A: Kimberly, please, please, please don’t give up! You’ve started on a path to improve your health, and that is what matters most. Often, we don’t even realize the changes we’ve already made in our bodies, despite the scale not changing as quickly as we would like. For some people, weight comes off quickly. For other people, even when it comes off quickly at first, they can reach a plateau, and weight loss stalls. And for others, it takes the body time to adjust and adapt for several weeks before they start losing any weight. And finally, others may lose little, if any, weight yet their body shape and size change dramatically.
Other factors that can affect weight loss include your starting weight, age, and gender.
You see, we’re all different. Even when following the same diet, exercise, and supplementation regimens, bodies react differently. Yet there are also some common reasons why people get stuck in their weight-loss journeys. Let’s take a look at the top 16, Kimberly, as well as how to get moving in the right direction again.
16 Common Reasons You Are NOT Losing Weight
#1. Your Calorie Counting is Off
If you’re tracking your calorie intake and physical activity, you might think that the math is all in line. Just consume 3,500 less calories than you burn in a week, and you will lose a pound. Easy, right? Unfortunately, calorie counting is imprecise and far from straightforward.
Even if you journal every bite you eat and move you make and you’re meticulous with your math, you’re still likely to have inaccurate results—by as much as 20% on both sides of the equation. Instead of focusing on every calorie, we recommend using your hand as your guide for your food portions for each meal (assuming you’re eating three to four times a day):
- Protein. For foods like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, use a palm-sized portion. We recommend consuming a portion of protein with every meal. Generally speaking, a portion provides about 20 – 30 grams of protein. (Men and folks who are more active may need two portions per meal.)
- Veggies. For veggies like greens, cauliflower, and broccoli, use a fist-sized portion. We recommend consuming 1 – 2 servings of veggies at each meal, although there’s not really a limit per se.
- Carbs. For carb-dense foods like fruits, potatoes, whole grains, and legumes, use a cupped hand portion. Generally speaking, carbohydrate intake should be inversely proportionate to body fat (i.e., more body fat, fewer carbs) and directly proportionate to activity levels (i.e., more active, more carbs). When trying to lose weight, women seem to fair well with ½ – 1 portion per meal while men typically do well with about 1 – 2 portions per meal.
- Fats. For healthy fats like oils (e.g., olive, macadamia, avocado, and coconut oils), butter/ghee, nuts, and seeds, use a thumb-sized portion. Speaking generally, women seem to fair well with ½ – 1 portion per meal while men typically do well with about 1 – 2 portions.
#2. You Aren’t Eating the Right Type of Foods
Convenience is king in the world today. Meals in minutes, instant gratification, and shortcuts seem to make up much of our culture and thinking. But when it comes to diet, relying on easy, processed foods for your meals can lead to weight gain and a whole host of potential health issues.
One study found in the journal Cell Metabolism, for example, found that when participants ate diets that were similar in nutrients (e.g., protein, fat, sugar, and fiber), those who ate ultra-processed foods consumed about 500 calories more per day on average than those who ate whole foods. They also ate more carbohydrates but not more protein. Not surprisingly, that increase in calorie intake also led to weight gain of almost one pound, even though the study only lasted two weeks. 1
Fortunately, it really doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to switch up your diet plan to eat more whole, nutrient-dense foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, proteins, and whole grains. If you haven’t learned how to cook, then you may feel a bit overwhelmed at first. You may want to get a start by learning how to put meals together with a meal kit delivery service, or you can start with any number of Coach Cristina’s hundreds of simple, healthy, and affordable recipes right here.
You also may not be eating enough protein. High-protein foods help people feel fuller, consume less calories and avoid overeating, and sustain muscle as you lose fat. 2 What’s more, your body burns more calories as you digest and absorb protein over carbohydrates and fats. And, consuming protein with your meals can help you avoid blood sugar spikes and drops.
#3. You Are Drinking Your Calories
Of course, it’s not just what you eat but also what you drink. Soda is an obvious one that’s fairly easy and very important to avoid. Unfortunately, many people stop drinking soda only to instead shift to fruit juices or flavored water, which can also pack a large sugar and calorie punch.
