It’s Monday. You jump out of bed ready to step onto the scale – you’re feeling good about your progress today. Over the weekend you said no to chocolate, no to alcohol and you skipped that dinner out with friends. You went for multiple runs and you recall eating super healthy all week. You step on the scale…
No, there must be a mistake. You step off and back on again.
Your stomach drops as you realize your hard work hasn’t budged the number on the scale. Not at all. In fact, you are 2 pounds heavier than last week.
You look in the mirror and wonder if this is the way you will always be. 2 pounds heavier. So much hard work, so many times you said “no” to foods you desperately wanted, so many calories burned on those runs… And for what? Just to gain weight?
“Why can’t I lose weight?,” you’re whispering even though what you really wanted to do was shout.
Then you start reasoning with yourself. It must be your hormones. You are sure you were doing everything right! Maybe you should exercise harder? Maybe you need to cut more foods out, should you eat even healthier? Or maybe it’s your body weight “set point” working against you and this is just the way you’re meant to be?
Stop the “why can’t I lose weight?” guesswork and instead identify exactly what the problem is and what to do about it.
This is an all too common experience, but here’s the truth. The reason you can’t lose weight is very rarely due to your hormones, your damaged metabolism or your body weight set point that’s working against you.
In this guide, I’ll work you step-by-step so that stop being on a weight plateau and go back into dropping the pounds in a completely predictable way. Let’s get started by first making sure there’s indeed a “why can’t I lose weight?” type of problem here…
Step 1. Is your cycle masking your results?
While it’s tempting to blow things out of proportion and start mourning your damaged metabolism, it’s actually quite possible that all is normal and the reason you feel you can’t lose weight is as simple as where you are in your cycle!
Yup, did you know your cycle is responsible for weight fluctuations as big as a couple of pounds?
You know what that means? First, it means that unless you’ve consistently tracked your weight for a few cycles already, then you don’t now how these fluctuations are affecting you. That also means that going 1 pound up or down week to week may have nothing to do with your fat loss progress and everything to do with your cycle!
So unless you’ve eliminated your cycle as a possible problem here, do not move forward with this “why can’t I lose weight?” guide just yet. But if you’re certain there’s an actual problem here, let’s move on.
Step 2. If this is only a couple of pounds issue, are you sure water retention is not masking your results?
Water retention is a big reason we see so many fluctuations on the scale and why the scale isn’t always the best measure of progress!
It increases the scale weight (sometimes by up to a few pounds!) and can make you look bloated and puffy, giving the illusion that you have gained weight when you actually haven’t. (Losing water is also the reason so many people think low carb diets are magic – the initial fast weight loss results are simply your body getting rid of excess water, not actual fat loss.)
To minimize the effect water retention has on your perceived results, make sure you have an arsenal of progress measuring tools beyond the scale. Body measurements and progress photos are the easiest options, but you can also go into body fat percentage calculations using calipers or other methods if you want a clearer picture of what your body is doing.
This image illustrates a number of different ways to measure your fat loss progress. You’ll notice there are a few measures that go beyond the physical – even though we are focusing on physical weight loss here, sometimes a performance or a positive mindset win is just as important as a weight loss win (but that discussion is for another day!)
Bottom line: Don’t rely on only the scale to measure weight loss progress!
If you’re sure your problem isn’t water retention, then you do indeed have a “why can’t I lose weight” problem. Let’s look deeper to find what’s happening.
Step 3. If this is only a couple of pounds issue, and you’ve been exercising, are you sure that your weight-training is not masking your fat loss?
You know what strength training does? It helps you build muscle. Muscle is the key to beautiful curves and defined arms.
But when you’re “building muscle” you’re not just “waking up” muscle you already have; you’re also creating new muscle!
And new muscle is not weightless.
So if you’re training really well, and you’re a female weight-training beginner, then you may be gaining 0.5 lb – 1 lb of muscle per month. The scale cannot differentiate between fat and muscle. So if you’ve lost 5 lbs of fat, gained 1 lb of muscle, then the scale will show you a total of 4 lbs lost because that’s what the scale does – it measures your weight, not your body fat.
But if you start using the additional fat loss progress ideas we talked about in Step 2, then the difference will be striking. You see 1 lb of fat has 3x the volume of 1 lb of muscle. So if you were to lose 1 lb of fat but gain 1 lb of muscle, the scale would show no difference, but, e.g, your measuring tape will be reflecting this. Your jeans will also be reflecting this as you’ll now be fitting into them better, even though the scale says nothing changed.
Please review our body composition article to better understand how you get to build muscle, lose fat, and not get hang upon what the scale says but keep on rockin’ instead.
Step 4. Make sure you understand CICO, or “calories in – calories out.”
Ok, if it’s not your cycle, if it’s not water weight, and if it’s not your training, then we have an actual “why can’t I lose weight?” situation. Here’s how to work with it.
Although many like to argue this fact, science says your weight really is a matter of calories in vs. calories out (1, 2, 3). That’s right, sugar and carbohydrates do not have a “special” type of calories that make them more fattening than other foods! If you eat more calories than you need then you gain fat, while if you eat fewer calories than you need (or burn more calories) then you’ll be losing fat.
If you’re on a calorie deficit, then you will be losing fat, period. If you’re not losing fat, and your cycle or water retention is not the culprit, then you’re not on a calorie deficit.
When I say you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight, that means calories in needs to be less than calories out.
- Calories in consists of all the food you eat. This is simple to calculate if you are tracking everything that goes into your mouth, but the act of tracking food can be cumbersome for some.
- Calories out is the more complex side of the equation because it consists of all the energy you burn. Exercise is only a tiny part of your calories out because your body is constantly burning calories 24/7 – the way your body burns calories is known as your metabolism.
What that means is the reason you can’t lose weight is most likely due to one or more of the following:
- You’re eating more than you think (calories in)
- You’re burning less than you think (calories out)
- Your maintenance calories are lower than you think
- A combination of the above
What’s interesting here is that you may think, even feel certain, that none of those apply to you. You may, for example, be persuaded that because you eat salads every day then these could not possibly apply to you.
But bear with me because in a few minutes and if you follow the steps of this guide then you’ll know exactly what’s going on and get yourself out of this maze and back into steady weight loss.
Step 5: Calculate your maintenance calories.
Your maintenance calories reflect the amount of calories you need to neither gain nor lose weight. You need energy to breathe, pump blood, digest food, move, etc. Energy is measured in calories and your maintenance calories are dependent on your metabolism:
- The calories your body burns at rest (calories needed for the body to function on a basic level)
- The calories burned from eating food
- The calories burned from random, non-exercise activity/movement throughout the day (NEAT)
- The calories burned during exercise.
The problem is your metabolism is pretty hard to exactly pinpoint and it’s changing on a daily basis. E.g., one day you’ve slept well and did two hours of exercise. You also attended a birthday party, had pizza, cake and beer. The next you had not slept well, you ate some oat muffins for breakfast and a kale-avocado salad for lunch and other than that, spend the day lounging on your couch.
Yes, you’ll have different energy requirements on each one of those days.
So now you’re in trouble. How are you supposed to calculate your maintenance calories if maintenance calories are different every day?
A simple equation that takes into account your gender, weight, age and activity level can be a great starting point for you to estimate how many calories you should be able to eat on average to maintain your bodyweight. You can find this equation in our calorie deficit article, or here for a simple calculator version.
When you calculate your maintenance calories, remember to think of this as a range to account for individual metabolism differences (e.g., your calculated maintenance calories might fall within the range of 1800 cal – 2200 cal.) You might be on the high end of the range, or the low end, but you can’t really know where you sit until you follow it for a while!
We’ll get back to this point later on as well. But for now, let’s move on to the next step of the “why can’t I lose weight?” situation that we have here.
