One thing that I *really* drill home with my Online Personal Training clients is that when it comes to weight loss– it really comes down to creating a caloric deficit. And you also know that the most sustainable and best way to achieve weight loss with a caloric deficit is to eat mostly nutrient dense foods.
But what happens when you are following the protocol above and not seeing any results? Let’s dive deep into what could be going on.
At a glance– here are the top reasons so that you can easily scroll through the article… In each corresponding section I have also included quick solutions to get you back on track.
- You are not TRULY in a caloric deficit.
- You are not measuring your food out with a food scale.
- You are not tracking what you are actually eating.
- You have lost fat and gained muscle
- You have been in a deficit for too long
- Your thyroid is wonky
- Other hormones are wonky
- You are overdoing it at the gym/not sleeping enough etc. (cortisol)
- You have a food intolerance of some kind.
Reason #1 You aren’t really in a deficit.
Online calorie estimation calculators or even pen/paper calculations for creating caloric deficits are great… but they leave a lot of room for error. One of the most common pitfalls that occurs when someone begins a weight loss plan is that they calculate a calorie target that does not really allow them to be in a deficit. In other words, people overestimate how active they currently are. Let me explain…
Well, in order for us to understand what your deficit numbers are (aka calories needed to lose weight), we need to first calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (bed rest calories), and then your TDEE (current maintenance calories).
TDEE stands for your Total Daily Energy Expenditure aka the calories you need to eat right now to sustain your current weight and level of activity.
For example, if you use a very well known (and well respected) BMR calculation known as the Mifflin-St Jeor.
Let’s use an example.
Michelle is a 5’4’’, 155 lb, 40 year old female who works as an computer engineer. She works out 3-4 days per week but she sits behind her desk all day long.
First, let’s figure out her BMR–
Michelle’s BMR is 1359. This means that the total number of calories needed for her to lay in bed all day long and just survive is 1359 (note that you should NOT be eating your BMR to lose weight– that # is too low– more on that later).
Once we have her BMR we need to adjust for her level of activity. This is where most people screw up.
Here is a list of activity multipliers:
|Sedentary = BMR X 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)|
|Lightly active = BMR X 1.375 (light exercise or sports 1-3 days/wk)|
|Mod. active = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise or sports 3-5 days/wk)|
|Very active = BMR X 1.725 (hard exercise or sports 6-7 days/wk)|
|Extr. Active = BMR X 1.9 (hard daily exercise or sports & physical labor job or 2 X day training, football camp, etc.)|
What most people do here is assume that they are way more active than they truly are. It doesn’t matter if you workout for an hour every day. If you sit behind a desk all day long, you are sedentary/lightly active. Now, let’s play out two possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: Michelle calculates her own deficit calories.
She believes that since she works out 3-4 days per week her activity multiplier is 1.55
If Michelle were to calculate her current TDEE (TDEE=BMR x Activity Multiplier) using 1.55 she would get 2106.
Michelle knows that a good deficit to lose weight is anywhere from 15-25% of TDEE calories. She decides to start slow so she creates a 15% deficit.
Michelle decides that she is going to eat 1791 calories per day.
Scenario 2: Michelle works with a qualified coach who will calculate her deficit calories for her.
Her coach knows that even though Michelle is active, she spends more of her day working behind a desk, so her coach decides a multiplier of 1.3 is more sufficient.
1359*1.3= 1766 (current maintenance)
Her coach recommends her current deficit calories to be 1501.
So if Michelle were to estimate on her own, she would be eating almost 1800 calories vs. 1500 with her coach. That’s a difference of almost 300 calories PER DAY. That means it’s possible that if Michelle were to calculate her own deficit she would be consuming an extra 2100 calories which equates to over 1/2 a lb — yikes!!! Can you imagine how frustrated Michelle might feel if she over estimated her activity multiplier?
Bottom line here is that when you create a caloric deficit for yourself, be modest about your activity multiplier. I like to use a 1.3 with people who are already working out a few times per week and who work a traditional desk job.
Bottomline solution: Use a modest activity multiplier when calculating your deficit.
Reason #2 You are not measuring your food out with a food scale.
Using measuring cups/spoons to track your intake? You could be off by hundreds of calories (I see it all the time with my Online Training clients!)
Measuring cups/spoons are not 100% accurate and tons of room for error. Invest in a food scale (you can find good quality ones on amazon for less than $15), and measure your food in grams or oz.
Bottomline solution: Buy a food scale.
Reason # 3 : You are not tracking what you are eating
Are you truly tracking all of your food? That splash of cream? Your cooking spray? That bite of your kid’s donut? It all adds up. Bites, sprays, splashes and slivers all add up (to potentially hundreds of calories).
Bottomline Solution: Everything. Must. Be. Tracked.
Reason #4: You have lost fat and gained muscle
Is the scale not budging but you noticed that your measurements have gone down? Guess what? You’ve lost fat and gained muscle (aka body recomp). This is progress. Majorly. Be proud.
