You’re told that burning more calories than you eat will result in weight loss, and despite following this advice, instead you’re finding yourself gaining weight and left wondering what is actually going on.
Can I burn more calories than I ate and still put on weight? There can be many factors that influence your energy expenditure and energy consumption, but the energy balance equation will always ring true. If you’re not losing weight something might be amiss with your tracking or there are hormonal imbalances affecting your body’s ability to burn calories.
There are many variables influencing your energy expenditure and intake, and some may be more obvious than others. So while you might think you are creating a calorie deficit and expending more calories than you’re consuming, this may not be an accurate representation of what is occurring.
In this article you’ll learn:
- How to know you’re burning more calories than you ate?
- If you can burn more calories than you’re eating and still gain weight?
- Why could you be gaining weight if you’re eating less calories than you’re burning?
How Do You Know You’re Burning More Calories Than You Ate?
Knowing how many calories you are burning can be hard to determine because many factors influence this.
To influence changes in your body composition you manipulate:
- Your calorie intake, which is the amount of calories you are consuming; and
- Your calorie expenditure, which is the amount of calories you are burning.
This is commonly known as the calories in versus calories out energy balance equation.
If you aren’t accurately tracking your calorie intake or making informed assumptions on your calorie expenditure, you’ll have an inaccurate representation of the calories you are burning and eating.
Your caloric intake consists of anything you are consuming with most food and drink having some measure of calories associated with it.
While there is only one factor you need to be mindful of when tracking your calorie intake, if you aren’t doing this correctly, then you won’t have an accurate view of the calories you are eating.
Common mistakes impacting the accuracy of your calorie intake tracking include:
- Guessing how much your food weighs versus actually weighing your food
- Not tracking your condiments and sauces
- Not tracking your cooking oils
- Not including the random bites of food you snack on during the day
- Licking the spoon or knife clean of your favorite spreads
- Using generic or unverified food entries on your calorie tracking app
- Not double checking the nutritional panel of your food after you scan the barcode into your calorie tracking app
- Not tracking your calories and just guessing what your intake is.
If you’re making any of these mistakes, chances are you are probably underrepresenting the amount of calories you’re eating.
If you need a calorie tracking app, I just MacroFactor, which I thought was far superior than any other tracking app (even better than MyFitnessPal).
Unlike your calorie intake, your calorie expenditure is the result of a few different factors, which are:
- Your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of calories your body burns by just existing;
- The thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the amount of calories burned through food consumption and digestion;
- The thermic effect of activity (TEA), which is the amount of calories burned through exercise; and
- Non exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is the calories burned through unintentional movements or activity (walking to and from your car, etc).
Where your assumptions around any of those factors are off, you will have an inaccurate estimate of how many calories you are burning in a day.
While it may seem like you have created a calorie deficit by burning more calories than you have eaten, if you haven’t made appropriate assumptions around the factors that impact your energy expenditure, then you’re probably overestimating how many calories you are burning.
Common mistakes impacting the accuracy of your calorie expenditure may include:
- Relying on fitness devices like your fitbit or apple watch to determine your calorie expenditure, these can be variable and inconsistent.
- Not knowing the calories required to maintain your body weight, to help inform the calorie deficit you need to create for your weight loss goals.
- Thinking you can eat more calories to replace the calories you burned during exercise.
With calorie expenditure taking into account many factors, it makes knowing how much you’re burning difficult to confirm, and most of the time it is a best guess based on science and what is known about an individual.
When the goal is weight loss, instead of focusing on how many calories you’re burning focus instead on:
- How many calories you’ve consumed against how many calories your body needs to function and sustain itself (your maintenance calories). You can do this by calculating your BMR against an activity multiplier (Calculate your BMR using our BMR calculator.).
- Once you know your maintenance calories, depending on your goal and timeframe, create a deficit of 200-500 calories as a starting point. For example, if your maintenance calories are estimated at around 2,600, aim for 2,100-2,400 as a calorie intake goal.
- Ensure your tracking practices are an accurate reflection of what you are consuming.
By focusing your attention on your intake, it simplifies what you need to monitor and track and it is also the variable you have the most control over manipulating. If you need help calculating your calories you have a few options:
- Reach out to a nutrition coach (like us)
- Try an app like MacroFactor
- Use this calculator as a guide.
Related Article: Do Macros Matter for Weight Loss? (Yes, Here’s Why)
Is It Possible To Burn More Calories Than You Eat & Still Gain Weight?
