It’s not at all uncommon for us to be asked by women why it is that they can’t lose weight, even though they believe they’re eating well and even exercising regularly. In a number of cases, they might even have quite a low calorie intake, and yet still their body fat doesn’t budge.
This situation is actually more common than you might think.
And it’s pretty frustrating, I’m sure you’ll agree. To be doing everything right, putting in all the hard work, and yet not getting any results.
What’s going on?
So how and why does this happen?
Well, the fundamental key to answering that question is in the way that your body adapts to what you do with it as far as eating and physical activity goes.
What exactly do I mean by “adapts”?
Well, here’s a very simple example. What happens when you lift weights?
You grow muscle and get stronger. Right?
That’s adaptation. Your body changes.
Because you’re asking your body to lift heavy weights on a regular basis, it has mechanisms in place that come into play to increase its own strength, to allow it to handle its new lifestyle, if you want to call it that, more effectively.
There are many, many different ways in which your body adapts to different things, from your lifestyle, to what you put into it (both good things and bad things), to the environment you live in, and so on.
And the reason it adapts is to ensure that it survives and thrives, no matter what. Within reason, of course. After all, it can only do so much. So in a way, adaptation is an in-built survival mechanism.
Here’s another example of adaptation, and this one relates directly to weight loss.
Imagine you’ve been accustomed to eating roughly a certain amount of food each day, and your weight has been constant for quite a while. In other words, you’re maintaining a constant weight.
Now let’s assume that one day you suddenly start eating say, 50% more each day than you used to.
You gain weight, of course.
So you continue eating the larger amount and in the second week you gain weight again. As you do in the third week, and fourth week, and so on.
Now, do you think that by continuing this process, you’ll continue to gain weight month after month, year after year, until you explode?
Of course not. At some point, your body weight will plateau at a new “normal” weight.
That’s because, in response to this new, increased energy intake, your body adapts by speeding up its metabolic rate, more and more, until at some point the energy it’s burning up on a daily basis becomes equal to the energy you’re putting into it.
That becomes your new maintenance point, where despite being heavier than before, you cease to gain any more weight.
And of course the same thing happens in the opposite direction. If you reduce your calorie intake your body adapts by decreasing its metabolic rate further and further, so that at some point you reach a new, lighter maintenance point and you don’t waste away to nothing.
So then, now that you have a basic understanding of what adaptation is, here are 5 ways in which your body’s adaptation mechanisms can be sabotaging your weight loss efforts, despite all your hard work:
1. Weight training stalemate
Think back to the time that you first started working out, or when you started up after an extended layoff. Chances are, you would have seen some pretty rapid improvements early on. And then, as time progressed, they would have gradually tapered off.
That’s because in the beginning, when your body hasn’t yet had a chance to adapt to the new exercise, it finds it all very challenging. And so it works hard to adapt to the new lifestyle. Then, over time, as your body adapts and becomes better equipped to cope, it becomes less of a challenge.
This is why, for people looking to increase their strength or muscle size, the concept of progressive overload is so important.
As you get bigger and stronger, you need to do more to keep the adaptation going. If you keep doing the same thing week after week, you reach a point where no further change occurs.
Just like the weight gain example above. You reach a new equilibrium point.
Weight training that becomes old and stale loses much of its effectiveness. This is why it’s important to keep it changing by varying things such as intensity, volume (the amount of work you do), rep ranges, and exercise selection and variations.
Now of course, you can’t keep increasing your workout intensity and volume indefinitely. But you can periodize your workouts to create cycles of increasing workload and recovery.
The main thing is, keep it fresh, keep it changing, and keep it challenging.
2. Cardio stalemate
Cardio exercise is widely recognized as weight loss exercise, since one of its primary benefits is that it burns lots of calories.
Many people fall into two common traps however where cardio is concerned, namely:
- Relying too much or solely on cardio, and not enough or not at all on weight training.
- Doing too much or exclusively low-intensity cardio (as opposed to high-intensity cardio).
Relying predominantly on cardio and ignoring or underestimating the value of weight training for weight loss is a mistake. Weight training an essential part of a weight loss program, as it helps to build and maintain muscle, and thereby speed up your body’s metabolic rate in the medium- and long-term.
So while cardio exercise may burn more calories during each individual training session (usually, but not always) weight training increases your body’s calorie-burn rate 24/7. Even while you sleep.
One major issue with cardio exercise when performed at a low intensity is that your body adapts to it very readily.
By “low intensity”, I mean things like jogging (on a treadmill or in the real world), normal-speed cycling, skipping, boxercise, and so on. In other words, aerobic exercise – anything you can do at a steady pace for an extended period of time.
