At any given time, 66% of Americans are trying to lose weight or are on a diet — and yet almost the same percentage is either overweight or obese. And with so many different types of diets — from going vegan to the Paleo Diet — why are the majority of Americans failing to lose or maintain weight? According to Dr. Jessica Bartfield, M.D., who specializes in nutrition and weight management at the Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery & Bariatric Care, there are four main reasons why dieters don’t lose weight. Read on to find out what they are — and the ways to sidestep each problem.
1. Underestimating Calories Consumed
The roadblock: According to numerous studies, humans tend to underestimate how many calories their meals and snacks have as well as the amount of calories they consume in one day. Experts speculate that Americans typically underestimate their caloric intake by 30% and sometimes as much as 45%. For the average male, that’s an excess of 720 calories per day — which, by conventional wisdom, could result in a gain of more than one pound per week. And unfortunately, restaurants are no better at estimating their meal’s calorie counts: a study from Tufts University found that one out of five restaurant dishes contains more than 100 calories than what’s listed in their nutritional information.
The fix: To reconcile the amount of calories you actually consume with the amount you think you consume, begin by measuring out your servings. That morning bowl of cereal — of which a serving clocks in at 120 calories — might actually be three servings, upping your calorie count to 360. Measure out the given serving (usually ¾ – 1 cup) until you can eyeball a correct serving size. Keeping a food diary and writing down every single food you eat and drink (every last morsel!) will also help: in a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, participants who kept a food journal lost 6 more pounds than those who didn’t. Don’t forget to record drinks (the average American consumes between 140 and 180 calories per day from sugary drinks) and the bites and tastes you might get at a grocery store.
2. Overestimating Activity and Calories Burned
The roadblock: That elliptical that says you just burned 450 calories? It’s a gross overestimation. The University of California at San Francisco used VO2 testing to track fat burning and found that the calorie trackers on ellipticals overestimated calories burnt by 42%; the overestimation was less so on other machines (13% on treadmills, 7% on the stationary bike, and 12% on the stairclimber), but still enough to make a dent in your calorie output. The reason? Most exercise machines are calibrated for a 150 pound female; if you weigh less than that, you’ll burn fewer calories. They also don’t accurately measure your heart rate, which plays a role in the amount of calories you burn. Compounding this issue is the fact that many exercisers tend to reward themselves with food following a tough workout, believing that they “earned” those calories in that Jamba Juice Peanut Butter Moo’d or Grand Slam breakfast. So even if you just spent an hour burning 250-400 calories, that work can all be undone — and then some — in five minutes.
The fix: First, calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate: this is the amount of energy, or calories, your body requires to function at rest, and varies according to genetics, gender, age, weight, body surface area, body fat percentage, diet, exercise, and a number of other factors. To determine how many calories you need a day while taking into account your activity level (from sedentary to extreme), use the Harris Benedict Equation; this will leave you with the amount of calories you need to maintain your weight with your current activity level. Indirect calorimetry, which measures carbon dioxide production and oxygen consumption during rest and steady-state exercise, is the gold standard for measuring energy expenditure, but it’s too time-consuming and expensive to use on an individual basis. Several body monitors (like the BodyMedia Fit Link and FitBit) measure your calorie output, but even they can be inconsistent and inaccurate; online calculators measure the calories burned according to weight and activity. Your best bet may be to simply eat when you truly feel hungry and not according to how many calories you may have burned working out.
3. Poor Timing of Meals
The roadblock: Skipping breakfast, powering through the day without lunch, and late night snacking might all be the reasons you’re not losing weight. According to the National Weight Control Registry, eating breakfast is a shared characteristic of successful dieters (78% of those who lost and maintained a 30 pound weight loss regularly ate breakfast). Experts believe that eating a fiber- and protein-rich meal first thing in the morning stimulates your metabolism and keeps you from bingeing later on in the day. Regular snacks and a balanced lunch do the same thing; plus, they keep your mood and energy elevated so you don’t reach for comfort foods like chips and candy later in the day. And researchers now believe that late-night eating may, in fact, play a role in weight gain and loss: in a study from Northwestern University, rats who ate during their normal sleeping phase, as compared to those who ate during normal daily activity, experienced a 48% boost to their body weight, despite similar levels of activity and calorie consumption. Lead researcher Dr. Fred Turek and Deanna Arble theorize that our bodies, which run on circadian rhythms, are primed to burn calories more efficiently at certain times.
The fix: Start with breakfast: aim to eat a fiber- and protein-rich meal within one hour of waking. Eating a balanced breakfast jumpstarts your body’s metabolism, maintains steady blood sugar and energy levels, and helps stave off mid-morning cravings. Eat lunch about 4 ½ hours after breakfast, and dinner a few hours after that; waiting longer in between meals will only intensify your hunger and lead you to make less healthy food choices. Plan 150- to 200-calorie snacks (think an apple with almond butter or hummus and veggies) in between meals to keep hunger at bay. Plan to eat dinner no less than three hours before sleep: it may not only lead to weight gain, but the increased circulating insulin prevents the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. In terms of other mealtime planning, sandwich weight lifting or intense exercise with complex carbohydrates and protein.
4. Inadequate Sleep
The roadblock: According to Dr. Bartfield, “studies have shown that people who get fewer than six hours of sleep have higher levels of ghrelin, which is a hormone that stimulates appetite, particularly for high-carbohydrate/high-calorie foods.” One study, specifically, found that sleep-deprived subjects ate an extra 549 calories a day–enough to make you gain an extra pound every week. Sleep deprivation is also linked to leptin, the hormone that signals satiety; plus, lack of sleep lowers willpower, increases cravings for high-calorie foods, and raises levels of cortisol, a stress hormone linked to weight gain. All of these factors combined make inadequate sleep a powerful precursor to weight gain.
The fix: To get more sleep, you need to to identify what is preventing you from getting enough sleep–and that could be any number of reasons, from drinking too much caffeine to poor time management. But no matter what your reason is, there are a number of simple fixes you can make to add more hours of sleep to your day. Begin by setting a bedtime: count back seven to eight hours before you have to wake up. Keep track of this time so that when 11PM rolls around, you’re in bed (not starting to get ready for bed). Shut off electronics about an hour before this time: TVs, computers, and cellphones emit blue light, which disrupts our circadian rhythms and melatonin production, tricking our bodies into believing it’s still daytime. And finally, exercise in the morning. And finally, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed.