Is Starvation Mode Even A Thing?
January 6, 2015 8:38 PM   Subscribe

My new FitBit reveals that I'm burning a lot more calories than I thought I was, despite the fact that after tracking my eating habits for two months, I've failed to lose any weight. WHY?

In a quest to lose 10 pounds, I started tracking what I ate back in October. My current goal is to eat 1400 calories per day, thus causing me to lose about half a pound a week. Despite tracking and trying to be fairly diligent (OK I probably averaged more like 1500 on a lot of days, but still, I should have seen SOME weight loss eventually, right?), I never noticed any stable weight loss. Despite doing a half-hour of cardio in the gym three days a week*, I never seemed to be able to "earn back" any more calories than that baseline 1400.

I got a FitBit for Christmas, so of course I linked my FitBit to My Fitness Pal. Now it looks like my activity level is far higher than I originally thought. I'm hitting my 10,000 step goal easily every weekday and burning roughly 2000 calories per day without working out at all (I'm on my feet a lot at work). Every day, My Fitness Pal awards me an extra 350 or so calories, despite the fact that this is normal activity for me and I haven't formally done any cardio workouts at all* since connecting my FitBit.

So, should I strive to eat those extra calories every day, or is it better to leave them on the table in hopes of losing weight faster? Is some kind of "starvation mode" preventing me from losing weight, or is something else going on?

I am female, 33 years old, 5'3", and have weighed 150 pounds since October. I may have lost a pound or two at some point, but I gained it all back and am still at 150 three months later (I was on an upward trajectory when I started, though).

At this point I am not overly concerned about what specifically I'm eating -- I don't have complete control over my diet for most meals, and nor do I have time to really cook ever. The goal right now is just to burn off more than I eat. I have done some experiments with cutting back on carbs, but not in a sustained way.

*I fucked up my knee somehow and cut way back on the gym around Thanksgiving. My knee is feeling better now, and I'm planning to head back to the gym within the next few weeks.
posted by Sara C. to Health & Fitness (58 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You and I are the same height and age, and I got a FitBit over a year ago, started tracking calories then, and switched over to MyFitnessPal a few months ago. Without knowing enough to make an accurate assessment, a few things stick out:

I don't have complete control over my diet for most meals, and nor do I have time to really cook ever. The thing is, you really, really do need to have complete control over your diet for pretty much all of meals if you want to get an accurate calorie count. I rarely eat out because there's just no way of knowing how many calories are in most restaurant meals; when I do, I consider it my 'cheat' meal.

Do you know roughly how much your caloric intake has changed since you started tracking them? That might help give you a sense of whether or not you're in 'starvation' mode. But it seems that since you were in an upward trajectory and are now maintaining your weight, you have cut calories—just not enough to lose weight. You really do have to be on top of everything you eat. If you want to adjust your carbs/proteins/fats to see how that influences weight loss, you need to do that in a sustained way, as well.
posted by blazingunicorn at 8:53 PM on January 6, 2015 [9 favorites]

You're probably still not going low enough on the calories. One way to find your baseline calorie requirement is to find the amount of calories you can eat without either gaining nor losing weight. Seems like you've found it.

You can also use a formula to try to calculate it. Baseline calorie requirements depend on your height, weight, gender, and other things. Try out this calculator from MyFitnessPal. After putting in your info, it said that your BMR (calorie requirements to maintain weight without exercising) is 1,355/day.
posted by the jam at 8:53 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

or is it better to leave them on the table in hopes of losing weight faster?

This. Calorie trackers tend to overestimate calories burned. Besides, why exercise to break even? If I burn 300 calories on a treadmill and then eat a 300 calorie candy car, why did I even get on the machine?

If 1400 net calories will lead to 0.5 pounds per week, a daily intake of 1500 net calories will theoretically lead to a loss of 0.25 lbs per week. That is such a slow rate that it will not be noticed for months if sustained. 0.5 lbs per week is 2 lbs per month, but weight can fluctuate daily more than two pounds because of mere water retention. I'd recommend shooting for one to two pounds a week in order to see if progress is being made.

Since you don't have complete control over your meals, you are probably underestimating your calories.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:56 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

You're definitely burning more than your BMR just walking around, but it just might take some personal experimentation to find out exactly how much.
posted by the jam at 8:57 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If I burn 300 calories on a treadmill and then eat a 300 calorie candy car, why did I even get on the machine?