Step 6: Determining “calories in” – are you sure you’re not eating more than you think?
A common mistake many people make is thinking eating “clean” or “healthy” will automatically result in weight loss. Eating healthier foods might make it easier to achieve a calorie deficit (and it’s also good for you), but the foods themselves do not cause weight loss (e.g., you will gain weight eating only healthy foods if you’re on a calorie surplus!)
This is shown in the image where we have outlined what looks like a healthy meal plan of 2000 calories and then compare the effect of this meal plan on 3 different individuals. These 3 different people have 3 different maintenance calories and hence will all have a different outcome by following this 2000-cal “healthy” meal plan!
- The first woman who’s at 1800 cal will actually be gaining weight as she’s now consuming 200 cal more than she needs.
- The second woman will be maintaining as he calories in match exactly her maintenance calories.
- The man will be losing as by only consuming 200 calories he’ll be on a daily 500 cal deficit!
Eating “healthy” is generally fine, but if you’re trying to troubleshoot why you can’t lose weight, then you cannot assume that you’re on a deficit just because you’re eating healthy.
So how can you make sure you know exactly how much you are eating? Start tracking your food intake!
Tracking involves documenting everything you eat, including snacks, little bites, drinks and meals. Tracking your food is like checking the speedometer of your car to see how fast you’re going – you don’t have to do it forever, but tracking for a short amount of time can be invaluable when it comes to learning about your eating habits and supporting your weight loss goals.
If you’re interested in tracking your food, these are some great apps that make the process much easier:
- My Fitness Pal (huuuge free food database, but because anyone can input food data you need to make sure you are using accurate food entries. Great for monitoring macronutrient targets and very easy to use and you can unlock further features for a fee)
- Calorie King (great for their huuuge free food database which is more accurate than MFP. However, you can’t set macronutrient targets and there’s no Android app)
- My Macros + (detailed macronutrient targeting but the food database isn’t as extensive. Can unlock further features for a fee)
If you start tracking ALL your food and drink and you discover you were eating more than you thought, try reducing your portion sizes for a few weeks! Or say you discover you aren’t eating too much, in which case the next reason could better explain why you aren’t losing weight.
Step 7: Determining “calories out” – are you burning less calories than you think?
Even though exercise will help increase the amount of calories you burn and most importantly, will help prevent muscle loss, most people:
- often overestimate how many calories they burned leading them to not lose weight at the pace they expected.
- sometimes eat more than they would because they feel they “earned” it, hence negating the effect of exercise, or even eating more calories than they actually burned during their workout.
And that’s how you burn 300 calories during your workout but end up eating 400 because you “burned all these calories!”
On top of that, most of us forget to subtract the number of calories we would normally burn by doing nothing (which means we think we are burning all these extra calories when we aren’t!)
For example, say a 70 kg (= 154 lbs) person went for a 30 min jog – they would burn approximately 300 calories. If they did nothing for 30 mins (like just sitting on the couch) that same person would burn approximately 35 calories. So that jog actually burned 300 calories minus the 35 calories they would have burned anyway, which is an extra 265 calories burned for the day (not 300.)
Another way we tend to overestimate our energy expenditure is by assuming that all gym activity is equal. If you go to the gym and lift weights, how many calories will you burn? The answer depends largely on how much effort you put in! Two different people (both 70kg) could do the same weight session, but both get something completely different out of it.
Person 1 goes to the gym and lifts weights but only at an average pace and with average weight – they burn 115 calories in half an hour. Person 2 also lifts weights at the gym, but at a faster pace and with a heavier weight (relative to their strength) – they burn 220 calories in half an hour. For an even higher calorie burn, either of these people could lift their weights in a circuit training style and burn approximately 300 calories!
(Note: While we are comparing calorie burn here, it’s important to remember that exercise has soooo many positive benefits beyond just weight loss and calorie burning! Plus, doing ANY exercise is ALWAYS better than doing none.)