If you head out for a “healthy” smoothie, you could also be getting way more calories than you imagine. (Better to just make your own at home to control the calories and sugars.) What about that morning latte? Or happy-hour cocktails? Those calories can also add up quickly.
Should you just drink a diet drink instead? Nope. Drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners like diet sodas and teas can negatively affect your gut microbiome and have been linked to weight gain.
In addition to ensuring you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, you can also enjoy water with fresh-squeezed lemon or lime, fruit-, vegetable-, or herb-infused waters, naturally flavored sparkling water, or iced tea to quench your thirst.
#4. You’re Eating Too Much (of the Right Foods) or Too Often
When you start eating more healthfully, you may be tempted to pile up the foods on your plate. After all, it’s healthy, right? When it comes to leafy greens, fiber-rich broccoli, and other vegetables, feel free to pile it on! Unfortunately, with other healthier foods, however, you still need to watch those portion sizes.
Switching to Greek yogurt with fruit instead of a bowl of ice cream, for example, doesn’t mean you can eat double the amount. Even though it’s a healthy choice, those calories still count. And many healthy foods—like nuts and seeds—are relatively high in calories. Eating a full handful can add up to a lot of extra calories. Pumpkin seeds, for example, provide 610 calories per 100 grams.
So, just because a food is healthy doesn’t mean you can eat unlimited portions. Unless, that is, you’re looking at non-starchy vegetables like a plate of sliced cucumber (16 calories per cup), arugula (5 calories per cup), and celery (16 calories per cup). Then you can probably go ahead and load up, as the volume will fill you up long before the calories do.
#5. You’re Eating Your Calories Toward the End of the Day
There’s a big debate on whether or not you should eat breakfast. The answer is actually highly individual with some people doing better with breakfast and others doing better without. What does, however, appear to be helpful is frontloading calories toward the beginning of the day and avoiding eating most of your calories after 3:00 p.m.
Research has found that starting the day (whether you break your fast at 6:00 a.m. or noon) with your largest meal can help control hunger throughout the day, help increase energy levels, and prevent overeating later in the day.
#6. You’re Eating Too Little (or Restricting Certain Types of Foods)
Too many calories are obviously going to make it hard to lose weight, but can cutting calories too much actually prevent weight loss as well? It turns out that the body has many ways of protecting itself and doing its best to maintain homeostasis. So, when calories are cut too low, the body can go into starvation mode where it slows the metabolism to hoard stored energy. That makes it that much more difficult to actually drop pounds.
Your goal then is to keep your metabolic rate high and ensure you’re providing your body with the nutrition it needs to avoid starvation mode while still reducing enough calories to lose weight.
To do so, avoid crash dieting or crazy fad diets and choose a healthy, whole food diet plan you can maintain for the long term like the Mediterranean Diet, pescatarian diet, Keto Diet, or DASH Diet. The diet you choose long-term can vary depending on your personal food preferences, how the foods make you feel, and your goals.
You’ll also want to avoid restricting your food choices too much or cutting out certain foods completely as that makes diets more difficult to sustain, and the body needs a variety of foods to provide a wide range of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
That said, you will want to avoid unhealthy foods (like those containing refined vegetable oils and added sugars), but elimination diets that restrict all fat or carbs for extended times, for example, can be counterproductive to weight loss and lead to food cravings and binge eating behaviors that can seriously disrupt weight loss or even lead to disordered eating.
#7. You’re Not Doing Cardio
A lot of people will tell you they don’t do cardio because they hate to run. (I get it!) Yet cardio is key if you want to manage your weight, prevent heart disease, lift your mood, and even live longer.
Fortunately, there are so many other ways to get in your cardio exercise. You can choose from:
- Jumping rope
- Jumping jacks
- Home workouts made up of movements like mountain climbers, burpees, bear crawls, and jump squats
- Organized sports like soccer, basketball, hockey, or softball
- Boxing or kickboxing
- Stair climbing
- Jogging or running
- Playing in the yard with your pets or kids
Pick something you enjoy doing so you’ll keep doing it and mix it up for more variety. Then, remember to continually push yourself to keep improving. Focus on increasing your intensity, so you’re boosting your heart rate and increasing your breathing rate.
