If you’re eating in a calorie deficit and training hard but still not losing fat, here are 8 reasons explaining what might be going on.
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Remember last year when I wrote this telling you the reason you weren’t losing fat was because you’re eating too damn much (even when you don’t think you are), and most of you were like:
Some were like:
And there were some of these:
Well, sometimes you can be eating in a calorie deficit and still not be losing fat.
But, wait, you said…
Yes, I know what I said. In that article I was discussing the calories in half of the equation. But there’s also a calories out half.
This is where it gets a bit tricky – 5000ish words worth of tricky to be exact. See, while the calories in is pretty simple: you eat food. The calories out is a bit more complicated and multifaceted.
Your body is pretty good at regulating your body weight, and while it’s ok with you getting fat, it doesn’t take too well to you losing fat. This is why even when you’re being diligent with your calorie deficit, you may find your fat loss has come to a standstill.
Don’t worry though, I got you. Here are 8 reasons you’re not losing fat even when eating in a calorie deficit.
Let me share with you a conversation I have all the time.
So, yeah. I have that conversation pretty much all the time. And it’s one of the biggest reasons why so many people don’t make any progress: a lack of patience.
This is why.
When you first start your fat loss diet you see fast results and are super motivated. These initial results give you a false sense of what the process will actually be like. Soon, progress slows down as you enter what I call “The Suck”: that period of time where you’re doing everything right but still no progress is, seemingly, being made.
This is where you freak out and:
And then you give up because you’re an asshole who doesn’t believe me when I tell you that you need to give it more time.
If you had given it time, this is what would’ve happened.
That’s right, progress.
You can’t force fat loss. The only thing you can do is coax your body to drop fat by eating in calorie deficit and training. SO. Firstly:
Calm the fuck down and be patient. You didn’t get out of shape in a week, you’re not getting in shape in a week. 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. Not because aggressive dieting doesn’t work, but because this mentality encourages the use of fad diets that, a) won’t be sustainable in the long-term, and b) doesn’t help you build the habits that allow you to maintain the loss in the long run. Aa
Now that’s out the way, the second thing we should probably discuss is how fast you should be expecting to lose fat. This depends on how much fat you have to lose. The higher your starting levels of body fat, the faster you can expect to lose; conversely, the leaner you start, a slower rate of loss will be best to minimise muscle and strength loss.
With that in mind: set fat loss targets between 0.5 – 1% of your total bodyweight per week. The benefit of using percentages is the rate of loss automatically scales with your bodyweight.
For example: Someone who weighs 250 lbs can expect to lose~1.25 -2.5lbs per week. Conversely, someone who weighs 160 lbs, will aim to lose ~0.8 – 1.6lbs per week.
This leads on from the previous point. And it’s when you do this.
Look. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you shouldn’t compare your progress to others because we all do it. Just know the more you look at other people and what they’re doing, the more likely you are to jump from programme to programme; diet to diet and never make any progress of your own.
You don’t know what someone else’s circumstances are. Maybe they’re genetically superior, and regardless of what they do they get results; maybe they’re on drugs; maybe they’ve been training every day for the past twenty years.
Seek out advice and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to try things, but, ultimately, you need to pick something and give it time – remember that whole thing about patience? – focus on what you’re doing and not what everyone else is.
A major reason people’s fat loss comes to a halt even when 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.
- BMR: As you’re sat reading this there are a bunch of chemical processes occurring inside of you like, your brain using calories to process this article, your eyes flicking from the phone screen to the pretty girl sat opposite, simultaneously making your heart beat faster as she stares back. Believe it or not, all of this stuff burns calories and is your BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate. BMR makes up the chunk of your metabolism and accounts for around 60-70% in most people.
- NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is all the activity that isn’t intentional exercise; fidgeting, walking, playing with your dog, etc. NEAT accounts for around 30% of total energy expenditure, but can be higher for certain people depending on how intensive their job is.
- EAT: Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is intentional exercise. Depending on what sort of exercises you perform, the number of calories you burn can vary. For example, strength training would burn fewer calories than an hour of running. EAT accounts for around 10-15% of calorie expenditure for most people, which is why it’s almost impossible to out-train your diet.
- TEF: Thermic Effect of Food is the number of calories you burn digesting food. Even though TEF accounts for only 5-10%, it still factors into energy expenditure.
Fat loss impacts each of these to some degree.
1. BMR: A smaller body burns fewer calories
Your BMR is dictated by your size: the bigger you are (weight, height, muscle, body fat, etc.), the higher your base calorie needs, conversely, the lighter you are the lower your calorie needs. This is why, on average, men require more calories than women.
As you lose fat and become leaner, you’re decreasing your body size and resultantly your calorie needs also decrease.