Just to clarify, I'm currently not working out at all. I'm hitting the baseline FitBit goals (10,000 steps and 30 "very active minutes") just by going about my day. So it's not really "why did I even get on the machine?" at all. I will be at this level of activity regardless of what I eat.
posted by Sara C. at 9:03 PM on January 6, 2015

There's a saying in many sports that you can't exercise your way out of a bad diet. It's surprisingly true - it's almost impossible to lose significant weight through exercise. You are doing 1.5 hours of exercise per week, which will almost definitely contribute only a small portion of your weight loss. You didn't specify what specific sort of exercise you're doing, but as a completely random data point, I know (from direct power measurement) that if I bicycle at an all-out pace, I expend about 800 calories/hour. That means to lose a single pound per week, I would need to ride one hour a day as fast as I can for five days a week without eating a single extra bite. I can't do that, and I don't expect anyone else to either.

"Starvation mode" is a myth. If you're not losing weight, it's because you're at caloric equilibrium.

My experience is that calorie tracking is pointless in your situation - if you aren't extraordinarily carefully keeping track of how your food is prepared (which you can't), the variance in each individual item you eat will make the total calorie estimate completely inaccurate. For instance, if you eat just one tablespoon of butter each day more than you estimate, you will lose 1/5 a pound less than you estimate. The easier solution (for me) is to track your weight. If your weight is not going down, you eat less. Eventually, you will reach a point where your weight goes down at the rate you want. Continue to eat at that level as long as you want your weight loss to continue.

If you really feel that you are eating too little, go to a doctor. Otherwise, it's actually pretty hard to hurt yourself by eating too little unless you persist for an exceedingly long time (think months to years, not days).
posted by saeculorum at 9:05 PM on January 6, 2015 [15 favorites]

1. When I did weight loss the program, they said that the average metabolism for a moderate sedentary woman was 10 calories/pound (1500 calories per day for you) but many people in the program had theirs tested and came in lower, often around 8 calories/pound (which would be 1200 calories per day for you) So your personal burn rate might be lower than average.
2. It is very very hard to estimate calories for food you didn't cook - just one tablespoon of oil is 120 calories - enough to make the difference of a 1/4 pound per week.
3. exercise trackers will give you a good measure of your relative effort but are notoriously unreliable to measuring the actual calories burned.
4. While your daily weight can fluctuate, over a four week period if you are have the right balance elf calories in and calories out you will see it on the scale. If the scale hasn't moved, then even with all of your walking, your consumption and exercise are balancing each other out pretty well.
5. Good news is that if you keep your eating where it is (and don't let yourself indulge because now you are exercising) if you can exercise for an hour three times a week at the gym on top of your natural exercise you should see the results on the scale.
posted by metahawk at 9:10 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have to second (or nth) that you can't exercise your way out of a bad diet. I lost 80 lbs via diet alone - I did not exercise much at all during that weight loss. If you can't control what you're eating, is there any way you can get info on what ingredients are going into the food? You really have to understand and record what you're consuming accurately, and it sounds like you haven't been able to do that so far. Is it possible to get that information?
posted by bedhead at 9:34 PM on January 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I helped with the weighing and recording for calorie counting a while back, and even cooking at home from scratch it was a big pain and there was a lot of estimating. It was interesting to do in terms of getting an idea about portion sizes and where the trade offs are, but I don't see any way you could do it accurately if you dont have that kind of control.

My guess is that you will do much better to track the output side of things (weight, body measurements, fitness capabilities) than to be inaccurately guessing about calories, and to experiment with what foods work or don't work for you (because it's not quite as simple as calories in/calories out).
posted by Dip Flash at 9:37 PM on January 6, 2015

I'm assuming from previous comments that a lot of the time you're eating at the craft table? Catered food, unless made to specific criteria, is going to be similar to restaurant food--there's a lot more fat in there than you think there is, meaning more calories of course. So it's highly likely in that scenario that what you think is e.g. 250 calories is actually 400. Plus portion control with buffets is notoriously bad. Is it possible to have a word with your craft services provider about nutritional info?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:49 PM on January 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Since I know I'm eating three meals a day either restaurant or pre-packaged food, I tend to overestimate my calorie intake as much as possible and report religiously. I will often put in two servings when I probably only had one, or choose an option in the app that shows up as an entree at one of those awful fast-casual places where no meal is under 1000 calories. I also log food by scanning barcodes whenever possible and being brutally honest about how much I ate.

I might still be under-reporting, and it's true that things are tight, which means a bite of chocolate or guacamole unreported could be throwing the whole thing. But unfortunately making good choices as much as possible and being as honest as possible is all I can really do. I can't go paleo or "vegan till 6" or cook everything from scratch, and if that means I'm 7 pounds overweight for the rest of my life, so be it.
posted by Sara C. at 10:00 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm a similarly small lady and exactly your age; nothing budges on my body unless I am working out 4 or more times per week, and/or eating really painfully little (we're talking one "actual" meal a day and a couple of small snacks--my weight loss calorie amount is probably closer to 1250 than 1400).

