Why You Can Eat Less and Still Not Lose Fat

An in-depth look at the different factors that can potentially prohibit fat loss

Demmy James—Summer is in full swing, which means many of us have been trying to lean out for the last few months, but what happens when your best efforts lead to frustration, stagnation and less than stellar results?

It turns out there could be a variety reasons why your fat loss goals are falling short. There are a number of things that can go wrong despite your efforts to keep track of your weight, exercise and live a healthy lifestyle. Instead of continuing to wonder about how to lose fat, keep reading to find out what might be holding you back.

You Think Calories Don’t Count
Simply put, you can’t outrun the first law of thermodynamics just because you don’t think it applies to you.

Most run into this issue when they adopt a diet (i.e. paleo, Atkins, south beach, etc.) that doesn’t account for calories and makes them believe they can eat as much as they want.

Outside of an accurately diagnosed medical condition, you’re probably not losing weight simply because you’re eating too many calories. It’s not because of an underactive thyroid, “slow” metabolism or any other medical ailment that is commonly associated with an inability to lose weight.

Until you have an accurate idea of your caloric intake and your body’s needs, you can’t automatically assume that calories aren’t the issue. Just because a food is approved for a certain type of diet doesn’t mean you can eat as much of it as you want.

Your Lifestyle Habits Aren’t Synergistic With Your Goals
In our current society, it’s almost impossible to not live a high-stress lifestyle. When stress enters the equation, certain hormones become elevated both acutely and chronically.

Acute elevations are normal and should occur during stress adaptation in the short term. However, when levels remain above the baseline for excessive amounts of time, it becomes an issue to both your health and your weight loss efforts in the long run.

Stress is a highly individual event and everyone interprets it in a slightly different manner. In other words, certain situations are more stressful for some individuals than others and it’s highly dependent upon your psychological approach to the event.

For example, your daily commute to work may be an extremely stressful event if you’re constantly short on time, rushing through your morning and trying to avoid your boss as soon as you walk through the door.

The other 23 hours outside of the gym have much more of a profound impact on your life than the 60 minutes you spend working out.

You’re Not Sleeping Enough
Sleep is one of the most neglected and important variables when it comes to muscle gain, fat loss or any other adaptive recovery process the body must undergo.

It’s tough to put an exact number on the amount of sleep you need each night, but suffice it to say, if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you’re probably not getting enough.

We know that a single night of sleep deprivation can alter a variety of metabolic processes including insulin sensitivity. Not only that, but less sleep can influence the incidence of severity of workplace injuries. I would be willing to bet that you would likely find those same incidences in a gym setting as well.

In a recent study of dieters lacking sleep, fat loss was decreased by 55 percent and muscle loss was increased by 60 percent. If your goal is weight loss while retaining the highest level of muscle, then you should make sleep a top priority.

Sleep is more about quality rather than quantity; so you should engage in activities that bring a better night’s sleep, ensure that you limit external stressors, ensure proper amounts of critical nutrients to ensure deep sleep (e.g. magnesium), and also promote a proper sleep environment.

If you’re looking for further tips to improve your sleep hygiene, see: Hacking Your Sleep 101: Nine Tips For Better Gains.

You’re Too Focused on the Scale
If your only focus is the transient number that pops up each morning, you’re going to have a tough time accurately quantifying your progress. You have to remember that weight training can drastically influence body composition without any subsequent change to your absolute weight.

Besides that, carbohydrates, salt and water can drastically affect your weight on any given day. Every gram of glycogen stores about three grams of water, so what happens if you eat a larger dose of carbohydrates one day? You’ll likely wake up slightly heavier from the increased glycogen load, but there won’t be any actual change in your body mass.

If you’re only looking at the number on the scale but not considering your body composition, energy levels or performance markers, than you’re staying rather closed-minded when it comes to your fitness or health goals.

See: Why You Don't Need a Scale to Lose Weight

Your Memory Fails You
Most individuals aren’t very good at keeping an accurate mental log of their food intake. The average consumer underestimates or under reports calories as they don’t account for snacks, condiments, beverages or simple “taste tests” throughout the day.

Not only that, the average individual is a very poor judge of portion sizes given the excessively large amounts of food that are served at most restaurants these days.

Don’t feel compelled to eat everything on your plate; restaurants will continue to make portion sizes larger and larger despite the declining health of the consumer. In essence follow your own healthy eating rules.

When it comes to weight loss, every single calorie counts including the ones you can’t or don’t want to remember.

You Use Exercise as an Excuse to Eat More
In all honesty, exercise doesn’t burn that many calories. For example, one study found that deadlifting 385 pounds for four sets of eight reps only burned about 100 calories.

Three-hundred-and-eighty-five pounds isn’t a light weight by most folks’ standards and there aren’t many who could throw it around for four sets of eight reps. Even then, 100 calories isn’t much, you could easily eat that back with a few bites of ice cream or a cookie or two.

Often people get in the dangerous habit of assuming exercise gives them more leniency to eat higher quantities of “bad” foods (i.e. those higher in calories, lower in fiber and generally devoid of micronutrients) or they intrinsically compensate by just eating more food in general.

I’m sure you’ve heard statements such as this: “I deserve some of (insert X or Y food here) because I worked out today” or ”I ate ‘clean’ all week, so I can have a cheat day today and not worry about it.” At the heart of both mentalities is the idea that exercise somehow “allocates” more food for you to eat.

There is a small nugget of truth in the sense that more muscle mass equates to a higher metabolic rate and thus you will be able to eat more calories than sedentary individuals. However, it’s a slippery slope, especially if you’re not counting calories and you don’t have an accurate grasp on how many calories exercise actually burns.

Remember, all calories count and you can’t just out-exercise a poor diet or your lack of self-control when environmental and social conditions pressure you into making poor dietary choices. 

Do More and Eat Less? Not Always…
You should always start with the basics: calories. If you have absolutely no idea why you’re not losing weight then start there. Don’t over-complicate the process if you don’t have to.

However, if you’re not losing weight and you have the nutrition side of the equation under wraps then you need to examine other external lifestyle factors. De-stress, sleep well and don’t let yourself fall into dangerous psychological traps that could derail your progress.

Don’t let your frustration from stagnation hold you back; break the status quo today and get back on track.

Demmy James is a fitness buff as well as a strength and conditioning specialist. He is also a content contributor for Muscle & Strength.

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