You need to make adjustments to your calorie intake. This sounds complicated, but it really isn’t.
Firstly: you need data to track changes.
- Weigh yourself daily, in the morning, after using the bathroom and before eating breakfast.
This will give you your most accurate weight. After you have a week’s worth of data, find the average weigh-in for the week.
Like so: you weigh yourself every day for seven days:
Mon – 176.1lbs
Tues – 174.6lbs
Wed – 174.3lbs
Thurs – 174.3lbs
Fri – 174.1lbs
Sat – 172.5lbs
Sun – 175.5lbs
The average weigh-in for the week is 174.4lbs [add up the seven days worth of weigh-ins and divide by 7 to get the average].
Why the weekly average?
Your weight will fluctuate day to day depending on a host of different factors as the table below illustrates.
The table shows three weeks worth of weekly weigh-ins and the weekly averages in red text below. Note the day to day fluctuations in weight (yellow highlights), but also note that the weekly averages are going down week on week. This is why it’s important to keep track of your weekly averages over time because they provide a much better picture of how your weight is trending.
Weigh-ins are only one piece of the puzzle and, as I illustrated above, are going to fluctuate. Thus, not always an accurate reflection of weight loss. Keeping track of your body measurements will help give you something to compare your weigh-ins to and help you decide if you should adjust or not. Take measurements once per week, under the same conditions as the weigh-in (in the morning, after using the bathroom and before eating breakfast).
- Progress Photos
Keeping weekly progress photos will also provide objective data for you to base changes on. See this for how to take progress photos. And watch this video where I discuss all of the above three in detail.
Secondly: On starting your diet don’t make any adjustments for the first 4 weeks.
The body takes some time to ‘catch up’ to the deficit. Waiting 4 weeks when you first set the deficit will allow enough time for you to really gauge what’s happening.
Alright. Let’s assume you’ve done all of the above, you’ve set the deficit, waited 4 weeks, and fat loss really has come to a halt. How do you make the adjustment?
Easy: Reduce calorie intake by 5-10%.
So, if you’re starting calorie intake was 2500 calories, you’d reduce this by 125-250 calories.
Where should the adjustments come from?
This is where people get confused: should you cut carbs, fats, or protein?
- Don’t touch protein intake or you’ll die. Ok, you won’t but, seriously, leave protein as it is.
Carbs or fats?
This is going to be your call. But here are some suggestions:
- If you’re following a higher carb diet, reduce carb intake. This reduction would be anywhere between 30 to 60 grams of carbs (1 gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories. 125/4 = 30, 250/4 = 60)
- If you’re following a higher fat or Ketogenic diet, reduce fat intake. There are 9 calories in a gram of fat, so the reduction would be anywhere between 13 to 27 grams of fat.
- If you are following a higher carb diet, don’t let your fat intake drop below 15% of total calories. Because #health.
After your first adjustment, keep an eye on your weekly average weight, measurements, and progress photos. Wait 2-3 weeks, If things look like they’re stalling, make another 5-10% reduction.
2. NEAT: People expend less energy
The second part of the metabolism that takes a hit with the length of the deficit is NEAT.
Quick aside: Note I’ve written ‘the length of the deficit’ and not ‘calorie intake’. Many people believe that low calories will affect their strength and energy, this is only true when you combine low calorie intake with long periods of time.
Simply: people begin to move around less (2,3). Not surprising considering low calories will, inevitably, lead to decreased energy and increased lethargy, which leads to massive reductions in the number of calories expended.
It appears that with weight gain, NEAT increases, and with weight loss, NEAT decreases (4). To tackle the issue, simply set a target number for movement outside of the gym– like walking – to aim for.
You can either:
- Choose time: “40 minutes of light walking every day”, or
- Step count: “10,000 steps per day”
Doing this will help ensure you’re keeping your total daily energy expenditure somewhat consistent. This also encourages the Eat More–Move More mindset, which I’m a fan of. And there’s sound research (5,6) on its efficacy over its more popular, Eat Less– Move More counterpart.
3. TEF: as you’ll be eating less food, the number of calories you burn through eating and digestion will also be lower.
4. EAT: A smaller body burns fewer calories, so you’ll be burning fewer calories through exercise.
Dieting (and exercise) is a form of stress on the body. And the longer you diet, the more this stress increases. When stress is elevated for a long period of time, the stress hormone cortisol increases and as a result, people start retaining water.
Water retention tends to be more prominent among women. Here’s an example of my female client. The two photos are one week apart.
You can see the huge difference from one photo to the next. If I hadn’t captioned these photos, you might think she’d lost body fat but really it was just water retention. Water retention ‘masks’ fat loss and people falsely assume they’re not losing fat even in a calorie deficit, or worse, they’re gaining body fat – cue the “metabolic damage” news stories.