As people have said above, almost everything pre-prepared is absolutely packed with calories and the reported amounts are almost never correct. Since you can't control for the contents you'll have to control for amounts. Whatever portions you're eating now, eat 2/3 of that and see what happens.

Alas, we of the small frames unfortunately have just about zero margin for error.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:01 PM on January 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have to keep at about 1,200 calories a day to lose weight when I'm not being active, and under 1,600 calories a day even when I work out vigorously for more than 40 minutes a day, and I'm taller than you. Metabolisms vary widely.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:03 PM on January 6, 2015

At 5'2, I find I can't really lose weight unless eating at 1200 or so, maybe lower. I know that fitness trackers hate to see you below that, but what sense does it make that it doesn't change proportional to your size?

Obviously continuing as you have been isn't working, so why not try lowering your caloric intake slightly every two weeks until you see some results?
posted by Trifling at 10:20 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Honestly, not to beat a dead horse, but you're still probably underestimating. This isn't a failure on your part, it's just a function of how professional kitchens operate.

Maybe try taking 2/3 to 3/4 of what you would normally eat, and see how that goes?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:22 PM on January 6, 2015

I'm same height and age as you are and when I did calorie tracking, I aimed for 800-1000 calories tracked to lose weight. I still didn't lose weight particularly fast. Doing a low carb diet worked far better for me. It is bizarre, but on the low carb (just semi low, not very low, not ketosis) diet I don't need to exercise at all and I can eat 6 huge meals a day with meat, full fat dairy, and fruit/vegetables, and I still lose more than a pound per week. Calories seem irrelevant to that diet. I heartily recommend giving it a shot.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:56 PM on January 6, 2015 [13 favorites]

Perhaps it's not you or your food intake. Perhaps it's the FitBit?

A friend had some kind of motion tracker (not sure which one, although it's likely to be a FitBit). It seemed to be super sensitive and was logging her taking 1000 steps during her short drive to work. She re-calibrated it and it seems to drop back to more normal levels.

I mean, this won't solve why you were not losing weight prior to the FitBit, but it might help track your actual exercise a little more accurately.
posted by ninazer0 at 10:58 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

That is a good point about the Fitbit. I have one that I wear once in a while (it was free from work), and a few times it has been crazy inaccurate. I played with the settings and it hasn't done that again, but if you watch the live tracking on your phone sometimes you can see it counting "steps" during things like eating or typing, so I'd take the step counts with a large grain of salt.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:33 PM on January 6, 2015

Starvation mode is definitely not at play here. Forget the number 1400, it's either an underestimation or not low enough for you to lose weight. You are eating too many calories. You can either prepare your own food to more accurately track your intake or play around with cutting down on food throughout the day until you start losing weight.

Listen - I totally feel you on this. I'm 4'11" and 100 lbs, I walk a ton and have a very active job. But if I start eating more than 1300 calories I gain weight.

I really recommend preparing your own food. It's so easy to get some Ezekiel english muffins and a tbsp of peanut butter (measured of course) plus a greek yogurt and banana - there's lunch for only 400 calories. You get way more bang for your buck and it's better for your health beyond weight loss.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:49 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another anecdata point here: 5"1' woman, c.125lbs, FitBit says I'm making just under the 10k on average most days if I don't count deliberate exercise.
I calculated my 'maintenance' calorie intake over the course of a month, and it was something a little under 1400 calories. I have to swim a mile and run a 5k every week just to make space for alcohol and the odd dessert. I'd have to do a lot more or eat a lot less to move my weight down.

so, suggestions:
1. If you weighed more you'd burn more; you might consider ankle or wrist weights during exercise (or even during other activities). It's a small tweak, but over the long term it might help.
2. I knew a woman whose job meant she had to eat out a lot; her solution to weight loss was to literally cut her portions of food in half and eat half of what she was served. If you can get over the feeling that it's wasteful, it works.
posted by AFII at 12:31 AM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm your height and size, and I'm trying to lose the same amount of weight. For all food not made by me, I eat half the portion of it I'd eat had I made it myself. When I do this, I easily drop a pound very quickly.

I think you truly just have to eat even smaller portions than you're eating now.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:45 AM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

r/fitness would probably tell you that lifting weights will help. You could try switching that cardio time at the gym over to weight lifting (with the help of a suitably qualified coach to teach good form) and then go for a run to get some cardio in.

