The question “why am I not losing weight in a calorie deficit” bothers many people. Indeed, it can be discouraging to establish a calorie deficit only to see your weight remain the same. But when it comes to this strategy, there’s more to it than simply lowering your calorie intake.
A calorie deficit is a slow and steady weight loss plan where you burn more calories than you consume.
Most people begin to see weight loss results in 3-4 weeks.
If you’re not losing weight in a calorie deficit you may need to adjust your stress levels, diet, and sleep patterns.
Other reasons for weight gain during a calorie deficit are hormonal changes, aging, and other health conditions.
As you’ll see, there are many more things that affect whether a calorie deficit will lead to weight loss (or gain) including what you eat, your stress levels, sleep patterns, and hormonal fluctuations. This guide is designed to help you figure out why you’re not losing weight in a calorie deficit, why you might be gaining weight while fasting, and what you can do about it.
What is a calorie deficit?
A calorie deficit is a weight loss strategy where you burn more calories than you consume. This causes the body to use up stores of energy (fat and muscle) and causes you to lose weight over time. How many calories you should consume depends on your age, weight, gender, and other health conditions. Many people aim for a 500-calorie deficit, which should allow you to lose 1 pound a week.
Does it matter what you eat in a calorie deficit?
Yes, what you eat in a calorie deficit matters. Salty foods, processed foods, and even some medications can lead to water retention, and this can cause your weight to remain the same even if you’re burning fat. Because it takes more energy to burn protein, eating a high-protein, high-fiber diet will help you burn more calories.
Drinking water during a calorie deficit or intermittent fasting is also essential to shedding pounds. Here’s how drinking water can help on your weight loss journey:
- Stimulates your metabolism
- Suppresses your appetite
- Makes workouts more effective
- Helps your body burn fat faster
Why are you not losing weight in a calorie deficit?
In a calorie deficit, you won’t linearly lose weight. Rather than seeing your weight go down as time goes on, you’ll often see it go up, then back down. However, you should see your weight decrease in the long run. So don’t get discouraged at first. But if you’re having trouble losing weight, some things could be getting in your way.
1. You are eating unhealthy foods
If you’re eating unhealthy foods like processed food, high-sugar foods, baked goods, highly refined flour, alcohol, and processed meat, you may have more trouble losing weight in a calorie deficit. Instead, focus on foods that are highly nutritious with a focus on protein and fiber.
Here are the best foods to eat when trying to reach your weight loss goals:
- Whole grains
- Whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta
- Poultry and lean meats
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Greek yogurt and fruit
- Beans and lentils
- Egg whites
- Baked potatoes
- Fruits and vegetables
2. Not getting enough sleep
Are you getting enough sleep? Are you sleeping through the night? If not, you may have more trouble burning calories. In a study of people undergoing a 14-day calorie deficit, subjects burned less fat the less sleep they got.
Sleep deprivation lowers metabolic function, leads to loss of energy throughout the day, and can cause you to choose high-calorie foods throughout the day.
You can improve your sleep by exercising which decreases insomnia and improves your quality of sleep. Be sure to block out artificial light while you’re sleeping, and avoid staying up too late at night.
3. You are too stressed
Your stress levels could be affecting your ability to lose weight. When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, known as the stress hormone, as a part of your body’s fight or flight response. This increases sugar cravings and slows your metabolism down at the same time.
You can’t always control the introduction of stress in your life, but you can adopt stress management strategies to ensure that it doesn’t affect your health goals. Try exercising, meditating, and seeking behavioral counseling.
4. You have other health conditions
Some health conditions might interfere with your ability to lose weight in a calorie deficit. Speak with your doctor about your state of health and work together to create a plan for what your calorie intake and physical activity levels should be.
Some of the conditions that can interfere with weight loss include:
- Cardiac Syndrome X (CSX)
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Chronic stress disorder
5. You are gaining muscle through strength training
If you’re adding weight training to your weight loss plan, you may be burning fat and gaining muscle. This can make it look like you’re not burning fat because your weight stays the same or increases. Plus, physical exercise can lead to increased bone density.
However, a healthy ratio of muscle mass to body fat is good for your health. And building muscle boosts your metabolism, making you burn more calories even when you’re resting.
6. Not tracking weight loss appropriately
Your weight can fluctuate up to 4 pounds a day. Be sure to track your weight at the same time every day. What you eat, when you eat, and your menstrual cycle can all cause weight fluctuations. To get a better idea of whether you’re losing weight, track your weight each day and then create weekly averages. Or use an app to track your health goals.
7. You are getting older
As you age, losing weight becomes harder. There are several reasons for this. One is that as we age, we lose lean muscle, which is more efficient at burning calories. At the same time, our metabolism naturally slows down.
Both men and women undergo hormonal changes that could affect weight loss. For women, a drop in estrogen can cause weight gain. For men, a drop in testosterone makes it harder to burn calories.
8. You are not patient
Sometimes when you begin a calorie deficit, you’ll experience a sudden loss of weight, and then things will become slower or stagnant. It can be easy to become frustrated. Remember that weight loss doesn’t happen in a linear manner. How long it takes for you to lose weight varies with your starting weight, age, gender, and overall state of health. Most experts advise you to wait 3-4 weeks to see weight loss.
Can you experience side effects from a calorie deficit?
Yes, if you remain in a calorie deficit for too long, you may stop losing weight. This is because your metabolism slows down, causing your calorie deficit to shrink. A calorie deficit isn’t a lifelong strategy and most experts recommend planning to be in a calorie deficit for a few months at a time. Speak with your doctor to create a plan that works for you.
Some of the other calorie deficit side effects include the following:
- Fatigue and nutritional deficiency
- Changes in mood, like irritability
- Slower metabolism
- Reduced sex drive
- Feels of hunger
- Inability to focus and brain fog
- Development of eating disorders
Additionally, a calorie deficit can cause insomnia in some people. Getting too few calories might cause you to lose sleep, which will slow your metabolism and cause weight gain.
Calorie restriction vs intermittent fasting: which is better?
Intermittent fasting might include fasting for several hours or a few days. So far, no scientific evidence can point to a difference between this and calorie restriction. Some studies show that intermittent fasting has other positive effects on health like improved gut health, heart health, and brain health.
However, you can struggle to lose weight with this method if you’re overeating or making unhealthy food choices in between fasting. Sleep, stress, and not drinking enough water can also make it difficult to lose weight with intermittent fasting.
Tips on how to lose weight effectively
Losing weight isn’t as simple as cutting down on calories. Here are some tips to help you achieve your weight loss goals more effectively:
Balance your diet. You must be aware of what kind of calories you’re eating, and incorporate the right kinds of foods to remain healthy.
Create a healthy lifestyle. You must manage your stress levels, get plenty of sleep and exercise, and track your weight consistently.
Consult a doctor for medications. Some people use prescription medicine, like phentermine, to assist in weight loss and curbing their appetite. Speak with your doctor to find out if this is right for you.
Being in a calorie deficit can be challenging. If you’re in a calorie deficit and you’re not losing weight, you may need to look at other parts of your life and identify what isn’t supporting your health goals. How quickly you lose weight will depend on your current weight, age, gender, and overall health.