This is part two of the frequently asked question, “Why am I not losing weight?” In part one of this three-part installment, I went over why people think they are not losing weight (that usually aren’t true).
In this post, part two, I’m going to share five of the most common reasons you are most likely not losing weight.
#1 Water Retention
Note: To be clear, I’m not talking about edema. Edema is a severe medical condition. If you think you have edema, please seek immediate medical attention.
The type of water retention I’m talking about only affects vanity. It’s the stubborn layer that covers your abs, hips, and thighs. No matter how hard you train, it seems never to go away.
What Causes Water Retention?
There are three main reasons you may be retaining water:
- Elevated cortisol levels
- Sodium and potassium imbalances
- Not drinking enough water
Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of each of these points below.
#1 Elevated cortisol levels
Cortisol has become to be known as the “stress hormone,” but the hormone has more connections in the body, including its relation to low blood sugar.
It’s a hormone produced by the adrenals in response to stress and low blood sugar levels.
Almost every cell has receptors for cortisol, so its effects are countless and include influencing:
- blood sugar
- fluid retention levels
- the metabolism of food
- the central nervous system and more
Cortisol is made in the adrenal gland, and most cells have cortisol receptors. Since most human cells have cortisol receptors, it’s a hormone critical general health and well-being. Cortisol can help:
- regulate blood sugar
- control metabolism
- decrease inflammation
- help memory formulation
In this post, I’m going to focus on its effect on balancing salt and water in the body and helping control blood pressure.
Usually, cortisol does not cause water retention. On the other hand, research shows that cortisol levels increase dramatically when crash dieting. One unwanted effect is increased water retention.
This is why stress-management has become not only important to mental health, but also body composition. If spiked cortisol levels cause your body to hold to water, lower stress levels may cause you to look less bloated.
#2 Sodium and potassium imbalances.
Sodium is an essential mineral. Mostly commonly known as table salt (sodium chloride), in the body, it plays the vital role of maintaining fluid balance. It’s easy to consume sodium and the water that comes with it.
So when you eat a bunch of sodium, your cells retain water temporarily. This is why you can decrease water retention by restriction sodium intake.
Potassium plays a vital part in this equation of cellular fluid balance. Think about sodium as absorbing water and potassium as pumping it out.
If you don’t have enough potassium (pumping) then sodium and fluids are waiting to be pumped, causing you to look bloated and soft. The same goes for having too much sodium because it absorbs fluids that have to be pumped.
#3 Not drinking enough water.
Your body will adjust if you don’t give it enough water. By adjusting I mean, increase how much water you retain. When dehydrated, body mechanisms release hormones like aldosterone and vasopressin. Both increase water retention.
The causes of water retention summed up:
- You are in a calorie deficit. Most likely, a massive debt.
- You are exercising too much. It’s usually too much cardio which can elevate cortisol levels.
- You are paying attention to your potassium and sodium intake. Typically, sodiums numbers vary too much while potassium intake is too low.
- You aren’t’ drinking enough water.
#2 New to Strength Training
Newbies can lose fat and build muscle at the same time. When you are building muscle, you are also adding weight. Not just to the bar, but to the scale too.
You also weigh more because muscles store a lot of glycogen and water when you start to train them intensely.
These are the “newbie gains” that inspire and encourage some people. It’s so predictable that every personal trainer knows and uses this to their advantage. It’s fantastic when gaining weight and size is the goal.
When you want to lose weight, it’s harder to grasp the predictable reality that weight loss is unlikely during the first 3 to 6 weeks when you are eating and lifting correctly for the first time.
This is why tracking your waist measurement is more important than your weight, early on. It’s a more reliable indicator of fat loss during the beginning of a fat loss journey. When your waist is shrinking, know that you are losing fat. You don’t have to forget the scale (take your measurements) just understand you lose fat regardless of the numbers you see.
Eventually, you will see your weight drop if you have a lot of body fat to lose. You will not be able to continue losing fat and building muscle. Sooner or later, you can only do one or the other.
That’s why I regularly see clients work hard (both diet and exercise) for 2 to 3 months and only lose 5 or 6 pounds – but look dramatically different. There are variables like genetics and compliance, but you can put on a lot of muscle while losing fat – in the beginning.
