When it comes to fat loss, your results never seem to live up to your expectations.
If you’re losing one pound of fat per week, you want to lose two. If you’re losing two pounds of fat per week, you want to lose three.
Even if you feel like you’re doing everything right, fat loss will always take longer than you want it to.
You feel frustrated and confused, and you’re not alone. This happens to everyone.
Here’s why it always takes longer to lose fat than you think, and what to do about it. At the end of each section, you’ll see a summary of the reasons your fat loss has slowed, or the “Speed Bump,” and a list of solutions.
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1. You eat more than you think.
Most people have no clue how much they really eat.(1-10) They’re horrible at…
- Eye-balling their calorie intake.
- Estimating portion sizes.
- Remembering what or how much they ate, even minutes after a meal.(11)
- Measuring their food intake by volume (e.g. measuring cups).
- Being honest about how much they’ve eaten, even if they took somewhat accurate records.
This is often more of an issue for people who follow “elimination” diets like paleo, vegetarian, low-carb, low-fat or what have you. Part of the reason many of these people follow these kinds of diets is because they aren’t willing to track their food intake. In some cases people will even assume that adding “healthier” foods to an otherwise “unhealthy” meal actually reduces the calorie content.(12)
You’re probably not as bad as most people, given that you’re a more obsessive person, but you’re still not perfect. Even if you use a digital scale to weigh your food, you’re probably off by a little.
Here are several reasons why:
- Some foods, especially those from restaurants, can have 200% more calories than they say on the label.(13,14)
- Many people don’t account for how the weight or volume of food changes after it’s been cooked. For instance, baked sweet potatoes can lose half of their weight in water after cooking. If you calculate your calorie intake based on the weight of raw sweet potatoes, you’ll be eating 100% more calories than you thought.
- Many people aren’t good at estimating the calorie content of homemade food.
- If you’re using measuring cups, then your calculations can often be off by more than 50%. Volume measurements are often not much better than eye-balling your portions.
- People don’t bother counting things like fruits or some vegetables, despite the fact that many of them can have just as many or more calories than things like rice and potatoes.
When you consider all of these variables, it’s easy to underestimate your food intake by several hundred calories per day. That’s often enough to slow your rate of fat loss by 20 or 40 percent.
Another common problem among highly motivated people like bodybuilders, models, and athletes is binge eating. When people binge, they usually don’t count the those calories.
Most people don’t really enjoy binging and don’t want to think about what they ate, how much they ate, or how they felt at the time. It’s easier to try to forget it. In other cases people purposely overeat… aka have a cheat day… aka eat way too many calories and not count them.
Here’s an example to show how this might affect your long-term fat loss.
Let’s say you eat 2,000 calories per day to lose weight. That gives you an average weekly calorie intake of 14,000 calories.
You have a 6,000 calorie binge on one of those days. (That’s on the low-side of what most people do).
Your weekly calorie intake just rose to 18,000 calories. This would change your average daily calorie intake to 2,571 calories per day, which is enough to completely stall your fat loss.
This doesn’t mean elimination diets don’t work, that you should turn into a neurotic weirdo about measuring your food intake, or that you should never have some days where you overeat on a diet. However, if you’re having trouble losing weight, you might want to reassess your calorie intake and see if you’re making one of these mistakes.
You eat more calories than you think.
- Be more precise about measuring your calorie intake — use a scale if you need to.
- Prepare more of your own food
- Eat less, even if your estimations already say you’re not eating that much. (You’re probably underestimating).
- Use strategies to eliminate binge eating.
- Take a diet break.
2. You don’t burn as many calories during exercise as you think you do.
Most people are almost as bad at estimating their calorie expenditure as they are their calorie intake.(15,16)
In one study, some people thought they burned 3,000-4,000 calories after brisk walking for about half an hour. On average, the subjects thought they had burned about 800-900 calories, when in reality they burned 200-300.(16)
When you diet, you also sometimes feel more lethargic, which can make it harder to exercise at the same intensity.
Let’s say you normally ride a bike at about 12-14 miles per hour for 30 minutes a day — a fairly moderate pace. When you diet, you feel more sluggish, and without realizing it your pace drops to about 10-12 miles per hour. If you’re a 70 kilogram male, that would mean you’d burn about 70 fewer calories in only 30 minutes. Over an entire week that would be about 500 calories.
In other cases, it might be harder to train at all. If you start working out twice per week instead of three, then you could easily burn 600 fewer calories per week or almost 100 calories per day.
You’ll usually have fewer problems with maintaining the intensity of your workouts or the motivation to train if you use a less severe deficit, but this can still happen on any diet.
Another problem is “the licensing effect” — people assume that exercise gives them the “license” to overeat on calories. Sometimes this is intentional, e.g. “I just ran for an hour and burned a zillion calories, therefore I can eat half a pizza.”