This is a very simple diagram illustrating the last paragraph.
The red line represents scale weight and the green line represents the actual fat loss. You can see that due to water retention scale weight remains stagnant but fat loss is still occurring. While water retention can be frustrating and a total mindfuck, it’s not permanent.
- Chill the fuck out.
If you’re going through a particularly stressful moment in your life, maybe dieting down to 8% body fat isn’t the best idea; maybe it’s better if you simply focus on maintaining until the stressful period is over. Conversely, running a high volume or ‘strength’ phase during stressful periods will only hinder your progress and increase the chance of injury.
All of that to say, if you’re chronically stressed you’re going to find it harder to lose fat and build muscle. Here are some things that can help.
– Meditation: This is where I pretend like I meditate so I don’t come across as a hypocrite. Truth is, I hate meditation. I’d rather fight a pack of Direwolves with my bare hands than sit around meditating. I tried it. I hated it. I’m not gonna do it, regardless of the benefits. BUT. The evidence on meditation is pretty solid, it works. And some crazy motherfuckers even enjoy it. Whatever man. If you want to give meditation a go, more power to you. I wrote about my experience here.
– Walking: This is my version of meditation. I love walking. I try to get 30 minutes every morning. I purposefully leave my phone at home and use this time to think about things, reflect, and all that other good stuff.
– Massage: Getting a massage once a month can do wonders for your stress levels.
– Have sex.
– Don’t write 3000+ word articles. No, but seriously.
- PHASE the Diet.
I wrote about phasic dieting in detail here, so go read that. But here’s the Twitter summary:
Take 1-2 weeks off the diet by increasing calories – mainly through carbs – to a maintenance intake or slightly higher to help reduce stress and drop water.
A few more points of note on water and fat loss.
• Water retention and tracking for females.
Due to the menstrual cycle, women can see some pretty crazy fluctuations in weight. This can become frustrating because, a) it makes it harder to gauge if you’re actually losing fat, and, b) it can result in you making drastic changes to the diet, like cutting calories or adding in more exercise to ‘solve’ the problem which only leads to an increase in stress and the body holds onto more water.
To solve this, track weekly but compare monthly. A really simple way to do this is to have an anchor week – the week your menstrual cycle starts – and compare the anchor weeks month to month before deciding to make any changes.
– Month 1
Week 1 (average weigh-in): 130 lbs
Week 2 (average weigh-in): 131.2 lbs
Week 3 (average weigh-in): 134 lbs ⇒ Anchor week
Week 4 (average weigh-in): 132.4 lbs
– Month 2
Week 1 (average weigh-in): 131 lbs
Week 2 (average weigh-in): 130.1 lbs
Week 3 (average weigh-in): 131 lbs ⇒ Anchor week
Week 4 (average weigh-in): 131.3 lbs
In the example above, the fictitious woman has dropped 3 lbs between the two anchor weeks, and wouldn’t need to make any adjustments as she’s losing weight just fine. Had she gained weight between the two anchor weeks, it would be time to consider making adjustments to the diet.
• Carbs and Water
1g of carbohydrates comes along with 3-4g of water.
If you’ve just finished a period of low carb or ketogenic dieting and are wanting to reintroduce carbs into your diet you’re going to gain weight on the scale. As you eat more carbs, your body will also store water which will increase your weight on the scale.
Let’s say you decide to go back to a high carb diet after a period of consuming ~50g of carbs per day.
You bump carb intake to 300g which brings with it ~1200g of water. Based on these numbers, you can expect to gain somewhere between 2-4lbs (adjusted for water/salt) on the scale.
If you’ve added creatine into your diet after starting a fat loss phase, you can expect the scale to go up. Creatine does cause you to retain water but the mechanisms are completely different to stress related water retention.
This is stress related water retention:
You can see that the water appears just underneath the layer of skin. This is why when people are retaining water they’ll complain of looking ‘soft’. This is referred to as subcutaneous water retention.
This is what it looks like with creatine.
See the difference? Creatine pulls water into the muscles. This is what contributes to the ‘full’ look people often experience after supplementing with creatine. So, firstly: don’t worry about looking ‘soft’ if you supplement with creatine. And secondly, just be aware that creatine can cause your scale weight to increase. It’s not fat gain, it’s simply weight gain from the water in your muscle cells.
Certain health conditions can affect fat loss, like hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and even Menopause. Medication can also be a factor, antidepressants and birth control pills, for example, are known to cause weight gain.
If you’re sticking to your diet, training hard and still not losing fat, It’s always best to consult your doctor to make sure you don’t have any underlying health conditions you aren’t aware of.
