The idea for this blog article (actually the title) came from a good former collegue of mine who is passionate about training and food as we are but is struggling with his weight. This is frustrating especially if you are investing a lot of time and effort in it! He is definitely not alone with it: Stefan and I went through some of the common pitfalls too and did have longer periods where we didn’t make any progress. In this article we collected some of the reasons why your weight loss efforts may not be working as you wish.
As you can imagine, fatloss is a multifactored task which leaves a lot of room for improvement (or failure). Because of this, this article is longer than we initially intended and it is still only scratching the surface. Prepare for a little longer read, get your favorite (calorie free) drink, put on your science hat and dig in!
This is the obvious reason why you struggle with losing body fat: you’re eating too much! But sometimes it’s not easy to see where exactly you go wrong. And even if you do it right and really are in an energy deficit, there are some more things to consider.
Are you honest with yourself?
If you have a history of being overweight and dieting without success, it is a good idea to start tracking your macros. Only this way you will learn how much energy your food provides to you. It will allow you to plan out your meals and as we all know: planning = success.
There is one crucial point: you have to be completely honest with tracking! It is very easy to forget logging, so do it immediately after you ate. Log everything you put into your mouth! Beverages, veggies, oil you use for cooking, even if it is just a little bit. Everything matters and everything adds up in the end. Be honest and just do it!
When are you eating?
Nutrient timing matters, even if the current trend in the fitness culture is against it. Just think about it: if it didn’t matter, you could in theory just eat one enourmous meal per week and be fine. Do you really think that this is optimal for muscle growth? And muscle growth is of great importance for losing body fat. Building muscle is an energy intensive process right away. And maintaining muscle is also quite expensive, so you are burning fat twice!
This is how to do it right: try to “sandwich” more of your calories around your training sessions. This will help to signal to your body that it isn’t starving and therefore it is okay to build muscle.
Are you eating too often? Are you eating with an irregular frequence?
First of all, start with the aim to implement a regular meal frequency. Choose anything between 2-4 meals per day and stick to this. Also try to eat at approximately the same time. Irregular meal patterns suffer from a variety of problems:
- Higher fasting total and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol.
- When you eat at a time your body is not accustomed to, you produce more insulin than normally.
- A disruption in the circadian rhythm of your appetite leading to more hunger.
- A disruption in the circadian rhythm of cortisol production and an increase in total cortisol production across the day.
- Higher blood pressure.
- A lower thermic effect of food as a result of decreased insulin sensitivity. When you eat at irregular times, your body burns less of it.
As if this isn’t bad enough, skipping meals tends to result in complete energy compensation afterwards.
Breakfast: yay or nay?
Despite the common “knowledge” that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. As long as you stick to your meal frequency, you are fine. If you are always hungry in the morning, make it a habit to have breakfast. If you are one of the persons who cannot even think about eating in the morning, don’t stress out, just make it a habit of not having breakfast. Consistency is key!
If you choose to always have breakfast, consider having a quite big breakfast (or brunch if you eat later). A growing amount of evidence shows benefits of having a royal breakfast and therefore “frontloading” your calories:
A study in overweight female homemakers found that having most of the day’s calories in the AM led to greater fat loss than having most of the day’s calories in the PM. A different study found that overweight women lose more weight and achieve a greater improvement in carb tolerance when consuming 50% of their energy intake at lunch compared to at dinner with the same daily total macronutrient intake. Other research has also found that a high protein intake at breakfast is more satiating than that same protein consumed at other times of the day, at least in overweight individuals
No carbs in the evening?
Again we go against the common knowledge here! Eating carbs late in the day won’t make you magically fat, quite the opposite might be possible. “Backloading” your carbs seems to improve the secretion patterns of the hormones adiponectin and leptin helping in controlling hunger and therefore diet adherance. Note that “backloading carbs” doesn’t mean bingeing on pasta or candies before going to bed. You still have to keep your calorie intake in check, you just shift the carb content of your meals!
Another benefit of consuming a high carbohydrate meal in the hours before going to bed is that it can improve sleep quality by i.a. promoting melatonin production. And we all know how important a good night of sleep is (see the lifestyle section)!
Are you hungry?
The best calories and macro calculations are nothing if you are constantly hungry and therefore at risk of cheating. Either you are geeky enough to check the NutritionData for the Fullness Factor or you pay attention to these characteristics:
- Food volume (=energy density): the less calories per 100g the better.
- Protein content: our body has a good sense of the protein intake and -all else being equal- is therefore more satiating than carbs and fat.
- Fiber content: slows down the digestive process and every 14g of fiber reduces ad libitum energy intake by 10%.
- Texture: The harder the food, the more satiting it is, e.g. whole apples > apple sauce > apple juice > water.
