It feels like you're doing it all right. Watching what you eat, going to the gym, making those sacrifices. But the number on the scale isn't budging. WHY????? Here are my top three reasons why people aren't losing weight.
1. Underestimating What You Eat
Numerous studies have looked at calorie estimation. And they all have found that it's a fact - we routinely underestimate the number of calories that we consume. ALL of us. The Pennington Biomedical Research Center asked dietitians to track their food for 7 days (along with non-dietitians), and it turns out that we were off by about 10%. Non-dietitians were off by about twice that amount.
How does this happen? Namely, forgetting what we eat, and getting the portion size wrong.
To help minimize these errors, I strongly recommend that people track what they eat. Call it a food journal, call it counting calories. In this age of smartphone apps, it could not be simpler. I highly recommend MyFitnessPal or LoseIt. There are others out there, and I don't want to diminish them in any way. I personally use MyFitnessPal and love it, and I know others have found great success with LoseIt.
Side note: I don't always recommend counting calories for people, because it can be a barrier to change, or a means to obsess in an unhealthy way. But, if you've been trying to lose weight without it, and find yourself stuck - it might be time.
When you're recording, be diligent about it. Count every bite and taste. It might only be a few calories here and there, but do it enough times during the day, and you're talking the difference between your jeans fitting or not. This handout, adapted by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, is a great eye-opener:
2. Overestimating How You Move
Great, you're making it to the gym, or getting in those walks with your girlfriend, playing with your kids in the backyard. Fantastic. Just don't reward yourself with food! You can quickly out-eat any workout, especially if you think you've earned more than you have.
When it comes to exercise, calories burned equate closely to heart rate and perceived exertion. However, when you continue to do the same workout over and over, your body adapts by becoming more efficient. This is great news when you're training hard for an event. This is not great news when you're trying to lose weight. (This is also why it's so important to constantly change things up and challenge your body.)
Also, your weight affects how many calories you burn. So a person at 250 pounds is going to burn more calories than his or her 150-pound counterpart - doing the same exercise. This means that you'll burn fewer calories doing your normal workout as you drop the pounds.
Don't forget that getting in a 30-60 minute workout doesn't make you an "active person" if the rest of the day you're sitting down. It makes you a sedentary person who exercises!
The best way to know how many calories that you burn during the day if to get a body monitor or activity tracker - FitBit, Jawbone, Nike+ Fuelband, etc. Or, use an online calculator like this one from HealthStatus. I like that it factors in non-traditional exercise - for instance, carrying an infant - to help you understand what's really burning calories!
3. Not Getting Enough Sleep
The last thing on the list is honestly one of the most important things. You can sabotage yourself by not letting your body properly rest and recuperate from the day. There are over 25 studies that suggest people who sleep less weigh more.
Much of the research is association, not causation. That means that we know people who tend to get 7-8 hours of sleep tend to weigh less. We can't say that it's BECAUSE they get that sleep, though. However, some studies have given us insight to the reasoning and point more directly to a cause.
Specifically, a 2012 study from The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The research team evaluated articles published between 1996 and 2011 to determine the role of partial sleep deprivation (sleeping < 6 hours per night) on energy balance and weight regulation. Analysis of these studies identified patterns among partially sleep-deprived individuals, including increases in ghrelin, and decreases in leptin.
Ghrelin and leptin are two hormones that play a role in your hunger and satiety. Ghrelin is released by your stomach and works to stimulate your appetite. Leptin is produced by your fat cells, and works to suppress your appetite. When you don't get enough sleep, your body produces more ghrelin and less leptin. I know that on days when I haven't got enough sleep, I tend to be ravenous.
Another hormone that depends on sleep is growth hormone. Your body uses this for growth and repair - including on your muscles. You'll get the most benefit from your workouts when your muscles repair. And more muscle = higher metabolism = more calories burned.
Of course, being well-rested means your will-power is higher, and you're more likely to make better choices in what you eat. Also, if you're sluggish, you're less likely to make your workout a priority. Bottom line: it's worth getting your z's!