You’ve weighed every banana without the skin, punched in the numbers on the cronometer, tracking everything that comes near your mouth. And each morning when you gingerly tiptoe onto the scales, it’s back to groundhog day.
It’s a simple equation, but the theory of weight loss rarely comes to life without a hitch. The fault isn’t with the calories in vs calories out formula. More often than not, it works, hence why it’s the prevailing template in nutritional science. Counting calories should be the first point-of-call when you begin a weight-loss programme. It’s just not the clean-cut solution that many claim it to be.
Weight loss is more than the sum of calories
When tracking fails, the best course is to take a deep breath and start looking outside the bubble. There are many other factors that could be blockading weight loss. I’ve drawn up a list that isn’t meant to be exhaustive, because humans are way too complicated for that to be possible. We’ll be going with the most likely culprits. Some of them may be familiar to you, others not so much.
Starting with the most obvious one out of the bunch.
1. Counting Calories Wrong
It happens. Sometimes tracking apps lie. Well, they don’t do it willfully, but the numbers don’t always match. The best course is to always compare the numbers on the app with the label, and keep fiddling around until you find one that matches. That can end up being the difference of a few hundred calories. The kind of margins that shift you between stalling and more progress.
See My Article – The Importance Of Tracking
2.. Forgetting To Count Calories
Some foods, or drinks, might be escaping you. It could be the sugar in your coffee that steadily multiplies over the course of the day, or it could just be absent-minded snacks that you keep off the books because they’re too small to count. Many don’t bother tracking vegetables for this reason. But guess what, they stack up. The unfortunate truth is, there are no free calories on a diet. Besides water, everything counts.
So the first thing to check off is human error. Only then can we turn for a stab at biology.
3. Insulin Resistance
Here’s the biggest elephant in the body. And I’ve gone for a real broad stroke, so we’ve got a bit of a catch-all situation. Insulin resistance means that cell receptors are ineffective at responding to insulin, and therefore doing a terrible job of storing energy. If the brain and muscles become resistant to insulin, then there’s going to be a host of negative effects.
1. The body struggles to store energy in the muscle, leading to more blood sugar and fat gain.
2. As a result of heightened blood sugar, you get energy swings. Causing more overeating due to the periods of low blood sugar.
3. Once again due to blood sugar, you also get raised insulin levels to try and dispose the excess. This completely blunts fat loss as long as its around. Which, if you snack and snack often, could be the whole waking day and long into the night.
4. Continue this cycle of affairs long enough, and after a time which is anyone’s guess, you transition from pre-diabetic to type 2 diabetic.
So you can basically see insulin resistance as the villain that’s slamming the door on your road to Ibiza. If you have it, you’ll have to deal with it in order to make meaningful progress. The best way to figure out if you’re insulin resistance is just getting your blood glucose checked, or cooking up a big tub of pasta and wolfing it down in one sitting. Then see how you feel afterward. Eyes are closing and you’re beginning to drool? That’s a strong case for insulin resistance. Which by the way, is another term for pre-diabetes. Serious stuff.
My Free Programme – ‘The Fast Way To Fat Loss’ covers the insulin problem in a ton of detail.
4. Excessive Stress
I’m once again throwing up something that can have a huge array of causes. Chronic cortisol is one of the best ways of determining if you’re a stress-magnet. Bloodwork would be pretty conclusive, but you should be able to make a decent judgment call. If you’re regularly lying awake at 3 am with your heart racing like it’s on a final lap, then there’s a clear issue.
What’s causing you to be stressed? The possibilities are limitless. Fight-or-flight is an outdated model. When your stress-sensitive, absolutely everything makes you stressed. Zoom calls, video games, daydreaming about third grade, anything that your brain can interpret as a harmful event.
But here’s what we can establish. Having constant exposures to stressful events will cause the body to oversecrete excitatory hormones, such as cortisol. Inevitably those hormones begin to cause excessive muscle tissue loss, water retention while blockading fat burning.
This is also why people struggling to lose weight, often experience a big whoosh after a holiday or even just a cheat meal. The lingering sympathetic response is overridden by the parasympathetic system, breaking the dam on fat loss and water retention. But you don’t have to book a week off in order to get rid of your stress demons. Meditation can be just as helpful for getting you back in control.
See My Article – Why Stress Kills Fat Loss
5. High Sodium
Water retention is always one to watch out for when the scale isn’t registering any movement. Often your diet is absolutely fine, and the fat loss process is chugging along. But for whatever reason, you’ve also started retaining more water. It’s a lot easier to shift water-weight than actual body mass. As a result, the scale might even go up while fat continues to drop. So you never want to freak out and mess up the routine after a couple of bad days.
Stress, as I’ve already mentioned, causes water retention. Salt can also play a big role through the same mechanism. But it will be more of a short-term effect, and the extra water load should flatten out after a few days. As far as it’s health concerns, having too little salt is likely more dangerous than going too high. So I wouldn’t dwell too long on this one.
