If you find yourself battling the scale, or feel that you’ve hit a plateau on your weight loss, here are some possible reasons why.
1. You’re eating more than you THINK.
Studies show that people usually underestimate the amount of foods eaten. Even if you are religiously entering your calories into a food diary and you think you SHOULD be losing weight based on the numbers, there are a couple of factors that could be off: if you’re not measuring or weighing foods on a food scale, you could be off in the quantities. If you’re eating packaged or restaurant foods, remember that the food industry gets 20% leeway!! Now you know how they get all those nice round numbers on food packages, like “100 calorie” packs.
How to fix it: Overestimate what you think you’re eating by 20% or so to counteract this effect. Another, perhaps better strategy: use a hunger scale, where you rate your hunger from 0-10, where 0 is “ravenous” and 10 is “uncomfortably stuffed”. Aim to eat when you’re around 3 – “hungry” and stop eating when you’re at 7 – “satisfied, not hungry at all.”
2. You’re overestimating how much you need to eat.
This is particularly true if you’ve hit a plateau. As you lose weight, your calorie needs go down (I know, it’s a cruel trick of weight loss). I don’t necessarily advocate counting calories for all clients, but when I estimate calorie needs, one of the factors used is current weight. So if your weight goes down, your calorie needs go down too. And it makes sense, because as you lose weight, you lose muscle mass, bone mass, and even your organs get smaller (this is one of the reasons it’s SO important to get off the diet roller coaster and get on an healthy eating pattern you can maintain). This means your body needs less energy to support these smaller structures, and you burn fewer calories carrying your smaller body around.
How to fix it: First, step away from the “quick” weight loss plans and adapt healthy eating that you can maintain. Second, if you want to count calories, make sure to have your estimated calorie needs re-calculated after every 10 or so pounds you lose.
3. You’re burning fewer calories than you think.
Not only do we generally underestimate our calories eaten; we usually over-estimate calories burned during exercise. Gym equipment such as treadmills can over-estimate your calorie burn, as can DVD workouts. I saw a DVD that says the workout burns 800 calories!! Based on what? If you’re not entering your age, weight, and gender, there is no way for it to accurately estimate calorie burn.
How to fix it: Remember that exercise makes up only about 20% (or less) of weight loss, though research has shown it to be beneficial in weight maintenance, so consider exercise as a way to maintain weight loss (as well as maintain muscle mass when you lose weight) and to improve overall health: it improves your sleep quality, mood, heart health, insulin sensitivity, and about 50,000 other functions in your body. Find an exercise you enjoy, or choose an exercise you can do along with something you enjoy – like putting the treadmill in front of the TV, for example. You can binge-watch your favorite TV show while getting in shape.
4. You’re not getting enough sleep.
When you don’t get adequate sleep, it wreaks hormonal havoc. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone increases (I like to think of Ghrelin as the “hunger gremlin”) with inadequate sleep. One study showed that after a period of inadequate sleep, people who then got adequate sleep reduced their intake of fat and carbohydrates and lost a small amount of weight. Inadequate sleep can also increase risk for disease, such as diabetes.
How to fix it: Make sleep a priority, not a luxury, because it is crucial for your health. Set a bedtime you can keep most nights, and wake up at about the same time, even on weekends. And put your cell phone and other light-emitting devices somewhere other than at the bedside.
5. You’re making excuses/giving yourself permission.
If you ever find yourself saying “I only have cake at birthday parties,” or “I only splurge like this when I’m on vacation or travel,” or “I’ve had a bad day – I deserve a treat” it could be a problem; just think, if you work in an office where there is a birthday every week, and you go on vacation or travel often, or you have a stressful job, this could really add up fast! While food should be enjoyed, if you’re constantly getting out of your usual healthy eating routine with excuses, just know that these “splurges” can become new habits very easily.
How to fix it: Be mindful of your foods, and when you’re having a stressful day, ask yourself if it would be better to breathe through it, call a friend, watch funny videos on YouTube, or treat yourself to a mani/pedi rather than “treating” yourself with food. You deserve to take good care of your body.
6. Your body composition is changing, but it’s not reflected on the scale.
This is why it’s important to use other methods of measuring progress, such as waist circumference and other body measurements and even checking blood pressure, blood sugars and cholesterol levels. As you become fit, you can look to other measurements to show progress, when it may not show up on the scale. The scale is only one small measurement of your health, but all too often it’s the one we obsess about.
This list was not meant to discourage you, but rather to inform you of the common pitfalls that affect people who are trying to lose weight. There are some things you can do to be successful: eat more whole, unprocessed vegetables and fruits, get adequate lean protein, use a hunger scale and listen to your body before and during eating as well as throughout the day, enjoy food and be mindful while eating (not while driving or watching TV), eat more slowly to allow your body to register the feeling of fullness, and drink plenty of water. Most importantly, focus on progress, not perfection!