"Why Am I Not Losing Weight?"
You have been on a strict diet for weeks now but you are stuck asking yourself: "why am I not losing weight anymore?"
It's likely not your diets fault...
The problem lies when calculating your calorie maintenance level. We view calorie maintenance as a static number by estimating our daily / weekly activity. Because of that our diet starts to fail us when we stray away from our calculations for activity.
Let's take a look at an example of what your current diet might look like and answer the questions "why am I not losing weight anymore?" with a couple of solutions.
But first let's cover some of the basic principles of dieting and energy balance.
Think of weight loss as a simple equation:
If calorie intake is GREATER than calories burned we will GAIN weight.
When calorie intake is the SAME as calories burned we will MAINTAIN weight.
If calorie intake is LOWER than calories burned we will LOSE weight.
With that in mind we can calculate how to lose weight by tracking our calorie intake. But first we must work backwards and base our intake off our daily energy expenditure / calories burned. There are multiple easy to use energy expenditure calculators online that will consider your age, body composition and activity level to estimate how many calories you should consume per day to maintain weight.
Let's say for example your estimated calorie intake for maintaining weight is 2,500 kcal per day. From that it would be sensible to aim for 2,200 kcal per day for weight loss. Remember if calorie intake is LOWER than calories burned we will LOSE weight!
Now let's keep that in mind and look at an example for the current diet you might be on...
current diet approach
In the image below we start the week off well by going to the gym. Wednesday arrives and work is taking over but we maintain some activity by walking to and from meetings. Now it's Thursday and we are swamped, need to finish this work off and relax all weekend! It gets to Sunday and now we feel a little guilty so decide to clean the house and perhaps go for a walk. But throughout the whole week we have stuck to our diet of 2,200 kcal per day and yet you are left asking "why am I not losing weight?".
Does this sound and look familiar to you so far?
Energy expenditure varies greatly depending on our level of activity. When you combine exercise and daily activities such as cleaning together it can change energy expenditure by up to 2,000 kcal per day! Can you imagine burning an extra 2,000 per day? When you look into the study in more detail the massive difference is comparing sitting all day versus hard manual labor jobs. So it might be unlikely to magically burn an extra 2,000 kcal per day without a career change. With that said there is still a wide variety in energy expenditure within our regular daily lives. A range of 300 - 500 calories would be a lot more reasonable, that is still a sizeable chunk.
Going back to our weekly overview those minor changes in activity leads to a fluctuation in our energy expenditure. That means the calories required for maintenance is a fluid number and changing depending on our activity.
If that is the case, what is the solution?
flexible dieting approach
Flexible dieting involves creating a range for your calorie deficit. Instead of aiming for 2,200 kcal per day you would now set a target of 1,800 - 2,200 kcal. Let's take a look at how that works, notice the activity level is the same as before. But where we had 3 days of being in a calorie surplus we now just have 1 (which is fine we all need a cheat day now and again!).
Quite simply it works by recognizing the day you are having and adapting your diet to meet the requirements. If you’ve been busy (or lazy) aim for the lower end of the range. Exercising hard and need to refuel? Then aim for the upper end of the range.
In theory this method works perfectly. In practice you might have a few issues with anticipating a busy day. Or if you normally go to the gym in the evening you might spend all day eating in preparation and then deciding not to go at the last minute. These things happen and the important thing is that you don't let it derail you diet and progress. There is still a few things you can do to get flexible dieting to work for you:
One way is to base your daily intake off your activity level from yesterday. This is a reactive approach and while technically your intake and expenditure for each day would not match up closely, over the course of a week you would be in a calorie deficit. Let's say you went to the gym today, tomorrow you would aim for 2,200 kcal (or your upper range). You may eat to your upper range but sit on the couch all day, well tomorrow you aim for 1,800 kcal.
The second approach is more proactive. Aim for your lower range of 1,800 kcal every day and reward yourself based on your activity. This can be challenging if you have recurring days of low activity.
Both methods will move you away from asking "why am I not losing weight anymore?" to "how much should I eat today?". This is a step in the right direction to continued weight loss.
This is easier said than done but make a conscious effort to increase your activity level. Whether that is extra workouts or doing more household tasks, they will all contribute to greater energy expenditure. This pushes the number of calories required for maintenance much higher. Therefore being in a calorie deficit for weight loss is much easier.
It goes without saying that exercise works best here. Weightlifting, HIIT and fitness classes can burn a massive number of calories for your time. But what if you lack the time? Well Tabata, a method of HIIT, takes just 4 minutes and can burn more calories than an hour on the treadmill. This requires maximal effort but it could be a great way to tire you out at the end of your day. Other methods of HIIT typically take up to 20 minutes but burn more calories or have more components of fitness involved. More components means more health benefits but that's not what we are here for. Right now we are just here to answer the questions "why am I not losing weight?". For us all that matters is that HIIT or other exercise creates more energy expenditure to allow our strict diet to remain under maintenance.