6. The Menstrual Cycle
We’re still on the issue of water retention masking true fat loss. Since the body is about 55% water, that’s always going to play a factor. Over the luteal phase, the rise in progesterone typically sees an increase in cortisol and insulin resistance. All that has the effect of making the body hold onto more water, and some women can bounce up by 10 pounds over the course of a cycle.
Any horror at seeing the scale shoot up is then compounded by the fact that the body is already in a pretty stress-prone state. Even women with a ton of dietary restraint can descend into disordered binge eating in this situation. So it’s important to be able to stop that spark ahead of time, and call the scale out for what it is. An unreliable narrator.
There is also a chance of the cycle, or at least the absence of it, preventing fat loss. Low estrogen and higher relative progesterone is the ideal setting for gaining belly-fat and confounding a weight-loss programme.
See My Article – 10 Things Women Should Know About The Diet
7. Low Thyroid
The T3 hormone plays a big role in managing your metabolic rate, and having low levels can put you in a situation where you’re extremely lethargic and unable to push hard enough to cut under your BMR. In no way does this have to be straight hypothyroidism with a need for some pharmaceutical intervention. Low T3 could simply be the result of a poor diet, brain resistance, or just too much time spent in weight-loss mode.
This means that the same solution to stress can often work for low thyroid. Unfortunately kicking back might be the last thing on your mind when you’re trying to grind and hustle your way through a programme.
At the very least, there’s a very good case for keeping one or two days in the week where calories can be bumped back up to baseline. Doing this can help mitigate some of the negative adaptations to dieting and keep a relatively straight line for fat loss.
8. Not Enough Protein
Amongst all the bloody battles being waged between the tribes of dieting, there’s still one common ingredient that most agree on. And I cap it at ‘most’, because there’s bound to be some plant-based and hardline-keto people that see protein as the bane of all evil. But the evidence is pretty hard to pass on.
We can all use some protein. Especially if you’re new to the dieting scene, you should probably be tracking. Having inadequate levels can offset all the hard work in a programme. Fat loss can then be replaced by muscle loss, resulting in a spike of negative adaptations in the metabolism. Losing lean mass is linked heavily to the metabolic rate, and the low-protein route is likely to see a lot more suppression.
Then there’s the issue of raised hunger stemming from a shortage of building blocks. Protein’s the thing that keeps the wheels of industry turning. Aiming for at least 0.8g/lb body weight (1g/lb for men) is a safe bet for avoiding any unwanted effects.
9. Bad Gut Bacteria
This is a murky area. There’s still way too little research on the microbiome, and there’s no conclusive research on its effects on weight-loss. So dumping a load of prebiotics is akin to shooting blind. That could easily end up in a bacterial overgrowth.
But from what we do know, the gut bacteria will adapt to whatever you’re eating. So if you’re constantly dealing with craving, brain fog and bloating episodes, then it might well be due to a few foods you’re eating. Eliminating them could be the difference.
The gut population changes radically in reaction to dietary changes, often in a matter of days. Fasting in particular has been shown to create a shift towards healthy bacteria. Low carb diets would work through similar mechanisms. Even though we can’t always pinpoint the problem with the gut, we absolutely can affect it for the better with a few key adjustments.
10. An Imbalanced Omega 6:3 Ratio
Polyunsaturated fats are known for being essential in the diet, as the body doesn’t have the means to make it by itself. These polyunsaturates are further divided into pro-oxidative Omega 6 and anti-inflammatory Omega 3s. The imbalance between the two has been widely linked with the modern obesity epidemic. Back in the day we might have had a 1:1 ratio, and now it’s somewhere in the distance, between 20:1 and 50:1. This may well have a bigger role than sugar in the emergence of type 2 diabetes.
The easiest strategy would be in reducing Omega 6 content, and unfortunately they’re in practically every food source these days. Seed oils are the biggest culprit here. They’re in vegetable oils, but also most processed foods and even in many types of meat.
Raising Omega 3 wouldn’t affect the ratio quite as severely as reducing Omega 6, but there is still a lot to benefit from increasing fish oil and grass-fed meat in your diet. Even bringing the ratio down to 5 or 10:1 will see a lot less inflammation, hunger, and insulin resistance.
See My Article – Why Beef Beats Bacon
Wrapping Up – Sometimes, Counting Calories Won’t Be Enough
You’re not always going to be lucky enough to solve a problem with the first result on google. Weight loss is the sum of many confounding factors, and it may well be necessary to comb through this list in order to find your fix. Or you could go one better and set up a diet that ticks all the boxes. That brings you to a point where progress is no longer just acceptable. They’re optimal.
If you’d like to find out more about such a diet, you can head straight over to the Apex Diet, my brainchild attempt at fusing peak performance with peak aesthetics.