Here’s what happens.
When you start out, your body burns lots of calories, since it’s new to the activity. So naturally, you think it’s fantastic. But then, over time, the exercise has less and less of an effect. Which means that for the same amount of exercise, your body burns fewer and fewer calories.
That’s because it adapts to the training.
This is why it’s not unusual to see physique athletes jogging on a treadmill for 2 or 3 hours daily and still struggling to shed body fat.
The solution is to keep your cardio training short and of high-intensity. Things like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and circuit training are perfect.
Although you generally burn fewer calories during a shorter, high-intensity training session, your body continues to burn calories for a considerable period of time post-exercise. So at the end of the day, you actually burn the same number of calories, or even more, than with those long, tedious slow cardio sessions.
And most importantly, your body is far, far less likely to adapt to high-intensity cardio training. So it always remains equally effective.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to avoid low-intensity cardio altogether. Just do it every now and then if you wish, and your body won’t have a chance to grow accustomed to it. The advice for cardio is the same as that for weight training in the previous point – keep it fresh, keep it changing, and keep it challenging and intense.
3. Metabolic damage
This is a very common phenomenon among dieters.
In an example earlier I mentioned how your body adapts to a reduction of your calorie intake by slowing down its metabolic rate. This can continue to the point where you’re eating quite little and yet still not losing weight, because your metabolic rate has slowed so much.
This is sometimes called “Dieter’s Plateau”.
When you’re stuck in this situation, the only way out is through a process called “Reverse Dieting”.
Reverse Dieting involves very gradually increasing your calorie intake (yes, increasing), week by week, so that your metabolic rate is allowed to slowly recover back to normal, but with little or no weight gain.
If it’s done too quickly, you will experience unwanted weight gain. Successful Reverse Dieting is a slow, meticulous process.
Once your metabolic rate has recovered back to a normal level, you should then be able to resume your fat loss by cutting your calorie intake suddenly, although not too drastically.
Remember, fat loss is far more achievable when done at a sensible rate. Being too aggressive is a sure-fire way of plateauing hard and then having to spend a lot of time recovering from the damage.
4. Poor diet
At the end of the day, weight gain and weight loss come down to calorie balance.
And there’s an important factor that plays a major part in that balance, and that is the Thermic Effect of Food. You see, different foods cause your body to expend different amounts of energy (calories) to process them.
Foods that don’t take much energy to process are said to have a low Thermic Effect, and those that take a lot of energy to process are said to have a high Thermic Effect.
A High Thermic effect food is great for weight loss because of all the calories it provides your body with, up to 30% are used up just processing the food. That means that in net terms, you actually take in fewer calories.
So, which are the high Thermic Effect foods?
Well proteins have the highest Thermic Effect, and dietary fiber is also high up on the scale. This is why physique athletes will generally increase their protein intake when cutting down in preparation for a contest.
A diet that’s low in protein and fiber therefore isn’t ideal for weight loss. Fatty foods and processed carbs, on top of being high in calories, have the lowest Thermic Effect and so are the worst choices for weight loss.
The rule here, then, is to ensure you’re getting enough protein and fiber in your diet to maximize the amount of calories burned. Despite all the claims about certain superfoods and magical weight loss foods, protein and fiber truly your best dietary choices for weight loss.
The fifth and final reason that you can’t lose weight despite doing everything right is that you’re fooling yourself about how much you’re actually eating. This, too, is more common than you might think.
If you believe that you’re eating an appropriate amount, ask yourself what gives you that impression.
Do you know what you average calorie intake is?
Have you ever calculated it?
Many people would be quite surprised if they actually did. Especially once they factor in all the additional stuff like beverages (especially bought ones, like juices and café drinks), sauces, the odd cookie here and there, and so on.
By the way, always remember that even healthy foods have calories. So just because you’re eating all the right foods, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that you’re overeating. For example, as was mentioned in our last blog post, The 2 Biggest Misunderstandings About Good Foods and Bad Foods, 100ml of fresh-squeezed orange juice contains more calories than 100ml of Coca Cola.
The bottom line is that many people actually overeat without even realizing it.
If you’re struggling to lose weight, one of the first things you should do is to sit down and take the time to figure out exactly how much you’re actually eating on a daily basis. Once you have a grasp on that you’ll be far better positioned to decide how best to tackle the problem.
In reality, not being able to lose weight is usually down to a combination of two or more of the five reasons I’ve just described. You need to ensure that your workout program (including cardio), your diet, and your metabolism are all working well for you.
Take a close look at each area and you’ll no doubt find shortcomings somewhere. Weight loss doesn’t stall for no reason. Make the necessary changes and you’ll be on your way to reaching your goals.