Why Eating Less and Exercising More Doesn’t Always Lead to Weight Loss

If you’ve managed to eat more veggies, cut back on sugar, and make it to that early cycling class a few times a week, it can be annoying as hell when the scale doesn’t budge.

“The issue with a lot of weight-loss programs is that they don’t address the underlying issues, such as stress,” says Dr Kevin Jovanovic, an ob-gyn and weight loss specialist.

Read on for some of the pesky (often undetected) things that could be holding you back from your goals and how to finally get back on track.

1. You’re not eating often enough. 
Cutting cals should not equate to missing meals. Research published in the journal Metabolism found that when people skipped meals, they had elevated levels of blood sugar and a delayed insulin response, says Lisa Moskovitz, CEO of The NY Nutrition Group. This is also known as “starvation mode.”

If you’re waiting too long to eat in the morning or in between meals, your metabolism can slow, which encourages your body to store calories as fat instead of using them for energy, says Moskovitz.

What you can do: Eat at least every four hours throughout the day for optimal energy and appetite control. We highly recommend these 28 healthy snacks you can nosh on all day long.

2. You’re gaining muscle.
The scale might be stuck because you’re building up your biceps and glutes—and that’s a good thing. The number on the scale is less important than the breakdown of how much water, muscle, and fat are in your body, Jovanovic says.

What you can do: “It’s important to continue eating well and working out regularly during a plateau to achieve results over time,” he says. As muscle mass increases, body fat can still decrease (especially since gaining more lean muscle can rev your metabolism), says Jovanovic. Work through that dip in progress by trying new workouts, like these five strength moves perfect for weight loss, and eating more of these 12 healthy foods with serious weight loss benefits.

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3. You’re afraid of eating back the calories you burned at the gym.
Skipping post-workout snacks is a huge mistake, says Moskovitz. “One of the most important meals or snack times of the day is right after you exercise,” she says. This is especially true when it comes to intense exercise, like sprints, cycling, and weight lifting. Since these and other high-intensity exercises break down muscle tissue, eating 10 to 20 grams of protein and carbs right after exercise helps to repair and maintain lean muscle (a kick-ass metabolism booster). Plus, fasting after a workout usually only leads to overeating later on, she says.

What you can do: Eat within 30 minutes of a hard sweat. This is prime time for your body to put those nutrients to work, repairing muscle for your next calorie-torching workout. Some optimal recovery snacks include low-fat chocolate milk, flavored Greek yogurt, cereal and milk, half of a turkey sandwich, or one scoop of protein powder blended with a banana.

4. You’re exercising way too much.
If you tend to be an overachiever, remember that working out too hard (especially while slashing major calories) makes it harder to lose weight. “Overtraining leads to a surge in the stress-hormone cortisol, which wreaks havoc on your metabolism, immune system, and mood,” says Moskovitz. Studies show that elevated cortisol levels cause your body to break down muscle and store more body fat around your mid-section, she says. And, as we’ve seen with the Biggest Loser contestants, undereating can cause your metabolism to slow down over time.

What you can do: Aim to exercise for one hour, four to five days per week, says Moskovitz. Though it’s ideal to consult a registered dietitian to figure out how much you need to eat to meet your goals, keep in mind that you should never dip below 1,200 calories a day.

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5. Your stress levels are out of control.
“You can do all the exercise and healthy home cooking you want, but the scale won’t budge unless you’re getting quality sleep and managing those stress levels,” says Moskovitz.

What you can do: Try to get six to eight hours of sleep per night. Also, avoid stimulating activity right before bed, like working on your computer, engaging in emotionally stressful conversations, or watching TV. You might also find that working out at night makes it harder to sleep (but everyone is different). If so, adjust your schedule accordingly, says Moskovitz.

6. Your hormones are out of whack.
In what seems like the ultimate unfair move, body fat can produce hormones that actually make it harder to lose weight. “Fat makes hormones, like estrogen and leptin, which fuel hunger,” Jovanovic says. “So the more [fat] you have, the more you’ll want to eat.”

What you can do: To regain control over your hormones, consider cutting out processed foods that contain excess sugar. These items can also lead to an uptick in the amount of leptin your fat cells produce—making your hunger even more overpowering. Keep an eye on how much of the sweet stuff you’re consuming. 

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7. You have PCOS.
Roughly 5 to 10 percent of women have polycystic ovarian syndrome, says Jovanovic. This occurs when there’s a miscommunication between the pancreas and ovaries, causing the pancreas to work much harder to stabilize blood sugar. That means foods like carbs and sugars are frequently stored as fat. 

What you can do: Besides unexplained weight gain, other signs of PCOS include irregular periods and increased acne. Visit your ob-gyn to find out if you have the condition and get set up for treatment.

8. You have hypothyroidism.
The thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped organ located in the base of your neck, has a huge impact on metabolism, says Moskovitz. That’s because it’s responsible for sending out the metabolism-controlling hormones T3 and T4. These hormones regulate how your body uses energy (and burns fat). “When your thyroid is underactive, your body uses less energy while you’re in rest mode, leading to weight gain over time,” says Moskovitz. Many patients with hypothyroidism find that they must drastically reduce calories in order to lose weight, she says.

What you can do: If you’re experiencing other symptoms besides weight gain, like sensitivity to cold, constipation, brittle hair, and dry skin, talk to your doc about getting tested.

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