Reasons you're not losing body fat
And fixes to help you start making progress again!
If you’re trying—and struggling—to lose fat, you’re not alone.
The most recent data from the CDC suggests that nearly half of American adults made an effort to lose weight in a calendar year between 2013 and 2016. It is no surprise that the CDC research also revealed more women tried to lose weight than men. Among the most common ways Americans attempted to lose weight were exercise, eating less, and eating more fruits, veggies, and salads.
You’d think that an increase in fat-loss efforts would lead to a decreasing trend in weight, but this was not the case. During this same time period, body mass index (BMI) and weight for the average American increased to 29.4 in 2016 (compared to an average BMI of 28 in 2000). BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight and a common—albeit imperfect—metric used to indicate obesity risk.
What’s going on? It may be that people are trying to cut calories and exercise but are running into common fat-loss stumbling blocks. If you count yourself among the many Americans struggling to shed pounds and improve your overall wellness, read on to learn fixes to some of the biggest challenges I frequently see clients cite to losing fat:
1. You aren’tvmonitoring your daily intake.
Many Americans have no clue how many calories are in their favorite foods. As one survey revealed, most of us underestimate the calorie content of common restaurant meals by an average of a whopping 600 calories. For example, American diners estimated a healthy-sounding chef’s salad to have about half the calories (about 400 calories) that it actually contained (about 900 calories). Meanwhile, participants incorrectly judged cheese fries with ranch dressing to be less than a quarter (around 800 calories) of the meal’s actual calories (a staggering 3,000 calories).
As simple and basic as it sounds, no matter how experienced you are, going back to the basics and checking the box can be truly helpful in holding ourselves accountable and to determine if we've become complacent or if we are right on track!
The fix: Keep a food diary. Research shows that people who use written and photo food diaries consistently lose more weight than people who don’t—nearly twice as much weight, in fact, according to one study.
Keeping a food journal can help shed light on unhealthy habits that stop you from losing weight. Writing and/or photographing everything you eat will make you less likely to absent-mindedly grab a handful of peanut M&Ms or a can of Sprite. It can also help you identify potential food intolerances and triggers of unhealthy habits.
In addition to tracking calories and portions, consider keeping an eye on your macronutrients (i.e., carbs, protein, and fat) to note what you may be “missing” at any meal. Did a vegetarian salad for dinner leave you feeling hungry? Try adding lean protein next time and see how you feel the next morning. Did a bunless burger lead to late-night binging? Maybe, next time, try adding some healthy carbs like a whole-grain bun or starchy veggies.
2. You aren’t getting enough protein.
If you aren’t eating enough protein, your body will break down more lean muscle to get more of this vital macro. Losing lean muscle means you’re holding on to fat stores, altering your body composition in an unfavorable way. At the same time, the lack of fuel may slow your metabolism, meaning you burn fewer calories at rest and during activity and therefore have to eat less to shed weight. And finally, a lack of protein can cause food cravings and increased hunger.
This is likely one of the top reasons I see people who test with the BodPod not see results they were hoping for: not eating enough and not eating enough protein.
The fix: Determine your protein needs. The best way to accurately calculate your protein needs is to get a body composition test to determine your lean body mass (LBM). With this figure, you can calculate your daily protein needs in grams based on activity level. When you come in to the office for a BodPod test, I will calculate this for you!
3. You aren’t getting enough sleep.
The connection between insufficient sleep and weight gain is surprisingly profound. Research has found that sleep deprivation raises endocannabinoid (eCB) levels—the chemical signals that affect appetite and spark a craving for tasty food. Endocannabinoids are perhaps best known for being activated by marijuana and causing the notorious “munchies.”
There are other ways insufficient sleep can hinder your weight-loss efforts. Sleep restriction affects your levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin. Specifically, sleep deprivation causes a rise in ghrelin, the hormone that tells you when to eat. It also causes a drop in leptin, the hormone that tells you to stop eating.
And finally, there’s the fact that when you’re tired, you’re less likely to have the energy to work out and more likely to grab takeout on your way home rather than go through the trouble of cooking.
The fix: Get adequate, quality sleep. For adults, this generally means between seven and eight hours. You can try to improve your sleep habits by keeping a regular sleep schedule rather than interspersing late nights with recovery days. Other tips for eliminating sleep-related weight-loss barriers include reducing stress, avoiding late-night meals, and waking up earlier.
4. You are controlled by hedonic hunger
Over the course of evolution, the human body has developed a ferocious biological drive to consume calories. When your body is in a calorie deficit, it reacts by releasing more of the hunger hormone ghrelin, causing a spike in homoeostatic hunger.
But as powerful as homeostatic hunger can be, it can usually be tamed by eating nutritious, fiber-packed foods. Hedonic hunger—a term coined in 2007 to describe food consumption driven by pleasure, not the need for calories—isn’t as easily tamed. Although not as understood as homeostatic hunger, hedonic hunger is thought to have developed in human evolution back when non-poisonous, naturally sweet foods were rare. Whenever humans found these sweet, energy-dense foods, their hedonic reward system would encourage them to keep eating.