#8. You’re Not Lifting Weights
A lot of other folks skip out on the gym because lifting weights doesn’t burn as many calories as cardio exercise. For example, a half hour of weightlifting burns around 214 calories for a 150-pound person. You could burn around 350 if you spent that time running instead.
This is a mistake as that time in the gym can also help you build more muscle mass, which can help you burn more calories while you’re kicking it on the couch. Admittedly, it isn’t a huge difference, but increasing muscle can increase resting metabolic rate by around four to five percent.
That is, a pound of muscle burns about 3 times more calories than a pound of fat, so if you lose 5 pounds of fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle, you could burn up to 250 extra calories per week. Plus, depending on the intensity of your weight workouts, it can increase post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which refers to an increase in metabolic rate for hours even after you’re done exercising. 3
Perhaps most importantly, maintaining lean body mass (i.e., muscle) helps you keep off the weight once it’s lost and also helps prevent weight gain as you get older. 4
#9. Your Workouts Never Vary
Consistency in exercise is vital to your results. But if you fall into a rut, and your workouts never change, you won’t be getting the same results later in your program as when you started. It’s important to continually push your body to adapt. This is known as progressive overload as it pushes your body to adapt as you get stronger and fitter.
The same old workout can also decrease your interest and motivation as the same old, same old workouts lead to boredom. (Of course!) The key is to mix up your routines and regularly increase intensity or volume to keep improving your muscle size, metabolic rate, and fitness level.
In other words, if your workout has consisted of daily walks, start incorporating strength training, a new fitness class, or HIIT to get out of the rut and start enjoying results again.
#10. You’re Overcompensating
After a hard workout or sticking to an intense diet focused only on healthy foods all week long, you may feel like you’ve earned a bit of a reward. If food becomes that reward, then it’s easy to unknowingly undo a lot of your hard work by overeating. Say you take a long hike only to finish the day off with a large bowl of chips and guacamole and a margarita or two. Or, you stuck to the plan all week only to follow up with a feeding free-for-all over the weekend.
To help keep your weight loss on track, choose other ways to reward yourself for all your hard work. How about a DIY spa treatment, a massage, a home movie night (with air-popped popcorn), a visit to a museum or park or library, a new workout outfit, a mani-pedi, a weekend getaway, or taking a healthy cooking class?
#11. You Aren’t Taking Advantage of NEAT
If you have a desk job, you likely aren’t moving enough throughout the day. Even if you’re logging in a full hour of exercise nearly daily, you won’t be able to compensate for the amount of sitting you do the rest of the day.
In general, sedentary lifestyles simply make it more difficult to lose weight. The answer? Never underestimate the power of NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This is one of the most significant, as well as controllable ways, to burn calories.
Take advantage of this nearly endless calorie-burning opportunity by fidgeting when you’re sitting, standing up throughout the day (consider a standing desk), setting a timer to get up and move for two minutes every hour, turn on some tunes and really move as you run through your daily chores, and become “less efficient” at work by taking the stairs or making separate trips to visit co-workers or get coffee. Just a little extra effort can make a big difference.
#12. You Aren’t Practicing Healthy Sleep Hygiene
I know, I know… we harp on sleep hygiene so much, but it’s because it really is that important. A lot of people when they’re beginning a new fitness plan decide to just wake up an hour earlier to get a workout in. But they forget to go to bed earlier on the other end. Unfortunately, this can actually reduce the benefits of exercise and lead to a weight-loss stall or even weight gain. Plus, it decreases exercise performance, increases appetite, and is likely to lead to more food cravings.
Quality sleep is also necessary to help you recover from your workouts as well as from daily stress. This is vital as stress also makes weight loss more difficult. Studies have found, for example, that the same person burned 400 fewer calories when sleeping a mere 5.5 hours than when getting 8.5 hours. And lack of sleep can also lead to a loss of muscle. 5 Make sure you’re getting seven to nine hours each night—shooting for the higher end if you’re just starting to exercise to give your body more time to recover.
Disruption in circadian rhythms can also prevent weight loss and lead to weight gain. If you are often shifting your schedule, you can get better weight-loss results by reducing the variability in your sleep patterns 6 and making sure you get some sunlight within the first hour of waking up, if possible.
