If you consistently eat fewer calories than your body burns every day, you'll lose weight. You don't need to do intermittent fasting or Keto. You don't need to learn the 'One Weird Trick That Doctors HATE', eliminate entire food groups or drink juice containing activated charcoal. You merely need to expend more energy than you take in. On paper, at least.
In the real world, losing weight is less linear. Human beings aren't lab subjects, and life has a way of subverting even the most well-intentioned health kick, leading many to look for a quick fix. Enter the multi-million pound diet industry, brimming with bogus supplements and fad diets, neatly wrapped up in layer upon layer of dodgy science.
Dieting is defined as 'restricting yourself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight'. What diet creators won't tell you is that you're doomed to fail from the offset – around 85 per cent of dieters wind up gaining the weight back within a year, studies show. Ironically, people who diet are the most likely to gain weight in the future, which makes dieting a reliable predictor of weight gain – not loss.
Even when it isn't trying to coerce you into parting with cash, the diet industry is plagued with misinformation. Take spot reduction: the idea that you can somehow isolate and reduce fat in one specific part of your body is a total myth. It has been debunked by science again and again. But when an influencer with an eight-pack and no formal qualifications says it worked for him, people believe him.
Influencers aren't required to meet any scientifically or medically-justified criteria in order to dish out weight loss advice. There's no regulatory body holding them accountable, and that's a problem. A study by the University of Glasgow assessed nine leading UK weight management bloggers – all had more than 80,000 followers on at least one social media site – for transparency, evidence-based references, trustworthiness, adherence to nutritional guidance, and bias.
The influencers needed to score 70 per cent or higher to pass. Of the nine, only one actually provided accurate and trustworthy information, scoring 83 per cent. This unnamed person was degree-qualified and registered as a nutritionist with the UK Association for Nutrition. Another influencer, who was a medical doctor, did not pass. The lowest score, from an influencer without any nutritional qualifications, was just 25 per cent.
In a world where people have eaten cotton balls (the Cotton Ball Diet), skipped a meal to stare directly at the sun for 44 minutes (the Sun Eating Diet), and even infected themselves with tapeworms (the Tapeworm Diet) in pursuit of a svelte physique, there's no understating the selling power of a short cut. But weight loss can’t happen overnight. It's a complex psychological, behavioural and lifestyle shift that requires flexibility, patience and a consistent, sustainable calorie deficit.
If you're ticking off all those boxes and the scales still aren’t shifting? Well, we might have an inkling why. Don't worry, your metabolism isn't broken. Your hormones aren't faulty. Carbohydrates are not conspiring against you. Here are 10 evidence-based reasons why you aren’t losing weight, approved by experts and backed by science:
1) You're Training for Gains
No, muscle doesn't weigh more than fat. Think about it: a kilogram is a kilogram. However, when you're training (and eating) to build mass, it makes ditching your paunch more challenging, explains London-based PT and instructor George Palmer. "Building muscle requires a calorie surplus – eating more calories than you burn – so it tends to conflict with fat loss goals," he says.
This is especially true if you're a seasoned lifter who has benched their way beyond 'newbie gains' territory – the near-supernatural muscle growth that occurs in total beginners, even in a calorie deficit. If that's you, dialling up your protein intake to 2.4g per kilogram of body weight will help you grow muscle and burn fat simultaneously, McMaster University found.
2) You Aren't Sleeping Well
A sleepless night is every dieter's worst enemy. Not only does sub-par sleep crank up levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin – sending your appetite into overdrive – but studies show it dulls activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is in charge of decision-making and self-control, and stimulates your reward centres, so cravings are infinitely harder to resist.
And when you do eventually give in, you're more likely to store the contents as fat. In a study by the University of Chicago, when dieters got a full night's kip – 8.5 hours in bed – more than half of the weight they lost was fat. When they cut back their sleep to 5.5 hours, only a quarter came from fat. Worth remembering when Netflix beckons at 11pm.
3) You're Stressed
In the short-term, your 'fight-or-flight' response shuts down your digestive system, suppressing cravings. But when stress persists, cortisol binds to the hypothalamus receptors in the brain – making you feel ravenous – and dulls your sensitivity to leptin, the satiety hormone.
The kicker? You're hard-wired to hold onto belly fat in times of stress. When your cortisol levels are chronically high, your blood sugar levels spike, and the excess glucose is stored as fat. Cortisol also slows your metabolism, and mobilises stored fat cells from around your body to deposit on your belly as visceral fat.