Fast-forward to the present day, and our hedonic appetites have turned against us. Today, hedonic hunger is thought to be one of the leading causes of obesity, since modern Americans are bombarded with easily accessed, sugary processed foods that our hedonic brains compel us to gobble down.
The fix: Even if you recognize you are eating because of hedonic hunger (like when you’ve just eaten a large meal and are craving dessert), that doesn’t mean it’s easier to control. The best way to keep hedonic hunger at bay is to keep those highly palatable unhealthy foods out of your kitchen. You can also try satisfying hedonic urges with something less unhealthy. For example, try eating a piece of fruit and drinking a glass of water when you want candy, and seeing if you are still craving sugar.
5. You’re confusing thirst for hunger
Here’s another way your body can trick you into drifting back to your refrigerator: confusing thirst and hunger. It’s actually very easy to confuse these two internal cues, with some studies showing that as many as 37 percent of people mistake food for hunger because of weak thirst signals. The difference between hunger and thirst cues can be surprisingly subtle, especially if you’ve developed a habit of ignoring them.
The fix: Keep thirst and hunger both at bay by drinking plenty of water. Eight, eight-ounce glasses of water a day is a good rule of thumb, though you may need more if you exercise or live in a hot climate. In addition, start paying closer attention to how hunger feels to you—you should start to notice it between two and five hours after your last meal.
6. Your metabolism is slow
The speed of your metabolism, or the chemical process with which your body changes food into energy, is impacted by a number of factors. A slow metabolism is sometimes caused by genes, but can also be caused by a number of other preventable factors such as:
7. Insufficient lean muscle
As noted above, having an unhealthy body composition with too much fat and not enough lean muscle can slow your metabolism simply because muscle requires more energy at rest than fat! So, if you have more fat, your body is not burning as many calories at rest (or using as much energy) as someone who has more muscle.
8. Certain medications
Some medications, including antidepressants and drugs that slow the heart rate, can slow down your metabolism, or, rather, how efficiently the chemical processes in your body react.
The fix: Talk to your doctor if you think your medication may be a problem to find out if there is a suitable alternative.
9. Strict dieting
Severe diets can teach your body to function with fewer calories. Continually operating in too large a calorie deficit for too long may cause your metabolism to slow in order to conserve energy.
The fix: Eschew short-term crash diets and stick to a healthy meal plan you can sustain over the long term. Determine the exact number of calories you need to perform life-sustaining functions and physical activity by determining your resting metabolic rate and adding the number of calories you burn through exercise each day. To obtain these numbers, make sure you schedule a BodPod appointment!
10. You are stressed out
Here’s an idea that is kind of stressful: too much stress can actually cause weight gain. When you are stressed, your body goes into a flight-or-fight mode to give you the energy you need to get out of a dangerous situation. In this state, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and a hormone called cortisol, causing a spike in blood sugar.
When you are no longer in a stressful situation, your adrenaline wears off and your blood sugar drops, but cortisol levels stay elevated. High cortisol levels are thought to cause cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods. The secretion of cortisol can also cause your body to store belly fat.
The fix: You can greatly reduce stress while simultaneously boosting weight loss by exercising for your body type. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever, boosting your feel-good endorphins while serving as a kind of moving meditation that gets you out of your head and into your body. And when a cortisol-induced craving rears its ugly head, try reaching for healthier “comfort” foods like air-popped popcorn.
11. You are checking the scale too frequently
While it’s a good idea to have a general idea of your current weight, weighing yourself too frequently can be misleading and even damaging to long-term weight loss. Your weight can fluctuate vastly from day to day based on factors like fluid intake and hormone levels, and getting too hung up on the number can be discouraging and cause weight-loss frustration. Similarly, you may be torching fat but gaining muscle, causing your weight and overall BMI to rise even as you are building a healthier body composition.
The fix: Because both scale weight and BMI are both imperfect measures of your health and fitness progress, it’s advisable to focus on a more accurate measure: your body composition. Body composition analysis goes beyond your weight and BMI to reveal your body’s proportions of fat mass and lean mass. By tracking changes in fat and lean mass through routine body composition testing, you can assess what is working with your current weight-loss strategy and make updates accordingly, while catching unwanted changes like fat gain or muscle loss. Get started by booking your body composition test today.
All content of this blog is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this blog.
Kelly Sherman, MS, NC, CGP, CPT, is a licensed nutritionist specializing in empowering women to reclaim their health by cutting through misinformation and ditching the diet culture. She has a master’s degree in nutrition and is degreed in exercise science as well as a certified personal trainer. With over 20 years of experience in the field, she combines the best of both nutrition and exercise sciences to best help her clients reach their potential. To nourish is to flourish!