Just "doing cardio" really isn't going to make much difference - the amount of exercise you have to do to burn off a significant number of calories is huge & vastly outweighed by just small changes in the quantity you eat.
posted by pharm at 3:17 AM on January 7, 2015

I'd want to murder someone on 1400 unless I was extremely careful about food choices. I think your best bet is to 1) go as low-carb as you can given your options, because that's the easiest way to hit the satiety point ('re protein/fat/fibre), and 2) estimate portions using visual analogues ("deck of cards" etc.).

I think MFP's "eat back" thing is stupid and confusing. A lot of people overeat because the burn estimates are off. The TDEE method is much easier, but for that, you need to be able to count as accurately as possible, especially with such a narrow margin for error. (There's info in the forums on the TDEE approach, or I can get into it here or by pm if you'd like. I just think you're not in a position to make optimal use of it, if you can't weigh or measure things.)

Overestimating your intake doesn't help ime, because it's easy to wind up feeling deprived and reaching for the odd treat, and maybe thinking you've got more room to spare for it than you have. Your calorie budget is tiny, so the odd chocolate here and there will make a difference, unfortunately. (I just ate an oatmeal and chocolate chip cookie that wiped out my 45 minutes on the bike today.)

I think a 1-2lb /week loss goal would be brutal at your stats. Slow and steady feels more manageable. But because you've got so little to work with, and the small margin, I think just for the losing period, it will mean being strict about either portions or choices.

Aiming to burn it off would mean at least an hour of heavy cardio every day, while not at all increasing intake (so, counting strictly anyway), and it doesn't sound like that would be good for your knee. However, exercise can cut appetite in some people, works for me (most times), so it's worth doing what you can. (It might be good to get even a couple of sessions with a physiotherapist to ensure the surrounding muscles are in good enough form to avoid reinjury, if that's available to you.)

Good luck!
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:26 AM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am a lazy, lazy person when it comes to food. Lazy enough that I straight up will not cook. I get impatient microwaving a bowl of soup for two minutes. I will never cook any kind of pasta thicker than angel hair, because I get very peevish even waiting for that.

My solution isn't prepackaged meals or eating out, though. There is nothing, nothing easier than fruits and vegetables. (I also microwave a lot of soup.) It takes a little while to start thinking of them as fully satisfying foods when you've been eating normal American meals, but once you get into the right headspace (stomachspace?), you realize they absolutely are. They're not totally nutritionally complete, of course, but they're pretty great, and quick enough to give you a lot more control over what you consume.

Not trying to pretend I'm healthy or anything like it, don't get me wrong. That's probably the only healthy thing I do. But it's nice.
posted by Because at 3:33 AM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you're 7 pounds overweight according to your BMI, you'll probably live longer.
posted by flabdablet at 4:25 AM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

FitBits and pretty much any on-body calorie tracker outside of the old BodyMedias are crap for accurately predicting calories--and even the BodyMedia overestimates if you're overfat unless you've been wearing it religiously for a while. FitBits are movement-based, which means it takes your stats and tries to estimate how much you're burning based on how much it's being shaken around. Its calculations are based around energy expenditure equations that were created when everyone was thinner, more active, and carried around more muscle mass. As you can imagine, this can lead to serious overestimation of caloric expenditure. Like 30% or more. I don't know how the accuracy of the BodyMedias are after JawBone acquired them, but I know in the older models the company claimed 75% of people would have less than 10% error, and 90% of people would have less than 20%. So still not great.

Long story short--if you aren't losing weight you're eating too much, irrespective of what the FitBit says or how many calories you think you should have. "Starvation Mode" happens to anorexics and people with low to very low body fat who don't have a lot of room for caloric deficit. And even in those cases it's not that people don't lose weight, it's that they don't lose as much as expected and gain very easily.
posted by Anonymous at 5:10 AM on January 7, 2015

I'm almost certain that my FitBit Flex overestimates my calories burned by a pretty significant amount, like, every day.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:17 AM on January 7, 2015

At 5'2, I find I can't really lose weight unless eating at 1200 or so, maybe lower. I know that fitness trackers hate to see you below that, but what sense does it make that it doesn't change proportional to your size?

Same. I also did it at about 1000-1100 net calories, meaning I ate more when I was working out, as long as the net ended up at 1100, because otherwise I was lightheaded at workouts. Anyway I went from 142 at some point to 123 now, and I don't even track that stuff any more (5'2"). Also yea low carb. If you really have no time, hard boiled eggs can be your friend, also cold cuts and cheese. I'm not really a foodie so mileage may vary there.
posted by zutalors! at 5:29 AM on January 7, 2015

1) Have you talked to a doctor about your weight loss plan? It may be possible that you have a health condition that makes it difficult to lose weight, and they may be able to refer you to a dietician.

