Why, this isn't an input/output problem at all
April 9, 2007 6:01 AM   Subscribe

Why aren't I losing weight? I'm doing everything right (aren't I?). Extensive explanation of weight-loss methods inside, so this is a doozy.

So I embarked on a weight-loss program about three weeks ago. I'm 5'6', 162 (now), 26% body fat. I'm pretty healthy, but I'd like to trim 10 or 12 pounds to take the weight off my shins, improve my biking, and help me tame the elusive pull-up. Here's my program:

Taken every morning as prescribed by the Hacker's Diet, entered into PhysicsDiet.

I work out about an hour and a half a day, six days a week.
Couch-to-5K: 3 days a week, ~20 minutes
Interval training: 3 days a week, ~25 minutes (~15 minutes of warm-up followed by 10 minutes intervals)
Intense bodyweight exercise: 5 days a week, ~60 minutes or more
Capoeira: 1 day a week, ~90 minutes (plus whatever practice I work in)

Tracked nigh-obsessively with Fitday and entered into PhysicsDiet. According to these journals, my average intake is 1500-1600 calories per day, while I burn an average of 2600 calories per day. I eat six small meals, aiming to finish before six or seven at night unless I have a late-night workout in which case I eat a little protein and complex carbohydrates afterwards. I aim to eat at least 100 grams of protein a day to preserve muscle mass while I'm cutting the fat. I drink water (though probably not as much as I should).

So, the nutrition experts predict I should have lost about six pounds by now. What do I get? Two pounds, probably less than that since some of it is water weight lost during the Red Tide. I mean, sure, I feel great, and I'm getting stronger, but I highly doubt I'm gaining muscle mass quickly enough to compensate for the amount of fat I should be losing. It's not like my clothes are fitting any looser.

Now, I could simply enjoy the working out and getting stronger, and I've definitely done that in the past. But this time I really would like to cut down some of the body fat. So what's up, Metafilter?

Ah yes. I'm on Ortho-TriCyclin Lo. It hasn't made me gain weight, but could it be preventing me from losing it? C'mon, it's can't be the birth control, right? That would be lame.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (38 answers total)
It just doesn't work like that. Weight loss is a series of drops and plateaus. A bunch of people are going to tell you their pet theory why this is and pretend it's definitive. Also, some moron is going to say "you are in starvation mode" because they think that your body is capable of becoming a perpetual motion machine if you eat less than they do.

Your plan sounds very sensible. It's just that weight loss doesn't happen like it should on paper-- you'll just see a drop-off over a couple of days. Then you'll hit another plateau and wonder "why am I not losing weight now?" and sure enough you'll see another dropoff. PATIENCE!
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:19 AM on April 9, 2007

Some people's bodies just process food more efficently then others. Three weeks is a while and it's possible your working out less then you think you are.
posted by delmoi at 6:27 AM on April 9, 2007

Despite the impressively (and depressingly-to-me) long list of exercises, the least supported number in your math is the burning of 2600 calories per day. Where are you getting that? From a book that says $X exercise is $Y calories/minute or have you actually been personally and scientifically measured? Because those values can vary widely.

In any case, 6 pounds in 3 weeks is probably unhealthy (especially when you are only starting with 162 of them) whereas 2 pounds in the same time is fine. I'd be more inclined to work backwards: Figure out how many calories the exercise is burning off from how fast you are losing weight (averaged over a long period of time) and then do the math forwards from there to do predictions/planning if you want.
posted by DU at 6:27 AM on April 9, 2007

Listen to Mayor Curley. Te body is weird like that and you definitely should apreciate the fact that you are feeling stronger and healthy (just not in the one measurement you care about). Perhaps you should keep track of your results of running and your other exercise. That way you can see some actual on paper accomplishments.
posted by mmascolino at 6:29 AM on April 9, 2007

I'll bite, Mayor Curley. :) I don't think you're in starvation mode yet, but I think a 1000 calorie deficit is too much, and that you'll shortly end up in starvation mode, and then probably rebound and end up where you are now (or worse!) if you try and keep it up. (Note that I don't think your body becomes some kind of perpetual motion machine, just that it's very elastic and can be pushed pretty hard before it demands payback.)

