I Work Out, Eat a Calorie Deficit, but Haven’t Lost Fat
- Often we think we’re in a calorie deficit, but we’re actually not tracking accurately, fat loss coach Patrick Wilson said.
- It’s easy to undo a calorie deficit in one untracked meal and drink.
- Consider taking a diet break to reset both physically and mentally.
- Read more Working It Out here.
I’m getting stronger and building muscle, but not losing any fat. What do I need to do to shift it?
I teach high-intensity rebounding classes three times a week and weight train twice a week. I don’t think I can add in any more sessions without my relationship, friendships, and healthy sleep pattern suffering.
I’ve always been active, doing movement I enjoy for both mental and physical benefits, but I’ve always carried extra weight (especially around my middle) from comfort eating in my early teens.
I used to be vegetarian and recently reintroduced meat into my diet and started increasing my protein intake. I have noticed an increase in muscle, but am still struggling to lose fat. I wonder if I’ve been in a calorie deficit for too long — I’m eating 1,700-1,800 calories a day (around 120g of protein) — or whether there’s something else I should be doing. I roughly do 8-12k steps a day too.
It’s wonderful to hear you enjoy being active, are seeing strength gains, and are keeping your protein intake up.
These are all great signs of healthy progress, but I understand feeling disappointed if your goal is fat loss, and you’re putting in lots of hard work without seeing results.
You’re right that training more isn’t wise though — our body needs recovery time between workouts.
Without knowing your height and weight or how long you’ve been in a calorie deficit, it’s hard to know what the solution will be for you, but I chatted to personal trainer and fat loss coach patrick wilson to find out what some options might be.
Make sure you’re consistent with your calories
I was in a similar situation as you a few years agoand it wasn’t until I really dialed in my nutrition and counted calories for a while that I got a grip on my portion sizes, cut down overeating, and started to see results.
The fact that you know your calorie intake suggests you’re already tracking your food, but Wilson said clients often think they’re in a deficit but aren’t actually tracking accurately.
“Be super diligent with tracking calories from foods, drinks, and quick snacks,” he said. “It can be eye-opening when you track every day for 2-3 weeks (even weekends) and see what your actual intake is.”
So yes, eating the leftover crusts off your niece’s sandwich, having a few of your friend’s fries, and the milk in your tea all count.
You don’t necessarily need to hit your calorie target perfectly every day to see results (fat loss coach Jordan Syatt recommends striving for 80% consistency), but remember that weekend calories count too.
I know from personal experience that it’s very easy to undo the calorie deficit you’ve spent all week creating with one Saturday evening of food and drinks.
You can still go out and enjoy yourself, but make choices that align with your goals. That might mean having a gin and light tonic over a cocktail, taking a couple of slices of your pizza home as leftovers, or having a side salad instead of fries.
“If you realize you’re taking in more calories than you think then make some adjustments — work in more veggies, fruits, and protein sources to fill you up for fewer calories,” Wilson said.
Don’t set your calorie target too low
If you’re struggling to hit your calories, it could be because your target is too low. 1,700-1,800 calories could be a good
target for some, but as a very active person with decent muscle mass, that may be too low for you to stick to.
“Being in a smaller deficit will make it a lot easier to stick with and will help you retain more muscle,” Wilson said. “You’ll have more energy during workouts to push yourself and you won’t be losing muscle mass as much as you would in a more extreme deficit.”
It’s easier to stick to a more gentle deficit, which is crucial for making progress that will last.
Consider a diet break to raise your metabolism
If you’ve been trying to stick to a calorie deficit for a long time, you may be experiencing diet fatigue and burnout as a result. A good way to get around this is to take a conscious break to reset both mentally and physically.
Wilson recommends taking two to four months and aim to eat at your maintenance calories, perhaps gradually increasing to rebuild your metabolism — when in a calorie deficit, metabolic adaptation occursmeaning our metabolism slows.
During this time, your weight may increase and you may gain some fat, Wilson said, but long term it can be beneficial — in the context of your life, a few months is nothing.
“After building up your metabolism, aim to lose fat and be in a deficit again, but your new maintenance will be higher so you don’t have to drop calories as low to make fat loss progress this time around,” he said.
After a break from dieting, you’ll likely feel mentally and physically refreshed and ready to focus on your fat loss goal again. But be patient and kind to yourself along the way and make sure you’re enjoying the process.
Wishing you well,
As a senior health reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition-certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
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