I’m sure you’ve heard that 1 lb of muscle weighs more than 1 lb of fat– no that’s not true– 1 lb of bricks weighs the same as 1 lb of feathers– they are both 1 lb 😉 ha!!!
But what is true is that bricks are more dense than feathers, and muscle is more dense than fat. This is why it’s essential to track several different data points in your weight loss journey. The scale is not the be all to end all.
Bottomline solution: Be happy about your progress and realize the scale isn’t everything. Keep pushing forward.
Reason #5 You have been in a deficit for too long
Fat loss/weight loss phases are not supposed to be long term things. If you have been “dieting” for the last 5-10 years– you have likely done some damage to your metabolism.
The body is highly adaptable. If you eat 1200 calories daily for 10 years your body becomes used to living off of that number.
If you are not losing weight and you have been dieting for a while, it’s likely time for a refeed.
Let me give an example. Let’s use the same (fake) client as above..
Michelle is a 40 year old 5’4’’ female that weighs 155 lb, only this time she explains that she has been eating 1200 calories per day for several years (yikes!).
First we figure out her BMR and multiply by 1.3 to get her TRUE maintenance calories (which we will need to work her up to).
What I would then recommend for Michelle is to start with her current calories of 1200 and add 50-100 calories per week until she is up to 1766. I would recommend that she eat maintenance calories for *at least* 6 weeks – 3 months (if not longer), before attempting weight loss again.
Bottomline solution: Refeed.
Reason #6: Your thyroid is wonky
This scenario assumes that:
-You have been eating in a surplus/maintenance for quite some time (i.e. you haven’t been dieting for years on end).
-You are using a food scale to track your food and you are tracking everything.
-You are using a solid caloric deficit
-No shifts are happening for at least 1 month+
If your thyroid levels are not optimal, weight loss will be nearly impossible. Most doctors only check TSH levels which does not always detect thyroid issues.
If you suspect something is off with your thyroid– demand that you get a full thyroid panel done (t3, t4, tpo antibodies etc). If your doctor says no, find another doctor. You are the CEO of your body.
Bottomline solution: Talk to your doc and demand full thyroid panel.
Reason #7: Other hormones are off
Thyroid hormones aren’t the only hormones that play a role in your body’s ability to lose weight.
Other hormones you may want to get checked are your estrogen/progesterone levels. If you are too estrogen dominant it could be nearly impossible for you to lose weight.
Bottomline solution: See your doc & get your hormones checked.
Reason #8: You are overdoing it at the gym (cortisol)
If you are working out 6-7 days a week (and you are not an athlete of some kind), you are more than likely overdoing it.
I had a client once who was adding in 3 extra days/week of cardio (and did not tell me about it until I found out later! YIKES !!!! Please don’t do this to your coach!).
She ended up hurting her foot and she was not able to perform any high impact movements for 2 weeks. We kept calories the same because she was still able to do most of her routine (but obviously she stopped the cardio that I was unaware of).
At the end of two weeks she lost 5 lb after experiencing a plateau for several weeks.
YEP. She worked out LESS and lost weight.
It was then that she confessed she had been doing extra cardio than what I prescribed her (ugh!!). Luckily, she finally understood that more working out can often be detrimental to your results.
When you overexert yourself you are putting yourself in a stressed out state. If you are also eating in a caloric deficit on top of that you are adding to your stress. To me and many other trainers this screams “excess cortisol”. Cortisol is a hormone that gets released when your body is in a stressed state (when you workout, feel emotionally stressed, don’t sleep enough, drink coffee, eat in a caloric deficit etc). Cortisol is not “bad” by any means. But if you are working out 6 days a week, not sleeping well, are in a caloric deficit are you are not seeing results– you need to rethink your strategy. You must balance the “stress” you do with rest and relaxation or else things get weird.
Bottomline solution: Reduce the amount of cardio/high intensity work you are doing. Spend time relaxing.
Reason #9 You have a food intolerance of some kind.
So let’s say you are in a solid caloric deficit, you are weighing and tracking your food, your measurements/weight have not budged, you do not qualify for a refeed, you’ve had your thyroid and hormone levels checked and you have a sound training program but STILL nothing is working (for at least a month or two).
It’s time to dive even deeper and see if you have any food intolerances. Food intolerances can lead to inflammation in the body. Inflammation= weight retention/weight gain.
I have seen people hold on to a lot (10+ pounds) of weight due to inflammation that their body is holding on to from food intolerances. Yes, 10 lb.
The most common food intolerances include: dairy, gluten and soy. I have also seen things as uncommon as oranges, strawberries and cashews.
Bottom line solution: If you suspect that you might be experiencing a food intolerance you can either try an elimination diet or get tested. A test that I have used personally that I like is called Pinnertest (I have no affiliation with them). The Pinnertest boasts itself as being one of the most accurate but it is also not cheap. If you are tight on funds, I would recommend an elimination diet at first & speaking with your doctor.
Whew! That was a lot of info. I hope this article helps you get on track with what could potentially be holding you back from your results. 🙂