Putting aside data tracking inaccuracies and the variability associated with monitoring energy expenditure, it is possible there are other factors causing you to gain weight when it looks as though you are burning more calories than you ate.
Simply put, it could be the result of hormonal changes in the body caused by poor sleep, stress, or illness making it more difficult for you to lose weight despite being in a deficit.
Research has shown that poor sleep can have a significant impact on your body’s metabolism.
So while you may have calculated your calories correctly to create an energy deficit, this won’t take into account the impacts of a disordered sleep routine.
Failure to focus on getting 7-9 hours sleep and developing good sleep habits might mean you need to create even more of a calorie deficit to lose weight, which isn’t ideal.
Stress also has an impact on your body’s hormones by increasing your cortisol levels when experiencing high stress.
Increased cortisol gives your body a release of energy to manage the ‘risky’ situation it finds itself in and when you level out again your body will want to replenish its energy stores.
Increased cortisol has been linked to an increased appetite and cravings for sugary, high fat and salty foods. In addition, one study has shown that when you’ve experienced one or two stressors in a 24 hour period your body burns fewer calories in the 24 hours period that then follows.
Some illnesses affect the hormones that regulate hunger and fullness in your body.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a prime example of this. PCOS can cause insulin resistance as your body makes more of this hormone with the illness. Increased insulin encourages your body to store fat and makes you feel more hungry. So even when burning more calories than you’re eating, an underlying medical issue can make it more difficult for your body to lose weight.
When talking about weight loss, the energy balance equation of calories in versus calories out does ring true, however, there are going to be external factors that affect the degree of success this has on an individual level. Every person and their circumstances are unique, which is why asking for help from an expert can help remove the confusion and uncertainty.
- Related Article: Eating Below TDEE & Not Losing Weight (8 Reasons Why)
Why Do You Gain Weight If You Eat Less Than You Burn (10 Reasons)
If you burned more calories than you ate and still gained weight, it could be because:
- Your calorie expenditure tracker is inaccurate
- You’re not tracking your food properly
- Your supplements don’t support your goals
- Your training regime
- Your calorie targets aren’t appropriate for your goals
- Your scales haven’t been calibrated properly
- Your weight has changed
- You have an underlying medical condition
- You are only using body weight changes to evaluate success
- Your source of calories
1. Your Calorie Expenditure Tracker Is Inaccurate
Research has found that wrist worn energy tracker devices did not perform within an acceptable range in any setting. So it is highly likely that the estimates your energy tracker provides around how many calories you’re burning are inaccurate.
This isn’t to say, don’t use your tracker device, but more that you should be aware that figures produced are an estimate. These estimates may assist you in understanding your energy expenditure but shouldn’t be relied on as a source of truth.
There are also other factors that can impact energy expenditure that your tracker device isn’t going to be able to factor, for example, the impacts of poor sleep.
Instead be clear on what your maintenance calories are, start with a 200-500 calorie deficit depending on your goals and timeframe and make sure your calorie checking habits are dialed in. Then any calories you do burn through the activity will increase that deficit.
2. You’re Not Tracking Your Food Properly
A common problem with calorie tracking is underrepresenting your calorie intake. It still counts even if haven’t tracked it.
If you’re working toward a body composition goal, track all the food you’re eating across the day, weigh the food you are eating, double check the food entries in your calorie counting app match up with the nutritional panel on your food and when you’re unsure consult a food standard website for guidance on nutritional information on generic foods.
Taking the above actions will help give the best possible representation of your calorie intake.
- Related Articles: Eating 1800 Calories A Day And Not Losing Weight (Why?) and My BMR Is 1200 Calories: How Do I Lose Weight?
3. Your Supplements
Different supplements do different things and most have a calorie value assigned to them.
For example, some protein shakes are mass gainers with high calorie counts and some supplements cause fluid retention.
The best course of action here is to make sure your supplements are being tracked and included as part of your calorie intake and you’re aware of how they may affect your body’s weight.
4. Your Training Regime
Your style of training could influence your scale weight on a day to day basis. Strength training will cause your muscles to hold more fluid and it will also cause your muscles to grow.
So the weight you may have gained could be attributed to an increase in muscle mass or extra fluid held in your muscles after vigorous sessions.
5. Your Calories Targets Aren’t Appropriate for Your Goals
Sometimes eating too little or being in a calorie deficit for too long can cause your metabolism to slow down because your body will sense that its energy source is limited.
Remember eating food and food digestion burns calories, so if you’re finding your rate of loss stalling, give yourself a diet break.
- I discuss this concept more in my article on When To Start Reverse Dieting (5 Signs To Know).