In other cases, people subconsciously eat too much relative to their exercise levels and end up quitting when they don’t see results. In the same study where people drastically overestimated their calorie expenditure, the subjects also generally ate about 550-600 calories after the workout or about 2-3 times as much as they burned.(16)
In other cases, people do burn a lot of calories through exercise, but they still eat too much. There are a lot of athletes who burn 1,000-2,000 calories per day through exercise who still struggle with their weight, because they eat too many calories.
You don’t burn as many calories during exercise as you think you do.
- Be more consistent with your exercise routine.
- Use an objective method for estimating your energy expenditure such as MET values — not the numbers on cardio machines which are virtually always inaccurate.
- Use an objective measurement to make sure you’re maintaining the intensity of your workouts while dieting, such as your strength in the gym, your running pace, or your wattage if you’re a cyclist.
- Err on the side of estimating you burn fewer calories rather than more.
3. You burn fewer calories through daily movements.
When you cut calories, your levels of subconscious movement, aka, “NEAT”, drop.(17,18) You’re also less motivated to make yourself move to do things like get the mail or take the stairs, which are examples of “NEPA,” or non-exercise physical activity.
Both NEAT and NEPA usually drop as you lose weight. In some cases this can be drastic. Studies have shown that after weight loss, people can burn around 350-400 calories less per day through physical activity.(17) People who’ve lost even more weight can often burn around 600 calories less per day due to a drop in NEAT and NEPA.(18)
Even small, seemingly irrelevant changes in your movement patterns can have a big impact on your energy expenditure. Just fidgeting while you sit can increase your energy expenditure by about 46% over sitting still.(19)
Other studies have shown that people who move more throughout the day are less likely to regain weight after losing it.(20-23)
Even if you do everything you can to move more, you may still burn slightly fewer calories at the end of the day. This drop might be as little as 50-100 calories per day or as much as 300-400 calories less per day in a worst case scenario.
This is something you’ll have to accept if you want to lose fat. However, you can still help prevent your activity levels from dropping with the following tips:
You burn fewer calories through daily movements.
- Sneak in as much movement as possible into your day, in whatever form you enjoy most. Take every opportunity to move.
- If you’re lying on your back, sit upright.
- If you’re sitting, stand.
- If you’re standing or sitting, fidget as much as possible.
- Move faster.
- Park further away from your destination.
- Open doors by hand.
- Use a pedometer to track your steps and shoot for a higher number.
- Use a sit-stand work station.
- Take the stairs whenever possible.
- Plan a break into your day every hour where you get up and walk around for a few minutes.
4. You weigh less, so you burn fewer calories.
As you lose weight, your fat cells shrink. In some cases, you may also lose some lean body mass.
Your body is becoming smaller and thus requires less energy. You also burn fewer calories during exercise because you’re moving less weight.
The more weight you lose, the more your metabolic rate will generally decrease.(24-27) Your resting metabolic rate will decrease even more if you lose a larger proportion of muscle mass.(28-31)
Let’s say you’ve lost 20 pounds. You were smart about your diet, so you lifted weights and ate enough protein. However, you also rushed things a bit and lost some muscle mass, too. At the end of your diet, you lost about eighteen pounds of fat and two pounds of muscle.
A pound of fat burns about two calories per day and a pound of muscle burns about six calories per day. After losing 20 pounds, you would burn around 48 fewer calories per day.(32) That’s not a lot, but it’s still more than most people realize — especially when you factor in your exercise levels.
Using the same example from above, let’s say you ride your bike at about 10-12 miles per hour for half an hour per day. At your old weight, 79.1 kilograms, you would burn about 237 calories. At your new weight of 70 kilos, you’d burn 210 calories.
Now you’re burning 75 calories less per day just through maintaining your resting metabolic rate and exercise. You’ll probably burn at least 100 fewer calories after you account for the fact that you’re also burning fewer calories through every other movement during the day — solely because you weigh less. This effect is going to be greater if you lose more weight.
You weigh less, so you burn fewer calories.
- Exercise more often, longer, and/or at a slightly higher intensity.
- Diet in a way that minimizes the amount of muscle you lose.
- Eat less.
- Maximize your levels of daily activity with the above suggestions.
- Use a weighted vest (Hey, it’s still an option).
5. Your muscles become more efficient.
As you lose weight, your muscles use less energy to perform the same movements.
One study found that people who had lost weight were about 27% more efficient at pedaling a bike. Part of this is because you’re lighter and have better technique, but there are also biochemical changes that take place within your muscles that reduce the number of calories you burn during exercise.(33)
Other studies have also shown that people who’ve lost weight generally have increased muscular efficiency.(34-36)
However, one problem with these studies is that they often use extremely light forms of exercise — like lightly spinning the wheels of a stationary bike against no resistance, which might not be relevant for you. Other data has also not found significant changes in muscular efficiency while dieting.(37,38)
Another problem with these studies is that they usually don’t have the subjects progressing — they keep exercising at the same intensity every workout. While becoming more efficient means you burn fewer calories, you also can work at higher absolute intensity, thus burning more calories. In general, progressive training helps you burn more calories over time.
