You've been sticking faithfully to your calorie range and exercise plans for a while now, but you're not seeing the results you want on your scale. Meanwhile, your weight-loss buddy is happily watching the pounds melt away week after week. Not fair! Or maybe you're losing weight, but not from the areas where you really want to shed some fat. Then there's that other friend who can eat anything and everything without gaining a pound, while just watching him or her eat seems to make you gain weight.
What's going on here? Why don't your efforts seem to be paying off while weight loss seems so easy for other people? Is there anything you can do to get better results?
Sometimes there is a simple, general reason why one person loses weight faster than another. For example, men tend to lose weight more quickly than women, mainly because most men naturally have more lean muscle mass (thanks to their higher testosterone levels), and more muscle translates into faster metabolism. Men and women also tend to store excess weight in different places—men in the abdominal area ("apple" body type), which is usually easier to lose; women in the hips and thighs ("pear" body type), which is usually harder to take off.
People who have more weight to lose may also drop the pounds more quickly in the beginning of a weight-loss program. This is because the more you weigh, the more calories you burn during any given activity. Walking with an extra 50 pounds on your frame is harder than walking with 20 extra pounds of weight, after all. A person who weighs more can also cut more calories from his or her diet without jeopardizing the body's ability to function efficiently. If you weigh 300 pounds, you may need 3,500 calories per day or more to maintain that weight; cutting 1,000 calories from your diet (down to 2,500/day) will let you safely lose two pounds per week. But if you weigh 150 pounds, you may only need 1,800 calories to maintain your weight, and if you try to cut the 1,000 calories from your diet (down to 800/day), your body won't have enough fuel and your metabolism will slow down drastically, making fat loss harder, not easier. Therefore, a person with less weight to lose needs to aim for a smaller calorie deficit, which will translate to a slower rate of weight loss.
Likewise, factors like age and body type can affect how fast you can shed extra pounds. Older people, for example, often lose weight more slowly, perhaps because of hormonal changes and/or because they have less muscle mass or may be less physically active.
So, if you're comparing your weight loss to someone else's, make sure you're not comparing apples to oranges (or pears)—that's just going to be frustrating and won't tell you anything useful about your own efforts.
Sometimes, though, people who seem to share a lot of these factors—similar body size, weight, age and activity levels—just don't get the same results, even when they do the same things. A lot of individual factors, including your individual genetics and quite a few medical conditions (like hypothyroidism, PCOS,and insomnia) and medications (like corticosteroids or antidepressants), can make weight loss difficult. If you're in this boat, you may need to work closely with your health professional to find an individualized approach that will maximize your weight loss results without jeopardizing your health.
But more often, slow or nonexistent weight loss can be traced to very common problems that can be identified and overcome with the right kinds of changes in diet, exercise or daily activity patterns. That's what we'll be looking at below.
The #1 problem: Your numbers aren't right.
In a healthy, "normally" functioning body, weight loss occurs when you use (burn) more energy (calories) than you take in from food. This calorie deficit forces your body to take fat out of storage and turn it into fuel that your cells can use to maintain necessary body functions. A pound of fat represents about 3,500 calories of stored energy, so you can predict that a calorie deficit of 3,500 will translate into one lost pound, give or take a little.
By far the most common reason weight loss seems to go slower than people expect is that their calorie deficit is not as large as they think it is. Either they're not burning as many calories as they think they are, or they're eating more than they think they are, or a combination of both.
The formulas used to estimate how many calories people need to maintain their current weight aren't accurate for everyone—they can be off by as much as 30 to 40 percent, especially if your body fat percentage is pretty high, your physical activity level is significantly higher or lower than average, or you're counting almost everything you do (e.g., light housework, grocery shopping, walking up one flight of stairs) as "exercise" even though it doesn't actually meet the parameters of what counts as fitness (a high enough intensity to elevate your heart rate to an aerobic range, a duration of at least 10 continuous minutes for the activity or the moving of large muscle groups in a rhythmic way).
You can have the same problem on the other end of the energy equation: calorie intake. It's very common to underestimate how much you're actually eating, even when you're tracking your food consistently. If you just eyeball your portion sizes instead of measuring them, or if you tend to forget the little "extras" you eat during the day (like licking peanut butter off the knife while making your sandwich, or tasting your pasta sauce while you're cooking it), you can easily add a few hundred uncounted calories to your daily total.
To fix this problem, make sure your calorie numbers are as accurate as you can get them. Track your calorie intake carefully and diligently, until you can recognize portion sizes of the foods you eat often without measuring. And don't count the regular activities of daily life you've always done as part of your "exercise."
Remember that fitness trackers and cardio machines only estimate how many calories you truly burn, and these trackers and machines tend to overestimate how much you're really burning. For a more accurate reading, you could invest in a good heart rate monitor that better estimates your calorie burn based on how hard you are actually working during exercise.
The #2 problem: Excess muscle loss
We'd like to think every pound lost is a pound of fat, but in reality, all weight loss involves some combination of fat loss and muscle loss. To get the best results from your weight-loss efforts, you want to maximize fat loss and minimize muscle loss. The best way to do that is to include adequate strength training in your exercise routine. Without strength training, a substantial amount of the weight you lose could be muscle (lean tissue), which can reduce your fitness and lower your calorie-burning capacity. To avoid these problems (and make it much easier to keep the lost weight off), be sure to include at least two full-body strength training workouts in your weekly routine.
The #3 problem: What you eat may matter almost as much as how much you eat
How your body handles the food you eat is governed by a very complex set of biochemical interactions that determine when and where any excess calories are stored, and how easily this energy can be retrieved for later use. For some people with certain genetic predispositions, a diet high in fast-digesting carbohydrates like refined sugar and refined grains can make it easier for their bodies to store excess calories as fat and harder to get that energy back out of fat cells later on when it's needed. It can also lead to increased appetite and more cravings for high-sugar foods.
There aren't yet any easily available tests that can identify people with this problem, but if you've been significantly overweight for a long time and you struggle with appetite, carbohydrate cravings and slow weight loss, it may be worth your while to experiment with a diet higher in protein and healthy fats, and lower in refined carbohydrates and sugar. Be sure to discuss this with your doctor first, especially if you have any medical conditions/medications that can be affected by your diet.
Weight loss seems so simple on the surface: Eat less than you burn and your body will drop pounds. But for many people, there's more to the equation than counting calories in and calories out. We are all an experiment of one; you cannot compare your results to someone else's, just as you can't expect to have the same results as another person, no matter how similar you may seem to be. Think of your weight loss as a continuous journey. There will be bumps in the road, along with times when the sailing is smooth, but no matter what, you'll just have to pay attention to the route and be open to making changes in your approach or direction along the way. When you follow those guidelines, weight loss will become that much easier.