6. Your Scales Haven’t Been Calibrated Properly
The scales you are using to weigh your food might not be calibrated properly, causing your food portions to be higher than you think they are.
Check the reviews of the scale you’re purchasing and make sure your scales are sensitive enough to capture less than a gram of food.
7. Your Weight Has Changed
Your height, weight, age and activity level are all data points used to determine your maintenance calories. So where any of those data points change, so will your maintenance calories.
For example if you start your weight loss journey at 100 kilos and lose 10 kilos, the amount of energy your body needs to move around 80 kilos compared to your former 100kg self will be different, in fact it will likely be lower.
If you haven’t adjusted your calorie intake to match changes that have occurred in your body then you may be eating over your necessary calories causing weight gain.
- Related Article: Can You Lose Fat Eating Maintenance Calories?
8. You Have an Underlying Medical Condition
There are some medical conditions that could impact your body’s ability to lose weight or the rate at which your body can lose weight (I mentioned PCOS being one medical condition above).
Before trying any new diet or physical activity it is best to consult with your doctor to understand whether any medical considerations need to be taken into account.
9. You Are Only Using Body Weight Changes To Evaluate Success
In the pursuit of body composition goals, weighing yourself regularly is a good indicator of how you are progressing. However, your scale weight can be influenced by many things and change significantly from day to day.
Sodium and carbohydrate intake are culprits of causing fluid retention and menstruation cycles for women can also impact scale weight.
Just because your scale weight fluctuates day to day doesn’t mean you have put on weight overnight. Try monitoring your average scale weight over a week, and then from week to week if you are seeing your weight trend down, then you are making progress.
10. Your Source of Calories
Different food sources have different effects on your metabolism with some foods requiring more energy to break down and be metabolized by the body. Protein is a good example of this. It takes longer to digest than carbs or fat.
The energy your body expends trying to digest has a smaller impact on your calorie balance than other factors but it is still worth considering whether a diet lower in protein may be causing you to burn less calories than you realize.
In addition, protein is likely to keep you fuller for longer. Similarly, foods like fruits and vegetables have high nutrient values which work to keep your hunger cues and appetite stable. Lower nutrient dense foods like pastries, cookies, chips, and ice cream can have the opposite effect.
So when they make up your primary calorie consumption, which might cause you to overeat because you are being provided with nutrients your body needs.
Get your calories from a variety of food sources to maximize your health and your body composition goals.
- Related Article: How Can “Apple Shape” Bodies Lose Weight (Step By Step Guide)
Nutrition is a science but its application is an art because while numbers don’t lie, each person is unique and responds to nutrition strategies in different ways, so knowing what works best or finding where you are going wrong can be difficult to navigate.
If you’re at loss or looking for some support, contact us and one of our experts will be able to steer you in the right direction.
Other Macro Tracking Resources
- How To Count Calories Without Getting Obsessed (5 Tips)
- How Many Calories Do You Need to Maintain Your Weight?
- What Happens If You Go Over Your Carb Macros (Is This Bad?)
- How To Count Calories Without Labels (4 Ways)
- I Ate 1000 Calories Over My Limit, Now What?
- I Ate 2000 Calories Over My Limit, Now What?
Sharma, S., & Kavuru, M. (2010). Sleep and metabolism: an overview. International journal of endocrinology, 2010, 270832. https://doi.org/10.1155/2010/270832
Harris R. B. (2015). Chronic and acute effects of stress on energy balance: are there appropriate animal models?. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 308(4), R250–R265. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00361.2014
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Habash, D. L., Fagundes, C. P., Andridge, R., Peng, J., Malarkey, W. B., & Belury, M. A. (2014, July 13). Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018
Shcherbina, A.; Mattsson, C.M.; Waggott, D.; Salisbury, H.; Christle, J.W.; Hastie, T.; Wheeler, M.T.; Ashley, E.A. Accuracy in Wrist-Worn, Sensor-Based Measurements of Heart Rate and Energy Expenditure in a Diverse Cohort. J. Pers. Med. 2017, 7, 3. https://doi.org/10.3390/jpm7020003
About The Author
Steph Catalucci is an online nutrition coach from Australia, working with clients all over the world. Her passion for nutrition was born through wanting to treat her body better, for health and performance. She is a strong advocate for understanding nutrition to develop informed nutritional habits that go beyond just food. Steph leverages a decade of her own nutritional experience to help people make sense of the noise and carve a path forward with their nutrition, supporting clients with whatever body composition goal they have. When not coaching or writing, you’ll find her training for her next powerlifting competition.
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