The NUMBER ONE Reason You’re Not Losing Weight (And What To Do About It)

To lose weight, you need to eat at a calorie deficit. Period. It doesn’t matter how clean/organic/low-carb/vegan/healthy your diet is; if you’re not eating at a deficit, you’re not going to lose weight.

Most people know this. The problem is, most people go about this the wrong way. They latch onto a number of calories that they THINK they should be eating every day, but which is more likely than not too low (1200 seems to be popular among people who pride themselves on “doing it the healthy way”, those who are reallllyy delusional about their ability to stick to a diet might aim for 800 or 500 or less), and end up on a starvation diet that isn’t sustainable and ultimately backfires with failure or weight gain.

This usually ends up playing out in one of the following ways:

  • A) You wake up every morning full of determination to stick to your diet–until 3pm or 7pm or 11pm rolls around and you’re so hungry that you find yourself eating everything in sight. You go to bed disappointed and frustrated and vowing to do better tomorrow–but the same thing happens tomorrow. And the next day. And next…
  • B) You eat “perfectly” almost all of the time, weighing every lettuce leaf and logging every calorie–except two or three times a week you find yourself binging like crazy on foods you wouldn’t even normally eat. 
  • C) You lose weight successfully for a couple weeks, but then all of the sudden you find yourself binge eating once, twice, three times a week, even though you never did so before losing weight

And you wonder why you’re not losing weight–after all, you’re only eating 1200 (or 1500 or 1800) calories a day! (On the days you track calories, that is). Why are you the heaviest of your friends, even though you’re the healthiest eater? Why can’t you be one of those girls who eats whatever they want without gaining weight? (Despite the fact that naturally thin people generally don’t binge eat.) It’s just not fair!

If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and in fact I did for years. Part of the problem is that oftentimes people underestimate both how many calories they need AND how much they’re actually eating. If you told me at age 16 that I could have lost weight eating 2000 calories a day, I would have refused to believe you. After all, 2000 calories was what “normal” people ate, and I just knew I had a slow metabolism so obviously I needed to eat less than that just to maintain my weight, and even less to actually lose.

In reality, as an active 16 year old girl I WOULD have lost weight eating 2000 calories a day. Instead, I planned my days around eating 1000 or 1200 or 1500 calories so I’d bring only about half that amount’s worth of food with me to school, then by the time I got home I’d be ravenous and eating everything in sight. As a result I was eating much more than I realized, even though I felt as though I was constantly on a diet.

As rule of thumb, you’re eating more than you think. The average person who isn’t tracking calories probably doesn’t know how much they’re actually eating to maintain their weight, and what that means is that the difference between your normal intake and your intake when you’re actually tracking calories is going to be greater than you realize. And while 1200 (or 800 or 1500 or 500) calories might sound doable when you’re sitting there on a Sunday night with a full stomach determined to start your diet tomorrow, it’s going to feel a lot different when you wake up in the morning and have to eat that amount every. single. day. for the next three months. That’s why I shake my head at girls who are all “Yay I ate 500 calories for two days now I just have to keep this up for the next six weeks!1!” Well of course your body can operate on 500 calories for two days in a row–otherwise the human race would have died out years ago–but that’s not gonna last forever and then where will you be?

The answer is that eventually your body isn’t going to be able to take it any longer, and it’s going to look for calories and energy wherever it can find them–usually in the form of fatty, sugary, calorie-dense foods. Notice my use of the phrase “find yourself eating” multiple times above? This isn’t the same as deciding to break your diet because your co-workers ordered pizza–this is literally your body taking over and acting on its own volition because it is so nutrient deprived. That’s why often bingeing can make you feel like you’re not in control–because in a way, you’re not.

The problem with this is that you end up eating a lot more than you think. It takes less than 10 minutes to eat 1000 calories of cookie dough, peanut butter, ice cream, cheese, etc. If you do that 3x a week, that’s an additional 3000 calories a week, or 430 per day. So if you think you’re eating 1200, you’re really eating 1630. 3000 calories translates to almost a pound of weight not lost–or even gained–in just 30 minutes worth of eating! And if you can eat that much in 30 minutes, think about how much you can eat over the course of a whole day. If you eat 1200 calories six days per week, but 5000 on the seventh, then your average is actually 1740!

