Math not adding up. Why am I not losing a lot of weight?
March 1, 2013 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Mid-twenties male, eating extremely healthily, exercising very well, very happy with his setup here. But very curious why the pounds wouldn't just be falling off now, when they were at a maintenance level when I had the reverse habits as recently as a few months ago. (Or even any weight loss at all.)

I'm not eating junk food or ever eating out, and calorie calculators online say that I would need 4,000 calories at a sedentary lifestyle to maintain my current weight. However, I exercise nearly every day for about an hour, a combination of running and weightlifting, and I already use low-fat, low-sugar everything in the food I cook and prepare for myself. So all of my extra calories, why I've figured I wasn't losing weight (although the exercise is a fairly recent addition), is from eating out and eating junk food from the grocery store, like Oreos or ice cream.

Well over the last several weeks, for a variety of causes known and unknown but deeply appreciated, I've lost most of my appetite for the aforementioned fast food and junk food, as well as foods with refined sugar in them.

Now I actually feel like I need more calories and a little more fat to get myself through the day, energy-wise.

So that's all great, but I'm not losing a ton of weight. I guess I don't mind not losing weight (even though I have a considerable amount I could stand to lose), but...

a) I'm deeply skeptical of that baseline 4,000 calorie intake needed to *maintain* my weight at a *sedentary* lifestyle. But I'm willing to hear an explanation either way. Is that right?
b) By my rough counting, I can not be having more than 3,000 calories per day on my absolute highest-calorie days, and most days I would put more around 2,000 or 2,500. Even if I were right and that were about the amount I would need to *maintain* at a sedentary lifestyle, why am I not dropping pounds like a rock coupled with the regular, rather intense exercise (weightlifting and jogging)?

(I'm aware that strength training builds muscle, but I do a maximum of 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week, and would the weight change really be that drastic as to offset the weight loss?)
posted by dubadubowbow to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Why not try tracking your calorie intake for a week or two? Sometimes we aren't very good at roughly estimating calories. Also, you may want to consult a few sources for your 4000 calorie maintenance level and see how much they agree. How accurately are you tracking your weight and over what time period? The normal maths would say that you need to be eating 500 fewer calories than you burn in order even to lose a pound a week.
posted by kadia_a at 12:49 PM on March 1, 2013

4000 calories is ridiculously high! Is that a typo?

Usually it's portion sizes that get people stuck. Are you accurate with your portion sizes?

I use myfitnesspal to estimate my need and my consumption. As do lots of metafilter folk here.
posted by taff at 12:50 PM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not eating junk food or ever eating out, and calorie calculators online say that I would need 4,000 calories at a sedentary lifestyle to maintain my current weight.

That is really high. When I was 6'2" and 250 lbs I was looking at 2400 calories or so.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:51 PM on March 1, 2013

Could you have mixed up kilograms and pounds in the calorie calculator?
posted by Rock Steady at 12:51 PM on March 1, 2013

Best answer: "(I'm aware that strength training builds muscle, but I do a maximum of 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week, and would the weight change really be that drastic as to offset the weight loss?)"


I was a weightlifting coach for a while -- getting little scrawny 130 pound 6' tall computer nerds to put on mass. If they were eating enough (usually more than 3 - 4K Calories a day) they would often put on 2 pounds a week of bodyweight. GOOD BODYWEIGHT!

That said, they were trying to add mass. If you are trying to lose weight, those calories seem high.

Give it time though. Lifting heavy weights and eating clean will show you results. It. Takes. Time.
posted by LZel at 12:52 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 4,000 calories is an insane intake for weight loss... Way, way too high. Especially with only 60 minutes of exercise a week.

Here is how I am currently losing weight at a rate of about 10lbs/mo with gains in strength:

Take your weight. Add a zero to the end. This is your caloric intake goal. If the number is over 2,500 then use 2,500 as your goal. Get your calories from a variety of sources but aim for the 40/30/30 split which is 40% calories from carbs, 30% from protein and 30% from fat. This means eating a lot of protein, aim for 1g/lb of your target LEAN body weight. For me this is about 180g of protein a day. If you can't get enough protein from your food, add something like a whey isolate protein shake. Protein makes you feel full and will help add lean muscle while you burn fat.