In regards to medication and weight gain, I reached out to Dr Spencer Nadolsky, aka. The Doc Who Lifts and his advice was:
- Discuss with your doctor if there are any other options. Sometimes there are, and sometimes there aren’t.
- Understand that it may be a barrier and ACCEPT it. Work on things you CAN control.
- Some medicines may help––for example, metformin with antipsychotics. Also, sometimes appetite suppressants if the medicines are making you hungry.
Please note that I’m not a doctor so if you email me asking what seems to be medical advice, all I’m allowed to say is, ‘I’m not a doctor, please speak to your healthcare professional’.
Here’s the thing: you don’t want to lose weight, you want to lose fat. And the two are entirely different things.
You seem lost. Let me explain.
(Body) weight is everything that makes up your body mass — things like your muscles, body fat, organs, water, bones, etc. Weight loss is easy: deplete your water levels, remove carbs from your diet …hell, stop eating altogether and you’ll lose ‘weight’. You’ll probably also die.
Fat loss is the process of losing body fat while maintaining your muscle mass and/or even gaining muscle mass.
With that in mind, there are a few key requisites to a good fat loss plan.
- Sufficient protein intake
- Engage in strength training
- A reasonable calorie deficit
So stop with the endless hours of cardio – you can’t out-train your diet, remember?– or those silly BOOTY BLASTER plyometric fuckery HIIT workouts your favourite Insta-Celeb swears is the secret to her voluptuous ass:
Because it isn’t.
Stop focusing on weight loss and start focussing on fat loss.
- Lift weights and consume adequate protein: Strength training and adequate protein consumption will conserve muscle mass and your BMR when dieting.
- Aim to lose around 0.5 – 1% of your body weight per week. In conjunction with the above, at this rate of loss, you’ll prevent or at the least, greatly minimise muscle loss.
Read this for an in-depth guide on how to set up your diet.
If you’re not losing weight, or have even started gaining weight, and you’re certain you’re eating in a calorie deficit, – certain like, you’ve read this article and made sure you’re actually not eating too much even if you think you aren’t, certain – then there’s a good chance you’re gaining muscle.
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this already but fuck it, I’m saying it again: The scale is only one tool you should be using to track progress. Tracking your body measurements, progress photos, and strength gains will be far better indicators of muscle growth.
- Body measurements: If your chest, arms, and quads measurements have increased while your stomach measurements have decreased or stayed the same, well done, you’ve gained muscle.
- Progress pics: Compare progress photos month to month to get a better idea if you’re gaining muscle. Looking bigger and/or new lines where there never use to be lines? Well done, you’ve gained muscle.
- Strength increase: Increases in strength correlate fairly well with increases in muscle size in beginners and early intermediates. If you’re in a calorie deficit, and you’re strength has, or still is, increasing, then well done, there’s a very good chance you’re gaining muscle.
This is the one nobody wants to hear. Well, fuck you. Because it isn’t about what you want to hear, it’s what you need to hear. If you’re lacking muscle mass and dieting to lose the fat you don’t have, you’re going to end up looking worse. Let’s bring back Christian Bale from his hectic filming schedule so he can illustrate what I mean.
In both photos, Bale is exhibiting the ‘ripped’ look – if we go by the standard definition of ‘exhibiting low body fat’. But what look do you prefer? I’m going to go ahead and assume the 60lb heavier Bale from Batman.
There’s one defining factor between Machinist Bale, and Batman Bale: Muscle.
The more muscle you have on your frame, the better you’re going to look when dieted down. So, if you’re lacking sufficient muscle mass, you don’t need to lose fat, you need to gain muscle.
Ladies, this applies to you too. See this.
And to teens and beginners. If you’re a teen (14-19 years old), or just starting out, unless you’re really overweight, you shouldn’t be ‘dieting’. You’re at the golden age of growth. Eat in a calorie surplus, or at the minimum of maintenance and train hard. Take advantage of this period of time to maximise your muscle growth. You’ll have enough time to diet later.
Are you a chronic dieter? You know, this:
The chronic dieter is stuck in a perpetual state of dieting. They ‘end’ a diet, only to begin dieting again a week later. This constant dieting is neither healthy or conducive to progress. With chronic dieting comes:
- Muscle loss: 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.
- Disordered eating: You 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.
- Spinning your wheels: doing the above only means you’re going to make zero progress with your goals.
If this point resonated with you, and you see these behaviours in yourself, maybe it’s time to stop dieting for a while. Raise calories up to maintenance and just focus on your training, while striving to find some normalcy.
Yes, this means you might gain some fat and not look how you want for a while. But it’s something you’re going to need to do to make progress in the future.
If you’re reading this then that means you, unlike most of the internet, don’t have an attention of a goldfish. Which I guess is a really weird compliment. So well done, I guess.
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