You are eating next to nothing and slogging away at the gym only to see no change on the scales.
How is this possible?
Well it turns out that we are exceptionally bad at estimating both our calorie intake AND our energy expenditure.
Lichtman et al (1992) discovered that subjects in their study UNDER-ESTIMATED their calorie intake by an average of 47%! Think about that for a second….
You think you are consuming 1,200 calories, yet in reality you are probably consuming somewhere nearing 1,800.
Not only that but subjects in this study also OVER-REPORTED calorie expenditure by 51%!
“The failure of some obese subjects to lose weight while eating a diet they report as low in calories is due to an energy intake substantially higher than reported and an overestimation of physical activity” (Lichtman et al, 1992)
So, if you are struggling to lose weight, it is most likely because you are not in a calorie deficit, even though you think you are.
So what reasons contribute to this massive imbalance between what we THINK we are eating, and what we are ACTUALLY eating?
It becomes a lot more difficult to estimate calorie intake when eating food out at restaurants. We often don’t know how the food was prepared, how much oil/butter was used, what is in the sauce etc.
If restaurants uses the word ‘buttery’ in the name of the dish it will average around 102 more calories. Anything described with the word ‘crispy’ will have 131 more calories in it (Wansink, 2013).
If you eat out regularly, it might be wise to take a look at the menu in advance and opt for healthier options. You can also ask for no bread if it is offered before the meal, ask for sauce on the side (rather than added to the meal), swap fries for vegetables etc.
Eating with Distractions
It is very rare now that we sit down and eat without distractions (phones, laptop, television, movies, friends etc).
Multitasking whilst eating - surfing the net, watching TV etc - usually means one-armed eating. This means we gravitate towards finger foods we can eat easily and mindlessly with one hand.
Watching TV makes us over-eat for the following reasons: -
We often eat out of habit and nit hunger
We don't pay attention to how much we eat
We pace ourselves by the show
However, it is not just TV - anything distracting and enjoyable keeps you eating mindlessly longer than you otherwise would.
Studies often rely on recall data from subjects. We are very bad at remembering what we ate if trying to rely on our memory. Therefore the best way to track calories is to log everything as you eat it, so that you don’t miss anything out.
Not Tracking Food Properly
This problem not only relates to the difficulties with diet recall, but also mis-understanding how to properly log food.
A classic example is not including cooking oils in your food log. This can contribute a significant number of calories over the course of a week. Another example is not including liquid calories from alcohol, shakes, juices and coffees. Also, as mentioned above, it is sometimes extremely difficult to accurately estimate your meals that you eat out at restaurants.
So, if you are struggling to lose weight, the first thing I would do is start to log food as accurately as possible for a week. Log all foods as you eat them (do not try to rely on recall) and include weekends as well as week days. Include absolutely everything you put in your mouth.
Track your weight across the week too. Weigh yourself every day under the same conditions (same time, same amount of clothing etc). If your weight remains stable then chances are your current eating habits are around maintenance.
If your weight goes up, you know that you are eating in a calorie surplus. If your weight decreases then chances are you are eating in a calorie deficit.
If you want a (very) approximate estimate of your maintenance calories then do the following: -
Take Your weight (in KG) and multiply by 2.2 to get your weight in pounds.
Then multiply this number by 12-14 if relatively sedentary.
Multiply by 14-16 if training/exercising 3-5 times per week.
Multiply by 16-18 if highly active.
This will give a a better understanding of what your calorie requirements are. Once you know what your maintenance calorie requirements are, you can then apply a deficit if looking to lose weight.
If you have more weight to lose, my advice would be to apply a slightly more aggressive deficit (20-40%). If you are already quite lean, be slightly more conservative.
So, if you estimate your maintenance calories to be 2,200, then a 30% deficit would represent 1,540 calories per day.
Write down how long you want to diet for and mark the end date in your calendar (don’t leave yourself in a calorie deficit for longer than 12 weeks).
One of the biggest mistakes people make when dieting is the fact that they try and diet for too long. You should have distinct periods in time when you are NOT dieting. This doesn't mean you stop dieting and binge. Rather, you should spend a few weeks back at your maintenance calories (which you will need to re-calculate if you have lost some weight). This will help un-do some of the negative adaptations that take place when we are in a calorie deficit.
So, in summary: -
If you are not losing weight, despite the fact you think you are only eating very few calories, chances are you are eating more than you realise.
This DOES NOT mean you are a secret eater, or that you are lying. Most of the time it comes from a lack of understanding
Start to track absolutely everything you eat and drink whilst tracking scale weight on a daily basis
Adjust calories once you understand your maintenance calorie requirements
Continue to track progress to ensure you are still in a calorie deficit
Don’t continuously diet for longer than 12 weeks without a break