2) Have you tried different types of exercise? I find cardio machines unbelievably boring and don't push myself very hard on them. I also get a baseline amount of cardio doing daily activities. I get a better workout lifting, plus over time it builds muscle which will increase base metabolic rate. I find my clothes fit better even at the same weight because muscle is denser and distributed more regularly than fat. You'll definitely want to be sure you're lifting safely - couple sessions with a personal trainer, intro session via your gym, and/or online research.
posted by momus_window at 6:00 AM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

N'thing you might need fewer calories. I'm 5'5" and can't lose weight on more than about 1000-1100; when I was in my 20s that number was more like 1200-1300.

But I really wanted to point out one thing I haven't seen mentioned: salt. If you're eating catered/restaurant food regularly, you could just be so weighted down with water from all that salt that you can't even tell if you've lost fat. I'm perhaps an extreme, but I can easily temporarily gain 3-5 lbs after just one restaurant green salad with vinaigrette. Eating that sort of food every day, even given small portions and healthy ingredients, I'd be enormous.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:02 AM on January 7, 2015

For many of us, losing weight at any noticeable rate requires a level of calorie restriction that can only be described as punishing. Myself, I'm in transit from 160 to 150 right now and I'm targeting around 800-1000 calories a day. No starvation mode, just constant hunger and dreams of food. Everyone's mileage may and will vary, obviously.
posted by ftm at 6:06 AM on January 7, 2015

The Fitbit is a motivational tool first and foremost. If it's the thing that's getting you active then it's a great investment. But you said you're not really exercising so why even use the thing? If it's to track calories burned, a much better way of going about that is getting a professional resting metabolic rate test done. A lot of gyms offer the service for a hundred bucks or so. Armed with a (mostly) accurate number of calories burned per day you can really plan your diet accurately. Don't even count exercise in your calorie usage - it's never very much anyway and it tempts you to overindulge to fill in calories you just thought you burned.

As to you question about "starvation mode": Yes it does exist but only when you are literally starving. Like zero calories a day for weeks. You will have trouble standing before it ever becomes an issue.

Edit: Also remember to add 25% to all calorie counts for restaurant food. It's always more than they tell you - the corporate division has an interest in finding every way to lower the number of reported calories to get more people in the door and buying their food, and the chefs/cooks on the front lines have an interest in using every way to add flavor and serve larger portions to get more people in the door. You can't trust that both are correct when they have opposite goals.
posted by Willie0248 at 6:11 AM on January 7, 2015

I'm fairly similar to you in age and stature and BMI and I need to be hungry most of the time to lose weight at a rate of more than a pound a month or so, and that's so hard to track! I've done the pound-a-week thing but I tracked my food religiously (this was still hard even though I was in a work situation where I wasn't able to eat socially for most of my meals anyway, so I could weigh food and eat the exact same thing for every meal).

As others have said, if you want to lose weight, you'll need to eat less calories, but since you can't track calories, if I were you I'd try weighing myself daily but only paying attention to the trend - this is easy to do if you record your daily weight with an app that uses the Hacker's Diet formulas or something similar (this uses statistics to give you a moving average of your weight that helps smooth out the noise of daily weight fluctuations). If your weight is above where you want it to be, eat less (however that's easiest for you - you could cut out carbs, skip meals, halve your portions, eliminate classes of foods like sweets or alcohol, whatever feels least horrible).
posted by mskyle at 6:36 AM on January 7, 2015

Just as an offbeat datapoint, I'm a 34yr old woman who's taller and heavier than you. I walk about two hours over the course of most workdays. I bicycle tour, too, which means 5-8 hours of cycling for a couple weeks straight. I don't count calories, but I do eat about the same as when I'm not touring. My body definitely looks trimmer after a few weeks on the bike, but I usually only lose a couple pounds. Granted, I'm not trying to lose weight exactly; this is more to illustrate how goddamn hard it is!
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:41 AM on January 7, 2015

I'm always amazed at how little I have to eat to l lose weight, and it's always about controlling my calories. Exercise barely nudges the needle, and the more I do, the more muscle I put on, which means if I am not restricting my calories I wind up actually gaining weight.