Note: water retention and newbie gains are the “low hanging fruits” when it comes to not losing weight. Now, I’m going to explore why you are most likely not losing weight.
#3 Eating Too Much
I’m just going to come right out and say it:
You are not losing weight because you are overeating.
That’s it. Now let’s talk about it.
The scientific principle is called “energy balance.” It’s the fact that dictates weight loss and gain.
Energy balance is a relationship between:
- The food (energy) you eat
- The energy you expend (burn), measured in kilocalories (calories), through biological processes you need to stay alive and your exercise
Think about is like a bank account. Where money and energy are interchangeable terms.
The more energy you put into your account, the more likely you are to have an “energy surplus.” But unlikely a bank account, that stores money, your body stores surplus as body fat.
When you put less energy into your account, than you spend, you overdraft because you’ve created a negative balance (or energy deficit).
Unlike banking, where overdrafts are wrong, when the body overdrafts, you tap into your body fat storage. Actually, your body fat exists to serve as the primary energy source during periods of energy deficits so you can survive.
This is the first law of thermodynamics which is backed by countless research papers. You can’t beat it with any fad or new trend that doesn’t account for it. It’s not a theory or an idea, it’s a scientific fact based on clinical trials on metabolic research.
Now, I’m not saying it’s as simple 1 + 1 = 2. But make sure you are in an energy deficit if you want to lose weight.
It’s still more complicated than that. To lose weight successfully, you need a net energy deficit over a specified period of time. Let’s take 10 pounds, for example.
There’s about 3,000 to 3,500 calories worth of energy in a pound of fat (this is up for debate, but I’m not going there).
So, you need to lose 30,000 to 35,000 calories of body fat by burning more calories than you eat, over a period of time.
Most people eat about 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. If you want to keep your quality of life by not cutting your food intake, you can see it will take a while to lose 10 pounds.
As they say, the devil is in the details. Here are the details…
Best case scenario:
- You eat 500 fewer calories than you burn daily, for weeks on end.
- That is a 3,500 calorie deficit for the week. Simple math means you’ll lose 10 pounds in 8 to 10 weeks.
A more realistic scenario:
- You eat 500 fewer calories than you burn Monday through Friday.
- Then you eat 500 calories more than you burn on the weekends (both Saturday and Sunday).
- Now you have a weekly calorie deficit of 1,500 calories (instead of 3,500), which means you will need about 20 weeks (or 5 months) to lose 10 pounds.
The “I fell off the bandwagon” scenario:
- You eat 500 fewer calories than you burn weekly, for three weeks.
- Then you “fall off” for a week and eat 10,000 more calories than you burn.
- While you calorie deficit was 10,500, it’s not only at 500. Which means you are basically starting all over again.
For the sake of explanation, I reduced weight loss and gain down to simple math. It’s not this predictable because of other factors like genetics, body composition, hormones, and the thermic effect of food. But, this is basically how it works.
Weight loss takes time because it’s cumulative. Each calorie burned is one step towards your goal, as long as it puts you into an energy deficit. And every calorie above your calorie deficit is a step in the wrong direction.
This is the physiology of weight loss. Let’s dig into a couple of more reason why you aren’t losing weight.
#4 Not Burning Enough Calories
Now you know what happens when you do not create a significant enough energy deficit over time.
How does it look when you don’t burn enough calories over one week, month, quarter, or a year?
I’m going to give you another example, with simple math.
Let’s pretend you have been exercising and eating for one month, but still, haven’t lost any weight. Let’s also say we know exactly how many calories you have burned that month – 82,000
How much would you weigh if you eat the following amounts:
- 78,000 = one pound
- 73,000 calories = 2.5 pounds
- 69,000 calories = 3.5 pounds
- You get the idea…
So why didn’t you lose any weight?
Apparently, you ate more closely to 82,00 calories than you thought if you didn’t lose any weight.
And what happened if you gained weight?
You ate, significantly, more than 82,000 calories.
Again, this is not a real-world scenario. Energy balance, calories in and calories out, are never this perfect. But I think you get the point. While the number of calories consumed and burned might vary, the mechanisms behind weight loss and gain remain the same.
