Reasons You Are Not Losing Weight In A Caloric Deficit

June 19, 2021 9 min read

Reasons You Are Not Losing Weight In A Caloric Deficit

It can be super frustrating when you are working hard towards your goals and not seeing the change that you desire - or as fast as you would like. 

However, there are some things that everyone needs to consider on their journey especially if you’re working to lose weight. 

First off, we have to understand that weight loss is not linear.  There will be days where your scale weight goes up, just like there will be days where your weight will drop, and there will also be days (maybe even weeks) where your weight will stay exactly the same. However, that does not mean that you are not making progress as you may still be changing body composition, losing inches, maintaining or gaining muscle, and losing fat.  It is important to take into account all aspects of change that the body may experience, which is why we recommend comparing things like your body composition metrics (tape measurements), body fat percentage if you have access to an InBody or Dexa scan and your progress photos! 

As you can see from the graph, the overall trend is going down - and that's what matters. The overall, long-term weight loss.

Let's talk about the top 10 reasons that you may not be losing weight in a caloric deficit as there are some things that need to be considered outside of fat loss versus weight loss, and things you can evaluate if you aren’t seeing progress you think you should be seeing. 

  • Consistency and Impatience - Everyone knows the saying “you didn’t gain the weight overnight, don’t expect to lose it overnight”, right? We need to understand that this is a journey, and patience is key. We can pull different levers to improve progress and achieve better results, but we cannot force results and we must keep health in mind.

  • The people who have this “fast fat loss” mentality are also the ones who tend to gain it back after the diet ends, or quit entirely after a few weeks. Aggressive dieting may work, but this mentality also encourages diets which, a) won’t be sustainable in the long-term, and b) don’t help you build the habits that allow you to maintain the loss in the long run.

  • BLTs + Inaccurate Tracking - Bites, Licks and Tastes… this is very common when we review food logs with our clients and ask further questions. We often hear “I only had a bite of the cookie my friend brought to work” - this is better than the whole cookie for sure, but when it doesn’t get tracked, it can be the difference between a calorie deficit or maintenance calories. If there are multiple ones throughout the day, or each day of the week, these bites, licks and taste could be throwing off your day by 200-300 calories.  Note: if you’re a mom, you know this all too well with your kids' food :) a taste of mac n cheese, lick of their ice cream and, of course, a bite of PB+J now and then… those all add up.

    Tracking accuracy also matters, are we weighing out our food and tracking everything or are we guesstimating portion sizes? For something like leafy greens it may not be that big of a deal - but for calorie dense foods such as peanut butter, steak, pasta, granola, etc. we want to ensure we are weighing these things out in grams or ounces on a food scale to be as accurate as possible. Additionally, we want to search and track things exactly as they are cooked, i.e. ‘5 ounces plain chicken breast, cooked’ is going to give us a lot of different calories and macros than a generic entry like ‘1 chicken breast.’ 

  • Metabolic Adaptation - A major reason we see people’s fat loss come to a halt, even when they’re eating in a calorie deficit, is simply due to the adaptive component of the metabolism. While we refer to the metabolism as one entity, it consists of four separate components: BMR, NEAT, EAT, and TEF. Learn more as we have talked about this extensively before in our blog HERE

  • The problem is that diet culture makes us think going on a calorie deficit means starving ourselves and eating the bare minimum, which can be damaging to the body in a number of ways.

    A short summary of metabolic adaptation: Your body is always trying to achieve homeostasis - so when we go into a caloric deficit for long periods of time, or go extreme by only eating 1000-1200 calories, your body assumes that you are in a state of famine and it will compensate by trying to close the gap of calories burned so it slows down other functions in the body to conserve energy. Here, your body may start holding on to fat OR even driving weight gain to do its job of conserving energy because it doesn’t know when the famine state will end. Your metabolism slows down and you lose muscle, making you burn fewer calories at rest.

  • Not Periodizing Your Fat Loss - If you are experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, decreased immunity, hair loss, constipation, poor sleep, mood swings, depression, and you are in a large deficit, then you are likely under-eating. These are tell tale biofeedback signs that it is time to take a diet break, you can learn more about biofeedback HERE

  • The cliff notes of diet periodization is cycling in and out of fat loss phases. There are many ways this can be done but we don’t recommend more than about ~10-12 weeks of a ‘cut’ - eating in a caloric deficit - and we only recommend doing this 2-3 times per YEAR at most. This is where it may be necessary to work with a coach who can help you do this and help you understand when and why it is time to take a refeed week, maintenance week or longer break from the deficit. When we say ‘diet break’ we do not mean that all your habits, tracking and goals go out the window - we simply mean we are increasing calories intentionally to signal the body that we are not in a state of famine and we can continue losing weight in a healthy way by maintaining good biofeedback and offset muscle loss. 

    The hard truth that many people with big weight loss goals struggle to accept is that we should not constantly be in a deficit - even if we aren’t at our ‘goal weight’ yet. We should spend most of our year in maintenance. Again, that does not mean that you won’t continue to see progress, in fact our clients see better progress with this method because we aren’t constantly taxing the body with the stress of a deficit. 

    Questions to ask yourself:
    How long have you been in the deficit [consistently]? How extreme is your deficit?
    Are you in a moderate deficit of 500-700 calories, or extreme?
    What negative biofeedback symptoms are you experiencing?

