Have you been dieting for what seems like forever without seeing the results you’re hoping for? Maybe you’re even gaining weight and you’re frustrated, tired, and about ready to throw in the towel.
You may be asking yourself: Why am I gaining weight when I barely eat?
Could this be due to the way you have been dieting? Could the calorie restriction actually be backfiring and making you gain weight?
The short answer is: probably not. But we humans are complex creatures and a lot of factors can impact our weight and overall well-being. So let’s dive into how you achieve the weight loss you’re hoping for and what could be hindering your progress.
What the science says
When it comes to weight loss, the science is clear that any approach that puts you in a calorie deficit will make you lose weight.
A calorie deficit means that you consume fewer calories from food and drink than your body uses to keep you alive and active.
This makes sense because it’s a fundamental law of thermodynamics:
- If we add more energy than we expend, we gain weight.
- If we add less energy than we expend, we lose weight.
But this is where the simplicity ends.
How many calories you’ll need to achieve a deficit is highly individual and will change over time as you age, your activity level changes, your metabolism changes, and your body fat percentage changes.
You can calculate your daily calorie needs using this formula, but this should only be seen as a starting point as the calculation can never take into considerations exactly how effective your metabolism is.
To find out why you aren’t losing weight, we need to look at some of the factors that can affect your metabolism
Can eating too few calories decrease your metabolism?
The body is a very intelligent machine in the sense that it knows how to effectively regulate its many processes to support homeostasis (keeping a constant weight).
In the context of dieting and weight loss, this means that if you restrict your food intake too drastically, your body will simply decrease its metabolic rate so it is burning fewer calories.
Of course, if your body begins to burn fewer calories each day, then it is going to be far more difficult for you to lose weight, but the problem is even greater than that.
If you aren’t providing your body with the energy it needs to fuel your daily activities, then it will have to begin sourcing it from somewhere else. You might be thinking the first place it will look is your stored body fat, but it will also begin breaking down your lean muscle mass so it can be converted to glucose and burned for energy.
This result is a snowball effect, where you are holding less muscle, meaning your metabolism begins to dwindle even further.
A study of contestants from the TV show The Biggest Loser was that if you have achieved dramatic weight loss very quickly, you may find that you now have to eat significantly lower calories than your peers to even maintain your weight.
If you decide to cut calories, never do it too quickly. When you first start dieting to lose weight, the best thing to do is to cut around 300-500 calories daily from your regular diet, or your ‘maintenance calories’.
Cutting just a few hundred calories each day will enable you to lose somewhere in the region of 1 – 3 lbs per week, which is just about right to make sure you are predominantly losing fat and not muscle.
If your weight loss stalls for a week or two, then you can simply cut another couple of hundred calories or consider adding a little extra exercise.
Tracking your calorie intake for weight loss
Unfortunately, most people who’re trying to lose weight underestimate how many calories they eat daily. When we look at the scientific studies, they find that 18 to 54% of people underreport how much they eat, and in some subgroups underreporting is as high as 70%.
This doesn’t mean that people are lying, but more likely that it is very hard to estimate food intake, especially if you didn’t cook the food yourself.
One way of assessing if you’re measuring your food accurately is to use a food scale to measure your food and keep an electronic food diary such as MyFitnessPal or CalorieKing. I recommend using a food scale rather than cups and spoons as it’s more accurate.
Another pitfall when it comes to estimating calorie intake is that some people will be very restrictive during the week and then “let-go” and not track or pay attention during the weekends. I’m personally all for a relaxed approach to dieting but if you end up significantly overeating during the weekend, you might essentially end up no longer in a calorie deficit overall.
Other reasons you might not be losing weight while dieting
There are several reasons why people struggle to lose weight. Tackling the underlying issue can be what you need to reach your weight goals.
Some conditions and drugs can make you gain weight
Some conditions including Cushing’s disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, and hypothyroidism can make you gain weight or make it very difficult to lose weight.
If you’re experiencing unexplained weight gain or have struggled with these before it’s worth discussing the issue with your doctor and maybe have your medication adjusted.
