Weight loss, no matter what some “gurus” might try to convince you, is a matter of energy balance.
For this blog, when I talk about weight loss I’m talking about fat loss, the wobbly bits!
Fat is stored energy, the only way to tap into that energy is by creating a demand for that energy.
If you consume less energy than you burn off you will lose weight. And if you don’t you won’t.
It’s not your hormones, it’s not toxins, it’s not carbs, it’s not a supplement deficiency.
It’s energy in vs energy out
However many people think what they are doing is the right thing and they are left feeling frustrated if the scales don’t shift
I hear things like:
I had a good week
I eat healthily
I cut out sugar
I’m exercising more
I eat clean
I cook from scratch
I don’t snack
Yet they can’t seem to lose weight. This is where the blame may shift to hormones or toxins.
But if the scales don’t go down it means you haven’t consumed less than you burned off, irrespective of what you think should have happened. We call this creating a calorie deficit.
And the number one reason you’re not losing weight even when you’re trying is that…
In other words, you’ve overconsumed more than you’ve burned off. While this sounds almost too simple it’s not. The Energy in/Energy out equation is quite complex with lots of factors (controllable and uncontrollable, noticeable and unnoticeable) affecting both. So here are 9 reasons why you might not be in a calorie deficit even when you think you should be.
I was chatting with SF member Brian a few weeks back. He’s on a big focus to get his body fat levels down. So he’s started to use an app to check how many calories he should consume. Instead of guessing or assuming
He was amazed at how he ate 800 fewer calories one day. Yet he wasn’t hungry. He was quite surprised by this as he expected eating less would equal more hunger. This is a big reason why so many people don’t lose weight when they think they should.
People can feel hungry yet still over-consume calories. It seems like they’re not eating that much at all yet the scales don’t shift
On the other hand, you can feel very satisfied while consuming fewer calories than before
Energy intake is very different from fullness or quantity of food eaten
And having an awareness of this is vital if you want to succeed. Essentially the goal is to eat larger quantities of lower calorie food so you can feel full while reducing your overall energy intake and create a calorie deficit
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Discovering what works for you is like a game of Hide & Seek. Most people look in the obvious places and cut out the ‘bad’ stuff. Anyone can cut out chocolate, alcohol, biscuits, etc. Yet either can’t seem to stick with things or get demotivated and give up when they’ve been ‘good’ but results aren’t as expected.
When it comes to making the scales shift calories are really good at hiding
Some hide as healthy food. Things like pasta, rice, potatoes, etc can easily be overeaten, and contrary to some popular diet plans, are not ‘free’ foods. There’s nothing wrong with eating them as long as you get your portion size right.
Others sneak into our food without us realising it. Like too much oil when cooking, butter on bread, salad dressings, condiments, and sauces.
Some of the sneakiest ones are hiding in our drinks. For example, just a glass of orange juice, 2 lattes and a glass of wine a day can add over 3000 calories a week!!
It’s all these sneaky calories that add up and stop us creating a calorie deficit
SF member Judith has lost 10lbs in the last 6 weeks and all she started with was using less peanut butter on her toast in the morning.
Before this, she was focusing on cutting out foods that weren’t the problem and trying to eat ‘healthier food’. But when she was shown the amount she could reduce, while still having her peanut butter. She was amazed and hasn’t looked back.
The other day Judith emailed me and wrote this:
“I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror 6 weeks ago, thanks for building my confidence”
There’s a huge myth about how quickly one can and should lose weight.
Seeing as fat is stored energy, there is a physical limit to how much you can lose no matter how hard you try, how much exercise you do, or how ‘good’ your diet is
Let’s take one of the most effective medical diets – The Protein Sparing Modified Fast
This diet is generally used with obese patients to help them lose weight rapidly for surgery or to help with diabetes. It’s often done under medical supervision and allows less than 800 calories a day for up to 6 months. This is in no way a lifestyle diet or a diet to educate the patients on healthy eating.
It’s a diet designed to lose the maximum amount of fat, fast!
But the numbers might surprise you. In one study over 18 weeks, patients lost on average 1.2kg a week. That’s 2.6lbs.
This is one of the most effective medically controlled diets. It is borderline starvation bar ensuring enough protein so the body doesn’t break down. It has to be supplemented with fiber and multivitamins because of how little food is allowed.
And the average loss is less than 3lbs per week for people with a lot of weight to lose
Hopefully, that makes you rethink what you should expect. Because when you know you shouldn’t be dropping weight as fast then you won’t get frustrated at what may appear as slow progress. When in actuality you’re making great progress. That means you’re more likely to stick with your plan.
And consistency is what ensures lasting results. A calorie deficit is no good if you only create one for 3 days a week, give up because the scales haven’t changed much and end up overeating for the rest of the week. Nor is creating a deficit for 28 days any good if, over the next 4 weeks, you overconsume so much you negate the previous 28 days.
A 1lb loss is rarely celebrated yet losing 1lb every week for a year leads to 52lbs. That’s life-changing. Imagine what losing half or even a quarter of that can do for your energy, mobility, and confidence?
Plus you wouldn’t need to starve yourself to achieve that kind of consistent calorie deficit
Time and time again research shows people overestimate the number of calories they burn with exercise. It’s not your fault. Fitness wearables do it, as do all the cardio machines in the gym. And the claims by some gimmicks are outlandish.
Let’s take Nordic Walking as an example.