Do NOT eyeball food servings. Get a food scale, good measuring cups and use a site like to track everything you eat. Most larger people are eating more than they think.

Exercise. Lift heavy weights three times a week. If you don't want to go to a gym, get some good adjustable dumbells (Bowflex, Powerblock, etc...) a bench and work out a home with a good three day split routine. This is the one I am using.

On your other four days add two or three days of cardio and any other supplemental exercise you want, like crunches. Leave one day a week for rest. I'm averaging about 8 hours a week of exercise.

Try it. It works. I've lost nearly forty pounds since November and I feel better than I ever have.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 12:52 PM on March 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

I see two factors that partially explain your experience.

First, where did you see the 4000 kcal figure proposed as a "weight maintenance" level? Based on just cursory personal experience, 4000 kcal would be extremely difficult for me to maintain over an extended period of time: that's a ton of high-calorie food. Endurance athletes shoot for figures in that neighborhood. It's not surprising that you are failing to lose weight at your current level. It's more surprising you weren't gaining weight before.

Second, an hour of strenuous exercise a day doesn't actually affect your caloric needs much. The people who do have those increased caloric needs are, for example, those aforementioned endurance athletes or heavy manual laborers. Agricultural workers, that sort of thing.
posted by Nomyte at 12:53 PM on March 1, 2013

Response by poster: To everyone asking, just to clarify-- yes, I'm getting 4,000, with pounds. I'm just below 300 pounds and pretty tall, and that's the number I've gotten any time I've looked. Glad it's not just me that thinks that's crazy!
posted by dubadubowbow at 12:54 PM on March 1, 2013

Best answer: I started at just below 300 pounds too, at 6' 1". This is not easy but it's so rewarding. You can do it.

If you sign up on MyFitnessPal MeMail me and I'll friend you there. You don't need to do this alone!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 12:56 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you were looking to lose weight - and you mentioned you're not necessarily - there's simply no substitute for calorie restriction. As an oversimplified example, which would you rather do - run a mile and a half, or not drink a Sam Adams? Same net caloric effect (give or take quite a bit, depending on size).

On preview: the first few BMR calculators online say something around 2300 - 2500 calories, with an input of 300 lbs and a height of 6 - 7 feet. *shrug*
posted by ftm at 12:56 PM on March 1, 2013

Response by poster: Okay, now that I'm looking at all these other tools available, I'm getting more reasonable answers. So I'm glad the 4,000 thing was just a bad answer. Now I can't find which ones were giving me that range of an answer, though!
posted by dubadubowbow at 12:57 PM on March 1, 2013

This is a calculator I've used with some success. If you're 25 years old, male, exercising moderately, 300lbs, and about 6'4", then 4,000 looks about right for maintaining your weight. If you're looking to better understand what those 4,000 calories are best made up of (protein, fat, carbs, etc), I personally love the free SparkPeople website & app (and there's a MeFites group on there, if you like groups).
posted by pammeke at 12:58 PM on March 1, 2013

Using this calorie calculator link and random numbers that don't apply to you (age/height I guessed at) I got 2700 calories for maintenance at 300 lbs and a sedentary lifestyle.

4000 calories is too much. That's why you're not losing weight. You need to cut those down to around 2000 or so. And as other have said above, guessing can go wrong.
posted by RainyJay at 12:58 PM on March 1, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry, also-- I haven't been getting to 4,000 calories, thank goodness. That figure was just making me think there should be even MORE weight loss going on than I was actually seeing.
posted by dubadubowbow at 1:00 PM on March 1, 2013

Yes, as others are finding, not every calculator is reliable and/or consistent. I just put some info into this calculator. I put 300 lbs start and end weight (i.e. maintaining current weight), and then on the next screen it asks for age and height and gender (I used 30 year old male 6'6"), and I selected sedentary activity. It came up with 2,746 cal/day.

