Weight loss is a process—a process that doesn’t always brings success as quickly as you may want it. While healthy weight loss can take time, there are reasons you might be struggling to lose weight that are worth considering as you measure your progress.
For instance, maybe you’re committed to a regular workout, but you’re not burning enough calories. Perhaps you are exercising enough and eating well, but you have a medical condition that is blocking with your ability to shed pounds.
There are many things that can affect weight loss, some of which may be more obvious than others. It’s worth considering all of them as you work to make changes that will get you results.1
1. You’re Eating Too Much
One of the most important factors in weight loss is how many calories you’re eating versus how many calories you’re burning.
It may seem obvious, but unless you’re tracking your calories each day, you may be eating more than you think. In fact, research has found that most of us underestimate how much we’re eating, especially when we go out to eat.
A 2008 study published in JAMA noted research participants underestimated how many calories were in a high-caloric food nearly 100 percent of the time.
For example, when assessing the calorie content of fettuccine Alfredo or chicken fajitas at a restaurant, participants underestimated calories by 463 to 956. That’s a pretty big discrepancy and one that could easily affect weight loss goals.
To more closely track you diet:
- Determine what your body needs: Learn how to calculate how many calories you should aim for to lose weight.
- Keep a food diary: Getting in the habit of writing down what you eat in a food diary prompts you to really think about what you’re eating. You can use your own notebook or an online tracking program, such as My Food Diary. Log your food intake every day for at least a week, being as specific as possible: Measure your portions, read food labels, or access nutritional information if you’re eating out.
- Analyze your diet: Online tracking websites will often give you an overview of how many calories you’re eating as well as a breakdown of different nutrients. They can also help you get an objective look at your overall eating habits so you can look for ways to cut calories. You might even consider working with a registered dietitian who can make more specific recommendations based on your data.
2. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain. A 2006 study found women who slept five hours a night were more likely to gain weight than women who got seven hours of sleep.
Researchers speculate that:
- Losing sleep may make you feel hungry, even when you’re not.
- Sleep deprivation may affect the secretion of cortisol, one of the hormones that regulates your appetite.
- When you’re tired, you may skip exercise or simply move around less, burning fewer calories.
Getting enough sleep is crucial if you’re trying to lose weight, not just because of how it affects you physically, but mentally as well. Sleep deprivation can make you feel cranky, confused, irritable, and can even contribute to depression, which can affect your activity level and food choices.
Getting up and going to bed at the same time every day, avoiding stimulants like caffeine several hours before bedtime, and other changes can go a long way in improving the rest you get.
3. You’re Not Exercising Enough
Exercise is, of course, a crucial element to weight loss, but it’s hard to know if you’re doing the right workouts or burning enough calories. Start by looking at your overall program to get a sense of how much you’re exercising and how much you really need.
For weight loss, experts often recommend 60 to 90 minutes of exercise each day. If you’re doing high-intensity workouts, that number drops to up to 30 minutes.
If you’re not close to that, this gives you a place to start. This doesn’t mean you have to start working out for almost two hours a day, however. In fact, that’s a bad idea if you’re not used to that level of exertion, as it could lead to injury, burnout, or overtraining.
What this does mean is that you need to make a very important decision:
- Either you need to increase your workout time and intensity to match your weight loss goals, or
- You need to change your weight loss goals to match what you’re actually doing.
Don’t forget, it’s not just about structured exercise. Working out for an hour doesn’t cancel out the next eight or nine hours of sitting (something many of us do).
In addition to exercise, try to be as active as you can: Take regular breaks from the computer, take walks whenever possible, stretch, wear a pedometer to see how many extra steps you can get in, limit your TV time, etc. If you spend more than 8 hours sitting, that could be one more reason you’re having trouble losing weight.
If you find your workouts are hit-or-miss these tips may help you stay on track.
4. You’re Stressed Out
Stress and weight gain, or lack of weight loss, go hand in hand. Constant stress can contribute to a number of health problems, including:
- Raising cortisol: Like sleep deprivation, too much stress increases the production of cortisol. Not only does this increase appetite, it can also cause extra abdominal fat storage.
- Cravings: When we’re stressed or unhappy, many of us reach for “comfort foods” that are high in sugar and fat.
- Skipping workouts: Feeling down, fatigued, or stressed can make a workout seem too daunting.
Taking short moments throughout the day to consciously check in with yourself and lower your tension levels is a good starting place for dealing with chronic stress. Mindful meditation is a good way to bring more calm to your life, and a study published in the journal Eating Behaviors found that it can decrease binge eating and help reduce emotional eating.
Keep in mind that chronic stress may not easily be solved on your own. Talking with a counselor or your doctor can help you identify your stressors and the best ways to manage them.
5. Your Metabolism Has Slowed
Metabolism can slow for a number of reasons, one of which is age, particularly if you don’t preserve your muscle mass. Some estimates show that muscle mass declines about 4 percent each decade from ages 25 to 50, which is important as lean muscle burns more calories than fat.
If you’re still eating the same number of calories as your metabolism drops, your weight may creep up over time. Start exercising and lifting weights now to keep your metabolism in check.
6. You’ve Hit a Plateau
Almost everyone reaches a weight loss plateau eventually. As your body adapts to your workout, it becomes more efficient. Over time, your body will expend fewer calories performing the same exercise. Your weight loss progress will begin to slow down and may even stop.
Some common reasons for plateaus include:
- Doing the same workout: Your body needs to be challenged to progress, so make sure you’re changing up your program every four to six weeks.
- Not eating enough calories: If your body doesn’t have enough fuel to sustain your level of activity, your body will conserve, rather than burn, calories.
- Overtraining: If you exercise too much, your body may respond by decreasing the number of calories you burn on your rest days.
There are several ways to help break through a weight loss plateau, including varying up the exercises that you do and changing your intensity or duration. Experiment to find the ones that work for you.
7. You Actually Don’t Need to Lose Weight
Many people have an unrealistic idea about what it means to be at a healthy weight.
Ask yourself: If you take away all the reasons you want to lose weight that have anything to do with how you look, are there any other reasons you need to lose weight? Are you at risk for medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease? Is your BMI in an unhealthy range?
A conversation with your doctor can help you make sure your wishes and goals are in line with what’s not only healthy for your body, but possible.
For some people, losing weight may be an important component of getting and staying healthy. But if you’re healthy at your current weight, it may be best to invest your efforts in figuring out how to be happy with the weight you are.
Remember that healthy bodies don’t all look the same and that negative thinking can trick you into believing things about yourself that just aren’t true.
Try to focus on all the things you like about your body. Appreciating all the things your body can do can help improve your body image.
8. You’re Impatient About Results
Just because you’re not losing weight doesn’t mean you’re not getting positive results. Your body may be making changes that a scale simply can’t measure, so hinging the evaluation of your success on how much you weigh can sometimes be discouraging.
Ask yourself these crucial questions:
- Are my weight loss goals realistic? Experts agree a realistic weight loss goal is losing a half a pound to two pounds in a week. If you try to lose more than that, it’s not likely to be sustainable.
- Am I seeing any results? Forget about the scale. Use other changes as a gauge, such as:
- You’re losing inches, even if you’re not losing pounds.
- Your clothes fit differently.
- You’re slimming down somewhere. You may not firming up in exactly the places you want to see changes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening elsewhere.
- Have I given myself enough time to see results? It often takes three or more months to see significant changes; for many people, it can take longer. Keep in mind that the process isn’t always linear. Unless you follow your diet and exercise program to the letter 100 percent of the time, you won’t lose weight at the same rate from week to week.
- I am getting other desirable benefits? Do you feel better? Sleep better? Feel stronger? Make a list and refer back to it if you ever feel discouraged. Remember that these are big wins, too.
Consider hiring a personal trainer if you need help setting realistic personal fitness and weight loss goals.
9. You Take Weekends Off
It’s not uncommon to find yourself doing well during the week only to get a little too relaxed in your exercise and diet over the weekend. While an occasional break and treat are fine, consistently letting go on the weekend could be hurting your weight loss goals.
Generally speaking, to lose one pound of fat in a week, you would need to cut 500 calories with diet and/or exercise each day. If you only do so for five days, then overeat or skip your workout for the next two, it’s akin to taking one step forward and two steps back.
That doesn’t mean you can never treat yourself. Try these suggestions to stay on track:
- Avoid a free-for-all: Instead of cutting loose on Saturday and Sunday, choose one or two treats to enjoy over the weekend while sticking to your healthier diet.
- Avoid rewarding yourself with food: If you’ve been eating healthy all week, it’s tempting to want to reward yourself. It’s good motivation to have something to look forward to, but try rewarding yourself with experiences, such as a trip to the movies or the mall, rather than food.
- Keep moving: It’s fine to plan some time for rest on the weekends, but that doesn’t mean you have to be completely sedentary. A nice walk with your family or tossing a football in the backyard may not be structured exercise, but it still counts.
- Plan for fun: If you like indulging a bit on the weekend, plan your treats into your diet and exercise routine so you can really enjoy them. If you want pizza on Friday night, plan a lighter lunch earlier in the week and ramp up your Thursday workout, for example.
10. You Have a Medical Condition
Weight loss is a complex process involving a variety of factors. Some we can control, such as our diet and exercise. We can also work to manage stress and develop good sleep habits. There are some factors that influence weight loss that we can’t control, such as our genes, sex differences (including the influence of hormones), age-related changes, and our individual body type.
If you aren’t losing weight despite changes to your diet and activity level, see your doctor to rule out a medical condition as the cause. Not only is this important if you aren’t seeing a difference in the scale or your body despite your efforts, but even more so if you’re inexplicably gaining weight.
There are several health conditions and medications that have been linked to weight gain, including:
- Thyroid conditions
- Medications to treat diabetes
- Corticosteroid (steroid) medications
- Some antidepressant medications (SSRIs)
- Beta-blockers used to treat high blood pressure
- Antipsychotic and anticonvulsant medications
Continue to monitor changes in your weight. Tell your doctor if you gain more than five pounds in a month without any changes to your diet or exercise.