#13. You’re Not Staying Hydrated
Water is important for a variety of bodily functions, including suppressing appetite. Plus, many people think they’re hungry when they’re actually thirsty. So, if you feel hungry but it’s a ways away from your usual mealtime, enjoy a nice cool glass of water before you reach for a snack.
The water can help boost metabolism, lead to fat burning over storage, decrease cravings, and control appetite. 7 And it may just be what your body is actually looking for. See, staying hydrated is important for the proper functioning of the digestive system, kidneys, liver, and other vital organs.
Ensure you’re drinking more than 48 ounces of fluid every day and drink more if your stool is hard or it’s difficult to move your bowels easily.
#14. You’re Drinking Too Much Booze
Sorry for the buzz kill, but if you’re consuming alcohol on a regular basis, you could be slowing your results. Alcohol contains a whole lot of empty calories (especially if you’re drinking cocktails). A glass of wine can rack up 150 to 200 calories, a beer between 100 and 300 calories, and a shot can be as high as 285 calories. Plus, it can also change your relationship with food. You see, alcohol increases appetite and reduces inhibitions (i.e., you are less likely to pay attention to or care about where the calories are coming from), so you’re likely to eat more as well as being more likely to choose unhealthy options. 8
It is possible to lose weight and drink lightly or moderately, but if it’s a daily habit or if you tend to have several drinks when you go out with friends, it could be getting in the way of your weight-loss success.
#15. You Have a Vitamin Deficiency
One often overlooked cause of stalled weight loss can be micronutrient deficiencies like vitamin D, 9 iron, B12, and magnesium. Ensure you’re eating a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods, spending some time in the sun, and then taking a quality multivitamin for some extra insurance.
#16. You Have Unrealistic Expectations
When we start a weight-loss program, the goal is weight loss, and you want it fast, right? It shouldn’t be. Healthy, sustainable weight loss is actually a lot slower than many people think. We see before and after photos where people lost jaw-dropping amounts of pounds in weeks or months. But were they able to keep it off?
A realistic weekly weight loss is actually between 0.5% and 1.0% of your bodyweight. So, if you’re starting at 150 pounds, a reasonable weight loss would be just between .75 pounds (yep, not even a pound) and 1.5 pounds per week. That doesn’t seem like much, right? But after 12 weeks, that would lead to an “after” weight of just 138 pounds. If you’re starting at 190 pounds, then you may be able to lose a bit more—0.95 to 2 pounds per week. So, after 12 weeks, the end result would be closer to 170 pounds. Even if you “just” lose a half a pound a week, that adds up to 26 pounds a year. Sure, those numbers are far from “biggest loser” results, but they’re more realistic and more sustainable. And isn’t that the ultimate goal? Lose weight and keep it off?
In addition, if you are lifting weights (as suggested above), then you’ll also be holding onto more glycogen within the muscles (for fuel). This means the muscles are also holding onto more water to prepare for your next workout, so you can grow and get stronger. However, it’s also likely you’ll be holding onto more “weight” even as your program is progressing.
Thus, the scale could be misleading you, and you’re on your way to losing more weight before you realize it.
Another consideration is water weight. On any given day, your body weight can go up and down depending on how much salt you ate, how many carbs you consumed, if you’ve been ill, how much stress you’re under, and how much your hormones are fluctuating. (Yes, bloating and water retention are normal effects of the hormone fluctuation that comes with menstruation and can cause a difference of several pounds throughout the month.)
Why You Aren’t Losing Weight: A Wrap-up
The scale is but one small measurement of your true weight-loss results. Body fat loss, a tape measure, how your clothing fits, and progress photos can all be better ways to measure your real results.
The most important “scale” to look at, though, is how you feel. Do you have more energy? Are you thinking more clearly? Are you sleeping better? Are any digestion issues clearing up? How does your skin look?
When you start focusing on those types of improvements, then what you weigh on the scale becomes a mere side effect of the rest of the good you’re doing by consuming a healthier diet and adding more exercise and activity to your life.
You’re far from a failure, Kimberly, and you’re likely doing more good than you ever imagined. Keep up the great work, and maybe make a few tweaks as discussed above to help see bigger results on the scale.