The key is definitely patience, and to that end I think you would do better off with a 500-600 calorie deficit instead of 1000+. Look at the trend for your weight every month or so and only worry if the overall trend isn't heading in the correct direction.
posted by anaelith at 6:29 AM on April 9, 2007

3 weeks? The issue with losing weight at your point is that it takes a lot of work. Keep going with your program and don't stress about losing the weight - just keep enjoying the getting healthier bit.
posted by gomichild at 6:30 AM on April 9, 2007

If you are doing the same exercises day in and day out, your body gets used to it and you plateau. and like mayor curley said, Patience. It took me 4 months to loose 10lbs and I worked out daily and varied my strength training exercises. It's not the pill either, so don't worry about that.
posted by Attackpanda at 6:38 AM on April 9, 2007

You're doing everything right, and you ARE getting much healthier. The pounds will begin to fall of as soon as you stop looking at exercise/diet as a way to loose weight and start thinking about it in terms of a lifestyle change. Once you do that you'll have no reason to weigh yourself everyday, and in a few months, you're body will begin to show you the results you want because none of your clothes will fit you anymore!!

You're doing great, just give yourself some more time, and stop worrying about the scale's daily number--worry about how you feel and look, two things that will begin to change before you know it. Patience.
posted by dead_ at 6:43 AM on April 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

You're probably only burning an extra 200 calories a day from the exercise you're doing. If the rest of your day is completely sedentary (ie you sit at a desk all day), it's possible that the 1600 calories a day you're eating are meeting (not falling short of) your daily caloric requirements.

The other possibility, which I think is probably more likely, is that you are eating more than you think you are. Are you really familiar with what, say, half a cup of rice looks like? Or are you estimating? Because it is very common, and very easy, to overestimate.

(Either way, I guess what I'm saying is that you are either over estimating how many calories you burn a day, or, you are underestimating how much food you're eating.)
posted by Kololo at 6:43 AM on April 9, 2007

Er, lose weight.
posted by dead_ at 6:44 AM on April 9, 2007

I couldn't disagree more with dead_ about the mystical ineffability of weight loss.

I'd suggest that it can take a while to really get things started for weight loss. I'm not sure why that is, but a lot of people find the very start, and the very end, of a diet to be the slowest times for losing weight.
posted by OmieWise at 6:52 AM on April 9, 2007

I wouldn't worry until you do this for another month and are still nowhere. In the meantime I'd take measurements of body parts and take pictures of yourself for progress. You can definitely look better and feel healthier in ways the scale won't tell you.
posted by PFL at 7:00 AM on April 9, 2007

First, with that heavy a schedule, you're probably gaining enough muscle to offset any fat weight loss. If you feel/look thinner, but the scale says it ain't so, go with the look, not the scale.

Second, sometimes weight loss is a funny thing. I trained hard for a month to get in shape for a St. Patty's day (5 mile) run. I didn't lose an ounce in that month. The soreness from that run, lifestyle busyness, and cold weather have precluded any exercise on my part since then, and I've not changed my diet, but I'm four+ pound *lighter* than I was on the 17th. My point is, sometimes it takes a while for your body to get the picture and start losing weight.
posted by notsnot at 7:04 AM on April 9, 2007

...and yet in the past, for me, the start of the diet has been the easy part. because that's when a bunch of water weight drops off and you get to lose 4 pounds in a week. i know it's not fat, but it's a nice motivator.

anyway, i am in the same boat as you. similar height/weight ratio, tracking obsessively, can't lose weight. i just started up atkins again since low-calorie wasn't working, and i'm not having success there either. i will tell you that before i tried the low-carb diet, i was doing the tracking method like you. and fitday told me i consistently should have had a huge calorie deficit. i even told fitday that i was bedbound as my base activity level. and i couldn't lose weight till i got down to about 1200 calories/day. and yes, that's with working out 3-5 days a week, doing weight training+cardio, the whole bit.

i recently asked a question (http://ask.metafilter.com/59650/Hypothyroid-or-hypochondriac) about my own weight struggle, and if it might be due to an underactive thyroid. as you'll see, i got answers across the board. but several women popped in to say they also had great troubles losing weight.