If you are not losing weight, you might be mismanaging your energy balance. Here’s a couple of ways people mess this up:
#1 “Listening” to your body goes wrong
It’s hard to estimate how many calories you are actually eating.
People routinely underestimate portion sizes, think foods have fewer calories than they do, rely on inaccurate measurements, and sometimes, flat out lie to themselves about how much they actually eat.
This is why so many people like diets with rules and restrictions. It takes care of the “numbers” by making sure people eat less than usual.
You can lose weight without counting calories, but it usually takes more time. So, if you need to lose weight fast – it’s not the best way. But, if you are making a lifestyle change, it’s more enjoyable if you can handle the slower progress.
Unless you are already lean or have a strict timeline, you don’t need track every calorie.
#2 Counting calories goes wrong.
You can screw up counting calories in plenty of ways.
Did you know food manufacturers are allowed to under-report calories on labels by as much as 20% and still pass FDA inspections? You better believe they use this to their advantage.
I know what you are thinking – what if you don’t eat pre-packaged or processed foods, right?
People screw up when measuring. Here’s an example:
You are going to eat a healthy snack: a homemade yogurt parfait (yogurt, oatmeal, peanut butter, and blueberries). You use measuring cups and spoons for everything:
- Half of a cup of yogurt
- One cup of oatmeal
- One tablespoon of peanut butter
- Half of a cup of blueberries
And just like that, you have eaten a couple hundred more calories than you thought.
How? Simple. Here’s how it happened:
- That cup of dry oats (100 grams) was 379 calories instead of the 307 calories on the label because it assumes 81 grams of dry oats per cup. That’s 72 more calories than you thought.
- That tablespoon of peanut butter (21 grams) was 123 calories, but you counted only 94 because your calorie counter uses 16 grams of peanut butter as one serving.
See what’s happening? These errors occur meal after meal, and you think you’re sticking to your plan. It’s easy to be unaware that you actually ate hundreds of calories you didn’t count.
If you add this up day after day, for weeks, and even months, it’s easy to see why you aren’t losing weight.
There are wrong and right ways to count calories
You have two choices:
- Count calories (and you just saw how misleading that may be)
- Don’t count calories (here’s what I recommend for most of my clients – do this instead)
When you read “cheat” you might assume I’m talking about “cheat meals” or even “cheat days” when you plan to eat “bad” foods – I’m not. I’m using the term “cheat” to denote whenever to cancel your calorie deficit by overeating.
You can overeat with broccoli and bananas or coke and candy (even though former is much harder to overeat, duh).
Here are three common mistakes I see when cheating:
Cheat #1: cheating too frequently
Remember how I started point #3 (overeating)? It gives you the bird’s eye view of how calories relate to weight loss.
You now know, overeating just a few times a month can cancel your calorie deficit. When cheating a few times a week, weight loss can slow down to a halt.
I’m only talking about cheat meals, not cheat days.
Indulging in cheat days is a recipe for falling off the bandwagon and possibly weight gain. If you were to eat, whatever you wanted for a day, you could quickly erase all your hard work from the prior week.
Cheat #2: eating too many calories or dietary fat
It’s hard for one meal to do a lot of damage unless you go all out.
One way to do this is to eat, even one meal, that is very high in dietary fat (which goes right along with total calories).
Since dietary fat is similar to body fat, chemically, it does not require much energy to convert (about 0 and 2 %). This is why eating high-fat meals lead to more fat storage than meals high in carbohydrate, immediately.
Cheat #3: drinking alcohol
Good news: alcohol is not stored as body fat. Bad news: alcohol blocks fat oxidation. This means your body stores dietary fat as body weight faster. So what are you having with that red wine? Cheese, chocolate, and even extra virgin olive oil all fit the bill for foods higher in dietary fat.
It’s the food you eat because of drinking that makes you fat. Whether you can’t resist eating when you hammered or hungover, included alcohol as a cheat is a recipe for gaining fat.
I hope you learned something from this second installment of the frequently asked question, “Why am I not losing weight?”
In the final installment, part three, I’m going to go over five questions you should ask yourself if you are not losing weight fast enough. The answers will help you identify obstacles to your goal by getting you back on track before you fall off and have to start all over again.
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