Of course, those averages are still fairly low, so you probably could still lose weight this way…but wouldn’t it be easier to eat 1600 or 1700 calories every single day and never feel hungry or deprived rather starve yourself six days a week and feel bloated and out of control on the seventh? There’s also the fact that bingeing tends to get worse, not better, with time, and binges become larger and more frequent. Let’s say you binge two days a week instead of one–now you’re averaging an additional 1000 calories per day, and chances are you’re not losing weight anymore, even though it feels like you’re always on a diet–because 90% of the time, you are.

Most people’s impulse at this point is to start cutting calories even further. They conclude that they’re just unable to lose weight on 1400 calories or however many they’re budgeting, and decide they need to eat even less–without taking into account the binge eating or overeating that makes their average well over what they think it is. However, this is the worst possible approach, because it just perpetuates the cycle into more and more dramatic extremes. 

Now here’s the really scary part: have you guys heard of the Minnesota Starvation study? Matchstick Molly gives a great overview of it here. Basically, in 1950 the government conducted an experiment on the effects of starvation on 36 men who volunteered for the study as an alternative to military service, all of whom were in perfect psychological health with no disorders or food issues. They were given 50% of their daily calorie needs for six months. Over the course of those six months, the men became increasingly obsessed with food: they began to think and talk about food all time, hoard food, steal food and binge compulsively; they began to develop psychological problems like nervousness, social anxiety, disorders, and even psychosis, as well as physical symptoms like dizziness and headaches. Most of the men never fully recovered from this starvation period and struggled their whole lives with their weight, compulsive overeating, binge eating, and food issues. Also, their metabolisms decreased significantly. What this means is that your body’s natural reaction to starvation can actually cause a psychological eating disorder whether you are predisposed to one or not, increasing the likelihood that you will struggle with weight and food your entire life. Do you want to do this to yourself??

Okay, so if you’ve stayed with me this far then hopefully I have you sufficiently freaked out. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to discourage you from eating at a calorie deficit and losing weight! You just need to be smart about it so you actually DO lose weight and avoid making sacrifice’s for nothing. So here’s what you should do: 

1. Calculate your own calorie needs for weight loss

Just because a website or magazine or diet plan says that you should eat X number of calories per day to lose X number of pounds doesn’t mean that it’s right! Beware of a one-size-fits all diet plan: do you really think that someone who’s 5’10 and 200lbs is going to need to eat the same as someone whose 5’1 and 120 lbs in order to lose five pounds? Also keep in mind that the younger you are, the more calories you burn even if all other factors are equal. For example, a moderately active 5’4 140 lb 16 year old girl would need to eat about 1550 calories to lose a 1.5 lbs per week whereas a 45 year old women would need to eat 1350 for the same weight loss. So a calorie plan designed with an adult in mind is already likely to be insufficient for a teenager.

To calculate your own calorie needs, first find your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate ie the number of calories your body would need if you were lying in a coma) which you can do here.  Then multiply by your activity level factor which you can find here; I also wrote a guide explaining this process in more detail here. This will tell you how many calories you need to maintain your CURRENT weight. Chances are that it’s more than you think! Subtract 500 calories from that number to lose 1 lb per week, or 1000 to lose 2lbs per week. Unless you are obese, you should not attempt to create a calorie deficit of more than 1000 calories per week. Why? Because it’s not sustainable, for the reasons I explained above. Also, you should not set your goal as less than 1200 calories per week (that’s probably where this number comes from–but it’s a baseline minimum, not an ideal target). If eating 1200 calories doesn’t make much of a deficit for you, then you probably don’t have much weight to lose anyway. Either that or you should increase your activity level to see greater results at this level of intake.

2. Be realistic about your deficit–it has to be sustainable

Just because 1200 calories is the minimum you should eat doesn’t mean you should shoot for that amount. Be realistic–are you going to be able to keep it up for as long as  it takes to lose all the weight you want? If not, you’re better off creating a smaller deficit and attempting to lose 1-1.5 lbs per week instead of 2. Yes it’s tempting to try to lose weight as fast as possible, but it’s not worth it if it’s unsustainable. Which is better–losing 4 lbs in 2 weeks and then burning out, or losing 2 lbs in 2 weeks and then continuing on to lose 20 lbs over 20 weeks? (That may seem like a long time but just think if you had started out 20 weeks ago!) Ironically, the MORE weight you want to lose, the less of a deficit you’ll be able to create. If you just want to lose 3 lbs, you could theoretically get away with eating 800 calories a day because you’d only have to keep it up for a week. If you want to lose 30 lbs, that’s not going to work–you have to set your sights on the long-term and be realistic.

