Unless you’re a sixteen year old boy who seems to naturally burn off more kilojoules in a day than a marathon runner, it’s likely you have had the goal of weight-loss at some point in your life. I’ve lost track of the times I have started a 12 week challenge to lose weight, or commenced a ridiculous diet that required me to eat only protein for three days, inevitably causing me to have the tolerance and mood-stability of a screaming toddler. Dieting is such a common phenomena, and statistics indicate at least 49 per cent of the adult population in the US were attempting to lose weight in 2016. Whilst there are certainly success stories of diets and weight-loss, it seems as though there are equally as many instances of diets failing, or of individual’s with the best intentions trying to lose weight but invariably seeing little to no change on the scales. There are a multitude of factors that influences a persons weight, and if you have commenced a weight-loss regime but aren’t seeing any changes, there are things you should consider before you throw in the towel and lose all hope. Here are some common reasons you might not see any weight loss.
You are losing body fat but gaining muscle
One of the most common tools we use to measure weight-loss is, obviously, a scale. They can be a useful guide to track how your goals are progressing, as they provide an objective means to assess your weight-loss. However, you have probably been told on numerous occasions that you shouldn’t rely on scales to analyse your progress, because rather than providing an indication of fat-loss, they are merely displaying your overall weight. There are a multitude of factors that influence how much you might weigh on a particular day, including water retention, the time of day you are weighing yourself, whether you have had alcohol the previous night, your menstrual cycle, and even how much salt your meal had. Sometimes it can be impossible to tell whether the reduction or increase in the number on the scales is a result of one or some of these factors, or whether true fat-loss/gain has occurred. Whilst there are ways to account for these influences, such as weighing yourself at the same time everyday and recording your weigh every day and deriving a weekly average, the scale still is not a great indication of fat-loss. If you are weighing yourself over the course of a few weeks and have been following a strength-training program, it’s possible that you have lost body fat but gained muscle, and your scales don’t measure the nuances of this body recomposition. So even if you are actually achieving your fat-loss goals, you won’t be seeing any changes on the scales.
You are over-estimating how many calories you burn during exercise, and under-estimating how many you consume
Most of us in the health and fitness world have probably experienced that feeling of elation and accomplishment after a gruelling workout. We might have gone for a massive run at the beach, or completed a vigorous F45 class that made you question for a moment if exercise was really that worth the somewhat appealing body you have maintained. It’s easy to think that because we have put in such hard work and exerted ourselves enough to drip a hideous amount of sweat, that we have burnt a significant amount of calories. Because of this belief that we’ve burnt through more calories than a an entire Rugby team at a training session, we assume that we can divulge in whatever foods we want for the remainder of the day.
I agree that it’s important to reward ourselves with delicious foods for our hard-work, and we shouldn’t avoid certain types of food because we label them as “bad”. After all, life is there to be enjoyed, and if you can’t strike a good balance between working out and consuming the foods you enjoy then it makes for a pretty miserable life for a lot of us. However, unfortunately it’s the case that we underestimate how many calories are in foods that we “treat” ourselves with after a workout, and we simply don’t burn as much calories as we assume we do. This becomes even more relevant as you engage in more exercise and lose body-fat, and we see our bodies adapt by burning less fuel naturally throughout the course of the day and as we are exercising. Perhaps we are so used to over-consuming food that we don’t actually appreciate how many calories are in certain foods, but if you are trying to lose weight it might be a good idea to at least get a vague idea of the amount of calories that are in the food you are consuming.
You are tracking calories inaccurately
If you’ve come across the plethora of fitness accounts on instagram, you have probably noticed how ubiquitous calorie-counting is as a tool for weight-loss. Whilst there’s arguments for and against the morality of counting calories because it can lead to obsessive behaviours and thoughts, it’s undeniable that weight-loss boils down to eating less energy than you are burning. So whilst it can be problematic to meticulously account for the calories you are consuming on a daily basis, if you do have a desire to reduce your body fat, then it might be necessary to track your calorie-intake even just for a short period of time. If you’re already doing this, and have been doing so for quite some time, and you are yet to see any results, the simple explanation could be that you are tracking incorrectly. If you’re anything like me, it might be that you’ve eaten half your boyfriends McDonalds chips but didn’t record these calories because, well they don’t count right? Or maybe you are using phone apps like My Fitness Pal to record your food-intake, where foods with their macronutrient breakdown are pre-programmed into the app. The issue with these apps is that often the foods are recorded incorrectly, or the serving size is different, and it can be confusing and time-consuming so you either choose the easiest option or give up altogether.
