“I’m doing everything right, exercising and eating well. So why am I not losing weight?”
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Or rather, it’s the $72 billion question, since that’s how much the diet industry apparently rakes in.1 I’ve spent enough years talking about food and exercise to know how common weight-loss plateaus are. It’s frustrating when something that seems like it should be simple isn’t working for you.
Let me start by challenging the assumption that weight loss is simple or easy. A 2007 report from the UK Government’s Foresight Programme identified 108 factors that affect weight loss.2 Of course food and exercise are represented on the list in various ways, but so are genetic, economic, social, and psychological influences. That’s why I roll my eyes when I hear people espousing “just eat less and exercise more” platitudes—as if it’s that simple.
Anyway, anyone who’s bothering to ask the question that prompted this post already knows about eating less and moving more. They’ve probably tried multiple versions of eating “less” or “right” or “better,” plus a variety of exercise protocols. Yet, they’re still feeling stuck and frustrated.
If this sounds familiar, don’t lose hope. First, understand that weight loss ebbs and flows. Plateaus are normal, and sometimes they resolve themselves without any significant action on your part. If not, you can try pulling different levers to see if you can un-stick the gears.
Without further ado, here are ten possible reasons you’re not losing weight even though you’re eating well and exercising:
1. “Eating well” doesn’t necessarily mean eating for maximal leanness.
To me, eating well means eating nutritious foods in an amount appropriate for your body. It doesn’t mean following a diet that gets you totally shredded or maximally lean. Not necessarily anyway.
The diet industry would have us believe that anyone can have the media-manufactured “perfect” (read: very lean) body with a simple eat less, move more approach. The truth is, some people are born with genes that allow them to achieve that look with minimal work. They’re programmed to have a six-pack on display with only the barest coaxing.
However, the majority of people who look like fitness models or action heroes work hard for their physiques. They are very methodical about what they eat and how they exercise, going far beyond what I would categorize as basic “eating well and exercising.” It shouldn’t be a surprise if you don’t look like them if you’re not putting in that level of effort.
I’m not saying you should put in that level of effort. I’m saying check your goals and see if they’re realistic given your current approach. If there is a mismatch, decide which one you’re going to change.
There’s nothing wrong with implementing the Primal principles—doing your best to eat healthy foods, walk a lot, lift heavy things, sleep well, spend time in nature, and so on—and letting the cards fall where they may. Even if you don’t end up with rock-hard abs, you’ll still have a body that is strong and healthy.
2. You’re eating more than you think you are.
The evidence is clear: people are notoriously terrible at estimating how much they eat, even when trying to be accurate.3 They forget about the handful of M&Ms they noshed after lunch. That “splash” of cream in their coffee was actually three tablespoons. These little mistakes and miscalculations can add up to many hundreds of calories a day. Now multiply that by a week, a month, then a year. You see where I’m going with this.
You may also inadvertently overeat when you try to account for the calories expended during exercise. People consistently overestimate how many calories they burn, 45 and activity trackers have their own accuracy issues.6 This gets tricky because your food intake should be commensurate with your activity level, but you don’t want to “eat back” calories you aren’t burning in the first place.
When you follow the Primal Blueprint Fitness recommendations and work out a moderate amount, you’re unlikely to dig yourself into a serious hole if you listen to your body and eat according to hunger. Athletes with more specialized goals, especially endurance athletes who spend long hours in training, do need to be strategic about fueling. My best advice for them is to work with a coach to dial in their nutritional strategy.
3. You’re embracing healthy fats a little too much.
Another common mistake is getting a little too fat-happy when you first go Primal or keto. I get it, it’s exciting to have permission to eat delicious, healthy fats like avocados, mayo, and real cream in your coffee after decades of following low-fat diet dogma. Don’t even get me started on bacon.
Still, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and it’s easy to add more fat than you realize during cooking and dressing your meals. This is where food tracking can come in handy. Use an app like Cronometer and weigh and measure everything you eat for three to five days. It’s time-consuming and frankly a pain, but it can be very illuminating as well.
4. Your body is already happy at your current weight.
Call it set point, homeostasis, or personal ideal body composition. Whatever you call it, your body may settle on a weight that’s not what you expected or hoped. I hear from so many frustrated people trying to eke out that “last five or ten pounds” to no avail. In my experience, most of these folks aren’t concerned about health or fitness per se. They’re trying to get down to a certain number, namely the number that they decided ahead of time would make them happy—their “goal weight.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter that the scale is higher than you thought it would be. If you’re living the lifestyle you want, eating delicious food that makes you feel fantastic, moving your body, and getting stronger, do you really need to hit a certain number? Can you be happy where you are now? (Yes, even if you’re more than ten pounds from your goal weight.)
Go back and read #1, then decide if you’re ok with this possibility.