every time someone asks about weightloss on metafilter, someone has to say that you've just got to track input/output, and create a 500 calorie/day deficit, and you'll lose a pound a week. i really wanted to believe that. because it's very logical and achiveable. but honestly, i don't think bodies are as reasonable. they can become very efficient when we don't want them to be.

anway, good luck. i suspect you just need to keep cutting calories. eventually you will lose weight. for what's worth, you might also want to get your thyroid checked out. i'm going to keep pursuing that line of inquiry myself.
posted by apostrophe at 7:12 AM on April 9, 2007

One of the earliest changes that occurs with regular exercise (although it's better described for weight-training), is the neurological training that occurs. This is basically the ability of the brain to activate the maximum strength a muscle is capable of producing. It means that a lot of tasks can be performed more effectively than before, without any gain in muscle size.

I know that when you go for a run, the workload (and hence calorie loss) shouldn't change as you progressively get stronger (and fitter). But I wonder if the improved efficiency by which you work out is dropping the effort involved, and thereby reducing the number of calories you're actually burning each day.

Just a theory.
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:37 AM on April 9, 2007

You haven't built base.

You need to be doing cardio six days a week, at least thirty minutes a day, at a heart rate of about 75% of max. You don't need to do any higher than that for eight weeks. Your body needs to be trained to burn fat.

Also from what I have read you can either build muscle OR lose fat, just not at the same time. If you build your muscle first-for instance, if you do the workout you describe and increase your caloric intake then LATER do your diet, you may also see better results. Again, what I did (I started working out a year before I started dieting. Lost a dress size during that time, altho little weight.)

I lost 35 pounds this way,long term, and quite a big percentage of body fat in a short period of time. Three meals a day, proper portions, no seconds, lots of water, limited treats.
posted by konolia at 7:57 AM on April 9, 2007

I think what dead_ was getting at is there are other (arguably more important and sustainable) ways to measure success when you start eating healthier and exercising than how much weight you've lost. Different bodies react to food and exercise in different ways and as others have said, muscle gain affects weight as does individual physical makeup.

This is probably off topic, but if you're using how much weight you have or have not lost as the way to determine if what you're doing is working to improve your health, then as you hit plateaus and live your life it will be difficult to feel successful even though you are making healthy choices every day.
posted by Kimberly at 7:58 AM on April 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

First, the 2600 calories maintenance level sounds a bit high. You should re-evaluate that.

If you are concerned about going into starvation mode, stagger the dieting in 3-day intervals. In other words, eat at your revised maintenance calorie intake for 3 days, and then target for 500 below your maintenance calorie intake the next three days. This is called the "zig-zag" method, and tricks your body into not going into "starvation mode".

The bottom line, however, is that everyone's body is different. You might be what is called a "hard loser". You may just have a to eat a bit less over all.

The weight will come off. It just takes time. (I've been on a diet for the last six months and steadily lost the weight. I am halfway to my goal. ) The most important thing is to just stick to it.
posted by Void_Ptr at 7:58 AM on April 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's my (not so crackpot, from my research and experience) theory: I think it's theoretically possible that you're still holding on to a lot of water, even though you started three weeks ago. In my experience, the first thing my body does when I subject it to substantially more exercise than it's used to is hold on to water. Mine usually flushes out by the 3 week mark, though. You could either ride it out, as the others are suggesting (which is difficult but probably a fine idea) OR...if you're comfortable, try skipping your workout for one extra day and see what happens. If you feel like it might be too difficult for you to get back on the workout wagon again after 2 days, that's a legitimate reason not to do this. Just my 2 cents.
posted by theantikitty at 8:01 AM on April 9, 2007

Kudos to you on your exercise program—I should be half as diligent.

Another wrinkle that you may have thought of is that you are getting stronger. Muscle weighs more than fat. So you could be getting leaner, but not losing weight in proportion to your loss of fat.

Added muscle is a good thing. It also elevates your metabolism, because each pound of muscle "costs" more in calories than a pound of fat.

And another thing: bodyfat measurements can be very inaccurate.
posted by adamrice at 8:01 AM on April 9, 2007

The best thing that happened to me when I started my current eating plan is that I gained six pounds the first week.

Yeah, really.

