When it comes to fat loss, the science is very simple – to lose weight you must create a calorie deficit. However, while this is easy in theory, often progress doesn’t go as planned and weight loss doesn’t occur, or it simply stops. The key here is working out the reason why the scale isn’t moving then adjusting accordingly.
Sometimes fluid shifts within the body can mask progress and provide a distorted perception as to your true progress. To what degree this happens will vary from person to person, but it can be misleading and frustrating when it happens. More water retention will generally mean a higher scale weight, though this doesn’t necessarily mean more body fat. This can occur due to shifts in your hormones, increased carb consumption and spikes in sodium, all of which can lead to more water retention.
However, if it’s in been multiple weeks of you being in a “deficit” and you’re still not losing any scale weight, the reality is it’s likely not a fluid shift. You’re probably just not in a calorie deficit and a change is required. In fact, it’s very common for someone to be in a theoretical calorie deficit but not losing weight. The reason this occurs can be due to flawed calculations, non-adherence and/or metabolic adaptation.
Often an individual won’t lose weight because they have an incorrect strategy, which is usually due to a flawed assumptions or calculations. Maintenance calories is one such calculation which is commonly miscalculated, especially as too often maintenance is viewed as a fixed and finite point. The reality is that maintenance is a dynamic and fluid range of calories which will evolve over time as your context and nutritional strategy does.
A good example of this is when someone is maintaining their weight at a certain point, say 2500 calories. They then decide they want to diet, so they drop 500 calories per day, aiming for 2000 instead with the hope of losing 0.5kg per week. Yet, it’s not uncommon for the scale to not even change at all for some people despite decreasing calories.
There could be many reasons for this, and one would be that when maintaining weight at 2500 calories, they were sitting at the top end of their maintenance range. Thus, when they transitioned to diet mode, they haven’t decreased calories enough to break out of their maintenance range, energy output has decreased, and they are now sitting at the bottom end of the maintenance. The solution is a greater distortion of energy balance to break out of this point to achieve progress.
Often though, people don’t lose weight due to a much simpler reason. They may just be making errors and not being adhering to the dieting protocols, either knowingly or unknowingly. Common examples of this is include data entry errors when tracking calories and forgetting to count the small things or miscalculating big things. All calories count, regardless of whether you count them yourself. The end result here is a higher calorie consumption and a calorie deficit isn’t created.
Finally, over time our metabolism will adapt to the conditions you impose upon it. When under feeding occurs, your body will become increasingly more efficient with its energy production, in an attempt to conserve fuel. This can lead to a slowing and then stagnation on the scale which can be incredibly frustrating. The deeper you push a dieting phase, the more metabolic adaptation will be a player.
As a result, what may have once been the right numbers to initially create a calorie deficit, will eventually no longer be enough to generate progress, at least to the same degree. If you kept losing off the same dieting protocols without ever having to make a change, one key thing would happen. You would vanish and die! You can’t diet forever, and your body wants to hold onto your precious energy dense body fat to provide you with fuel.
Ultimately, you need to be realistic and expect periods where your weight loss slows and stalls. The process isn’t perfectly linear so expect a plateau, but you need to know how to counter one too if want continued progress. You also need to know when enough is enough and a return to maintenance calories is required.