It would be concerning if your life revolved around tracking every bit of food you consumed, and many view this approach to weight-loss as restrictive and burdensome. On the other hand, arguably tracking your calories enables you to experience more freedom with your meals, because it allows you to eat the foods you want as long as it falls within your calorie limit. Therein lies the problem of your stagnant weight-loss, however, because you may have a set calorie-goal that even if you are adhering to, it might not be enough of a calorie deficit to enable any fat-loss to occur. This is particularly the case if you are relying on a fitness watch or generic calorie calculator to decide how many calories you should be consuming for weight-loss. These tools can be useful as general guide, however they don’t take into account individual differences such as dieting history and metabolic adaptation. The best way to tell how many calories you should be consuming for weight-loss is your own experience. So perhaps if you count your calories for one week and then reduce your calorie intake from 300-500 calories a day for a couple of weeks, it’s very likely you will see the change you are searching for.
You haven’t given it enough time
They say nothing worth having comes easy. Unless it’s a good book or a Maccas McFlurry which both require minimal financial-output or physical effort to obtain, but I digress. When it comes to achieving our weight-loss goals, all too often we commence a vigorous regime of highly restrictive diets and excessive exercise. We might maintain this for a week, or two weeks if we are lucky. But after the initial motivation and excitement over the prospect of immediate change diminishes, it becomes incredible easy to slip back into our old habits. Our calorie-deficit is quickly forgotten and the cycle of dieting and the attitude of “i’ll start on Monday” continues. Deep down, I think we are all aware that successful and sustainable weight-loss requires consistent hard-work over a long period of time. But our fallibility as humans get in the way, and our desire to over-consume calorie-dense foods in the moment outweighs our long-term goals for fat-loss.
Alternatively, we may simply become impatient at the slow rate of progress, desiring and expecting faster results. Unfortunately, weight-loss can often be a long process. This is particularly the case if you have only decreased your calories slightly, which I would recommend for sustainable weight-loss and a more enjoyable dieting experience. Whilst you could choose to reduce your calorie-intake by a significant amount for quicker results, it’s likely this approach won’t last long before you grow tired of feeling like crap and depleted in energy. I have tried incredibly restrictive diets in the past and rather than leading to long-term weight-loss, they just caused me to be a grumpy monster to anyone who had the unfortunate experience of being in my vicinity. This is why I advocate for only a slight reduction in calorie-intake and an increase in energy expenditure (i.e. exercise), because you’re much more likely to sustain your weight-loss whilst not feeling hungry and angry all the time. It’s important that you recognise this process isn’t a quick fix and will likely take several weeks and months, however that it is more likely to foster healthier habits and lead to long-term change.
Other medical reasons
If you have been trying to lose weight for several weeks or months and are making a concerted effort to reduce your calories and increase your exercise but still seeing no results, there might be biological factors impinging on your weight goals. There are a variety of medical conditions that can make it incredibly difficult for an individual to control the number on the scales. Conditions such as hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome, cushing’s syndrome, as well as the influence of hormonal changes may be interfering with your weight-loss goals. Whilst it’s an unlikely reason, if you have had no luck in losing weight and you’ve accounted for the above factors, it might be a good idea to attend upon your General Practitioner and have them investigate any potential biological factors that could be at play.
If you are on a weight-loss journey and are becoming increasingly impatient with your lack of results, before you verbally abuse your personal trainer it’s important to consider all of the above factors. From my observation, the most common reason why people are unsuccessful in achieving their long-term weight goals is because they either become far too restrictive with their eating and gym plan and employ an all-or-nothing approach, or they simply don’t allow enough time for weight-loss to occur. Regrettably, it’s one of those times when the hideously wanky phrase “it’s about the journey and not the destination” is highly applicable, because it’s important to focus on the process and your daily habits you implement, as opposed to the overall end-goal. If you are aiming to lose weight, then most sensible coaches advise reducing calories slightly and engaging in whatever physical activity you find enjoyable. And remember, this doesn’t mean “enjoyable” in the moment, because if I ever meet someone who derives pleasure from doing burpees then i’d immediately question their sanity. Rather, “enjoyable” means feeling a sense of elation or happiness often after the experience, and that the overall process of exercise provides a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction.