When I first started trying to get in shape, I found fat loss happened pretty quickly. I had taken a long break from the gym, and the exercise I was doing was enough to start the fat loss process. I was dropping a solid pound of fat a week for the first 6 weeks.
But after a few weeks, I stopped losing weight. I didn’t understand why. I was exercising regularly, but my waist wasn’t getting any trimmer.
Maybe you’ve experienced this. Maybe you’re at this point right now, confused about why you’ve stopped losing weight. Now we need to change more than exercise habits. We need to dig deeper and look outside the gym to identify what might be stopping that weight loss.
Now, you might be doing everything right. Perhaps you’ve read my blog post “How to Lose Fat: 19 Simple Strategies” and you’ve implemented all 19 strategies. Sometimes fat loss just stalls and you have to be patient while your body figures it out.
But most of the time, we’re unintentionally doing – or not doing – one or two things that are preventing further fat loss.
Drawing from my own weight loss struggles and those of my clients, here’s a list of 15 reasons you’re not losing weight and what to do about it.
15 REASONS YOU’RE NOT LOSING WEIGHT
1. You haven’t changed your diet
You can’t outrun a bad diet. It’s an annoying cliche, but like most annoying cliches, it’s based on truth. If your diet is full of sugar and processed carbs, you’re going to find it hard to drop body fat, even if you’re exercising for hours every day.
And I don’t care about that dumb experiment where one professor lost weight while only eating Twinkies. There are so many problems with this kind of study that I barely know where to begin.
First, it was a study on one person. Just one. You can’t take the results of a study on one person and assume that it’s going to work for you.
Second, he was still severely limiting calories: only 1800 per day. That’s around 700 under the number of calories he would have needed to maintain his weight. Eating sugary food at this extreme level of calorie restriction would leave most of us feeling constantly hungry.
It’s no wonder he lost weight. But I’d question how much of the 27 lb weight loss was pure fat; with so little protein in a Twinkie diet, I’d bet he lost muscle on this diet too. And losing muscle is a guaranteed way of slowing down your metabolism and making future fat loss almost impossible.
Third, he wasn’t eating in a fat-loss friendly way before the Twinkie diet: “he tried to eat a healthy diet that included whole grains, dietary fibre, berries and bananas, vegetables and occasional treats like pizza.” That doesn’t sound too healthy to me. Whole grains and excessive amounts of fruit? Nope. I completely avoid whole grains and limit the amount of fruit I eat, which helps me easily maintain a body fat percentage of 8-10%.
Fourth, and speaking of body fat percentage, the professor didn’t exactly get shredded on this diet. He went from 33.4% body fat to 24.9%. The healthy range for men is 10-20%, and most men only start looking lean at around 15%. So he basically went from obese to severely overweight. Great.
Solution: one simple diet rule of thumb is the “green face” rule. Only eat green leafy things like broccoli, kale, spinach etc. and things that have, had or would have had a face, such as beef, fish, chicken, eggs etc.
Exceptions to the “green” rule include cauliflower and small amounts of starch like sweet potato.
And feel free to include healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil.
2. You’re eating too much
Still not losing weight despite religiously following the “green face” rule? It might be that you’re eating too many calories.
Following the “green face” rule won’t help if you’re still over-consuming calories. If you need 2500 calories per day to maintain your bodyweight but you’re eating 3000, you’re not going to lose any fat.
This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people think eating a healthier diet means they can stuff themselves every meal. I’ve been there.
Solution: continue following the “green face” rule, but stop eating when you’re no longer hungry. Think about the difference between I’m full and I’m no longer hungry. The first implies you’ve just eaten a huge meal, but the second implies you’ve had just enough to satisfy your appetite.
3. You still drink fruit juice
My mother used to force me to drink orange juice with breakfast. She would tell me it’s full of vitamin C (why do parents think kids care about micronutrients?) and it was good for me.
But from a fat-loss perspective, drinking a glass of orange juice is the same as drinking a can of soda.
If you’ve switched from soda to fruit juice because you’re not losing weight, I understand your logic, but unfortunately, it’s faulty logic.
You see, before fruit juice came along, we used to do this crazy thing called eating a piece of whole fruit. Now, maybe you’re thinking What’s the difference between eating the whole fruit and just blending it up and drinking it? A fair question and it has a one-word answer: fibre.
Fibre slows down digestion. This is good. You get a steady stream of nutrients that keep your energy levels up for a few hours.
1 cup of the whole orange contains around 4 grams of fibre.
1 cup of orange juice contains exactly zero grams of fibre.
When you eat an orange at breakfast, the fibre slows down its digestion, and the naturally-occurring sugars are released into your bloodstream little by little.
But when you drink the juice, the lack of fibre means you get a massive hit of sugar at once. All those naturally-occurring sugars are released into your bloodstream at once, and your body doesn’t know what the hell to do other than releasing a crapload of a hormone called insulin to help shuttle the sugars around your body. When your insulin levels suddenly increase to too high a level, fat burning (lipolysis) becomes impossible.