Drugs such as steroids and some antidepressants may also cause weight gain. Don’t stop taking your medications but discuss doses or alternatives with your medical team.
You’re dieting, but not for weight loss
Dieting and eating less is in reality very subjective. Dieting for some means only eating whole foods, cutting out specific food groups, or no snacks or sweets, eating a meal less than they’re used to, intermittent fasting, calorie restrictions, and the list goes on.
But the thing is that you can be doing any of those things and still not lose weight if you’re not in a calorie deficit.
Reducing your calories has also been shown to lead to people being less active. Remember, a calorie balance is a balance of how many calories your body needs and how many you consume, so a significant reduction in your activity could tip the scale and halt your weight loss.
It simply takes time
Another common reason why people report not losing weight despite reducing their calories is that they don’t give it enough time. Our bodies will do their utmost to hold on to our fat reserves and you often have to be in a calorie deficit for a while before you will see any meaningful weight loss.
You might see an initial large drop in your weight the first week, but that’s most likely water and waste and you can’t expect to see that type of weight drop week over week.
Lack of sleep
Aside from time, another factor that could be impacting you is your sleep patterns. Sleep deprivation is often tied to higher BMI, although the exact correlation is unclear.
Why undereating could be hurting your health!
If you do decide to continue eating very few calories, you should know that there’s a chance that you’re putting your health at risk.
When your body goes into starvation mode, you are at increased risk of both physical and mental complications, including
- Abnormally low blood pressure and slow heart rate
- Heart rhythm abnormalities
- Hair loss
- Brittle fingernails
- Loss of menstrual periods in women
- Trouble concentrating
- Swelling in your joints
- Brittle bones
Undereating can also often lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, obsessively thinking about food, and potentially eating disorders.
If you find that you’re still not losing weight despite being in what you perceive as a calorie deficit while measuring out everything you eat and drink, you should:
- Check-in with your medical team for your annual physical and mention your weight loss journey
- Increase your activity to increase your calorie deficit
- Get enough sleep and reduce your stress levels to the best of your ability
I don’t know why this is not studied properly, but I follow a diet Mincavi where we lose weight even hundreds of pounds by eating more food, healthy foods in appopriate quantaties. Some people do eat too much before starting the diet, but most people find it hard to eat all that food. I eat like a bird and it is only when I eat my 3 meals and 3 snacks do I lose weight. This is barely ever talked about but it is a problem that is much more frequent then we think. Being fat does not mean that a person eats too much.
I’ve been in a calorie deficit for about two weeks and I’ve been counting my calories and taking about 1200 calories and excercise 4-5 times a week. Haven’t been seeing results what should I do?
Christel Oerum says
I would give it time, but if you haven’t seen any results after ~4 weeks I would consider making changes to your approach. Weight loss takes time..
In lock down I gained a lot of weight well in my eyes like 5 kg after that I went on a strict diet but nothing happened, at the moment I feel good when I don’t eat I eat maby an orange ifor lunch and then a small dinner but that is that and I still don’t lose weight I do exercise every day and try to stay active I am tired and frustrated
Christel Oerum says
In my experience, extreme diets generally stress the body (and mind) and make us move less, which ultimately isn’t what you want. You don’t have to eat breakfast and I completely understand the frustration, since weight loss takes time and can be hard without the help of a nutrition professional
Waleed Arda says
The notion that weight is associated only with calories in and out is not totally correct. There are other ingredients that contribute to weight but not to energy. Mostly fibers, minerals, and water. For example. If a poorly treated type 2 diabetic followed a calorie restricted diet, this will result in improved glucose intake, less urination, better absorption of minerals both in muscles and bones. So although body fat is decreasing and total energy intake is negative, body weight may healthily increase and mistakingly mask the successful weight loss attempt
I used to go to the gym 5 days a week and do at least 3 hours of exercise I have suffered with low thyroid for 6 years and when the doctor 1st put me on the medication I lost 2 stone in 3 weeks I had always been 8 stone 2 pounds but since that massive weight loss I have gained nearly 3.5 stone I only eat 1 healthy meal a day and just do general house work as my exercise but I just seem to be gaining weight on my thighs and legs and I clearly have a huge calorie deficit but I just can’t loose any weight any advice for a patient with thyroid problems that have been medicated would be appreciated
Christel Oerum says
That sounds very frustrating. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good guidance. You probably need to find someone with a medical background who specializes in thyroid issues for some solid guidance
Ivana Rade says
Dear Karen! Start with iodine, selenium and zinc supplementarion. I did and I am now good!