Stupid bodies. It's like we were designed to be prepared for lond periods of starvation and so we acquire and store calories really quickly and then release them very slowly, and we're totally unprepared to live in a future where calories are amazngly cheap and all our food is ridicuously high calorie, but why on earth would anybody design a body like that?
posted by maxsparber at 6:51 AM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would try seeing your doctor/a dietician and see what advice they have. It sounds like adding intense exercise might be tough for you given the injury, and that your diet changes are limited in terms of what is possible. Sure, play around with portion size, etc. But also -- if your numbers look good in terms of cholesterol, etc., weight is not the ONLY important factor. If there is a specific area your doc thinks needs to be changed in terms of actual health issues (i.e. numbers in a blood test are off), then work on that. But otherwise, maybe be ok with where you are in life right now given your diet/exercise limitations and come to peace with the seven pounds?
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:10 AM on January 7, 2015

Starvation mode may not be a thing, but I definitely had some of my greatest volume-loss success eating a Lot more and shifting to lower carb (ie more fat and protein). Also trying to prioritize sleep and strength training a bit more.

You're plenty active - if you could add a little strength training (even some pushups and air squats) or HIIT cardio (like 15 minutes total on the eliptical, but HIIT) you might see better results.
posted by ldthomps at 8:23 AM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not going to read the other comments, because they are likely to be triggering for me, so apologies if I am repeating anything.

First, a calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie. Yes, I know that our society claims it is, but that's false. You've tried things the way our society says works, and it doesn't. Are you ready to try something else? Protein, for example, takes more calories to process and is harder to turn into fat than are carbs. Not to say you shouldn't eat carbs at all, this is just an example of how calories really do differ. WHAT you eat matters, and the best diet varies from person to person. You need to find what works for you. Food cannot just be reduced to calories. You need to nourish yourself in order to have a strong metabolism. When you are logging your food, do you also track vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein? If not, you should start. And you should care about food quality, not just quantity. A lot of our processed industrial food is just absolute crap and is not going to support your body's processes. A sluggish metabolism can often be improved with better quality food, with the right macronutrient ratios for YOU, and perhaps supplements.

Half an hour of steady state cardio three times per week is not cutting it. Look into HIIT. Look into weight training. If all the time you have is 90 minutes per week, at least ramp up the intensity.

Also, other things matter, not just diet and exercise. Sleep is HUGE, for example. Not getting enough sleep, or good quality sleep, is going to mess with your ability to lose weight.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 8:49 AM on January 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

The "starvation mode doesn't exist" link says that too few calories does indeed slow metabolism, making you burn even fewer calories, which is what people typically mean when they talk about "starvation mode" and weight loss.

I agree with mysterious_stranger. Switching to a high protein, low carb, very low fat diet has me dropping weight like a rock after years of gaining. Weight lifting helps a lot more than cardio does, because weight lifting adds muscle, which burns calories, and cardio makes your body more energetically efficient, which is basically the opposite of what you want.

My diet at your weight would look like:
1/4 cup (dry) oatmeal, cooked
3 egg whites + 1 whole egg

1/4 cup berries
25-30g protein in a protein shake (no more than 3g carbs/fats per 25g protein)

4 oz boneless skinless chicken breast, grilled
1-2 cups broccoli or asparagus
1/4 cup cooked brown rice, quinoa, or yams

Snack 2:
6 almonds, raw
25-30g protein in a protein shake (no more than 3g carbs/fats per 25g protein)

4 oz boneless skinless chicken breast, grilled
1-2 cups broccoli or asparagus

Before bed:
1/4 cup Fage greek yogurt or 1/4 cup low fat cottage cheese

That's around the same number of calories you're eating now, but WAY healthier for you, and you're eating every 2.5 hours to keep your metabolism high. Try it for a week and see what happens.
posted by zug at 10:59 AM on January 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

I disagree with those saying "you can't exercise your way out of overweight" because I did. What strikes me most is that you're really not very physically active; you're just at a maintenance level of activity. I know that you're meeting these baselines on the devices, but it's still not much cardio and clearly not very intense. The acronym FIT stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time - if you want to burn more calories, increase one of these categories in your exercise routine. Also, I agree that you're probably not estimating your portions correctly and so you are eating more calories than you are reporting. It's a very common problem for people new to portion control.
posted by Miko at 11:52 AM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I keep my weight down by skipping breakfast on the days I don't work out. My maintenance calorie intake is something like 1300 -- skipping breakfast makes things easier for me, because then I can pig out at dinner, which is when I'm usually the hungriest. I consume nothing but coffee before noon. Look up "intermittent fasting."
posted by baby beluga at 12:09 PM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am on my feet and walking long distances all day, every day, so I'm fairly sure that the FitBit is just fine in terms of accuracy. I'm not noticing anything crazy like thousands of steps when I was sedentary at my desk.
posted by Sara C. at 12:23 PM on January 7, 2015

I've been doing CrossFit 5-6x/week for about 6 months, during which time my body composition has changed significantly. My FitBit isn't good for measuring the kind of explosive cardio we do, like double unders or box jumps. I also assume that the extra muscle has increased my resting metabolism. But FitBit's measurement of how many calories I burn on a daily basis doesn't reflect any of that; now I wear it out of habit, as a watch, and as a reminder to be healthy.