    Have you taken any breaks? Refeed days? Or have you just continued to cut more calories and add more cardio?

    The body can only go so long in a fat loss phase and take so much stress before it responds negatively and sends signals as symptoms that it is time to pull out of the deficit.

  • Diet Foods + Processed foods - You are using too many processed ‘diet foods’ and not enough fruits, veggies, protein and healthy fats. 

  • A huge part of healthy living and weight loss comes from the amounts and types of food that you eat on a daily basis. Being in a caloric deficit should not mean that you can keep eating pizza, white bread, insane amounts of cheese, sodas, and burgers everyday. If you want to optimize your results, you should be eating one ingredient, unprocessed whole foods. This also includes eating enough protein! This is where many people struggle as well. Not sure how much protein you should eat? Learn more HERE in our blog. 

    Weight loss and healthy living is a lifestyle that requires sacrifice and dedication. Instead of all the low fat, highly processed foods that are non nutrient dense and made of artificial things, swap them out for healthier options such as leafy greens, fruits, complex carbs (oats, sweet potatoes and whole grains), lean meats, legumes and wild caught fish that are high in Omega-3s. Remember that even after switching to healthier food options, you should maintain a calorie deficit and keep working out for effective and sustainable weight loss.

  • Not enough NEAT - Non exercise activity naturally slows down when we remove energy (calories). We may not notice it, but our natural drive to go for a walk typically slows down if we are not intentionally hitting 10K steps every day. We also fidget, blink and move less. NEAT is one lever that we can easily pull in a fat loss phase, learn more HERE about the importance of non exercise activity and easy ways you can add more non stressful movement into your daily routine.

  • SLEEP!  When was the last time you got a full 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night for a whole week? Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep patterns also may prevent weight loss despite a calorie deficit. Adults require at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night; however, many do not often get this.

  • A study done in 2017 showed that individuals on a weight loss program with high sleep variability lost less weight and experienced less of a reduction in BMI (body mass index) than those with a regular sleep pattern (source). If you are looking to reduce your waistline, you might also consider sleeping for seven to nine hours each night.

    It should be noted that even when you do not reduce your food intake but sleep more, you are likely to lose weight, while less sleep, even on a calorie deficit, prompts the release of cortisol which in turn tells your body to hold on to fat (source).

    Learn more about how our circadian rhythm impacts our weight HERE.

  • Stress - Again this is another topic we have written about before as high levels of stress leads to high levels of cortisol which is one reason you may not be seeing the progress you want. Read more in our blog HERE on cortisol.

    The body senses stress in many ways, and it doesn’t know the difference between a traumatic event or a lower level type stress that is caused by problems at work, toxic home environment, nagging neighbors, or rude waiters. The stress response in the body is the same for all types of stress. Besides making you upset, frustrated, worried, feeling anxious or tired, stress can hinder your weight loss progress! While you might be doing all the right things, i.e. eating well and exercising; excessive or chronic stress levels may hinder your weight loss. When you are always stressed, your body tends to produce cortisol at a much higher level than normal.

    Cortisol plays a role in how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, thus, chronically elevated cortisol levels due to stress may lead the body to turn food into stored fat instead of utilizing it for energy.

  • Hormonal Shifts and Chronic Disease - First, let us say that these are very real and valid reasons you may not be seeing the results you want. However, it is possible to overcome these things and reach your goals. We cannot simply just ‘blame our hormones,’ but there are seasons, especially for women, that will impact how our body responds to fat loss.

  • Certain health conditions can affect fat loss capabilities of the body. Some of these things include perimenopause, postmenopause, insulin resistance, PCOS, or autoimmune conditions such as hypothyroidism.

    If you’re sticking to your diet, training hard and still not losing weight, you may want to consider working with a professional to help you understand what the root cause may be and always consult with your doctor to make sure you don’t have any underlying health conditions.

    These seasons can be tough and feel like a huge barrier, but there are plenty of levers that can be pulled and things you can improve.

  • Last but not least - You Need To Take A Break From Dieting. Hopefully you understand by now, after all we have covered, that sometimes we need to take a break from the calorie deficit and live in maintenance for a while, especially if your biofeedback is poor and you find yourself struggling to adhere consistently. Most people who are stuck in the perpetual state of dieting are just spinning their wheels and sometimes causing more dysfunction in the body. It can also lead to muscle loss as the longer you stay in a calorie deficit, the more you risk muscle loss. This is why you should be phasing periods of dieting with periods of maintenance or a slight calorie surplus as we mentioned.

  • The other piece we see with a lot of chronic dieting is fear of foods and disordered eating. The harder we swing the pendulum one way, the harder we end up swinging it the other way and this leads to a cycle of restrict-binge-restrict for some people. One can only sustain a calorie-restricted diet for so long. The longer you restrict calories, the more likely you are to end up bingeing, and then feel guilty about your binge, try to restrict calories again — through unsustainable methods — and then binge again when you can’t adhere to it. So, the best thing to do is to pull out of the deficit and focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods.

    Working with someone to help you overcome your fear of foods, learn to moderate the things you enjoy and find balance that suits both your lifestyle and your health goals.

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