Here’s a simple flowchart:
Drink fruit juice ⇒ Insulin levels skyrocket ⇒ fat loss becomes impossible
Solution: eat the whole fruit. Simple.
4. You’re eating too much fruit
I know, I know, I literally just told you to eat the whole fruit and now I’m telling you not to eat too much fruit.
Here’s the issue with fruit if you’re trying to lose body fat: it contains a lot of fructose, which is a kind of sugar. Your body doesn’t process fructose like other sugars; while fructose doesn’t cause the big insulin spike that happens when you drink fruit juice, your body will send excess fructose directly to your liver, where it can be converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.
Solution: have a maximum of two servings of fruit per day. And stick to low-fructose fruits like apples and berries. If you’re still not losing weight after making those adjustments, maybe it’s time to take a few days off the fruit.
5. You’re not lifting weights
When I realised I was too fat, the first thing I did was start jogging. And yes, I lost weight.
But I soon noticed my arms were getting scrawny and I didn’t feel as strong as before. And then I stopped losing weight again.
This highlights the difference between weight loss and fat loss. If you don’t incorporate strength training into your exercise regime, you’re going to lose both fat AND muscle. Less muscle leads to a decreased metabolism, which will eventually lead to a permanent plateau in your weight loss.
Think of lifting weights as a way of telling your body When we do cardio, keep all the muscle we have, but use that excess fat for fuel.
Lifting heavy weights will also increase your testosterone levels, which is a fat-burning hormone.
And to address a common fear among women: no, lifting weights won’t make you bulky. Well, it will make you bulky if you’re eating 4000 calories per day, having steak for dinner, and drinking 5 protein shakes per day. If that describes you, then yes, you’ll get bulky. But if you’re following the “green face” protocol, lifting weights will just make you stronger and leaner. Read my “Weightlifting For Women” blog post for more info.
Solution: lift weights at least two hours per week on top of your cardio training. Find a trainer who can design a program that hits your full body twice per week.
6. You’re doing too much cardio
While you absolutely should engage in some kind of cardio if you’re trying to shed body fat, more isn’t necessarily better.
Jogging 10km per day? Unless you’re training for a race, that’s too much. You’ll probably lose some body fat, but there’s a very high probability that you’re going to lose muscle too.
Infrequent, short, and intense bursts of movement work best for losing fat while maintaining muscle mass: sprints, kettlebell swings, and battle ropes are my favourites for fat loss.
Just compare the physiques of long-distance runners with 100-metre sprinters. Do you want to be skinny-fat or lean and muscular?
Solution: find a balance that will allow you to at least retain the muscle you have while losing only body fat. For most of my clients, two hours of lifting weights with me interspersed with a couple of high-intensity fitness classes (or some high-intensity interval training performed on their own) seem to work best.
7. Your cheat days last longer than a day
Ah, cheat days. Those glorious days where we wake up and proceed to stuff our faces with as much crappy food as we possibly can.
When I gave myself a weekly cheat day, Saturday was the day I’d cheat. And it was amazing. Pizza, burgers, candy, entire loaves of bread.
I don’t go for cheat days any more. As I’ve learned to cook and enjoy healthy food, I rarely feel restricted in what I eat. I’ll have a cheat meal every 2-4 weeks on average. But a weekly cheat day is fine if you’re struggling to switch to a fitness-conducive way of eating and you need the psychological release of a rule-free day of eating.
But here’s what a cheat day isn’t: your cheat day is scheduled for Saturday, so you stay up on Friday night and at the stroke of midnight you immediately stuff yourself with all the sweet crap you can find. Then you sleep for a few hours, wake up, and do nothing but eat more crap until the early hours of Sunday.
There are people who do this. I know some of them. This is how I want to react:
Solution: cheat days start when you wake up – not midnight – and ends when you go to sleep or midnight, whichever one comes first. And you get no more than one cheat day per week.
8. You’re drinking the wrong kind of booze
Beer. Gin and tonic. Rum and coke. Vodka and orange juice. Cocktails in general. Sorry to ruin your Friday night, but most drinks are full of sugar and/or simple carbs, which will cause your insulin levels to skyrocket and stop you burning fat.
Beer also contains phytoestrogens, a kind of plant estrogen. Phytoestrogens make your body produce less testosterone. And we’ve already mentioned that testosterone is a fat-burning hormone. You don’t want your testosterone levels to fall unless you’re happy about having stopped losing weight.
Solution: stick to these drinks:
– Dry red wine.
– Clear liquor (gin, vodka, tequila), club soda and fresh lemon/lime.
I’m not saying you can drink them in unlimited quantities. They still contain calories, and it’s when you’re drunk that you tend to make bad food choices. Act like an adult.
9. You’re too stressed
As my gym is based in Toronto’s financial district, the members I see training are mostly successful, hard-working and driven individuals who’ve managed to climb the corporate ladder or build their own business.
Which means that a lot of them are chronically stressed.
