Why You Aren’t Losing Weight in a Calorie Deficit

calorie deficit

A client recently asked me to make sense of a calorie deficit and why she’s not losing weight following one. After a quick dive into her food journal, it was easy to figure out why she wasn’t losing weight following a calorie deficit.

Many believe that simply following a calorie deficit is a fool-proof plan to lose weight. After all, if you burn more calories than you consume, your body should start shedding those extra pounds. Yet, when it comes to weight loss, there is a lot more to it than calories in and calories out. 

As you will see, several factors should be considered, including what you eat, hormone imbalances, stress levels, sleep patterns, and much more. I am not a fan of measuring calories or counting macros. Dieting is stress on your body, which elevates your cortisol levels. And cortisol is a major roadblock to weight loss. 

I will tell you about possible reasons you aren’t losing weight in a calorie deficit and what you can do about it. Before we get into that, let’s talk about what is a calorie deficit. 

What is a Calorie Deficit?

Calories are nothing more than a unit of measurement for energy from what you eat and what you drink. Calories hold no nutritional value other than knowing how much energy your body will get from that particular food. The idea of a calorie deficit is that when you deprive yourself of calories from food to meet your body’s energy needs, it will burn fat for energy. While that’s true, it’s only part of the picture. 

Macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, and fats contain the highest number of calories. Just because a food has low calories doesn’t mean it’s any better than a food with a high-calorie count.  

Following a calorie deficit means eating fewer calories than burning through exercise or physical activity. A common mistake many people make when counting calorie burns is only calculating the calories burned through exercise. They fail to account for the calories you burn as your body performs basic physiological processes like digesting food, breathing, or eliminating waste. Your body uses energy 24 hours a day, even sleeping. The number of calories you burn during these activities is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR).[1]https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-basal-metabolic-rate

The Basal Metabolic Rate Factor

Weight loss is a complex science that’s a little more complicated than calories in versus calories out. Just because you are burning 500 calories on a 2-mile run and limiting your calorie intake to 1,500 doesn’t mean you’re getting adequate energy from your food. Knowing your BMR will help you determine how many calories you should consume so your body has enough energy to perform its processes.  

Calculating your BMR

Factors that affect your BMR include age, sex, height, and body weight. Think of your BMR as the number of calories you’d burn if you stayed in bed all day. Most people’s BMR is fairly low at around 1,500 calories. To figure out your BMR, follow the following formula: 

  • For adult men: 88.4+(13.4 x body weight in kilograms) + (4.8 x height in centimeters) – (5.68 x age) = BMR
  • For adult women: 447.6+(9.25 x body weight in kilograms) + (3.1 x height in centimeters) – (4.33 x age)= BMR

For example, my basal metabolic rate as a 195-pound, 5-foot, 11-inch, a 45-year-old man would be 1,792 calories. Remember, this is the number of calories my body needs to function normally without any physical activity. 

To determine your total calorie needs to maintain your current weight, multiply your BMR by your activity level with the Harris-Benedict formula:[2]https://www.gatewaypsychiatric.com/calculating-calorie-needs/

  • Sedentary (little to no exercise): BMR x 1.2 
  • Light activity (1-3 days/week): BMR x 1.375 
  • Moderate activity (3-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
  • Very active (6-7 days/week): BMR x 1.725

Because I engage in moderate activity, exercising 3 to 4 times per week, my total calorie intake needs to be 2,777 calories per day to maintain my weight. This is where it gets tricky. 

Getting to a Calorie Deficit

The general idea is that you will lose weight if you burn more calories than you eat. That’s considered a fool-proof weight loss strategy. The concept is that when your body doesn’t have enough energy from food, it will use up its stores of energy (fat and muscle), which causes the weight to come off. If you maintain a 500-calorie deficit, you should lose one pound a week. In a perfect world, that should be pretty simple. However, it’s not that simple. 

What you eat in a calorie deficit impacts your success. Processed foods, medications, and too much sodium and sugar can lead to water retention. It doesn’t matter how many calories you’re burning if you’re retaining water. Hormone fluctuations, stress, and poor sleep can also interfere width your weight loss. If you’re not losing weight in a calorie deficit, a few factors could get in your way. 

8 Reasons You are Not Losing Weight in a Calorie Deficit

You’ve heard me say results are linear and can differ from person to person. In a calorie deficit, you won’t lose weight linearly. Your body weight fluctuates, going up, down, and up again. However, over the long term, your weight should decrease. If you’re not seeing the weight come off and following a calorie deficit, one of these eight factors could get in your way. 