It just made crystal-clear that, while weight loss is an I/O problem in the long term (years), there are too many other variables in the short term and that total body weight, while the best we've got, is a terrible form of feedback. There was no way I was eating 3,000 calories/day that first week, let alone 3k over my base requirements. Looking back at my daily weighings, the six pounds disappeared in a day or two, and I've been losing 3-7 pounds/month since. There have been three-week periods where I lost nothing, and there have been those where I lost a lot.

It's a marathon, not a sprint, yada yada yada. Good luck!
posted by backupjesus at 8:10 AM on April 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

the least supported number in your math is the burning of 2600 calories per day. Where are you getting that?

Yes, I also think you need to reexamine this assumption. According to this calculator, your BMR is somewhere in the 1550 calories per day range (give or take 25, depending on your age). That's just to stay alive; anything more comes from your activity. So, you're saying that you burn 1000-1100 calories every day by exercising -- that's something like 9 or 11 miles. Average. Per day. If you're new to calesthenic training, I doubt you're getting that done in 40-45 minutes of cardio per day plus one capoeira session per week.

Ah! More online calculators in support of my thesis. this one says you're burning something more like 500 (give or take 20% depending on how fast you run) in your 45 minute cardio workout.

So... yeah. Re-check your assumptions. Also, relax a bit; you don't need such a severe deficit (1000 calories per day!) to lose weight healthily. I think the consensus is that losing a pound or 2 a week is healthy, and that's 3000-6000 calories. Even at the outside that's less than 1000 per day.
posted by rkent at 8:29 AM on April 9, 2007

The worst thing you can do for yourself is count on that scale. If you want to measure your progress, take measurements of your body and watch the inches go. Muscle really is a lot heavier than fat and you can easily stay the same weight while dropping dress sizes. In turn, the more muscle your body has the faster you can burn fat so keep up with what you are doing and you WILL see results. I suggest you do at least 30 minutes of cardio 6 days a week. As was said above, you need to train your body to be 'in shape', and nothing works better than consistency.

Your eating plan is fabulous, the only suggestion I have for that is you need to drink more water. If you want to lose weight always have a bottle of water near you and don't drink anything else at least for a few weeks.

Whatever you do, don't give up. Good luck!
posted by trishthedish at 9:28 AM on April 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and also, birth control does NOT cause weight gain. There is no hard evidence to stand behind that theory so don't worry about that. The problem with messing with your hormones is it can make you want to be really lazy, and make you want to eat a lot of food that is bad for you. Which of course will make you gain weight.
posted by trishthedish at 9:30 AM on April 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the advice so far! I guessed three weeks was probably early to start worrying, but I preferred to make sure I wasn't doing anything horribly wrong three weeks rather than six weeks in.

Regarding my calorie calculations:

My RMR is about 1550. If I shoot low and say my activity level is very sedentary, I'll multiple 1550 x 1.2 and get 1860 for my daily calorie needs, minus exercise.

Now, five days a week my exercise schedule is usually 60-90 minutes of bodyweight exercises (basically heavy, intense, practically non-stop calisthenics, push-ups, sit-ups, this stuff). This is followed by 20-25 minutes of either Couch-to-5K or interval training.

The sixth day is capoeria, which I precede with another 20-25 minutes of running.

When I look up calisthenics on any calorie calculator I can find, the lowest I get is about 500-600 calories per hour. Shooting low for the cardio, I'm burning around 200 calories per session. So that's at the very least 700 calories, or a total of 2560 calories per day. On capoeria days, calorie calculators tell me I'm again, burning about 500 calories per hour, if not more. The FitDay calorie calculators give me rates around these, so I use them to determine my total calorie burn and enter that into PhysicsDiet. I have an overall average of 2600 calories per day for the long bodyweight exercise days and because capoeria lasts for longer than an hour.

If this seems inaccurate, please, someone, let me know.
posted by Anonymous at 10:24 AM on April 9, 2007

Response by poster: Urgh, I mean capoeira. I always get that wrong.
posted by Anonymous at 10:25 AM on April 9, 2007

I would hazard I guess that you are either a) underestimating the amount of calories you are taking in (very easy to do -- do you really need all 6 of those meals?), or b) overestimating the "intensity" of your body-weight exercises (also easy to do). I remember reading one askme where someone described his exercise routine as pushing his muscles to "failure", but that also seemed unlikely.

