When losing weight, it all comes down to calories in versus calories out (CICO). This means that in order to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. This is because our bodies observe the laws of conservation of energy and thermodynamics. So, since a calorie is just a unit of measurement for energy, no matter how hard you try, you cannot make the calories you consume disappear unless your body uses them for energy. Otherwise, they are just stored as fat. If you want to lose weight, you have to eat less calories than you burn.
Now, that all sounds simple, but in practice, it can be extremely difficult. I talk with a lot of people who ask me “why am I not losing weight.” They get frustrated because they are eating healthy and working out hard, yet the weight does not come off. This can be very frustrating and leads many people to believe that there is something wrong with them, whether that be their metabolism or that their body is some sort of 4th dimensional being that doesn’t obey the laws of thermodynamics. Whatever the reason, this leads many people to believe that they are just not genetically able to lose weight like everyone else.
Luckily, you probably do not have a bad metabolism. One study has shown that, when you control for factors such as body size and gender, 68% of the population has a basal metabolic rate within 200 calories of each other . If you push the bell curve out further, 98% of the population is within 400 calories of each other in terms of basal metabolic rate . Therefore, the vast majority of us burn a similar amount of calories at rest. This is not necessarily a small difference in the amount of calories our resting metabolism burns, but it is not enough that a “slow” metabolism is an excuse as to why you cannot lose weight.
In reality, there is usually a fixable reason behind why you cannot lose weight. So, before giving up and deciding that you are not able to lose weight, let’s take a look at both sides of the calories in versus calories out equation and find out why you are not able to lose weight.
The first places to start should be analyzing how many calories you are actually consuming. This is because estimating how many calories we eat is hard and we are bad at it. Like REALLY bad.
During a study where participants were asked to determine the amount of calories they consumed, they underestimated the calories consumed by 30-40% . That is A LOT of extra calories. For instance, if you think you are eating 2,000 calories a day, you could actually be eating upwards of 3,400 calories! Over the course of a week, that is the equivalent of 9,800 calories, or ~2.8 pounds of fat.
Moral of the story. A lot of us are really bad at intuitively trying to determine how many calories we are consuming.
Packaged and processed foods are typically loaded with calories. Way more than you would think for how little they fill you up. Meals we get at restaurants also contain many more calories than we think.
Even if you are eating healthy, there is a solid chance that you are still eating more than you think. Plus, there are plenty of foods that people consider healthy that contain many more calories than they think. Peanut butter, olive oil, and avocado are prime examples.
Therefore, if you really want to get a handle on how many calories you are eating, you should weigh out and track all your food. Now I get it. Measuring your food like this is a real pain in the ass, but even doing so for a week can be really eye opening. It will give you a much better perspective on what you are eating. An app like MyFitnessPal can make this whole process much easier.
Even so, maybe you are one of those people that read the nutrition label on everything, so of course you know how much you are eating.
That is great. I recommend doing this as well and I do it myself, but the nutrition label rarely tells the whole story.
For one, you need to pay attention to serving sizes. A serving is typically a lot less than you would think. For a crazy example, if you were to look at a can of non-stick spray, it would probably read 0 calories. However, each bottle contains hundreds, or even thousands, of servings. This is playing on a little nutrition label trick where the FDA allows them to claim 0 calories if the serving has less than 5 calories in it. So yes, that non-stick spray does have calories (albeit, still less than using cooking oil or butter, so I still use it, just in moderation). So, make sure to look at the serving size and how many servings are in a container to get a better idea of how much you are actually eating.
Another reason nutrition labels are shady characters is because they are allowed to lie to you.
The FDA allows manufacturers to have 20% leeway on the accuracy of their nutrition labels. Therefore, that 200 calorie bag of chips might actually have 240 calories.
Now, the manufacturer could lean to the high side of the calorie estimate and in reality have less than what the label says, but in this period where people are becoming more conscious of how many calories they eat, which way would you lean if you were the manufacturer trying to sell a product? Probably claim that your product has less calories than it does.
As a result, one study found that packaged snacks typically contain more calories than they advertise .
Another reason we typically underestimate calories is because of condiments, oils, and dressings. These items are rarely thought about as extra calories but they can easily add hundreds of calories to a meal. This is the reason a McDonald’s salad can have more calories than their burgers. The veggies in the salad are at most 100 calories. The dressing makes up the difference.
Furthermore, when you do not measure cooking oils, they can easily add a few hundred extra calories to a meal. One TBSP of olive oil is 140 calories, so when you are cooking with it, you really want to measure it out to be sure of what you are using. Even if you are throwing it in the pan to prevent sticking, it will still be absorbed by the food and you will still consume those calories.
As for the condiments, these are often forgotten about when eating a meal, but 1 TBSP of BBQ sauce is 70+ calories, a TBSP of mayo is 100 calories, and a packet of Chick-fil-a sauce is 140 calories! We also rarely use a single serving of these sauces, meaning there can be hundreds of extra calories in our meals that we never think of.