The bottom line is you are not losing weight at your current calorie intake level, so you need to eat less if you want to lose weight. I second Sparkpeople as a great website with lots of useful (and reliable) tools, and a supportive community that will help you figure this all out, set some realistic goals, and make a plan that is likely to get you there.
posted by gubenuj at 1:03 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Indeed, 4000 calories is much too high. But, really, you can't rely on the "math" here, because everyone is different. Those online calculators are just giving you an estimate from which your actual caloric needs may vary significantly. What's important for you is how your body reacts, not how some hypothetical body reacts.
posted by ssg at 1:04 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You haven't mentioned inches. Is your body changing at all? Shirts/pants hanging differently? Endurance increasing? I am 6'2" and at one point was 311lbs and the weight drop started very very slowly (months of regular exercise and diet changes) but body changes were visible. The weight itself would then drop in unpredictable (from my standpoint at least) bursts. I'd drop 3-4 pounds per week for 2 or 3 weeks without having changed anything.

Also it may be worth finding a way to measure body fat (digital scale or calipers), because that's going to be a good indication of muscle mass increasing counteracting weight loss and a helpful metric to track over time.
posted by cCranium at 1:05 PM on March 1, 2013

as an aside

and I already use low-fat, low-sugar everything in the food I cook and prepare for myself

These two things are incompatible. You need to get a (mental) handle on what you're eating before you do anything else.
posted by rr at 1:18 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

By my rough counting, I can not be having more than 3,000 calories per day on my absolute highest-calorie days, and most days I would put more around 2,000 or 2,500.

This calorie count is ridiculously high. That is not a weight loss calorie count at all for a man your size. The remarkable thing is that at your size, any non-idiotic diet will make the fat melt off. Your weight is not melting off, so something here is not right.

People notoriously under-report their calorie intake even when they are journaling everything. If you are just doing "rough counting", I guarantee that you are under-reporting. Losing weight is easy. Since you are not, you are eating too much. It doesn't matter if what you are eating too much of is low-fat, low-sugar "non junk food". Too many calories is too many calories. And, I guarantee without question that you are not gaining muscle at the exact same rate you are losing fat.

If it helps boost my credibility, as of today I am down 41 pounds since January 1 and I was nowhere near your starting weight. (I'm male, late 30s). Bye bye, holiday fat. I know how to drop weight. Please feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to discuss.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:21 PM on March 1, 2013

Losing weight is easy.

Yes, that's why almost nobody is overweight.

You are probably miscalculating on several fronts: the amount of calories burned/muscle added during workouts, the amount of calories eaten, and the nutritional value of your food. The reason you're miscalculating is that we just don't have a ton of super-reliable ways of knowing ALL THE THINGS at ALL THE TIMES.

You say it's been a matter of a few weeks since you gave up junk food--not long enough to see substantial change, especially when you're still eating a lot of calories, far more than most would say is appropriate for weight loss.

Recalibrate your calories, keep ruthless tabs on your workouts, eat vegetables until you want to kill the next broccoli farmer you meet. Report back in like 3 months.
posted by like_a_friend at 1:36 PM on March 1, 2013

From what you have said, it does not sound as though you are logging what you eat, just sort of roughly estimating what you're eating. My first thought is that you should use a logging program to log exactly what you're eating so you know what your actual intake is. Most of the apps available, like LoseIt, MyFitnessPal, etc., all will give you a calorie intake estimate based on what it thinks your maintenance calories should be. Using my favorite calorie calculator, for a 6'5", 300 lb, 27 year old man, you should be eating 2,929 calories to maintain weight, so if you're actually eating 3,000 calories per day, you're eating at your maintenance level, hence not losing anything.