Probably you are already training, you just don’t get quite the results you expect from it. You even know that it takes some time to build a visible amount of muscle. You have been patient but it still doesn’t show. Sometimes it’s not enought to “just train”. Sometimes you need more focus than that.
Are you doing too much cardio?
For fat loss and body recomposition cardio seems to be inferior to strength training even more than you’d expect based on its energy expenditure. There are a couple of reasons for that:
- overestimation of energy expenditure after cardio
- subconscious reduction of non-exercise physical activity level after cardio. This means you get “lazy” after cardio, reducing your energy expenditure.
- interference effect: the adaptations to strength and endurance training are so different that they can be mutually exclusive. Long story short: you won’t build muscles.
- muscle damage and injury risk: especially cardio forms with eccentric muscle actions and high impact forces, like running.
Are you training hard enough?
Ok, you aren’t doing too much cardio but is your training giving enough stimulus for your muscles to grow? The two main points to consider are:
- Intensity (how heavy?): there is a trend in literature that loads below approx. 60% do not cause sufficient muscle activation levels to cause maximal muscle growth.
- Intensiveness (how hard should I go?): only the final reps of sets with moderate and light loads seem to count as “stimulating reps,” while the earlier reps will not. Long story short: take it close to form failure.
Those two factors seem to be quite obvious, but think critically about your own training! Are you doing a lot of Crossfit? There might be a problem with the interference effect. Or the weights simply are too low for you to cause adaptations. Altough Crossfit is always very intense, most of the time it doesn’t hit any muscles directly: your lungs feel like they explode while doing “Fran”, but do those Thrusters really target your quads?
Olympic weightlifting has different limitations: it is a very technical movement that needs a lot of practice before you can use heavy weights. Even then, the weight you can snatch overhead will always be “too easy” for your e.g. legs.
Powerlifting uses heavy weights and the “big money” barbell movements for optimal strength development, which is a good foundation for hypertrophy. But because the weights are so heavy, you are forced to use fewer repetitions. This might lead to a too low training volume for you to progress. Some people thrive on low rep training, others just don’t get much out of it. This is largely determined by your muscle fibre composition and there isn’t much you can do about it. You have to be aware of this and incorporate more direct hypertrophy style training.
“Fitness is a lifestyle” is a quote many of us have heard. Often you manage to make good body composition progress without thinking too much about your overall lifestlye. But if you are struggling, you might be one of the unlucky individuals who really has to micromanage everything to make any progress.
Are you chronically stressed?
Everyone knows it, but most of us underestimate how bad stress is. Chronically high stress levels result in chronically elevated cortisol levels (acute levels of cortisol are ok) and can disrupt the whole hormon balance in our body. Why is this bad if you want to lose fat/gain muscles?
- Training: reduced strength gains, reduced recovery, increased injury risk. If you have a period of high stress reduce your training frequency or volume!
- Diet: lower testosterone/cortisol ratio and increased insulin secretion. In other words, you’re likely to store more fat and build less muscles.
- Appetite: you are more prone to self-medicate with “comfort food”. Bad news, it doesn’t help: you temporarily suppress the symptoms of stress at the cost of overeating in a state where nutrient partitioning is already very poor (see above).
Do you sleep well?
Sleep deprivation is even more of a hindrance to strength training than chronic stress, because it makes you more vulnerable to stress and on top of that it has tons of negative effects on basically every system in your body. Just a choice:
- Increased appetite.
- Decreased metabolic rate.
- Decreased testosterone production
- Increased and deregulated cortisol secretion by up to 50%.
- Unfavorable alterations in nutrient partitioning: sleeping 5.5 hours compared to 8 hours a day can decrease the proportion of weight lost as fat by 55% and increased the loss of fat-free body mass by 60%. Somehow scarrying, isn’t it?
- Poorer body composition: fixing your sleep can over the course of a year make you gain pounds of muscle and lose pounds of fat.
- Increased insulin resistance.
- Decreased wellbeing.
- Decreased cognitive functioning. Yes, the less you sleep, the stupider you get!
Is it your priority?
There is one more point left: if you really want to lose weight for your health, don’t be ashamed to prioritize it. Talk to your boss if it possible to reduce the work load, tell your friends they should not bring chocolate to you, switch all your social media off to reduce the “food porn” you expose yourself to. Go to bed early to get enough sleep … and so on and so fort. Long story short: don’t be half-hearted, make it your priority!
Congratulations, you made it through the entire article! Probably you feel a little overwhelmed by that much input. That’s okay! You don’t have to change your life completely from one day to another. Just try to identify the “worst” part and work on this. If you need support with this, don’t be afraid to reach out for some help!
We hope that you enjoyed this long, joint-effort article: it was written by both of us, trying to cover all possible aspects. Tell us what you think: did it inspire you? Did it help you to re-consider your diet approach? Are there any points you wish to learn more about? Let us know down in the comments!