If you’re trying to lose weight or fat and using calorie tracking as a tool then you may well have got to the point where your progress starts to stall. You’re logging your food, your calorie target should be low enough to continue losing weight/fat and yet you’re not? It’s frustrating, you were seeing such great progress and now you’re not and you want to throw in the towel and give up. The question is what do you do next? The usual response is to cut your calories further – because that should work right? But before you do that just pause for a moment and consider a few things….
#1 How accurately are you logging those calories?
Now before you get upset – I’m not suggesting you’re hiding food, deliberately not logging stuff or cheating (though you may well be but if you’re doing that then you know the reason right there). What I mean is how accurate are you really being? Even fitness professionals, PT’s and nutritionists can be off with their estimates by 200 – 300 kcals per day and those 300 kcals are the deficit you need to continue to lose.
So even if you’re being pretty good at logging your food it’s natural that you may forget a few things – we’re all only human. If you don’t weigh the food then your estimates are almost certainly out sometimes. IF you used to weigh stuff and now don’t there’s a good chance your portions may have altered since then. Are you logging all the little things – the oil you cook with? the milk in your tea? the mouthful of your husband’s lasagne you tasted? All small stuff I know but.. a drizzle of olive oil is nearly 100kcals – so you can see how quickly it could mount up. So if you’re hitting your calorie target every day but NOT recording all those little details then that deficit has gone and you won’t be losing weight or fat.
So rather than a knee jerk reaction and cutting your calories further just go back to basics and try a few days of logging everything! And just see what happens – it may reveal a few things you’ve been missing in your diary. I’m not suggesting you do this forever – just try it for a while and see what happens. It will also help to reset your ideas of portion sizes etc which will ultimately mean you don’t need to track religiously.
#2 Is your target the right one?
How have you calculated your calorie target? These targets and guidelines are only estimates and many of the calculations are fairly inaccurate and it’s quite possible that the figures you’ve been using are out. So your BMR (basal or resting metabolic rate) and your daily expenditure (TDEE) may actually be lower than whatever you’ve worked out. There are loads of calculators out there on the web and lots of ways of doing it – so the best option is to use a few to calculate yours and then go for an average. If you want to be losing weight sustainably then you need to be aiming for a deficit of 300-500 kcals per day – this allows you to lose weight in a way that avoids hormonal imbalances and makes it sustainable – rather than a drastic cut in calories and that yo-yo diet effect.
#3 Are you eating your exercise calories?
Estimating how much you burn from exercise is really difficult and even if you’re using step trackers and heart rate monitors chances are the figure you’re getting is still wildly inaccurate. As a simple example – the monitor on the spin bike gives me a figure of around 600 kcals for 45mins of spin, my UP band (fitness tracker) tells me it’s around 390 kcals, and my heart rate monitor gives me around 290 kcals… Wide differences eh? So if I was going by the bike and eating my exercise calories I’d be eating loads more than I needed.
On top of that eating exercise calories can get you in to a cycle of trying to “earn” more food by doing more exercise which sets up a negative relationship with exercise and food. So in general don’t eat your exercise calories – that way they can act as a buffer anyway for other inaccuracies in logging etc.
#4 How are you judging progress?
So you’re telling me progress has stalled? But how are you measuring it? Are you just going by the scales? If so then think again – things like measurements of various body parts, progress photos and, if you can, body fat measurements are a much better way to monitor your progress. This is especially so if you’ve been losing weight/fat for a while already as you’re probably now in a phase of body recomposition rather than simple weight loss.
#5 Have you been on low calories for a long time?
If you’ve been trying to lose weight/fat and been on low calories for a long time then this can affect your metabolism in a number of ways. If you have a history of fad diets (super low calories/meal replacements etc) then there’s a very good chance that this has impacted on your metabolic rate and slowed it down. What this means is that you’ll struggle to lose weight on a “normal”, healthy eating plan with a modest calorie deficit. That’s not to say you should go back to the fad diets but you do need to give your body a chance to restore the metabolic rate. So this means giving your body more calories for a while – not stuffing your face, but just feeding your body again and getting that metabolic rate firing. So if you’re on the calorie deficit and not seeing progress do the opposite of what you want to do and gently increase your calories (yes I know – it sounds crazy) but just up the calories by 100 – 200 kcals a day for several weeks, or you can try the method below.
The other way calorie restriction impacts on your metabolism is through your hormones. Hormones such as ghrelin, leptin and insulin all interact to tell your brain and body how much energy the body needs, how the energy stores in the body are looking and when you need to eat more etc. In turn these impact on things like hunger and metabolic rate. I’ve mentioned the importance of leptin in past articles but it’s a really key hormone in this process. If you’ve been on low calories then leptin levels are often very low. This impacts on fat loss and can prevent you losing more. It’s advisable to give your body a re-feed in order to stimulate leptin production again. So this means increasing calories and specifically carbs for a specific amount of time. This could just be one day a week for example. So you enter in to a little cycle of lower calorie days and then a higher calorie day. Every body is different and you may need to experiment with this but a good place to start is to have one day a week where you add an extra 300 – 400 kcals on to your calorie target. Try not to exclude food groups completely on your low days, but on the higher day ensure you’re getting carbs and fats in to meet those extra calories.
So before you reduce those calories follow this checklist:
– Go back to basics and log EVERYTHING in as much detail as you can
– Double check your calorie target
– Don’t eat your exercise calories
– Consider other ways of measuring progress
– Introduce a re-feed day
Let us know how you get on and if you get stuck and need any help then do ask – we’re always happy to help
This article is written by Dr Nancy Priston. Please remember, she isn’t a medical Dr, the information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on this site.