1. Metabolic Adaptation

Your body doesn’t want to lose weight and has a built-in defense system when you try to lose too much weight too fast. This defense system is called metabolic adaptation, which happens when your body adjusts to reduce the number of calories it needs while resting to account for the deficit.[3]https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-your-body-tries-to-prevent-you-from-losing-too-much-weight#Nutrition-experts-weigh-in

The Four Parts of Your Metabolism

We often think of our metabolism as one entity, yet it consists of four components: BMR, NEAT, EAT, and TEF. We discussed BMR earlier, which accounts for 60 to 70 percent of your metabolism.[4]https://www.nestacertified.com/the-four-components-of-metabolism/

  • Non-Exercoise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): This energy is expended on unintentional exercises, such as fidgeting, walking to the bathroom, playing with your kids or pets, or cleaning your house. NEAT accounts for about 30% of your energy expenditure but can be higher. 
  • Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT): Have you heard the expression, “you can’t out-train your diet?” This is the amount of energy you expend during exercise. The higher intensity of training, the more calories you burn. However, EAT only accounts for about 10-15% of calories most people burn, which is why you can’t out-train your diet. 
  • Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): TEF is the number of calories you burn in digesting food. Only 10-15% of your calorie expenditure comes from TEF, yet it is still part of your energy expenditure. 

Each of the four components of your metabolism impacts fat loss. For example, your size dictates your BMR. The bigger you are (weight, height, muscle, body fat, etc.), the higher calorie intake your body needs to function. Conversely, the smaller your body is, the more you need calories. 

TEF and EAT also get impacted by a calorie deficit. As you eat less food, the number of calories you burn in digesting food will also be lower (TEF). Remember, a more petite body burns fewer calories during exercise (EAT). 

2. Age

I hate to say this, but losing weight is more challenging as you age. One reason is that you lose muscle mass as you age, and lean muscle is more efficient in burning calories. At the same time, your metabolism is slowing down. 

Hormonal changes as you age also affect weight loss. Women going through perimenopause or have reached menopause have lower estrogen levels, which can cause weight gain.[5]https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/menopause-and-weight-gain

Men don’t get off any easier. Low testosterone levels make it harder to burn calories. When testosterone levels fall below normal, muscle mass declines, slowing your metabolism.[6]https://www.menstclinic.com/blog/what-does-testosterone-have-to-do-with-weight-loss Vitamin D is a great nutrient to promote optimal testosterone levels in men and estrogen levels in women.[7]https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/how-to-increase-estrogen

3. You are Not Patient

One primary reason people do not progress with weight loss is a lack of patience. Here is why. When you start a calorie deficit, you see really fast results and get motivated. However, be wary. These results are a false sense of achievement. 

Once the results slow down– and they do for everyone– you’ll start freaking out and give up. You cannot force fat loss, so slow down and be patient. How long it will take for you to see significant progress depends on many factors, such as weight, age, sex, and hormone levels. Wait at least 3 to 4 weeks to see actual results. 

4. You are Not Tracking Weight Loss Appropriately

You should weigh yourself at the same time every day, preferably in the morning before you eat anything. Weight can fluctuate up to four pounds each day. For example, one day, you may weigh 175, and the next day you could weigh 179 or 171. 

What you eat, when you eat, and a woman’s menstrual cycle can all cause weight fluctuations. To get a better idea of whether you’re losing weight, create weekly averages or use an app to track your weight.

5. Stress

Remember what I said about dieting and cortisol? The stress hormone cortisol is the No. 1 roadblock to weight loss. You could be doing everything you should– exercising regularly, sticking to a calorie deficit, and cutting sugar– but it means nothing if you’re stressed. 

Here’s why: High cortisol levels increase sugar cravings and slow down your metabolism simultaneously. You can’t always control the stress in your life, but following stress management strategies and practicing self-care can help lower your stress levels. 

6. You are Doing Too Much Strength Training

This is a double-edged sword. For one, cardio doesn’t burn fat, and you don’t burn more calories doing cardio than you do in other exercises. On the other hand, weight training will cause you to burn fat and gain muscle mass. Additionally, exercise increases bone density. That’s why it’s essential to focus on exercise helping you feel better, not lose weight. In the end, it all takes care of itself. 

7. Underlying Health Conditions

Weight loss can be difficult for anyone. If your weight loss has stalled, you should talk with a medical professional to check for an underlying reason you’re not losing weight. Here are five medical conditions that make it harder to lose weight:[8]https://rgvweightloss.com/5-health-conditions-that-make-it-harder-to-lose-weight/

8. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep

Sleep is vital for your well-being, but it’s also crucial if you’re trying to lose weight. A study of people following a calorie deficit for 14 days showed that subjects who got adequate sleep burned more fat than those who got less sleep.[9]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9031614/

A lack of sleep slows down your metabolism, leads to less energy, and causes you to eat more for energy. Adults should get 6 to 8 hours of sleep each night. 

 Exercise helps with healthy sleep patterns. I take 10mg of melatonin each night to help me get optimal sleep. An herbal tea, limiting caffeine, and creating a bedtime routine can help improve your sleep. 

Final Thoughts on Calorie Deficits

Counting calories and tracking everything you eat can be added stress to your life. Stress will hinder any progress you make with your weight loss goals. Instead of tracking macros and counting calories, eat a whole foods diet of organic meats and produce, limit alcohol, and don’t over do it with exercise.

If you want to optimize your diet to achieve your weight loss goals, let me help. I can assure you that you can lose weight and not have to count calories or track macros. To get started,  schedule a free discovery call, and let me help you get on the path of Living Very Well™. 

About Michael
About Michael

Michael is a functional health coach and sports nutritionist based in Austin, Texas. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Texas and advanced certification in sports nutrition from the International Society of Sports Nutrition.