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Why am I not losing weight in a calorie deficit?

We're taught that you just need to be a calorie deficit to lose weight. But for some, this may not be enough. Discover the reason behind this and how your metabolism affects weight loss.

Nicol Ingram
Nicol Ingram
Health coach
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Why am I not losing weight in a calorie deficit?

When you embark on a weight loss journey, it’s essential to pay attention to the quality and quantity of the food you eat, as well as the amount of energy you consume throughout the day.

As you likely know, the biological key to shedding fat deposits is to consume fewer calories than our body burns. This is known as a calorie deficit, and it is the go-to method for most people aiming to lose weight. However, if you’ve ever wondered why you’re not losing weight even though you’re eating less than you usually do, there’s actually a reason for this. In this article, we’ll explore what BMR is, how weight loss can stagnate even if you’re in a calorie deficit, and what you can do to get around this.

What is BMR and how does this affect a calorie deficit and weight loss?

The energy that our bodies need to function properly comes from the food we eat. 

This energy is used to fuel our brain, heart, lungs, nervous system, immune system and all other bodily processes. 

Basal metabolic rate (BMR)

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the total amount of energy that our organs and basic functions require to operate, which makes up about 70% of our daily energy needs. Additionally, our bodies use energy to digest the food we consume, which is known as the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). 

Thermic effect of food (TEF)

The TEF varies depending on the type of food we eat, and it accounts for approximately 10% of our daily energy requirements. This means that the remaining 20% of our energy is used for physical activity and movement in our daily lives. 

However, this percentage can be higher if we are more physically active throughout the day. 

How to balance your calorie deficit for weight loss

Starting a weight loss journey can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to figuring out the right diet and ensuring that our BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) and TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) are properly fueled. 

To lose fat, we need to be in an energy deficit, but we also need to make sure that we are consuming enough food and drink to meet the energy needs of our organs and basic functions. Consuming too few calories can lead to the body drawing energy from areas other than our fat deposits, such as muscle tissue and organs, which can eventually lead to a plateau in weight loss.

In this state, the body may experience intense hunger, and several adaptations may occur, including a decrease in metabolism and basic functions like body temperature. This can lead to long-term complications and cause our body to gain weight as a survival method. 

Therefore, it's crucial to eat a sufficient amount of food to provide our body with enough energy for all the vital processes that keep us going.

Is it possible to be in a calorie deficit and not lose weight?

As we lose weight, our body requires fewer calories, a phenomenon known as metabolic adaptation

This is because there is less of our weight to maintain. 

As we continue to eat at a caloric deficit, our metabolism will begin to slow down. This is a natural response to a reduced energy intake. If we cut our calorie intake too drastically, our body will slow down its metabolism in an attempt to maintain its weight. 

Furthermore, when we don't consume enough energy, our muscle mass begins to decline. The problem with this is that muscle mass influences around 80% of our metabolism, so a reduction in muscle mass leads to changes in our metabolic rate. 

As our metabolic rate decreases, our body requires fewer calories, which can cause our weight loss efforts to stall. Essentially, our body is trying to hold on to whatever resources it can to keep us alive.

Why am I not losing weight when I eat so little?

If we drastically reduce our food intake for several consecutive days, we may feel a strong desire to indulge in high-calorie meals and drinks on the weekends. 

This can easily undo the calorie deficit that we created during the week. 

Over-restricting our calorie intake may cause us to over-indulge, leading to consuming more calories than we should every few days. As a result, we may not be in a calorie deficit on average over time, which means that we may not lose body fat. 

Following an extreme calorie reduction diet can make us feel tired and frustrated, leading to yo-yo dieting. We may not even realize that when we are in an energy deficit, our body naturally moves less throughout the day. This is called adaptive thermogenesis, which can cause us to burn fewer calories. People may not notice that they are reducing their energy expenditure through activities such as reducing NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which refers to movement that isn't formal exercise, such as walking up stairs, cleaning, or carrying shopping. 

On top of this, when you eat less, it's normal for your subconscious mind to reduce non-exercise activities, which can cause you to move less.

Is a calorie deficit the only way to lose weight?

As we’ve already mentioned, being in a calorie deficit is how we lose weight, but is focussing solely on cutting the calories the only way to lose weight? Are you just forever going to feel deprived and hungry? 

Not at all.

It's not easy to determine the exact amount of calories a person needs as everyone's energy and nutrient requirements differ greatly. Because of this, we recommend that you don’t follow metabolic calculators blindly. Instead, it's important to listen to our body and make gradual changes over time. Drastically reducing our energy intake can lead to negative consequences such as slowing down our metabolic rate. 

Therefore, we should focus on strength training and consume enough protein to keep our metabolic rate high. Resistance training can include weightlifting, yoga, pilates, hiking, swimming, and similar activities. 

How we approach calorie counting at Embla

At Embla, we believe that calorie counting is not the most effective way to maintain a healthy diet, as there is much more to nutrition than simply counting calories. 

The way calories are presented in food can affect how our bodies process and utilize them. Therefore, we focus on the quality of the diet, including plenty of TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) foods such as lean meats and plant-based foods, and making gradual changes to our food intake. Also, it's important to avoid trying to lose more than two pounds per week, as rapid weight loss can be unhealthy and unsustainable.

In summary, to achieve long-term fat loss, it is important to develop healthy habits such as:

  • Regularly exercising
  • Staying active throughout the day
  • Eating a balanced diet that meets our energy requirements. 

The key to success is to focus on the long-term and listen to our body to determine what "healthy" means for us. 

If we try to lose weight by restricting our food intake too much, we may end up slowing down our metabolism, making it harder to enjoy social eating, and setting ourselves up for a lifetime of weight fluctuations. 

For sustainable weight loss, it is important to create a small calorie deficit that we can maintain while still enjoying our lifestyle. If you're looking for sustainable weight loss advice and personal guidance to reach your health goals, explore our holistic weight loss program.


References

Benton D, Young HA (2017) Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight. Perspect Psychol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639963/

Hall KD (2018) Metabolic Adaptations to Weight Loss. Obesity (Silver Spring). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6086582/

Horgan GW, Stubbs J. (2003) Predicting basal metabolic rate in the obese is difficult. Eur J Clin Nutr. Feb;57(2):335–40.

MacKenzie-Shalders K, Kelly JT, So D, Coffey VG, Byrne NM. (2020) The effect of exercise interventions on resting metabolic rate: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32397898/

Martin M, Krystof S, Jiri R, Martina D, Renata V, Ondrej M, et al. (2016) Modulation of Energy Intake and Expenditure Due to Habitual Physical Exercise. Curr Pharm Des. 22(24):3681–99.

Martínez-Gómez MG, Roberts BM (2022) Metabolic Adaptations to Weight Loss: A Brief Review. J Strength Cond Res. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33677461/

McPherron AC, Guo T, Bond ND, Gavrilova O. (2013) Increasing muscle mass to improve metabolism. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3661116/Singh M, Dureha DK, Yaduvanshi S, Mishra P. (2010) Effect of aerobic and anaerobic exercise on basal metabolic rate. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Sep 1;44(Suppl 1):i26–6.

Wang Z, Ying Z, Bosy-Westphal A, Zhang J, Schautz B, Later W, Heymsfield SB, Müller MJ. (2010) Specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues across adulthood: evaluation by mechanistic model of resting energy expenditure. Am J Clin Nutr. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2980962/

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Nicol Ingram
Nicol Ingram
Health coach
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