That said, your programme sounds balanced and a good idea. I think everyone is right on when they see you need to look at weight loss and fitness on a longer time scale than 3 weeks. Maybe put away the scale for a month at a time. The other good idea was to measure your body using a tape measure. If you can drop an inch or whatever around your waist in 1 month, then you know it is irrelevant what the scale is saying (same for body fat % measurers -- mine at least can vary by 3% day to day -- i am male, 6'1, 160lbs).
posted by modernnomad at 10:53 AM on April 9, 2007


2 pounds lost = 7000 calorie deficit

Over 3 weeks: 7000/21=333 calorie/day deficit.

Your bathroom scale accuracy is probably +/- 1 pound. Propagating this in the simple math done above:

3 pounds lost = 10,5000 deficit; Over 3 weeks: 500 calories/day.
1 pound lost = 3500 deficit; Over 3 weeks: 166 calories/day.

You've not lost enough over a sustained period to make an accurate estimate of your daily caloric deficit. It's probably somewhere between 150 cal/day and 500 cal/day. Keep this regimen up for 6 months and report back. Once you've lost 15 pounds, you can really calculate what your daily deficit is.
posted by u2604ab at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2007

Have you ever lost weight before? More than 5 or 10 pounds, I mean. I'm just wondering if you have any proven success to compare your current efforts to.

I think people seriously underestimate how difficult it is for (most?) women to lose weight, even if they seem to have a great deal of weight to lose (which is NOT your case). In fact in your case it may be even harder because you have only a little to lose.

A few years ago I was around 160 pounds, but 4 inches shorter than you. I had tried at least a dozen times to lose weight with ZERO success. I finally succeeded in losing 25 - 30 pounds in 7 months by doing the following:

Eating 1440-1500 calories nearly every single day. There were a few days that I ate 1600 or 1700 calories, and even fewer where I ate 2000, but I would say 95% of the time I was in the 1400 range. I used labels and the USDA search to find calories, and I wrote down every single bite. Even 2 goldfish crackers got written down.

I exercised 5 to 6 days a week, and I did 45 to 55 minutes of vigorous exercise. I walked, ran, or rollerbladed. I have a muscular frame and had a good base of muscle, plus I had no access to a gym and didn't want to buy weights, so I did no weight training.

I took my measurements monthly.

Now here's the thing. For 6 or maybe even 8 weeks, I did not lose ONE SINGLE POUND. I did lose inches, though. Not enough to notice with clothing, either. I didn't lose any sizes, but I did notice a difference in the tape measure.

There are people who would say bullshit to all of the above. Oh, you're eating more than you think, you need to add weight training, you are cheating on your diet. I brought my concerns up to my doctor and he accused me of lying to get Meridia, which I had never even heard of. That's a whole nother story.

After that initial period, the weight and inches started falling off. I started dropping sizes very quickly for the rest of that summer, almost faster than I bought new clothes. I think my body was just doing everything it could to cling to that weight, and I had to be PERFECT for that initial period before my body was convinced it needed to let go of those pounds.

I'm experiencing this all again as I try to lose my postpartum weight, and it's fucking hard. Just keep at it. Good luck!
posted by peep at 12:09 PM on April 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm a guy, but I didn't notice significant weight loss for the first few months after eating better and exercising regularly.

Perhaps just a coincidence, but after taking up yoga a few months later, the pounds began melting away, to the point where I could really stand to gain some weight back. (I've definitely had a harder time trying to gain some weight back [while still trying to eat healthy] than I did trying to lose some). Oh, and apologies - since most people would kill to have that 'problem' - but I say it to highlight that there are a lot of factors involved in weight gain/loss.

I've stuck to the exercising thing, and still try and eat well, and I've managed to keep it off for the past 2 years.

Sounds like you're doing great - I think a lot of people give up when they don't get the results they want immediately - resist that temptation and you should be fine.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:39 PM on April 9, 2007

I dunno. I'm doing weight watchers, and people who follow it lose weight, from the beginning. Your body isn't 'testing' you. It isn't 'waiting' for anything. It really is all about input/output, plus maybe a bit of water/salt factored in. That's just how bodies go. There's a lot of excuses going on here.