If you’re unfamiliar, Nordic Walking is walking with ski poles. I’m quite familiar with it. I reviewed Nordic Walking as the fitness expert for a TV show, How Healthy Are You? about 6 or 7 years ago.
There are claims of upper body benefits as well as burning 20% more calories. Sounds great.
Unfortunately, this is a complete myth for several reasons
i) Nordic Walking originates from Scandinavian countries. The poles are necessary to traverse the snowy terrain. You’ve got to really use your arms otherwise you’d get nowhere. So just going for a walk up Ticknock with a pair of ski poles tapping the ground. Won’t magically tone up your arms.
ii) It’s claimed to burn 20% more calories than normal walking. Sounds great, percentages often do. But if you walked at a pace of 5k an hour. You may burn around 300 cals
20% of 300 is 60
So even if the claims were true, an extra 60 cals won’t do much for you. It’s 1/60th of a pound of fat!
iii) Just using your arms more doesn’t guarantee any extra toning benefits. If it did anyone who cleans regularly would have the greatest looking arms in the world. Think about the amount of upper body involvement when hoovering, wiping, mopping, etc.
The amount of benefits to certain exercise is grossly overestimated. We simply don’t burn as many cals as we would like the think and just exercising a body part doesn’t guarantee toning
Exercise has many benefits and should be a part of any weight loss plan. But don’t expect it to be the main driver of results. Unless you’re training like an athlete, you’ll find it very difficult to create a big enough calorie deficit with exercise alone.
If I had a euro for every time someone sat in front of me, looking to lose weight but tells me they eat healthily I’d be a rich man.
There are no magical fat burning properties of healthy food plus ‘healthy food’ is quite a subjective term anyway
Olive oil has health benefits but overconsuming just 1 tablespoon a day
Could raise your calorie intake by close to 1000 extra per week
This goes for many healthy foods like rice, porridge, butter, nuts & seeds, avocado etc
Portion size matters most when you are trying to create a calorie deficit.
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Diet and exercise are not ‘one size fits all’. People will respond differently to the same intervention.
For example, Let’s say Mary and Evelyn start walking together. Mary burns more calories during the walk than Evelyn due to many factors. Then the walk makes Evelyn more hungry and so she eats more, whereas it makes Mary less hungry and she eats less. Evelyn also absorbs 10% more calories from her food than Mary because of her genetics.
So Mary loses some weight and Evelyn doesn’t. Evelyn then thinks there’s something wrong with her metabolism because she’s doing the exact same thing as Mary. Comparing yourself to what others do or have done is pointless. Mary created a calorie deficit by discovering what worked for her, Evelyn simply hasn’t found what works for her.
8. Your weight is meant to fluctuate
Weighing yourself daily expecting to see consistent drops in weight is a sure fire way to get frustrated. Your scale weight is not just your fat stores. It’s made up of bone, muscle, water, carbohydrate stores, blood, organs, and food waste among other things.
If you drink a pint of water and step on the scales you’ll gain a pound. If you go to the toilet beforehand you’ll lose weight. If you eat a high salt meal like a takeaway you’ll weigh more the next day due to water retention. None of this is a reflection of how much fat you have stored on your body.
Anytime you step on the scales it’s only a reflection of the past 24-48 hours and your number can easily go up or down depending on what I’ve just mentioned. To get a more accurate reflection of fat loss it’s better to take an average measurement over time. This is where you don’t judge one number but instead use the average over 7+ days to judge the effectiveness of your efforts.
There are apps you can use for this like Happy Scale for IOS, Libra for Android, and Weightgrapher for desktop.
When people start a diet or new exercise plan their body can start fighting them for energy. It may try to conserve energy by slowing down their normal daily activity. They may feel more tired and ‘lazy’. Now, this generally happens further along your journey but it may happen earlier.
It all comes down to what is known as your NEPA – Non-Exercise Physical Activity. This is all the movement you do outside of planned exercise. It’s the energy used to get you out of bed, brush your teeth, wash, get dressed and so on. It’s your steps on your fitness wearable. It’s also the energy not used when sitting for long periods.
The difference in energy used to sit still vs walking around at a slow pace is over 100 cals an hour. On its own it’s not a lot but if you stand and move about instead of sitting for 2 hours a day that’s a min of 1400 extra per week, close to half a pound.
NEPA is a great way to increase the amount of energy you burn. But NEPA can also sabotage your results. Studies show that when dieting, the energy burned via NEPA slows down. You even fidget less. You don’t notice it, or maybe you feel a bit tired or lazy. But this slow down can impact a large number of calories a week.
Added to that when this happens your hunger may increase too. Your body doesn’t like being in a calorie deficit. It wants to keep you as you are. It likes conserving energy not losing it. It’s more efficient that way.
Losing weight isn’t just as simple as eating less and moving more to create your calorie deficit. It’s about finding a way to do it that supports your body and your lifestyle. It’s about discovering what works for you so you can keep doing it. It’s about finding a sustainable approach. It’s about enjoying (most of) the process. Because if you can’t or won’t sustain the results you get and end up gaining the weight back on, then long term you haven’t created a calorie deficit have you?
John O'Connell is the owner of SF Fitness & Health Centre. He started working in the fitness industry in 2002 after suffering a back injury. He has worked with many professional organisations including Leinster Rugby, An Garda Siochana, New Zealand Rugby, Dublin GAA, Spar and CBRE. He has also appeared muliple times on both RTE & TV3 as a health & fitness expert. John is the co-author of 2 international best selling books - Total Body Breakthroughs and The Fit Formula.