Why You Aren’t Losing Weight on a Calorie Deficit
Written by Fritz Nugent
Imagine that you are trying to lose body weight and you are eating X amount of food, are tracking daily, you think that you are in a caloric deficit (a caloric deficit is the current assumed hypothesis on what causes body weight loss, ie calories in are less than calories out, and the body decreases in mass), and yet the scale isn’t moving anywhere, or maybe even the scale is moving up. There are three most-likely explanations for this.
Caloric Deficit Not Working?
I will outline three reasons why that are common.
Caloric Intake Tracking
You aren’t tracking accurately and are eating more than you think.
Muscle Weighs More Than Fat
You are new to this, recently started weight training and are gaining muscle and losing fat simultaneously, and the net result is 0 change on the scale (this is a fantastic thing, and fairly common to new trainees).
You are undereating and your body’s in starvation mode.
What Does This Mean for You?
#1. Every single thing you eat has a caloric value, even if you aren’t counting it in your tracking. Every pat of butter, dollop of whip cream, splash of olive oil in your cooking pan counts. Even fiber, which are compounds that are indigestible by us, are digested by our gut bacteria and have effects on our health and body composition. So if you are going to track, track as accurately as you can. This does not have to be forever. I like to use tracking as a short-term check to compare your eating habits to where you think you are and where you should actually be with calorie intake and macronutrient constitution.
#2. If this is you, keep going. I would even argue that you need to eat more food! Many people like to chase weight loss. What’s more impressive than weight loss? Fat loss! You can earn fat loss without even changing the weight on the scale. If you lose three pounds of fat and gain three pounds of muscle in its place, the scale shows no change and yet your body composition significantly changes for the better AND your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) increases.
What is Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)?
The BMR is based on how much energy skeletal muscle, body fat, and your organs need on a daily basis to function. It’s a baseline number which suggests how much caloric energy your body needs at rest.
In other words, a 150 pound woman may have a BMR around 1400-1600 depending on their muscle mass. The more muscular you are, the more calories you need on a daily basis to maintain that muscle! For a 200 pound man, they may have a BMR of 1900-2100 calories.
Activity Level & BMR
Once again, the BMR is a baseline and represents the amount of daily caloric need that our bodies require IF WE SLEPT ALL DAMN DAY. So as soon as you get out of bed and go to work, you need more calories than your BMR. Some people need up to double their BMR or more, depending on their activity level during the day. So if you are gaining muscle and losing fat, keep going. Once your body’s accumulation of muscle mass slows, if you are eating the same amount of food, you will now begin to lose more fat and the scale will begin to drop. This brings us to #3.
#3. If you are truly undereating, and I do see this frequently, then your body might be in starvation mode and I guarantee you are nowhere near optimal functioning. There is a steadfast rule in the nutrition world right now that, when debated, usually leaves anyone who disagrees with it shunned and scarlet lettered. That rule is the calorie hypothesis. This suggests three avenues:
WEIGHT LOSS. Burn more calories than you consume = body weight loss. This is called a caloric deficit, or a hypocaloric state.WEIGHT MAINTENANCE. Burn the same amount of calories that you consume = body weight maintenance. This is called caloric balance, or a eucaloric state.WEIGHT GAIN. Burn less calories than you consume = body weight gain. This is called a caloric surplus, or a hypocaloric state.
Eating Below Your BMR
When someone under-eats by a decent margin, what I have observed is that their body’s subconscious desire to move and expend energy decreases quite a bit. So even if you are under-eating below your BMR (you should never do this, even when you desire to lose body weight and body fat), your body may downregulate energy expenditure to a rate equal to or below your consumed calories. This may drive you into a eucaloric (maintenance) state where you don’t lose body weight even though you are eating below your assumed expended daily energy.
And since muscle mass takes more energy to conserve than fat mass, if you chronically underfeed your body, you may maintain the same body weight and your body may swap muscle for fat to help balance the energy equation. So now that you have less muscle mass and more body fat, you’re still the same weight on the scale, and are fatter. Think skinny-fat. And here’s the real shitty kicker: muscle is denser than body fat, meaning that you may be the same weight on the scale BUT now your clothes are fitting tighter because you are less dense. You’re fluffy.
Everything about this equation is wrong, at least compared to people’s goals to gain muscle and lose body fat. This is no way to eat. If you are anorexic or bulimic, please don’t think that I am targeting you here. I’m not. Those conditions are very different psychologically than chronic undereating. If you eat waaaay below your daily energy needs, then you most definitely will lose body weight. You can also die from this.
Solutions for Caloric Deficit
When someone tracks their food and they are eating significantly less than they should be, I always question whether they are tracking accurately. Once we establish that they are, then the next step is to give them more food! And specifically more carbohydrates and protein (for women) and more of everything (for men).
What happens to EVERYONE is they feel great (as long as they are sleeping enough and managing their life stressors well)! And within 1-2 weeks, they say that they are way more hungry than before, and now we need to bump their calories up even more. Now their bodies are free to move and play and exercise, and with full energy capacity!
Even though they are eating more, now their body can run at full output and the energy scale becomes balanced. Calories in still equals calories out, and the body begins to build muscle and shed body fat. The BMR increases, demanded by more muscle mass. Visceral fat, which is the dangerous fat tissue that can build up within our abdominal cavity surrounding our internal organs, even begins to decrease. This is a great thing as well because many chronic diseases in society are linked to excessive visceral fat.
So make sure you are tracking accurately, eat up, and train for muscle mass! The Muscle Program is a great way to target strength gains for the purpose of positive body composition change.