I would say that you are indeed over estimating how many calories you burn during exercise. I recently did a running clinic that is essentially the couch-to-5k regime, and near the beginning, when I was running just a few kilometers, it worked out to about 80 or 90 calories burned over 20 or 25 minutes; you say you are burning about 200 doing the same thing. (For reference, I'm 5'3 and about 140lbs, so your slightly larger size would change your numbers, but likely not by 110%.) Try using a heart rate monitor, it might give you a more accurate read of your effort level.

(Fitday or whatnot might be overestimating your numbers if you are inputing that you are working at a very high intensity, when in fact, you may be working at only a moderate intensity. Those kinds of words are so so subjective, and you might just be interpreting them differently than the formulators of the calculators did.)
posted by Kololo at 4:11 PM on April 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Fitday notoriously overstates calorie burn. Don't trust it. Frankly, I don't think tracking calorie output is a great idea. It tends to lead more to "look how much work I did today I get a cookie" than "I know exactly how much I burned so I can eat this much." You never know exactly how much you burned and it changes due to such a variety of factors (how efficient am I at this exercise? did I take it easy the rest of the day to compensate? is this causing me to build muscle or to burn it for fuel? etc etc etc). Look at the scale: if it isn't moving, you need to move more or eat less. Or readjust your expectations-- 2lbs/week might be realistic for someone very overweight but that isn't you.
Practically speaking, I am a huge fan of zig-zagging: eat low to very low for a few days, and give yourself a break for a couple days (for me that could be 12-1500/day for 3-5 days, then 18-2400 for a couple days). But I think u2604ab has it right, you haven't been doing this for long enough to really know.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:27 PM on April 9, 2007

Kololo writes "Your body isn't 'testing' you. It isn't 'waiting' for anything. It really is all about input/output, plus maybe a bit of water/salt factored in. That's just how bodies go. There's a lot of excuses going on here. "

That's the attitude my doctor had. I ignored him and went on to lose 25 pounds. But thanks for your opinion.
posted by peep at 7:12 PM on April 9, 2007

No prob, peeps! Opinions are what this forum is for! Glad to be serving it well!
(Also, keep in mind, that just because your doctor said that and you lost weight doesn't make your doctor wrong.)
posted by Kololo at 9:27 PM on April 9, 2007

Get yourself body fat calipers (such as those from AccuFitness) to track your body fat percentage and lean body mass. These are much better indicators of progress than weight alone.

Another thing to consider is how your calorie intake is broken down between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Not ever calorie is equal: Your body treats a calorie of refined sugar differently than a calorie of fat, and differently than a calorie of protein. There's no rule for the optimal ratio, but a good starting point is 50% of your calories from carbohydrates (preferably complex carbohydrates), 30% from proteins, and 20% from fats (preferably "healthy fats" such as omega-3 and omega-6). Your FitDay log may already give you these ratios.

Good luck! Your hard work will pay off!
posted by chrisch at 10:36 PM on April 9, 2007

Perhaps you misunderstand Kololo. My doctor was calling me a liar, and so were you. I don't appreciate it in the least. Come right out and say it.
posted by peep at 8:58 AM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, peep. Silly, overly sensitive peep. I'm not calling you a liar. I'm calling you mistaken. There is a difference. (The difference is intent or motive.)

Also, I wasn't addressing you in particular. I was addressing the several comments that alluded to similar circumstances.
posted by Kololo at 11:34 AM on April 10, 2007

Koloko, this is what happened with Peep-her body learned to burn fat.

Yes, weight watchers is a good program, teaching portion control and such, but Peep's experience is not unusual.

If Peep got the results she got, by doing what she said she did, after going thru the period of time with lesser results, then I would say she cannot BE mistaken.

That reminds me of the fitness center employee that was criticising the fact that I weighed every day, saying that I couldn't tell success from that method. Considering I had already lost a considerable amount by that time, considering that I already knew about and expected fluctuation, considering I needed the accountability, and considering that studies now show I was right, I cheerfully ignored her.
posted by konolia at 11:45 AM on April 10, 2007

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