5. You aren’t sleeping.
I doubt any of my readers are surprised to see this one on the list, given how often I beat the sleep drum on the blog and during our Primal challenges. Insufficient sleep interferes with weight loss in a number of ways, including
Decreasing energy expenditure (the “energy out” side of the energy balance equation)89
Boosting the reward value of high-calorie foods so they seem more appealing10
You probably know from personal experience how much harder it is to eat well and find the motivation to exercise when you are tired. If you’re not sleeping well, that should be your priority. Getting more high-quality sleep will probably move the needle more than any tweaks you make to your diet or exercise routine.11 Even if it doesn’t jumpstart weight loss, it will pay dividends for your health and well-being. It’s a can’t-lose proposition.
6. You’re eating foods that don’t work for you.
Maybe the title of my next book should be Try Taking a Break from Dairy. I probably won’t sell any copies (the cover will tell you everything you need to know), but I’ll help a lot of people.
Seriously, I’ve heard from countless readers who busted through a weight-loss plateau by cutting dairy. I suspect that many of these folks are mildly to moderately intolerant of lactose and/or casein, and dairy is causing underlying gut issues or inflammation. The easy-to-consume calories in dairy probably don’t help either.
Wait, you’re saying, isn’t dairy allowed according to the Primal Blueprint Food Pyramid? It is, but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Dairy isn’t the only potential culprit here, either, but it’s the one I see most frequently. Nuts are number two on the list, probably for the same reasons (allergies and calories).
7. You’re trying too hard.
Weight-loss plateaus can happen when the physical and mental stress of dieting adds up. Sometimes the answer is to do less instead of more, at least for a while.
We know that sustained caloric restriction leads to metabolic adaptions that slow weight loss. Your body can’t tell the difference between your intentional diet before your high school reunion and your ancestors’ dwindling food supply in the middle of harsh winter. So, it tries to ration energy (i.e., body fat) stores by decreasing metabolic rate and dialing up appetite, for example. These adaptations would have saved our ancestors’ lives during times of severe food scarcity.
Strategies like carb refeeds, diet breaks, and reverse dieting are designed to reverse those metabolic adaptations. Evidence shows that intermittent dieting, where you rotate between periods of a calorie deficit and calorie balance, is more effective for weight loss than continuous calorie restriction.1213Most people don’t want to take a break from dieting, though, for fear that they will undo all their progress if they eat more. You won’t. The idea is to eat maintenance calories or a slight surplus, not thousands of extra calories a day.
And don’t underestimate the potential benefits of taking a mental break from dieting. Stress interferes with weight loss, but your diet itself can stress you out. “How much am I supposed to eat? What about my macros? Is corn allowed? Why haven’t I lost more weight yet? I must be doing something wrong.” It becomes a neverending loop of self-doubt and limiting beliefs that have no chance of actually helping and every chance of undermining your goals. Let it go for a while.
8. You’re doing too much cardio and not enough resistance training.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idea that cardio is an effective way to burn more calories and lose weight pervades diet culture. Besides the fact that it doesn’t burn as many calories as you probably hope, chronic cardio ramps up hunger, causing you to eat more in the long run.
A combination of resistance training (lifting heavy things) and high-intensity exercise (but not too much) is the way to go if you want to build metabolic health, upregulate your fat burning, and build metabolically active muscle. Sprinting can seriously move the needle on fat burning and help bust you out of a weight-loss plateau.
Stress caused by traumatic experiences can fester under the surface and manifest in surprising ways, including weight gain or difficulty losing weight, even years later.14 Some experts believe that trauma causes epigenetic changes that put people at greater risk for developing a variety of different health problems.15 Individuals who experience trauma may also be prone to (often unconscious) self-sabotaging behaviors.16 If you think there might be something deeper going on, I encourage you to ask for help.
10. Because weight loss is complicated and multifactorial.
I’m not telling you not to try if this goal is important to you, nor am I providing you with a handy excuse if your half-hearted efforts haven’t been successful. Nevertheless, sometimes weight loss isn’t forthcoming despite your best efforts because of factors you aren’t yet aware of or can’t control. Finding the secret sauce is easy for some people and challenging for others.
Let me leave you with this reminder: The Primal Blueprint is about optimal health first and foremost, and health won’t look the same on everyone. When you eat, move, and live in ways that are in accordance with your genetic expectations of health, shaped through millions of years of evolution, you will naturally trend toward your ideal body composition. That doesn’t mean you’ll end up looking like me or the person on the cover of your running magazine or your coworker, neighbor, sibling, or partner.
Make sure that you are pausing to appreciate how much better you feel when you eat good food and move your body. Pay attention to physical and emotional health symptoms and track whether they are improving. Are you sleeping better? Enjoying more energy and greater motivation to get out and live life? Those things will bring you far greater fulfillment in the long run than hitting some number on the bathroom scale.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.