The Real Reason You Might Not Be Losing Weight (Hint: You might not be eating enough.)

Crystal Jackson

As a self-employed single mother, I feel like I’m always on-the-go. It’s not uncommon for me to have coffee for breakfast and skip lunch before finally sitting down to eat dinner. So, when the scale started to go up, I couldn’t understand it.

I was sure I had been making healthier choices in my diet, and I was exercising regularly—both on my paddleboard and cycling. In fact, I was doing anywhere from an hour to two hours of exercise a day. How could I be gaining, not losing, weight?

It came as a shock to me that we can actually gain weight if we don’t eat enough. For the level of activity I was engaged in, I should have been eating 1500 calories a day to lose weight. After tracking my diet for a few of my regular days, I realized that I was getting less than 1000 calories per day—sometimes as little as 500 when I skipped meals.

I enjoy food and had no intention of starving myself, but my busy schedule gave me a convenient excuse not to take the best care of myself. I was eating all my calories at the end of the day, and the amount I was consuming was woefully inadequate when compared to my level of activity.

If you find that you’re gaining weight or just not losing it despite regular exercise, here are a few things you may want to do:

Track what you’re eating.

Many apps exist that will keep track of the nutrition for you. That was the first thing I did to determine how many calories, as well as carbs, I was consuming. While I assumed going low carb would lead to weight loss, it didn’t work when I wasn’t eating enough calories to support my activity level.

Most of these apps can calculate your ideal number of calories using your height, weight, and any weight loss goals. For my activity level, I should eat 1200 calories on a sedentary day and up to 1600 on a high-intensity workout day. Each day, it also projected potential weight loss by sticking to that level of diet and exercise.

Eat breakfast.

Coffee isn’t actually breakfast, but many of us use this well-known appetite suppressant to miss a meal. With busy schedules, it’s easy to do. I’ve found that I can choose a delicious yet quick breakfast each morning and still manage to lose weight.

Making overnight oats, grabbing a waffle topped with cream cheese and strawberries, or even enjoying a protein shake can all be good ways of getting in some nutrition before starting on the day. I’ve been surprised at all the options I can have without guilt or fear.

I’m no longer quaking at the thought of eating carbs, and I don’t consider skipping a meal because I’m in a hurry some kind of virtue. Instead, I start my day feeling better because I actually have the energy that comes with eating breakfast before dashing off to do everything.

Make healthy choices.

At the end of most days, I have a certain number of calories I can still consume. Instead of going for the processed treat packed with sugar, I’ve been opting for honey roasted almonds, a cup of blueberries, and a square of dark chocolate—both satisfying and delicious. Sometimes, I go for a cup of popcorn instead or another snack that I look forward to all day.

What’s surprising is that eating this way never leaves me feeling hungry. I eat when I need to and eat well, but I do keep in mind my calorie goal and choose accordingly. Going for a more filling option can be a great idea when I’m running out of calories for the day. If I want another snack, I’ll sometimes throw in another exercise at home to make it work without messing up my progress.

These healthy choices also extend to the quality of the food I choose to fill my calories. Instead of consuming more carbs and empty calories, I often try to get the most nutrition in with the best taste. It makes me more conscious of how I’m eating, leading to less skipped meals and more healthy choices.

Decide if your level of fitness matches your weight loss goals.

On my most sedentary days, I can eat the minimum number of calories and still see slow, steady weight loss. But by exercising more and also eating more, I see more rapid progress. The tradeoff to the exercise is that I can eat more of the food I love without a negative impact on my body. I’m fueling my body, not starving it.

Consider mixing up your exercise routines with interval and cross-training for maximum impact. Remember: it’s more important to perform new exercises well than to spend more time doing them. Learning to have proper form when doing any exercise can help avoid injury.

Keep yourself accountable.

I almost skipped breakfast today. I was running out the door with my coffee in hand when I backtracked for a bagel. It made me chuckle. In the past, I would have avoided the bagel like the plague to keep my carb count down. Knowing that today would include a solid workout meant that I would be fine with having some carbs in moderation.

Be balanced.

By paying attention to what I’m eating, I’m really starting to understand that weight loss has more to do with balance than extreme effort. Not eating was extreme—and I paid the price in pounds added to the scale and weight that stubbornly refused to reduce. Over-exercising can lead to muscle strain and injury. Over-eating can lead to lethargy and weight gain. Finding a happy medium of eating well and exercising as a lifestyle rather than a plan with an end date may be the best possible recipe for a healthy life.

Be body positive.

We can also evaluate our body image to make sure that we’re setting realistic goals for ourselves based on health and not on outside measures of acceptance. We can want to make progress with our health and fitness without being negative about the bodies we’re in right now. 

know that I have a weight where I am the most comfortable and feel the best; it’s not high school skinny either. By being able to center my goals around how I feel rather than how I look, it’s easier to make diet and lifestyle changes with my overall health in mind. 

Of course, I’m a former therapist turned writer. I’m neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. Consulting both is always a good idea before making a lifestyle change. Weight gain or weight loss can be indicative of certain health conditions, and seeing a primary care physician can help rule out other causes. 

I never would have thought that I could gain weight by not eating enough, but it’s exactly what was happening. Within five days of eating the minimum number of calories combined with my normal levels of exercise, I was down six of the pounds I’d put on. That sort of rapid weight loss may not be typical for most plans, and I don’t expect it to continue.

What will continue is that I will stay accountable, make healthy choices, and remember that no matter how much I love coffee, it still doesn’t count as breakfast food.

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails:

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