Are sure you’re tracking the calories burned through exercise accurately? Do you subtract the calories you’d burn anyway? Personally, I slash what I think I burned during exercise in half, just to be on the safe side that I’m not blowing things out of proportion.
Step 8: Have you estimated your maintenance calories correctly?
So you’re doing everything “right” – you’re tracking your food accurately and consistently, you’re exercising 3-5 days per week by combining both cardio and resistance training in a progressive program and feel confident you’re calculating your calorie burn accurately, you’re sleeping well… But you’re still not losing weight??
Your maintenance calories must be lower than you think, because if you’re not losing weight, you can’t be in a caloric deficit!
Remember when you calculated your maintenance calories that I talked about coming up with a range (e.g., 1800 – 2200 cal), then picking a number within that range, and finding out later if it was the right one?
A very big reason this range is so big is due to the calories you burn just going about your everyday life – you know the 23 hours in day when you’re not participating in a structured physical activity! The calories you burn when you aren’t exercising are part of NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) and this include things like walking to your car, what you do at work, playing with your kids, cleaning the house, etc.
So a carpenter will most likely have a higher NEAT than a bartender, and both of them will probably have a higher NEAT than an office worker! To put this in perspective, half an hour of carpentry work could burn up to 250 calories (depending on the type of activity being done), half an hour of bartending could burn up to 100 calories and half an hour of office work might burn only 65 calories.
NEAT makes a huuuuge difference for your metabolism and weight loss goals, but is often forgotten. If you have a high NEAT then your maintenance calories will probably be closer to the upper part of the range you discovered in back in Step 5. If you have a low NEAT then your maintenance calories will probably be closer to the lower part of the range in Step 5.
So let’s say your maintenance calories would have been within a certain range, e.g., 1800 to 2200. What that means for you:
- If you initially chose to start on the higher end of the range (say 2200), try lowering your calories to the lower end of the range (say 1800).
- Or maybe you started on the lower end of the range (say 1800)? Try lowering even further because your initial calculation may have been off.
Step 9. Have you already lost a significant amount of weight (e.g., 20 lbs) and now find you’re on a plateau? It’s time to update your maintenance calories.
If you’ve already lost a significant amount of weight, e.g., 20 lbs, and you’re currently experiencing a weight loss plateau where the number on the scale is no longer moving, it’s time to update your original calorie equation.
After weight loss your resting metabolic rate will decrease – this means the equation you originally used will no longer be accurate for your current body weight!
What that means is that you cannot expect a 200 lbs individual to have the same energy requirements with an 180 lbs person. The lighter person has a smaller body which means less energy required to maintain it.
So if you used to weigh 200 lbs, and you’ve now come down to 180 lbs, you now by default need less energy to maintain your weight. If you keep using the original equation then you won’t be losing weight as expected because it’s no longer accurate for the the new you!
So this is time for a revision. Go back to Step 4 and redo the calculation based on your latest weight.
And now that “why can’t I lose weight?” is no longer a problem and you know exactly what has been going on…
Losing weight is actually very predictable once you find how the calorie equation works for you. That’s actually one of the good things about weight loss. If you know your maintenance calories and you’re accurately tracking your calories in and calories out then you’ll be losing weight consistently.
Weight loss requires personal responsibility so be honest with yourself about where you could step up. Be patient, be consistent and you will see results!
If you’re stuck in a weight loss plateau, and now that you’ve finished this article, what is your verdict? Why can’t – or shall I say couldn’t – you lose weight (up until today)? Leave a comment.
- 1. Howell S., Kones R. (2017). “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 1;313(5):E608-E612.
- 2. Kinsell L. W., Gunning B., Michaels G. D., Richardson J., Cox S. E., Lemon, C. (1964). Calories do count. Metabolism. 13(3):195-204.
- 3. Sacks F.M., et al. (2009). Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. N Engl J Med. 26;360(9):859-73.