“I religiously track my food and exercise. I’m eating 1,300 calories (the number my tracker told me to eat if I want to lose 2 pounds a week). I’ve been following a strict diet and the scale hasn’t budged. My friends tell me I am eating too little. I think I must be eating too much because I am not losing weight. I feel so confused… What am I doing wrong?”
I often hear this complaint from weight conscious people who don’t know if they are eating too much or too little. They believe fat loss is mathematical. Exercising 500 calories more, or eating 500 calories less, per day will result in losing 1 pound (3,500 calories) of fat per week, correct? Not always. Weight reduction is not as mathematical as we would like it to be.
Is it a diet or a famine?
If you are already exercising like crazy and are eating far less than you deserve—but the scale doesn’t budge—you might wonder if something is wrong with your metabolism? Are you eating the wrong kinds of foods? What’s going on…?
When athletes have excess body fat to lose, they tend to lose it relatively easily. But when they get close to their race- and/or dream-weight, fat loss can slow to a crawl. That’s when frustration sets in. You might think reducing your calorie intake even more would be a good idea. No. You would deprive your body of too many nutrients, to say nothing of lack energy to perform well.
When you significantly restrict calories, your brain perceives the lack of food as a famine. Doing extra exercise makes the situation worse, especially when your body is at a low weight. With no excess fat to lose, your body conserves energy and maintains weight at a calorie intake that historically would have resulted in fat loss.
Nature protects the body from losing weight during a (perceived) famine by slowing your calorie-burn: The heart rate slows (not due to fitness but rather to lack of fuel). Blood flow to extremities slows in order to keep your organs warm. Your hands and feet feel cold all the time. The stomach/intestinal tract slows; constipation can become an issue. The hormonal system reverts to pre-adolescence. Women produce less estrogen and stop having regular menstrual periods. Men produce less testosterone. You feel excessively tired. You can muster up energy to exercise, but then are droopy the rest of the day. Fatigue becomes your middle name.
Role of genetics
When an athlete complains about lack of fat-loss despite rigid food restriction, one of my first questions is “How do you look compared to others in your genetic family? Are you leaner—or far leaner—than they are? The standard response is far leaner. Remember, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Nature’s blueprint for your body might differ from your dream physique.
Pay attention to what others say about your body. If your mom or partner says you are too thin, listen up and stop striving to be leaner yet. Rather than struggle to lose those last few pounds, gently accept your physique and be grateful for what your body does for you. It is strong, healthy, powerful, and able to do what you ask it to do (run a marathon, raise a family, train for and complete an Ironman, bike 100 miles, etc.). It is a resilient vehicle that carries you through each day. It’s good enough. Hopefully, you will not have to experience a broken leg or be diagnosed with cancer before you learn to be grateful for your body and how it allows you to walk, run, and live an active lifestyle—regardless of your size or shape.
Eat more, get fat?
You can stop the diet/famine by eating more; you will not instantly get fat. Rather, your metabolism will quickly return to normal. If your body is too thin, it will strive to restore itself to a genetic weight. This is why athletes can have a hard time staying at their “racing weights.” Being too thin is very hard to maintain.
If you believe you still have excess flab to lose, yet the scale doesn’t budge despite your strict diet, what can you do? I generally recommend eating more and exercising less. To the shock of many of my calorie-deprived clients, this tends to work better than exercising more and eating less. Sounds counter-intuitive. How can that be true?
Think of your body as being a campfire. When it has three logs to burn, it generates a lot of heat. When it has just one log, it produces just a small flame. The same with your body, the more fuel it has, the more calories you will burn.
While adding calories, focus on the benefits: how much better you feel, the power in your workouts, your happier mood, and better quality of life. If you don’t trust your body and are fearful that eating more will end up with your regaining the weight you worked so hard to lose, get help. A sports dietitian can guide you through this process. Use the referral network at SCANdpg.org to find your local expert.
Are fitness trackers helpful?
Fitness trackers offer information that is interesting but not precise. Something strapped on your wrist can sort of measure what your legs are doing, but many variables impact accuracy. For example, pushing a baby jogger with straight arms gives a different step count than if you were to run with freely swinging arms. (1)
As for energy expenditure, note that some of the calories reported as being burned during your workout include calories you would have burned in that hour regardless of exercise. Knowing calories burned can be dangerous… “Oh, I just burned 500 calories, so now I deserve to eat ice cream!!!” Tracking might not enhance fat loss. (2)
Your body is your best calorie counter. Instead of tracking calories to determine if you have eaten the correct amount, try listening to your body. Before you eat, ask yourself, Am I eating because my body needs fuel—or because I am bored, lonely, or stressed? … Am I stopping eating because I am satisfied? Or just because I think I should? By eating mindfully, you will not over-eat nor under-eat. You’ll simply relearn skills from childhood, when you ate when you were hungry, stopped when you were content, maintained a good weight, and never ran out of energy. Life is better when you are free from being in food-jail.
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer are available at nancyclarkrd.com. For her online sports nutrition workshop, co-presented with exercise physiologist John Ivy, see www.NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.
1. Nelson et al. Validity of Consumer-Based Physical Activity Monitors for Specific Activity Types. Med Sci Sports Exercise, 48(8):1619-28, 2016.
2. Jakicic et al. Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Life-style Intervention on Long-term Weight loss. JAMA 316(11):1161-71, 2016