That's not all. Chronic stress boosts the formation of new fat cells, according to a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism. When you're stressed out, your body produces hormones called glucocorticoids, which convert 'precursor cells' into fat cells. When levels are constantly high, you'll have more fat cells, which leads to weight gain.
4) You're Dehydrated
Even mild dehydration can cause your scales to stick, a mini-review published in Frontiers in Nutrition found. How so? "Dehydration keeps the levels of a hormone called angiotensin II chronically high," explains Alex Ruani, a doctoral researcher in nutrition science education at University College London. "As a result, this hormone – which is supposed to maintain body fluid regulation – stops working properly."
On the other hand, she says, adequate hydration is associated with weight loss. For example, drinking 500ml water before a meal leads to eating fewer calories in one sitting, a study by Virginia Tech found. "Also, upping your fluid intake boosts lipolysis, a key process for fat loss," says Ruani. "And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, drinking 500ml of water increases your metabolic rate by 30 per cent."
5) You’re Underestimating Your Intake
The difference between a measured tablespoon of peanut butter (15g) and a heaped tablespoon of peanut butter (35g) is 120 calories. Add two generous tablespoons to a breakfast smoothie and that's 240 calories unaccounted for. Nibble a handful of olives or a few scraps of cheese while you're prepping lunch and your calorie deficit can disappear.
"Studies have shown that people are notoriously poor at 24-hour recall of their dietary intake," says Anna Hardman, lead sports dietitian at nutrient tracking app Fuelbetter. "What we think of as just a 'little bite' or snack – one biscuit or a tiny handful of nuts – may contain 100 to 200 calories. That's more than enough to get you off track."
6) You Don't Vary Your Workouts
When your workouts become too routine, your muscles adapt and weight loss efforts stall. Stave off boredom and stoke your metabolic fires by incorporating progressive overload, which is PT-speak for 'make the next session tougher than the last'. Your body has to work harder to recover, burning more calories in the process, known as EPOC – Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption.
"Progressive overload is most commonly used in resistance training, but it can apply to any other types of exercise," says Palmer. Even long-distance running. "You can try running more frequently during the week, for a longer period, or at a faster pace," he says. "Some people find it useful to listen to music with a BPM that gradually increases from session to session, encouraging them to run faster."
7) You're Eating Less, but Not Better
When trying to lose weight, people tend to put a lot of emphasis on eating less – and this translates into less variety, leaving your body nutrient-depleted, says Hardman. "If you're limiting nutrients as well as calories, you will soon begin to feel low in energy and even hungry. That's when you'll reach for sugary food or start skipping workouts," she says.
In a study by the National Institutes of Health, participants who followed an ultra-processed diet ate faster, consumed more total calories and gained more weight than those who ate minimally-processed food – even though the meals they were given contained the same number of calories, protein, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre and fat.
8) You're Overestimating Your Needs
The 'average' man should eat 2,500 calories a day to maintain a healthy body weight, according to government guidelines. But who is the average man? "In truth, only about one per cent of the UK population actually fits the definition of average," says Anna Hardman, lead sports dietitian at Fuelbetter. "If you follow this guide and use it to try to lose weight, there's a 99 per cent chance you'll be getting it wrong."
Instead, calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure – the number of calories you burn in one day – and make sure you're in a small deficit, no more than 500 calories. It could be as easy as swapping your latte for a black coffee (save 200 calories) and heading out for a run (burn 200 calories). Be careful not to drop below your Basal Metabolic Rate – the number of calories your body needs to function – or your metabolism will stutter.
9) You're Eating Too Often
Instagram's fitspo gurus will have you believe that eating frequent, small meals throughout the day increases your metabolic rate, causing you to burn more fat at rest, but the science doesn't stack up. Studies actually show that meal frequency has no significant effect on how many calories you burn.
While digesting a meal does marginally hike your metabolism – known as the 'thermic effect' of food – it doesn't matter whether you eat three 100-calorie snacks, or one 300-calorie snack. If eating too often means you consume more calories than you need over the course of a day, it'll sabotage your weight loss efforts.
10) You're Eating Too Many Healthy Foods
Swapping your ice cream for Greek yoghurt is encouraged. Eating twice the amount because it's 'healthy'? Not so much. If weight loss is your goal, you need to keep your portion sizes in check, no matter what's on your plate. "The laws of thermodynamics are inescapable," says Ruani. "When we take in more calories than we use or excrete, we put on weight. When we take in fewer calories than we use or excrete, we lose weight."
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