The other problem may be the low-fat foods. I've lost 47 pounds in the last 7 months by eating a calorie deficit, but 45-50% of my calories come from fat. I use real foods - veggies, meats, oils, butter, nuts, etc. Your body needs fat to both absorb nutrients and to help you feel satisfied. Try to eat as little processed food as possible and see how that works for you.
posted by bedhead at 1:42 PM on March 1, 2013

Calorie counting comes with all kinds of problems. This is why the math may not be adding up:

* Lots of calories measure based on a unit - an apple, a slice of bread, a whole sweet potato. A "120 calorie/apple" measurement doesn't really give you accurate information, because apples come in all kinds of sizes.
* If you don't have a scale and measure your food regularly, it's super easy to underestimate portion sizes. 3oz of beef and 4oz of beef look pretty identical, and they are much much smaller than the 'typical' portion you get.
* Various websites and apps have all kinds of inaccurate calorie estimates. Example: my favorite app tells me my serving of corned beef is about 1/2 the calories it actually is.
* All the calorie estimates for exercise are inconsistent. Maybe walking is constant, but the rest vary so much it's almost impossible to judge. Getting something like a fitbit would be more accurate, but they are also prone to error.
* Packaged and restaurant food calories are not perfect. They are often off by up to 20% - in the wrong direction. So that 500 calorie pizza may be 600 calories.
* Often there's things on your plate that you didn't realize weren't counted (at restaurants). Like you got the calorie count for the burger, but not the bun and mayo. Or the salad but not the dressing or croutons. Or the BBQ pork but not the BBQ sauce covering it.
* Daily calorie estimate calculators (as you've noticed) vary WIDELY. The only one who can tell you that info is a doctor, really. Treat calculators as a guideline and as reliable as online calculators that measure your body fat.

That said, calorie counting works for a lot of people.

My experience - those mistakes above have enough of a cascading effect that I only ever lose weight with this method if I eat under 1000 calories a day - a ridiculously low amount for my height/weight despite very careful counting. I've come to realize that when I punch in numbers that add up to '1000', it probably represents food closer to 1500 calories.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 1:49 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I seriously doubt any doctor would recommend 4,000 calories for anyone outside of elite athletes (ie: WAY more exercise than 20mins a day, 3 days a week), no matter how tall the individual is. Forget that online calculator. Consult a doctor.
posted by w1nt3rmut3 at 2:31 PM on March 1, 2013

Please stop with the willpower and determination talk. Not helpful and not the question.

Have you thought about the distribution of your calories? What's the split between carbs, protein and fat?
posted by barnone at 2:43 PM on March 1, 2013

Lose It! is a great tool for tracking intake, and a Fitbit is great for tracking output. They can be linked on the Lose It! site.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:13 PM on March 1, 2013

"Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Foods, Obesity and Disease" by Robert Lustig turned everything I thought I understood about calories, fat and dieting completely upside down.

While this does not directly answer your question, I feel it's important that what the author (doctor) writes in this book, with respect to limiting fat and calories, important to your question. It basically contradicts what is commonly accepted and understood about dieting.

In essence, a calorie is NOT a calorie (the body doesn't do thermodynamics as a simple equation of calories in, calories out) and consumption of fat is not what makes people fat. If these two statements seem wildly incorrect and even dangerous to suggest, reading this book will explain the science to back it up.
posted by loquat at 3:55 PM on March 1, 2013

If you are 300 pounds of pure muscle, you can probably consider 4000 calories a maintenance amount.

But you probably aren't.

loquat makes a very good point. I lost a ton of weight when I stopped trying to eat "healthy" and just started eating healthy. What I mean is, I stopped with all the "low fat, low carb, sugar-free" garbage and started eating real foods. I can eat an entire bag of Doritos and feel vomitously full, yet still be hungry. But if I try and sit and eat two chicken breasts and a handful of Wheat Chex, I won't be hungry all day.

One thing to consider is that digestive efficiency is a limiting factor in weight gain. If you eat 8000 calories a day, you won't gain weight twice as fast as if you eat 4000 calories. At some point, the body can't process any more and you just shit out the excess. And it works in the opposite direction. Halving your caloric intake means your digestive system is going to try to extract more energy out of what it gets. If I cut my caloric intake in half, I don't really lose a heck of a lot of weight. I just poop less.
posted by gjc at 5:28 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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