Most people have been able to lose weight at some point in their lives with a change in their eating plan or physical activity. However, there are some people who are tracking their calories, and keeping it under 1200 a day and getting physical activity several days a week and still are not losing weight.
How can this happen when someone is doing everything “right” and not losing weight?
It seems that this person is defying the laws of nature. Eating very little, exercising a lot, and not losing weight. Often, when I meet this person for an office visit, they have been told that they are not eating enough calories, and they feel frustrated because they feel that they can’t really eat more because they are not hungry.
Are they not eating enough?
Would increasing the amount of food this person eats really lead to weight loss? Would it speed up their metabolism if they ate more? The short answer is no. This is a common misconception, even among health professionals, that someone could be obese because they are not eating enough.
It is true that when someone loses weight, their metabolism slows down a little. The opposite is true also, that when someone gains weight, their metabolism speeds up a little. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, and you eat enough to gain 20 pounds then your metabolism will be a little faster when you weight 180 instead of 160 pounds. However, when you lose weight, your metabolism will slow back down. Eating more only speeds up the metabolism when eating more leads to weight gain.
So, what is going on here? How can a person with obesity who is tracking 1200 calories a day or less in their food diary not be losing weight?
Actually…almost everyone who keeps track of calories underestimates.
There is solid scientific evidence that almost everyone eats more calories per day than they realize. How do we know that everyone underestimates their calories? There is a scientific method, using something called doubly labeled water, to tell how many calories people actually consume.
In 1982, scientists described this technique using doubly labeled water that allowed accurate measurement of the amount of calories that a person consumed. I’m not going to go into the technicalities of doubly labeled water, because it is not necessary to understand how this is done. However, it is important just to understand that scientists can accurately determine (without depending on calorie tracking) how many calories a person consumed over a period of time (usually a week or two). Scientists could now compare the accurate measure of calories consumed with the data in people’s food diaries.
Since this technique of doubly labeled water was discovered, there have been many studies showing that almost all people significantly under report calories when tracking. If you were to think of people who would be the best at tracking calories, you might choose to see how people of normal weight track their calories, or better yet, how a normal weight dietitian tracks his/her calories. If anyone could track their calories accurately it would be a normal weight dietitian, right?
Well…Catherine Champagne, a dietitian, and her colleagues studied the accuracy of calorie tracking in women with normal weight. Half of these women studied were also dietitians, so they are quite knowledgeable and experienced in tracking calories. Interestingly, the dietitians under reported calories by an average of 223 calories per day compared with non-dietitians who under-reported their intake by an average of 429 calories per day. This means it is very easy to under report calories consumed, even among the most educated and careful trackers.
So what about the person who is obese who and is tracking under 1200 calories a day? Kathleen M. Buhl and colleagues at Columbia University in New York studied ten people with obesity who were tracking that they were eating a low amount of calories and were not losing weight. They compared the number of calories that the subjects were tracking in their food diaries, with the number of calories as measured by the doubly labeled water technique. Each person in the study was taught how to track calories at the beginning of the study. The average number of calories in the patient’s food diaries was 1018 calories per day, and the average number of calories estimated by the doubly labeled water technique was 2471 calories per day. So these subjects were tracking less than half of their calories. And it makes sense that someone who is eating 2471 calories per day is not losing weight.
The people in this study knew that the calories they tracked would be compared with the amount of calories that they actually consumed, and I assume they were being as careful as possible with their tracking. Yet, they were unaware of more than half of the calories that they consumed in a day.
Why is it so hard to track calories accurately?
We have all had the experience of grabbing a handful of jelly beans off out of a jar without thinking, and not even realizing that we were eating the jelly beans until we were chewing. For some people, this mindless eating seems to be more pronounced than in other people.
If you are tracking your calories, and you are not losing weight, then you might be unaware of some of what you are eating. Once you become aware of some of your mindless eating, that is a major mindset shift that is going to allow you to make some progress towards your goal weight. Congratulations!
If you have been tracking your calories and not losing weight and you want to try a different eating plan that will get your on track towards your weight goal, you can find that information and more in my ebook, The Obesity Solution, A compassionate step-by-step guide to finally losing the weight and keeping it off.