Is there anything more discouraging than stepping on the scale after a week of dieting and exercise and getting a sense of déjà vu? “Isn’t this what I weighed last week?” Or worse, “Eeek! I gained two pounds!”
Yes, it could be water weight. But there are some other, more surprising reasons you may not be losing pounds—or even ounces—despite your best efforts. Here are seven reasons you’re not losing weight and what you can do to get diet results:
1. The most obvious: You’re eating too much.
It may seem like a pain, but keeping a food diary is one of the best ways to pare off those pounds. A 2008 Kaiser Permanente Study of more than 1,700 people found that keeping track of everything you eat can double your weight loss. In a 2012 study by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, women who kept a food diary listing everything they ate from soup to nuts to condiments and sauces lost six pounds more than those who didn’t. If you have a smart phone, you don’t have to carry a little notebook with you. There are dozens of great weight loss food diary apps that will even count your calories for you.
2. You’re skipping meals.
Women in the Fred Hutchinson study who skipped meals lost almost eight pounds less than those who stuck to a minimum of three squares a day. The reason? The researchers speculated that skipping meals can lead to hunger and binge-eating, may alter the metabolism which makes weight loss more difficult, and could reflect a too-busy lifestyle that encourages not only meal-skipping but eating out. Most studies find that we underestimate what we’re eating when it comes to restaurant portions.
3. You’re eating “healthy.”
Studies by Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University—the folks who study the psychological effects of food labeling and portion size—found that people tend to eat more if foods are labeled “healthy” or “organic.” That’s even when they contain the same number of calories (though may substitute sugar for fat) as the “regular” versions. The researchers found, for example, that consumers assume that cookies labeled “organic” have fewer calories and less fat than “regular” cookies. This is called the “health halo” effect, and applies to foods labeled “nonfat” and “low sugar.” Don’t be fooled. Read the nutrition label for healthier and low calorie food options.
4. You have portion distortion.
One serving of food in most restaurants today was actually two servings 20 years ago, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which set up a website, choosemyplate.gov, to combat “portion distortion.” One serving of meat or chicken, for example, should be no more than the size of a deck of cards. So if you’re eating a whole chicken breast, you’re getting double the calories. Test your size savvy with this quick portion size quiz.
5. You’re exercising too little.
Exercise burns calories. If you’re not doing any or very little, you’re relying entirely on the amount of calorie burn you get from simply being alive—and it might not be much—to help you lose weight. Exercising regularly—a mix of cardio and weight training—offers a big assist, though it’s not as important as cutting back on calories, according to several newer studies.
If you find your weight loss slowing or that you’re not losing weight at all, pick up the pace now and then. New studies have found that kicking up your regular activity a notch—known as “interval training”—can help reset your metabolism to burn more energy for a few hours. If you’re a walker, for example, add a little jogging for 20-30 seconds every five minutes and build up to a minute or more. You should be breathing hard during those intervals. Talk to your doctor before undertaking any new weight loss exercise program.
6. You’ve hit a weight loss plateau.
If you’ve already lost 10 pounds or so, you are suddenly a smaller person so it takes fewer calories to keep you going than it did before. You can do one of two things—cut back on your calorie intake or up your exercise a little. A good diet and exercise plan adjusts for your lowered energy needs as you lose weight. Don’t stress over this weight loss challenge. While it’s discouraging, it happens to everyone and you’ll get past it as long as you stick with the plan.
7. You’re gaining muscle.
If you’ve been working out regularly, especially if you’re weight training, you’re probably building muscle and possibly increasing bone density which can keep the scale at a standstill for a bit, and even inch it up. Don’t rely just on your scale to judge your progress. If your clothes are fitting better or your Body Mass Index is getting smaller, you’re on the right track to losing weight, no matter what the scale says.