One other spot to look for calorie consumption is what we drink. Liquid calories are the devil when it comes to weight loss. This is because they are really easy to consume and can make up 100’s of extra calories. Plus, calories consumed in liquid form are not very satiating, meaning they will not leave you feeling full for very long. Instead of drinking a fruit juice, aim for eating the real fruit. The actual fruit has fiber that will help keep you full, while the juiced form is sugar that can be quickly digested by your body. Soda, sports drinks,and sugar/cream loaded coffee can be easy areas to cut hundreds of calories from your diet.
The last major place that calories can sneak into a diet is from casual snacking. Grabbing a casual snack as you pass by can quickly add more calories than you think, especially if you are doing it multiple times a day. For example, a small handful of nuts can easily be 100+ calories, 7 tortilla chips are ~140 calories, and a small muffin can be 200+ calories. These things add up and add up fast. Even snacks marketed as healthy are usually a lot more calories than you would think, especially “healthy” chip alternatives. Sometimes, these snacks are even more calories than what they are trying to be the healthy imitation of. Look at the nutrition label (even though they lie).
If you are struggling to lose weight, the first place that I recommend looking is at what you are eating. This is the easiest element to control and 90% of weight loss is a proper diet. This is because it is a lot easier to eat 1,000 calories than it is to burn it, as we are about to see in the next section.
Sadly, in the same way we are terrible at estimating how many calories we consume, we are also terrible at estimating how many calories we burn during exercise . This is not helped by the fact that the tools we use to estimate how many calories we burn during exercise are inaccurate themselves.
For instance, the fitness trackers we wear (i.e. apple watch, fitbit, etc) can be off by as much as 90% . Exercise equipment, such as treadmills, ellipticals, and stair steppers, are no better.
It should be noted that 90% inaccuracy is a bit extreme in most scenarios, but they are still not accurate and tend to overestimate. A good rule of thumb is to assume that you burned 20-40% less calories than what the equipment/tracker says.
Furthermore, your super intense leg weight lifting session is not burning nearly as many calories as you think. In reality, your hardest weight training session is probably only burning about 100-300 calories.
What about HIIT? That’s the new craze for burning calories right? This shredded trainer on youtube is saying that i can burn 500 calories in this super intense 10 minute HIIT session if I just follow along!
Yeah sorry, that’s bullshit too. I am going to let you in on a little secret. Those trainers say that just because they want you to click on their videos. In reality, they are doing much more than what you see them doing (and different exercises as well). Plus, they are following a strict diet (and a lot of the shredded and jacked ones are on some naughty supplements as well *cough steroids cough*).
Even an intense HIIT workout will probably only have you burning 75-125 calories per 10 minute session.
So, if you are struggling to lose weight, you are probably burning less calories than you think. That is why diet is so important.
Now that I feel like a proper Debbie Downer, there are ways to make this all easier. Having a grasp on how many calories you are eating is the first step. Once you have that figured out, you can swap out calorie dense foods for ones that are much less calorie dense. Check out some of my favorites:
You can still eat “bad” foods, they just need to be in moderation. You do not have to be perfect, just try to make more smart choices than bad.
Once you get your diet in check, exercise can be the extra additive to your routine to burn more calories throughout the day. My favorite part about burning calories from exercise is that it means I can eat more food during the day and maintain weight. Plus, exercise can help you feel much more confident and look better in the mirror. It just should not be your primary tool for losing weight.
This can all be a very daunting task to undertake at first, and if you want help, you can reach out to me HERE for a free consultation to figure out how I can help you along the way. My goal as a trainer is to help you learn how to eat and train so that you can kick me to the curb when you have it figured out to the point where you can maintain momentum on your own (just please don’t kick me too hard cause your legs are gonna be strong af).
Or, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I provide all sorts of extra tips and tricks to help you along the way. It is totally free and you can brag to all your friends that you are part of the Block Party 😉
Peace, love, happiness, and six pack abs,
 Donahoo WT, Levine JA, Melanson EL. Variability in energy expenditure and its components. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. (2004)
Brown, R. E., Canning, K. L., Fung, M., Jiandani, D., Riddell, M. C., Macpherson, A. K., & Kuk, J. L. (2016). Calorie Estimation in Adults Differing in Body Weight Class and Weight Loss Status. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 48(3), 521–526. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000796
 Jumpertz, R., Venti, C. A., Le, D. S., Michaels, J., Parrington, S., Krakoff, J., & Votruba, S. (2013). Food label accuracy of common snack foods. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 21(1), 164–169. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20185
 Canning KL, Brown RE, Jamnik VK, Salmon A, Ardern CI, et al. (2014) Individuals Underestimate Moderate and Vigorous Intensity Physical Activity. PLOS ONE 9(5): e97927. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0097927
 Shcherbina, Anna; Mattsson, C. M.; Waggott, Daryl; Salisbury, Heidi; Christle, Jeffrey W.; Hastie, Trevor; Wheeler, Matthew T.; Ashley, Euan A. 2017. “Accuracy in Wrist-Worn, Sensor-Based Measurements of Heart Rate and Energy Expenditure in a Diverse Cohort” J. Pers. Med. 7, no. 2: 3. https://doi.org/10.3390/jpm7020003