Constant emails. Phone calls. Meetings. Rush hour commuting. That’s a hell of a lot of low-level, chronic stress
When your body experiences this kind of chronic stress, it starts producing a hormone called cortisol, which, funnily enough, is known as the “stress hormone”. And elevated levels of cortisol make you more insulin resistant. This means your body becomes less efficient at using insulin, and as a result, has to produce more insulin to get the job of transporting glucose done.
Remember what we said about elevated insulin levels? That’s right: it stops fat-burning.
Solution: oh jeez, don’t ask me how to reduce the stress levels of Western Civilization. I’m just a personal trainer.
But here are a few things you can try: go for a long hike in an actual forest or on a real mountain, meditate every day, spend more time with people you love, take a yoga class, get a massage, sit in the steam room.
10. You’re not sleeping enough
Somebody once asked me, “but if I spend less time lying asleep in bed, won’t I burn more calories?” It doesn’t work like that, bro.
So how does lack of sleep stop you losing weight? We’re going to bring back our buddy cortisol, the stress hormone we were just talking about.
Sleep deprivation leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which leads to elevated levels of insulin, which stops fat-burning.
Solution: seriously? You need me to tell you to sleep more? OK, fine: aim for 8 hours of sleep, but make sure you hit 6 at the very, very, very minimum. Realistically, 7 hours is the minimum for most people, but I’ve seen people still lose fat with 6 hours.
If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, try wearing blublockers and reading fiction for an hour before bed. The blublockers block the blue wavelength of light from hitting your retina, which is important because an absence of blue light causes your brain to start producing sleep hormones.
Fiction is a good choice before bed because it helps to turn off the analytical part of your brain, allowing you to relax. If you need book suggestions, I can recommend a series of books that was pretty popular in England a few years ago: they were about the adventures of a boy wizard and his friends, although I forget the name.
11. You’re sitting all day
A few years ago I quit my office job and went to teach kindergarten in Korea. I went from sitting for 8 hours a day to standing for 8 hours a day.
After 6 weeks, my abs were visible for the first time since I was a skinny teenager.
Most of us sit too much. Sit to eat breakfast, sit on the commute to work, sit at our desk, sit at lunch, sit all afternoon, sit on the commute home, and sit in front of the TV all evening.
Yes, there’s an obvious lack of calories being burned when you’re sitting vs. when you’re standing. But sitting too much does something else too: it makes you more insulin resistant. I’ve explained what this means already, but I’ll do it again: being insulin resistant means your body has to produce more and more insulin to carry the same amount of glucose. And that excess insulin is going to stop you losing weight.
This entire blog post can be summarised as “get your bloody insulin levels under control”.
Solution: pretty obvious. Stand more. But I acknowledge this often isn’t easy if you have an office job. Ask your employer if a standing desk is an option (get one of the adjustable ones so you can spend some time sitting too – excessive standing isn’t good either), or set an hourly alarm to get up and walk around for a few minutes.
12. You’re not training hard enough
This is never an issue with my clients. While I’m not one of those “ONE MORE REP, C’MON BRAAH!!!!!” trainers, I make sure my clients get a good workout.
I’m talking about those people who read magazines on the treadmill, take phone calls while performing bicep curls, and generally haven’t broken a sweat in years.
Going through the motions without any effort is a great way of making sure you don’t lose any more fat. Getting lean is difficult and requires hard work. I’m not saying you have to train to complete and utter exhaustion, but it would be nice to see the sheen of a little forehead sweat.
Solution: stop being lazy. Realise that losing fat requires work. Yes, showing up is half the battle. But the other half is pushing yourself to your real limit. Then you can have that cheat day I promised you.
13. You’ve built muscle
One of my clients turned up to a recent training session looking a little sad. I asked him what was up, and he told me the scale had barely budged the last month: he was only down one lb.
But I’d noticed his shape had changed. He looked leaner and more muscular than he did a month ago. So I took him to the body composition machine and we figured out what had happened: he’d built muscle, he was more hydrated, and he’d actually dropped 8 lb of body fat.
The scale was only down one lb due to the extra muscle and water.
Solution: stop thinking in terms of “weight loss”, and instead think about “fat loss” and overall body composition.
14. You’re not drinking enough water
Not drinking enough water is bad for weight loss. Water can act as an appetite suppressant, making it less likely you’ll snack on junk.
In fact, drinking more water makes a low-calorie diet more effective.
Solution: drink 2-4 litres of water every day. Buy a large water bottle (750 ml or more) and fill it up three times during your workday.
15. It’s your medication
Your medication can have a huge effect on your hormone levels, which can impact weight loss.
Here’s a list of common medication that can prevent weight loss, and even promote weight gain (taken from here):
– Drugs for diabetes, such as insulin, thiazolidinediones, and sulfonylurea
– Antipsychotic drugs such as haloperidol, clozapine, and lithium
– Antidepressant drugs like amitriptyline, paroxetine, and sertraline
– Drugs for epilepsy like valproate and carbamazepine
– Steroid hormone drugs like prednisone or birth control pills
– Blood pressure-reducing drugs like beta-blockers
Solution: do not stop taking any prescribed medication without talking to your doctor. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.
There you go: the 15 most likely reasons you’re not losing weight. Leave a comment if you’ve found any others.