Hi! I am really hopeless at this point. I eat around 1700 kcals a day and sometimes I still feel hungry. I used to eat very little, I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder for years. This summer I upped my calories because my diet obviously wasn’t sustainable. I work out 5-6 times a week, I mostly do resistance training at home for ~40 mins a day. I usually use two 15lbs dumbbells, which isn’t a lot, but still I do think I exercise quite a lot. Oh and I’ve been working out for years so that’s not a new thing. I keep gaining weight when all I want to do is lose it. It effects my mental health because I put so much work into my diet and exercise and it only backfires me. I would be really grateful for some tips. Thank you in advance !
Christel Oerum says
That does sound frustrating. My main advice would be to put the scale away and focus on other things such as strength gain, and how you feel. If you can I’d advise you to work with a Registered Dietitian who understands eating disorders. You’d probably also benefit from having your hormone levels checked to see if everything is running as it should
I am eating better and less than I was. Focusing on healthy foods and tracking my calories. No more than 1200 a day. And I have recently added exercise. But now I have gained 3 lbs rather than lose weight. I don’t know what to do at this point.
Christel Oerum says
If you’re in a calorie deficit, which it sounds like you are, that gain can’t be fat. It is most likely water or muscle. However, if you’re consistently gaining weight unexplainedly I’d suggest you see a doctor just to make sure everything is as it should be
Patricia Charles says
I have the same problem but I take three high blood pressure pills and a lot of other medications that make me gain weight I cannot stop taking my medication but can my doctor give me some pills that would help me because I am on my diet but still is still the same gaining weight
Victoria Thunberg says
I don’t know what to do at this point to help with weight loss. I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome that was just diagnosed a couple months ago, and while I know it is a connective tissue disorder I wonder if it is screwing up my metabolism.
My doctor just went over my blood work and it is beautiful, not even high cholesterol. I am nowhere near being diabetic, and all my levels are great. Yet I’m stuck at 236 pounds. My doctor suggested that I need to eat more and keep it small throughout the day. I struggle with either being so nauseous I can’t eat, or so ravenous I can’t stop eating. So I am trying to do what he says, but still can’t meet the reccommended daily calorie intake. I’m using a calorie tracker because I wanted to see how many calories I eat vs. how many I need. I hit about 1200 out of the 1900 calories a day. I admit I am not the best with drinking water which is why I have changed up my diet to include more fruits and veggies to boost water intake just a little bit.
Any advice would be helpful. I’m a bit frustrated and I hate when people dismiss me or accuse me of not trying because of my weight.
Christel Oerum says
I can understand why you’re frustrated. It’s hard when you feel like you are doing everything in your power. I’d be careful with undereating as that is what can lead to those ravenous episodes where we end up significantly overeating. If eating smaller meals can help you manage your hunger levels and ensure you get enough calories consistently then I’d agree with your doctor. You can also look at including some resistance training in your routine. It can be at-home bodyweight exercises, but adding some muscle to your frame could potentially help shift your body composition. I’m not very familiar with EDS, so I’d recommend your doctor give you some guidance on what you can do or that you work with a trained professional.
Geme Clige says
I have Ehlers Danlos as well, and a lot of what you said is really similar to my problem. Strangely enough, including the bloodwork, my doctor was seriously shocked at how low my cholesterol was.
Don’t know if this helps at all, but I also have a hard time with drinking water, so I go for green tea. I actually stopped feeling nauseous when I went gluten free, even though I was tested and don’t have celiacs, but it was making me pretty ill and I had no idea it was the culprit.
I personally had to switch to one meal a day, but I have the metabolism like a reptile, I can skip a week and be fine which isn’t good health wise. But I do always try to be sure my one meal has as much of the good things as I need vitamin wise.