It might be accurate in terms of how many steps you're taking a day, but as others have said, it's best used as a motivational tool rather than an iron-clad account of how many calories you've burned. Because everyone has a different metabolism, I disregard the calories that MFP gives you to 'eat back' when it syncs with my FitBit.

There's such a small margin of error when you're our height/age and dealing with so few calories to begin with. Sugar in your coffee? A packet of soy sauce? Track those; they add up. Track your macronutrients. You really do have to become "one of those people" if you want to make an all-out effort to lose weight and track your calories. Buy a food scale, do meal prep, bring your meals to work. It turns into a habit and gets easier.

If anyone asks or gives you a hard time, just tell people you're on a cleanse. "The beauty is, there will be no followup questions, because nobody wants to hear about your fucking cleanse."
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:47 PM on January 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

It's just that walking is never going to get your heart rate up by much.
posted by Miko at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The MyFitnessPal blog had an interesting article on this called Ask the Dietitian: Should I Eat Back My Exercise Calories? In that article it says,

"It’s easy, and fairly common to overestimate calorie burn (both from everyday activity and from exercise) and underestimate calorie consumption. By going out of your way to eat back every calorie you expend during exercise, you may unintentionally undermine your efforts to lose or maintain your weight."
posted by Juniper Toast at 1:42 PM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the whole thread, but my first thought was that a half hour of gym cardio per week isn't enough. I'd try to burn at least 500 calories per workout. That's a little less than a half hour of hard running. I'd guess it's closer to an hour of gym cardio. I'd also shoot for four days per week, where the workout on the fourth day is different or lighter.
posted by cnc at 2:51 PM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am on my feet and walking long distances all day, every day, so I'm fairly sure that the FitBit is just fine in terms of accuracy. I'm not noticing anything crazy like thousands of steps when I was sedentary at my desk.

My point above is the way the FitBit calculates your calories may be inaccurate not just to overestimating your movement, but by using an outdated equation for estimating caloric burn that was derived from decade-old studies using very physically fit young men.
posted by Anonymous at 3:48 PM on January 7, 2015

Anecdata: I'm 5'3", 37 years old, and currently weigh in at 235. I'm super crazy not happy about it. I cried at my doctor's office yesterday when I saw that number. So I need to lose, like, 100 lbs. I've also got some crazy edema going on in my feet and (c)ankles. I have a huge list of medical conditions, and I currently have 18 prescription medications, plus 12 more OTC meds, that I take on a regular basis.

If you take any medications, any supplements, any thing along those lines, check the side effects. Some of them may have weight gain as a side effect. I've got that checking on my list of things to do today. Right now, I'm focusing solely on getting the right medication balance (we've been playing with it since APRIL), and I'll worry about side effects and weight gain later.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 4:43 PM on January 7, 2015

To expand on another answer above to your larger, unstated question of "how can I lose weight given my constraints", HIIT is indeed the way to go, imo, if your knee can take it, you've re/prehabbed, your doc or PT says it's ok, etc. Stationary cycling at low resistance tends to be safer for knees (but this should be checked with reference to your knees in particular). That's the kind of cardio that was used in a lot of the HIIT studies reviewed here. Most of them asked participants to do 3 sessions a week.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:45 PM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

All calories are not created equal, so watch out for the more "empty" calories like white starches and sugar. Everyone's body is different - Intermittent Fasting works gangbusters for me but not for the Mr. - and you might need less calories (as others have said). When I calorie count, I skip breakfast as others have mentioned - just makes it easier to have two "regular" sized meals than 3 tiny ones.

Sidebar since OP said she is not actively exercising:
If I burn 300 calories on a treadmill and then eat a 300 calorie candy car, why did I even get on the machine?
For heart health?

posted by getawaysticks at 6:35 AM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, getawaysticks, that's what always surprises me about the "Don't exercise" advice in these threads. Exercise is good for tons of things, including the way your body ends up looking (tone, flexibility), sleep, heart health, joint health, preventing bone loss. I've had phases of working out hard six times a week and my doctor not only thought that was good but thought I could throw in more.

