Why am I in a calorie deficit but not losing weight?

A common complaint, as a registered dietitian, I hear is “I’m in a calorie deficit but not losing weight. The scale won’t budge.”

It can be frustrating and confusing, leaving you wondering why your efforts are not yielding the results you desire. 

In this article, we will learn what a calorie deficit is, the factors that influence a calorie deficit, explore some possible reasons why you may not be losing weight despite being in a calorie deficit, other fat loss indicators to consider, and provide some strategies to overcome this plateau. 

Hey, I’m Jenn, a Registered Dietitian who has a passion for helping individuals fuel, think, and move towards the best versions of themselves without sacrificing their relationship with food. If you want practical, evidence-based nutrition advice to improve your performance and wellness — Learn how I can help

Let’s dive in!

What is a calorie deficit?

A calorie deficit occurs when you consume fewer calories than your body burns createing a negative energy balance. This causes your body to tap into stored energy (fat) to meet its energy needs leading to a reduction in body fat. 

Factors that influence a calorie deficit

Diet composition, total daily energy expenditure, sleep, stress, and metabolic variation all influence a calorie deficit. 

Diet Composition 

The composition of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) in your diet plays a vital role in influencing satiety levels and overall energy balance. Protein-rich foods increase feelings of fullness while helping preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss efforts. Adequate intake of healthy fats is essential for hormone production and nutrient absorption.

Total Daily Energy Expenditure

Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is a term used to describe the total amount of energy or calories that an individual burns in a day. It includes all the energy expended by the body through various processes such as basal metabolic rate, physical activity, and the thermic effect of food.

Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR):

Think of this as the minimum calories your body needs to function at rest. 60-70% of our daily energy goes to maintain basic bodily functions such as breathing, digestion, and cell production at rest. Factors that influence BMR include age, gender, weight, height, and muscle mass.

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): 

This is the most variable component of daily energy expenditure ranging from 6% to 50%. NEAT is the energy expended during daily activities that are not sleeping, eating, or exercising. These activities can include walking, shopping, typing, fidgeting, gum chewing, yard work

Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT):

This is what most people think burns the most calories. While it does not burn the most, regular exercise is important since it not only burns calories but also increases muscle mass, which boosts metabolism even at rest. Exercise accounts for 15-30% of energy expenditure.

Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) 

Digesting, absorbing, and storing nutrients from the food we eat requires energy for our body to go through those processes. Those processes account for 8-15% of our daily energy expenditure. Certain foods, like protein-rich ones, can slightly boost this effect. 

Sleep Quality & Stress Levels

Both sleep quality and stress levels can affect hormonal regulation related to appetite control—specifically ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the satiety hormone). Lack of sleep and chronic stress can disrupt these hormones, leading to increased appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods.

Metabolic Variation

Everyone’s metabolism is unique, and influenced by genetic factors, hormonal imbalances, medical conditions, and medications. Some individuals may naturally have a slower metabolic rate or experience weight loss plateaus despite creating a calorie deficit.

Factors that influence a Calorie Deficit

Reasons why you are not losing weight in a calorie deficit

You’re not really in a calorie deficit 

This is the most common issue. Most people think that they are in a calorie deficit but underestimate how many calories they are eating or overestimate how many calories they burn in a day. 

It is not always your fault, sometimes “sneaky calories” such as mindless snacks, condiments, or oil for pans can add up. You can still eat all of those things and achieve your weight loss goals but taking a more mindful approach can help. My clients work on pairing their meals and snacks with fiber and protein while mindfully enjoying their meals and snacks to help achieve a calorie deficit. 

Overestimating the calories we burn in exercises or daily movement is easy when smartwatches try to tell us how many calories we burn. However, currently, none of the major smartwatch brands have been proven to be accurate in measuring energy expenditure.

Water Retention

If you are one of my “I have to weigh myself every day” type of people. As a registered dietitian, I don’t recommend this unless you have certain conditions and were told by your doctor to do so. The dramatic changes we can see on a day-to-day basis are not from fat but most likely from fluid shifts from consuming more sodium or carbohydrates than usual. 

Water and sodium balance are closely interdependent. High sodium foods can cause our cells to soak up extra water so that they can counteract the higher sodium intake

For every gram of carbohydrate stored in the body as glycogen, there are approximately 3-4 grams of water retained. This isn’t a bad thing. But if you have been on a low-carb diet and are making the switch to a more balanced diet you may notice the scale went up due to water storage. 

Poor sleep quality 

7-9 hours of sleep is considered the appropriate amount to support overall wellness and health in adults. It is estimated that a quarter of adults and an even larger percentage of children and adolescents are sleep-deprived. 

Sleep deprivation affects various aspects of our health, including metabolism and appetite regulation. Studies have shown that insufficient sleep increases hunger hormones while reducing levels of hormones responsible for satiety, leading to increased food cravings and potentially derailing progress even within a calorie deficit plan. 

Prioritize quality sleep to support your weight loss efforts effectively.