This doesn’t necessarily apply to your daily movements, however, which also become more efficient. There’s a limit to how much NEAT and NEPA you can cram into a day, and no matter what you do, you’ll probably burn slightly fewer calories because your muscles become more efficient.
Your muscles become more efficient.
- Increase the duration, frequency, and/or intensity of your workouts.
- Challenge yourself with new kinds of exercise.
- Move more throughout the day.
- Eat slightly less.
6. You’re lean.
People with more body fat can generally lose fat much faster than leaner people for several reasons.
1. Heavier people generally have higher energy needs.
Obese people often have extremely high resting metabolic rates, sometimes close to 3,000 calories per day.(24) These people also burn even more calories than lighter people during easy exercise, like walking at the same speed on a treadmill.
Heavier people can create a larger caloric deficit while still eating a lot of food. If an obese person needs 3,900 calories per day to maintain their weight, and they cut back to 2,000 calories per day, they might lose over three pounds per week.(24)
2. Leaner people lose more muscle when they diet faster.
If you’re closer to the limits of leanness, you generally lose more muscle the faster you lose weight.(39,40) While you can lose more fat if you use a large calorie deficit, you’ll also lose more muscle.
For males who are below about 10% body fat and females who are below about 18% body fat, it’s much smarter to use a smaller deficit. While this helps prevent muscle loss, it also means you lose fat slower.
It’s not uncommon for bodybuilders to lose only 0.25-0.5 pounds of fat per week as they get close to their competition date. In contrast, very overweight people can often safely lose 2-3 pounds of fat per week while losing little to no muscle.
- Decrease the size of your calorie deficit as you get leaner to minimize muscle loss.
- Prioritize resistance training over cardio.
- Increase the duration, frequency, and/or intensity of your workouts.
- Move more throughout the day.
- Stop complaining because you’re lean — be patient.
7. You’re a woman.
Women generally lose fat slower than men.
They’re generally smaller and have less muscle mass.(41) Other data indicates that women may also have 5-10% lower resting metabolic rates after adjusting for lean body mass.(42)
Women tend to have a harder time mobilizing fat stores and also usually have lower levels of fat oxidation at rest.(43)
Some data also indicates that women tend to be slightly worse on average at estimating their calorie intake.(44,45)
If you’re a woman, you’re probably going to lose fat slower than most men.
(Disclaimer: I’m obviously not saying there’s anything wrong with being a woman; it just makes fat loss slightly harder).
You’re a woman.
- Eat slightly less.
- Move more throughout the day.
- Increase the duration, frequency, and/or intensity of your workouts.
8. You’re a unique genetic snowflake.
You may lose fat slower than most others even if you’re doing everything right.
There are several possible reasons for this:
- Lower leptin and insulin sensitivity.
- Lower thyroid levels.
- Lower fat mobilization or oxidation.
- Larger drop in metabolic rate with dieting.
- Lower exercise tolerance and/or recovery capacity.
- Lower levels of NEAT and/or NEPA.
- Higher levels of dietary disinhibition and greater susceptibility to food reward.
- Lower ability or motivation to exercise, measure calorie intake, prepare meals, and engage in other important lifestyle behaviors.
There are also some diseases that make it harder for people to lose fat, but they aren’t relevant for most people.
Some people are hardwired to lose fat easily while others have to work much harder to see results. It’s possible you might be in the latter category.
You have a “thrifty” metabolism, meaning you have a genetic predisposition to carrying more body fat than you’d like.
- All of the other solutions in this article.
9. You set unreasonable expectations.
If you set more realistic expectations, you’ll probably be less disappointed with your results.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set challenging weight loss goals. In fact, people who set “unreasonable” weight loss goals generally lose just as much weight as those who set more moderate ones. They also tend to maintain their weight loss just as well.(46,47)
In this case, setting “reasonable expectations” means:
1. Acknowledging that it will probably take longer than you want to lose fat, and that your progress won’t be linear.
2. Being flexible about your diet and exercise habits, and keeping a long-term perspective rather than only focusing on your daily or weekly rate of weight loss.
If you’re prepared for weight loss plateaus and small mistakes, you’ll handle these situations better and lose fat faster.
You set unreasonable expectations.
- Give yourself about 20% more time to reach your goal weight than you think you’ll need.
- Expect to eat more than you meant to on some days or to miss a few workouts.
- Consider all of the previous variables when deciding how fast you think you can lose fat.
- Work with a coach to help you decide a reasonable rate of fat loss and to help deal with the issues you learned about in this article.
Be Happy with Slower Progress
Fat loss always takes longer than you want it to.
Some of these problems are behavioral — you eat more than you think and you don’t burn as many calories as you think. In other cases, your problems are out of your control — you weigh less, your muscles become more efficient, you lose a larger percentage of muscle, or you have a genetic predisposition to weight gain.
However, there are always things you can control to help you keep losing fat. Even if you’re doing everything right, you’ll probably lose fat slower than you’d like. If you set reasonable expectations from the beginning, however, most of these problems are far less important than you might think.
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