Also more to the question, exercise helps me lose weight because I just want to eat healthier to have the right energy to workout. Also gives me something to do, otherwise I'd just sit around thinking about how I'm not eating. So true, it's not the be all end all for weight loss but I don't think it's great advice to just say "don't exercise."
posted by zutalors! at 7:55 AM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I suspect that there are a couple of things going on.

First, you're probably burning fewer calories than you think. The various online BMR and TDEE calculators use formulas that are derived from population studies, but there's variance within the population. People who fidget a lot burn many more calories than those who don't. The various calculators that I have consulted seem to think that at my height, weight, age, gender, and activity level, I need 2500-2700 calories to maintain my weight. My own records indicate that I need about 2250.

Second, you're probably eating more than you think. In my own case, I suspect that inaccurate logging is responsible for at least some of the discrepancy between the 2250 I need to maintain and the much larger number that online calculators estimate—or, for that matter, the difference between the 1.5 pounds per week that MyFitnessPal claimed I would lose and the 1.1 pounds per week that I actually lost.

However, it doesn't really matter. You've determined that you maintain your weight on what you estimate to be 1400 calories. In that case, to lose weight, simply eat less than that. Keep estimating the way that you have been, but aim for 1200 rather than 1400. Just be consistent with your estimates. That will be far easier than aiming for complete accuracy.

Keep in mind too that if you have only 10 pounds to lose, it's going to be hard. I lost nearly 30 pounds in my first six months on MFP; it took me 17 more to lose the next 34.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:07 PM on January 8, 2015

This is probably a dumb question, but where's your FitBit attached to your body?

Most of my clothing doesn't have pockets, and sometimes don't wear a bra. On days when I've attached it to my sock, I "burn" about 150-200 more "calories," according to the FitBit.

Wrist? Same thing. Waist/bra? about average.

If yours is the bracelet kind that's supposed to be worn there specifically, you're probably tracking fairly accurately.

The studies linking 10k steps to weight regulation really are meant to signify five miles - I am five-foot-one and must walk 12,378 steps per day to achieve five miles. Human beings' strides vary in length, which may be a factor.

Aim for five miles, not 10,000 steps.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:00 AM on January 10, 2015

Response by poster: I weighed myself last week and discovered that I had actually gained weight at some point. Probably over the holidays, as I took a vacation from calorie counting/working out, had three weeks off work (so much less time on my feet per day) and, yes, got very excessive with the holiday food and drink. While I did weigh in over the holidays, I did it with a different and possibly less accurate* scale.

Since reading this question and working to stick more closely to my calorie goal (and trying wherever possible to land between 1200-1400 calories), I have lost a pound. On the original more accurate scale. Woo!

Thanks for all the advice.

*Under normal circumstances I weigh myself on a medical scale at the gym, as opposed to a bathroom scale of questionable provenance at my parents' house.
posted by Sara C. at 11:59 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Under normal circumstances I weigh myself on a medical scale at the gym, as opposed to a bathroom scale of questionable provenance at my parents' house.

So if you have lost more than a few pounds then over the course of months you should be seeing a change on the gym scale. But unless you're doing the gym scale in the morning, naked, after you've gone to the bathroom, and before eating or drinking anything the measurements could be way off. For example, if I use the scale at gym mid-day as opposed to my home scale in the morning I can look at a difference of up to six or eight pounds! To me it was worth it to buy a well-rated $25 scale on Amazon to put in my bathroom to at least be able to consistently track weight changes.
posted by Anonymous at 7:02 PM on January 24, 2015

Also, medical gym scales can vary as much as any other scale. Not sure what kind your gym has, but not all of them are well maintained or regularly calibrated, and they take a licking. Unless it's a super medical gym with a really serious scale, it's a good idea to have your own, one that's not subject to the wear and tear of a gym.
posted by Miko at 8:04 PM on January 24, 2015

No one can really help you unless you tell us what you're eating and what you're doing for exercise.
An hour of power yoga is not the same as an hour of running outside.
Eating 1400 calories but having those calories consist of mainly processed foods won't do you any good.
posted by nephilim. at 4:34 PM on March 31, 2015

Re-read your post, I don't care what the fitbit says, 30 minutes 3 times per week is not enough. Those things are prone to miscalculate, anyway. When I want to lose weight I do intense cardio 4 times per week, minimum, for an hour each time. It's not working unless I'm pouring sweat the whole time.

Skip bread & replace it with brown rice. Avoid processed and sugary foods like typical diet foods that promise to be "low __". They're too over processed. Just eat lean protein, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and dairy with meager amounts of brown rice and you'll drop the weight off. Takes a little extra effort because it forces me to hand prepare every darned meal, but it's worth it in the long run.
posted by nephilim. at 4:40 PM on March 31, 2015

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