fat.
Accurately measuring calorie intake is pretty simple. It just requires precision and attention to detail. Approximating calorie expenditure is trickier, however. Much trickier.
Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is determined by several things:
This is the amount of energy your body burns at rest.
What many people don’t know, however, is that no formula is 100% accurate for everyone. Research shows basal metabolic rates are quite variable, with some significantly higher and others lower than formulas would suggest.
The problem here is obvious: if you think you’re burning, let’s say, 100+ calories more per day than you actually are, that could impair fat loss by up to a pound per month.
If you don’t know how to adjust energy intake and/or output to deal with this “metabolic adaptation,” it alone can seriously cut into your calorie deficit and bring weight loss to a grinding halt.
This is the energy cost of processing the food we eat for use and storage.
For example, research shows that whole foods cost more energy to process than processed foods and high-protein meals result in more energy expenditure than high-fat ones.
Thus, 300 calories of whole foods results in more “calories out” than 300 calories of processed foods, and high-protein meals more than low-protein meals. Repeat this several times per day and the numbers can add up to something significant.
This includes deliberate activities like exercise as well as spontaneous activities like walking around while on the phone or hopping to the bathroom or drumming our fingers when we read or bobbing our leg when we think.
The energy burned by these activities is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, and it plays a much larger role in total daily energy expenditure than most people realize. Research shows that NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among many individuals.
The same research indicates that people could burn an additional 350 calories per day by taking simple actions to increase movement every day like taking the stairs when possible, walking relatively short distances instead of driving, doing some chores instead of watching TV, etc.
And to put that in perspective, burning an additional 350 calories per day for 7 days would add up to about 2/3 of a pound of fat lost. Not bad for just moving your body a bit more than usual.
Another aspect of energy expenditure that most people don’t know is some people’s bodies burn more energy while active than others’.
Just because you’re engaged in the same types and amounts of activity as someone else doesn’t mean you’re burning the same amount of energy. The amount of muscle you have influences this considerably because it increases the energy cost of exercise.
As you can see, determining TDEE with a high amount of accuracy can be tough. It’s a moving target. Fortunately, you don’t have to know exactly how many calories you’re burning every day to lose weight effectively.
Instead, you can use a formula like the one I give in my article on meal planning to calculate a reasonable estimate of TDEE and starting point for calorie intake.
You then follow those numbers every day and see how your body responds over the course of each week.
If necessary, you then adjust energy intake and/or output up or down to reach the “sweet spot” of 0.5 to 2 pounds lost per week (the leaner you get the less you will be able to lose each week).
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article so I thought it would be helpful to close with an “action list.”
If you’re not losing weight, here’s your game plan:
As you know, weightlifting newbies often experience this. Lean people wanting to get really lean often do as well due to water retention.
You can keep water retention under control by keeping your sodium and potassium intake steady and balanced and your cortisol levels under control by taking time to regularly de-stress.
It’s also smart to add two measurements to your routine in addition to weight: waist size (at navel) and body fat percentage (as explained here).
This can be extremely helpful because if your waist and caliper skinfolds are shrinking, you’re losing fat regardless of what’s happening on the scale.
This is probably why you’re not losing weight so don’t overlook it.
Are you making any of the calorie intake mistakes given earlier? Not tracking/planning your foods? Measuring sloppily? “Cheating” away all your progress?
Use my article on meal planning to calculate your calorie and macronutrient targets and compare them against your current daily intake.
If you’re eating quite a bit more every day, you need to address that. Use the same article to create a meal plan and follow it strictly for 10 days (no “cheating”) and see how your body responds.
If you’re having 1 to 2 “cheat days” per week, there’s your problem.
Cut that down to one cheat MEAL per week and if you want brownie points, try to keep the dietary fat under control (high-protein and carbohydrate cheat meals are best). That alone could get the scale moving down.
The most common reason people make this mistake is the activity multipliers given in formulas for calculating TDEE are usually too high.
For instance, according to the Katch McArdle formula, you can estimate your average daily TDEE by multiplying your BMR by 1.55 if you do 3 to 5 moderate 1-hour workouts per week. 6 to 7 intense workouts per week calls for a multiplier of 1.725.
Well, I’ve worked with thousands of people and have learned that those numbers just come out way too high for most of us. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and the solution is very simple: tone down the activity multipliers (reduce calorie intake) and voila, weight loss.
You can find my own “revised” formula for calculating TDEE here.
No matter how perfect your diet and training routines are, as you lose weight, natural adaptations will occur in your body that reduce total daily energy expenditure.
The only way to combat this is to move more and/or eat less.
There are guidelines you need to follow though to prevent muscle loss and other unwanted side effects. Read more here.
Remain in a calorie deficit for long enough and your metabolism can slow down to the point where a further reduction of intake and/or increase in activity just isn’t feasible.
Fortunately there’s a simple solution: the “reverse diet,” which consists of a steady, systematic increase in caloric intake. When done properly, reverse dieting allows you to eat more and speed your metabolism back up to “full capacity” while gaining little-to-no fat.
Read more about this here.
The information and strategies given in this article are all you need to lose weight.
Your metabolism isn’t a unique snowflake. Your body runs on the same type of machinery as mine and everyone else’s. You just have to learn how yours is tuned. This article shows you how.