3. If you want to calorie cycle, plan for it

There’s nothing wrong with eating 2000 or 3000 calories some days as long as you plan for it in your weekly budget. Personally I prefer to eat this way because it fits better into my lifestyle and makes it easier to transition into maintenance in my opinion. So instead of saying I’m going to eat 1800 calories per day, for example, I’ll say that I’m going to eat 1800×7=12,600 calories per week divided into 4 days at 1500, 2 days at 2000, and one day at 2600. I might not follow this perfectly, but it gives me the flexibility to have a higher calorie day without getting off track for the week. If I had allotted 1800 calories every single day and then ate 2600 one day, I’d be 800 over budget for the week–but if I tried to correct by eating 1000 the next day I might get overly hungry and end up triggering a restriction/binge cycle. So you can avoid this by planning ahead.

4. Eat enough protein and healthy fats

The less calories you have built into your daily budget, the more strategic you need to be about how you’re getting those calories. Many people have a tendency to gravitate towards low-calorie, high-volume foods…but the problem with this is that these foods usually are low in fat and protein, meaning that you won’t be getting enough nutrients and are more likely to wind up bingeing or overeating to compensate. You still need a certain amount of fat and especially protein even if you are restricting calories. (The jury is still out on this one, but I personally agree with recommendations that say 1 gram for every pound of your ideal body weight…this is probably a little high for some people so I’ll say 2/3 gram for every pound of your ideal body weight, MINIMUM). What that means is that you are going to have to reduce carbs to make room for your protein intake…and I’m sorry to tell you this tumblr, but that means you are probably going to have to restrict your fruit. I LOVE fruit and could probably win first place in a watermelon eating contest, but I limit it to 2 or maximum 3 pieces/servings per day if I’m losing weight. (That being said, obviously fruit is always a better choice than a piece of candy or something with no nutritional value at all).

5. IF YOU’RE BINGEING, YOU NEED TO INCREASE YOUR CALORIES

Seriously. You have to. There is absolutely no point in measuring out your Special K with a food scale on Monday if you end up eating the whole box on Tuesday, or shaving 50 calories off your intake when you’re regularly having 2000 calories binges. This is the equivalent of spending 10 hours color-coding your notecards, then sleeping through the final. Or hiring a consultant to perfect your resume, then blowing off all your job interviews. Or collecting beer bottles to save 5 cents, then ripping up all your cash and throwing it in the air and stomping on it. You get my point. Seriously, if you’re binge eating on your diet, then everything else you do is pointless until you can figure out how to stop it or at least get it under control to the point where it’s not impeding your progress. And the best way to do this is to increase your target intake. Most people are going to resist this because it goes against their intuition, but I think I’ve done a pretty thorough job of illustrating why if you’re bingeing then you’re actually eating a lot more than you think. If bingeing adds an additional 500 calories to your daily average, then any increase up to that amount will put you ahead of the game. Start with another 200 and see what happens. If you don’t believe me, try tracking ALL your calories over the course of the week and see what your average comes out to–you will probably be surprised!

In conclusion, I hope this was helpful! I see this problem ALL over tumblr and it’s something that I’ve struggled with myself, so it’s a topic that is very relevant to me. I really hope it ends up being useful, and as always message me if you have questions!

4 Responses

  1. I feel like you should change your major to “fitness and diet guru” – obviously with your permission I’m going to have to direct everyone to this post. I’m totally option B…I’ve eaten perfectly all day and want pita bread for dinner. FAIL.

    • Of course!! The more people who see it the better! I love writing these posts…I love to write but have no opportunity to write in my classes so this is a fun outlet and I feel like I always learn things about myself in the process too. PS you totally can eat pita bread for dinner, theres nothing wrong with that!

  2. Ok, I heard you and I am going to try to increase my calorie intake. I am sick of bingeing. I haven’t been tracking calories for close to a month now so that I can stop the binges, but of course I have not lost any weight. I am going to try 2000 calories a day for a few weeks and see where that gets me. I am 5′ and 141lbs. I workout at least three times a week with weights and a little cardio. I’ll let you know what happens.

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