It is commonly known that burning more calories than you consume over time can move the needle on the scale. They say shifting into a “caloric deficit” can promote weight loss, but how come after months of trying, so many people have the same question: “Why am I not losing weight in a calorie deficit?” Read on to learn more about the nuances of weight loss and how just counting calories may not be enough to achieve your desired body composition.
The body gets its energy from calories consumed daily. It either burns or stores calories based on the body’s energy needs. To keep all systems of the body functioning throughout the day and night, calories must be continuously used as fuel. The rate at which the body burns calories (outside of fitness or activities) is called the resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is a measurement of how many calories the body burns in a 24-hour period while at rest. It is scientifically believed that consuming less calories than burned promotes weight loss, this is not the experience of a lot of people struggling with unwanted pounds.
Is “calories in – calories out” a myth?
“Calories in – calories out” has always been the general rule of thumb preached for weight loss. However, in many cases, it is not that simple. There are more systems in the body than just the mechanism that controls how calories are burned and stored based on food intake. If it were that simple, every diet would be successful. Turns out, more than 80% of diets fail. It takes willpower and consistent daily habits to stay on a diet, but even with the strictest mindset, if the body is not supported holistically throughout its journey to lose weight, it will be difficult to keep weight off in the long-run.
The truth is, there are more factors involved with weight loss than just limiting calorie consumption.
Reasons why you are in a calorie deficit but are not losing weight
All systems of the body work in sync with each other, which means if one is thrown off, it is likely that others may be, too. Let’s take the sleep cycle as an example. There is clear evidence that lack of sleep and poor-quality sleep affect the metabolism.1 Research indicates that only a few days of restricted sleep alters how the body metabolizes fat and how satiated we are after eating. Meaning, the less sleep you get, the harder it is for the body to metabolize fat and the more we want to eat.
Stress works in similar ways, as mental health is very much connected to physical health. When the body experiences chronic (long-term) stress, this can lead to dietary overconsumption, increased visceral adiposity (fat gain around the organs), and weight gain, studies have shown.2 Even when calories are limited, if sleep is non-existent and the body has high stress levels, the scale is likely to budge.
Other internal factors may affect how the body uses energy (aka burns daily calories), including gut health and hormone levels. Microbes found within the gut as a part of the body’s “microbiome” play a large role in glucose metabolism, appetite and fat storage.3 When the microbiome is thrown off, commonly referred to as “gut dysbiosis,” this can affect how the body uses – or doesn’t use – energy from calories.
Hormones also control metabolism in a profound way. Not only are most hormones produced in the intestines (even more reason to support gut health), but they control cell function and signaling to alert our brain to eat more or less, or to store or burn fat. Hormone imbalances and dysregulation can be the result of chronic stress, lack of sleep, and exposure to environmental toxins even if calories are controlled.
Dehydration is another factor that can contribute to a weight loss stalemate. Drinking enough water each day can help support the metabolism and help weight come off faster. Feeling dehydrated can actually cue the brain to eat more calories as the body dips in energy due to a lack of water. It has been shown that drinking water leads to a process called “lipolysis,” or the breakdown of fat molecules in the body.4 Reducing water intake can decrease lipolysis and signal the body to retain fat. Dehydration can also compromise gut health which directly affects the metabolism and other health indicators.
There are many theories to how many calories the body needs each day, and most of the time this information is found within generic online calculators that do not take into account each person’s unique complexities or lifestyles. Even so, many people rely on what they read on the internet as truth, and therefore may follow daily caloric guidelines that are not appropriate for their health or goals. Oftentimes this leads to an extreme underestimation of caloric needs. Over time, eating too restrictive of a diet can cause the body to burn muscle mass for energy,5 which can compromise metabolism. Conversely, another challenge is understanding exactly how many calories are in foods to begin with. This can lead to an overestimation of calorie consumption throughout the day, and overtime, can lead to unintended weight gain.
Another reason why you may be in a calorie deficit but not losing weight could be due to a common misconception about weight distribution among different body tissues. “Losing weight” on as measured on a conventional scale means your total mass must decrease. In this case, your whole body is judged by one number, regardless of how much muscle mass or fat mass makes up that number. Typically, most weight loss efforts include a fitness component, and smart programs incorporate weight training as a way of building muscle. By simply measuring body mass on a scale, you are blind to what is really going on underneath the skin. Even though you may be sticking to an appropriate calorie intake, you are building muscle at the same time through strength training and diet. You may be reducing fat mass and building muscle mass simultaneously, but a conventional scale will not differentiate between the two: it will combine them even if you lose fat. So while the scale isn’t “budging,” you may be on the right track.
How to truly move the needle on weight loss: Know your numbers
Understanding how many calories your body needs to gain, lose or maintain weight is essential in creating a condition where your nutrition supports your body composition goals. There is only one way to know if your efforts are leading to body composition changes: understanding your RMR and getting regular and accurate body composition tests. This is achievable through a resting metabolic rate (RMR) test, which consists of a non-invasive, 10-minute breathing test to determine how many calories a day your body burns at rest outside of exercise and lifestyle activities. Body composition testing with a DEXA Scan provides an accurate and comprehensive picture of how much of your total weight is attributed to fat mass or lean muscle mass. Once you get a full sense of your body composition and RMR, you can start to set goals to lose fat and/or gain muscle to improve your health.
For most, fitness and nutrition play huge parts in changing body composition. A Nutrition Coach is a helpful resource for designing tailored meal plans that fall within your caloric threshold determined by your RMR test. They are also a source of accountability to keep you on track with your goals and encouraging other healthy habits like weight training, quality sleep, stress reduction, hydration and more. A personal trainer can also be beneficial to work with for periods of time to develop a routine personalized to your goals, whether it is lifting weights or incorporating more high-intensity workouts.
Calorie counting can seem pointless when the scale never moves. This is because there are numerous factors that affect how the body uses and stores energy, many that are unrelated to the number of calories consumed each day. Establish a foundation of healthy habits to prime your body to lose weight in a healthy way. At the same time, get to know more about your unique metabolism before choosing a daily caloric threshold. Stick to a nutrition plan consistently or seek help from a coach to start to move the needle towards your goals.