There’s a medical reason you’re struggling to lose weight

Sometimes, an inability to lose weight despite being in a calorie deficit could be attributed to underlying medical conditions like hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

These conditions affect metabolism directly and can lead to weight loss resistance. Consult with a healthcare professional if you suspect an underlying issue might be hindering your progress.

Your metabolism has adapted to your calorie deficit 

During weight loss, our basal metabolic rate (BMR) decreases in response to calorie restriction and weight loss. Our body is very sophisticated, when we are in a deficit our body learns to function at a lower caloric maintenance leading to individuals reducing their caloric restriction further. When this cycle continues, our body prioritizes survival functions (like your heart beating and lungs breathing) and decreases metabolic or hormonal functions. 

To fix this, we want to slowly increase calories over time to help our body slowly build back its metabolic functions. 

You’re losing fat but gaining muscle

Weight loss and fat loss are often used interchangeably but have different meanings and implications for our health and well-being. Often when I work with clients, I am helping them shift from a weight loss mindset to a fat loss mindset. 

Fat loss refers to reducing your body’s fat mass which is typically the goal most people are after when looking to improve body composition, reduce chronic disease risk, and look “leaner.”

When you lose fat there are not always significant changes to your weight. This is because if you are incorporating resistance exercises, you may gain lean muscle mass which can offset the fat loss on the scale. 

Non-Scale Indicators of Progress

Instead of letting a number on the scale define progress, I like to encourage clients to look at other indicators of success such as:

  • Do you have more energy?
  • Have you noticed changes in your body composition? Have you noticed increased muscle mass?
  • Are your clothes fitting better? 
  • Has your sleep improved?
  • Is your blood pressure and blood sugar improving?

These types of indicators give us a better look into your wellness journey than the number on the scale. They are also more motivating for individuals than a number that can easily fluctuate and does not give you a clear indicator of your health and wellness progress. 

Overcoming a Weight Loss Plateau 

Trying to maintain a calorie deficit and losing weight can be a challenging journey, and at times, you may find yourself hitting a plateau where your progress stalls. This phase is frustrating but not uncommon in weight loss journeys. However, with the right strategies and mindset, you can overcome this obstacle and continue making progress towards your goals. Here are some ways to help break through this plateau:

Incorporate Strength Training

If you are not incorporating any resistance training, now is the time to do so.  Resistance training promotes the retention of muscle mass which helps boost the metabolism even at rest

Eat Enough Protein

Protein helps boost metabolism, increase satiety, and preserve muscle mass. I advise clients to strive for 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To find your weight in kilograms divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.

So let’s say you weigh 180 pounds. You would divide 180 by 2.2 to get 82 kilograms. Then you would multiply 82 by 1.6 and 2.2 to find your protein range, which is 131-180 grams of protein per day. 

If you are far below your range, start slowly by aiming to eat 20-40 grams of protein with meals and 10-20 grams of protein with snacks. 

Prioritize Quality Sleep

Insufficient sleep increases hunger hormones while reducing levels of hormones responsible for satiety, leading to increased food cravings and potentially derailing progress even within a calorie deficit plan. Prioritizing quality sleep can help you overcome a weight loss plateau. 

Drinking tart cherry juice before bed, avoiding afternoon caffeine, reducing blue light exposure, and setting a consistent sleep schedule can help improve your sleep quality.

Manage Stress Levels

Chronic stress releases cortisol – a hormone known for promoting fat storage around the midsection. Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as practicing meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or engaging in hobbies that help you relax and unwind. By reducing stress levels, you can potentially break through the weight loss plateau.

Seek Help From a Professional

Consulting with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian can help provide valuable insights and personalized guidance to help navigate through any obstacles. 

Working closely with clients to help them overcome obstacles is what I do best. Together, we will create a sustainable fueling plan that incorporates the things you love while infusing nutrient-packed foods along the way! Instead of limiting and avoiding certain foods, we will utilize all foods as fuel to help you succeed. When you finish you will improve your relationship with food, understand the importance of nutrient timing, and have confidence when fueling to meet your goals. 

Schedule a FREE 15-minute nutrition discovery call today!

Conclusion

A calorie deficit is widely regarded as the key to weight loss. However, it is important to remember that the human body is complex, and individual experiences may vary.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are consistently maintaining a calorie deficit but not losing weight, it may be necessary to consider other factors such as metabolic imbalances, stress levels, sleep patterns, or underlying medical conditions. 

Remember, sustainable and healthy weight management involves more than just focusing on calories alone, it requires adopting an approach that focuses on overall well-being. 

I help clients improve their overall well-being while improving body composition. If you need  

Let’s schedule your free discovery call, where we will talk about: 

  1. Your goals and nutrition challenges
  2. How we can start building your nutrition plan
  3. Scheduling your first session to start accomplishing your goals!
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Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Website | + posts

Jenn Schmidt is a licensed and board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Minnesota. Her specialty is in performance nutrition and wellness, which focuses on helping individuals fuel, think, and move towards their best selves without compromising their relationship with food. Jenn is passionate about all things food-related and enjoys making complex science easy to understand for her clients and readers.

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