Updated: Dec 21, 2020
I'm aiming for a calorie deficit but not losing weight, what's the problem?
Yes, you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat. Obviously. But that is not the only factor, and I get a little more than frustrated when I hear that narrative from trainers and influencers across the land.
Because of course, we have to eat fewer calories than we consume in order to lose weight. But if it were that easy, we would all be our ideal weight at all times. Spoiler: it’s actually hard as hell to do something so ‘simple’.
Our bodies and brains evolved in a time when food was largely scarce. Our bodies are designed to exist in an environment where energy (read: calories) does not come easy, so whenever we see a calorie-dense food, we crave it. We have to have it. We don’t have a stop button.
This is how we survived for a long time. We ate the fruit when we saw it and we ate as much of it as we could. We weren’t sure when we’d find such magically tasty and dense-with-energy treats again. And if we found a nice fatty tree nut? You better believe that was going down right down the chute.
What does that have to do with humans today?
I’m glad you asked. Because now, our bodies exist in an environment where food is largely available (to most of us). Calorie-dense, highly palatable food is all around us. It’s on shelves in every store, fills our fridges and cabinets, is made to order on restaurant menus, and sent to our front doors with the click of a finger.
Our brains are still operating as if it may be the last time we are able to consume the sugary, fatty, carby goodness at our fingertips - but our reality is quite the opposite.
So, it’s no wonder we have trouble limiting our intake to an energy-appropriate amount. It’s no wonder we are frustrated and defeated when we hear this ‘simple’ answer to our problems but we still can’t seem to make it stick for ourselves. We feel broken, incapable, unworthy. We feel like it is our fault.
And I’m all for taking accountability for our efforts. We have to put in the work if we want results - and that is on us, all the way.
But there are other factors to consider:
Our environment. We do not have great willpower, and that’s okay. Even the most successful of us humans don’t have exceptionally better willpower than most others. The successful ones just learn to create an environment free of as many temptations as possible.
Our hormones. Hormones like cortisol (the well-known stress hormone) can cause weight gain when chronically elevated. It temporarily increases our blood sugar (telling our bodies we are stressed and need quick energy to fight or run) and then drops it, leaving us with low energy and increased cravings.
Excessive glucose intake (in the form of sugar, starch and processed carbs) spikes blood sugar and creates insulin resistance. The resistance is created because insulin helps us take energy from food and deliver it to the cells where it can be used for fuel. A healthy cell has many insulin receptors and can respond to it easily, but when cells are chronically over-exposed to this hormone, the cell reduces the number of receptors (as a natural way of dealing with this over-exposure) making the cell more resistant. Now, the cell is unable to properly take up glucose from the blood, and the body has to correct for that by telling the pancreas to increase insulin production. The cycle continues.
Because the thyroid gland produces hormones that affect metabolism (among many other functions), dysfunction there may also cause weight loss or gain that is not just due to the calorie-deficit equation.
Math. It's nearly impossible to calculate the exact number of calories in each meal you prepare and weigh yourself (the online and app calculators are estimates), let alone averages and estimates on nutrition labels of packaged foods and your best guess at quantity and ingredients of takeout and dine-in meals.
Beyond that, it's even more difficult to pinpoint the exact number of calories you are burning at rest and during additional activities and exercise throughout the day. Trust me, your Apple watch is wrong.
You'd have to burn 3500 calories to lose about 1 lb of fat (again, an estimate). If your calculations are off with either calories consumed or burned (or both, any combination of which is highly likely) by just 100 calories per day (for example you eat a few more nuts than you tracked, thereby consume 30 more calories, and misjudge your calories burned by just 70 calories), you could gain a pound about every month, when you thought you were actually on track to lose.
Our stress and sleep. Sufficient and restorative sleep is necessary for proper hormone health, so when we don’t get it, a number of critical functions suffer. Cravings spike and decision making becomes more and more craving-driven and less driven by logic. Stress also affects those hormones I mentioned a moment ago, as well as gut health and leads to weight gain beyond just what the calorie calculation would indicate.
Gut health. The health of our gut flora also plays a crucial role in weight management and total health. Certain bacteria in the gut can actually pull more calories out of food than others. An imbalance in those types of bacteria may cause higher amounts of the type that can more efficiently remove calories from the food you eat, leading to an increase in the calories you absorb.
Highly processed fructose (like that found in high fructose corn syrup), is rapidly fermented in the gut. This creates byproducts and gases, and because the fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin production, it goes straight to the liver to be processed. Leptin (a hormone related to appetite suppression) decreases, so we don’t experience that same fullness sensation, and it becomes easier to overeat.
Accountability. Just like with our environment, our minds are an obstacle course. The more we work on mindset - remembering the deeper ‘why’ for our goals to become or remain healthy - and hold ourselves accountable to our actions (or have an accountability friend or coach to help us do that), the more likely we are to stick with our routines and systems.
You can see that the formula for success in weight loss is complex and individual. Calorie intake is a huge piece of the puzzle, but not the only one. Even when we know what to do, it is much easier said than done. It is much easier done for a short period of time than kept up with consistently over years or a lifetime.
The trainers that are shouting about the calorie deficit equation as the only solution to weight loss are not entirely wrong, but they are leaving out critical tools from the toolbox and telling you to build a house. Then, they act disappointed when the house starts falling apart.
So the next time you think 'I have a calorie deficit but I'm not losing weight', know that the help of a health coach can be a highly effective and multi-purpose tool as we hold clients accountable and help them create systems and routines that make healthy habits second nature. This way, counting calories becomes unnecessary in the first place.