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It can be frustrating to track and monitor your calorie intake to ensure that it is below your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) and not lose weight.
This is especially true if you were successfully losing weight at this intake level for a period time and then your weight loss stalled.
So, what’s going on?
Here are the 8 reasons why you’re not losing weight eating below your TDEE:
- Your new smaller body requires less food
- Eating less food requires less energy
- You are moving less throughout the day
- You are exercising less intensely
- Your tracker overestimates your calories burned
- You underestimate your actual intake
- You are inconsistent with your weigh-ins
- You are too focused on body weight vs. body composition
In this article, I’ll discuss common reasons why it seems like you can eat below TDEE and not lose weight. Then I’ll share strategies to get your weight loss back on track, and expectations for weight loss when eating below TDEE.
Should You Eat Less Than Your TDEE To Lose Weight?
Yes, eating below your TDEE is the only way to lose body weight. Your energy intake from the foods you eat must be less than your energy output. This will achieve the caloric deficit needed to reduce body mass. You can do this by decreasing your food intake and/or increasing your activity levels.
But, what if you’re not losing weight?
Is it possible that you can eat below TDEE and NOT lose weight? No, you can’t eat below your TDEE and NOT lose weight. Either your TDEE estimate is too high, or your actual intake is higher than you think, or both.
To solve this problem, you can increase your training frequency, increase your training intensity, incorporate more movement into your day, and/or more carefully monitor your intake.
- Related Article: Do Macros Matter for Weight Loss? (Yes, Here’s Why)
8 Reasons You’re Not Losing Weight Eating Below TDEE
Before diving into the 8 reasons you’re not losing weight, you need to know what your TDEE is made up of.
Your TDEE is made up of:
- Resting metabolic rate (RMR): the energy your body uses for processes to keep you alive such as breathing and circulation, even when you’re asleep
- Thermic effect of eating (TEE): the energy used to digest food
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): the energy for purposeful movement outside of workouts, such as sitting, standing and walking
- Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT): the energy expended in workouts
If anyone or more of these components are reduced, your overall TDEE will be lower. During weight loss, it is common for all four of these elements to decrease.
Reason 1: Your New Smaller Body Requires Less Food
As your body weight decreases, it takes less energy for your body to carry out its base processes because your overall body size is smaller.
Also, weight loss tends to include both fat loss and some loss of lean muscle tissue. Even at rest, lean muscle tissue takes more energy to maintain than fat tissue. Losing lean muscle tissue results in a lower RMR.
Solution: decrease your intake and prioritize resistance training to preserve lean muscle mass. Start with a 10% reduction in calories. If you were not previously strength training, add 1-2 sessions per week. If you were strength training, add an additional set for each exercise or add one additional strength training session per week.
Reason 2: Eating Less Food Requires Less Energy
When you eat less, it takes less energy for your body to digest that smaller amount of food. Certain foods take more energy to digest than others.
In general, minimally-processed whole foods require more energy to digest than processed, refined foods. Lean protein and high-fibre foods require relatively more energy to digest.
Solution: decrease your intake and prioritize whole foods, especially lean protein sources and high-fibre foods like vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Start with a 10% reduction in calories. Include at least one lean protein source and one high-fibre food each time you eat.
Lean protein sources:
- Skinless chicken breasts
- Lean ground chicken
- Extra lean ground beef
- Egg whites
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
Reason 3: You Are Moving Less Throughout the Day
When you reduce your intake, your body will subconsciously try to compensate by moving less during the day. This might mean not taking the stairs, and less fidgeting and pacing.
Solution: consciously add back movement by taking the stairs, parking farther away, and/or adding a walk to your day. If you have a step counter, aim to maintain the same total daily steps. A good goal is 10,000 steps per day.
- Related Article: Meal Replacement vs Mass Gainer: Differences, Pros, Cons
Reason 4: You Are Exercising Less Intensely
When you reduce your intake, you may not have as much energy to exercise as intensely as you did before. This can happen without your conscious awareness. You may also notice that you feel less energetic and/or skip workouts more frequently.
Solution: stick to your planned schedule of workouts. Monitor your intensity by keeping track of your weights lifted, and number of sets and reps. For cardio workouts, keep track of your pace and time. Keep these metrics at least the same or increasing over time.
Reason 5: Your Tracker Overestimates Your Calories Burned
Calorie output readings on cardio machines are notoriously inaccurate. The same is true for wearable devices like Fitbits, Garmins and Apple Watches.
You should not rely on these devices for estimates of calories burned during a workout or for TDEE. If you are increasing your intake to “eat back” the calories burned during workouts, you are likely eating too much.
Solution: use an online calorie calculator like this one to estimate your TDEE. Input your age, gender, height, current weight, and activity level and press Calculate. The “Maintain weight” result is your current estimated TDEE, including calories burned from exercise. Do not adjust your intake up based on calorie output readings from devices.
For example, a female who is 34 years old, weighs 150lbs, 5’5” tall, and exercises moderately 4-5 times per week has a suggested maintenance intake (TDEE) of 2,000 calories per day.
It’s also important to recognize that even an online calculator TDEE estimate is just that: an estimate. It could also be too high, which means that you’ll want to consider the other reasons mentioned in this article and adjust accordingly.
Reason 6: You Underestimate Your Actual Intake
If your actual intake is higher than you think it is, you may not be eating under TDEE. If you are not eating under TDEE, you will not lose weight. Included here are six common causes of underestimating actual intake.
Related Article: Can You Undereat And Not Lose Weight?
Not Tracking Your Intake
If you are not tracking your intake at all, it’s impossible to know for sure whether it is actually below your TDEE. This can be common with individuals following eating approaches that focus on certain food types.
For example, keto or Paleo or “clean eating” focuses on attributes of the foods but doesn’t necessarily prescribe calorie limits. Just because a food is “clean” or Paleo or keto does not mean that it is low in calories.
Solution: actually track your intake using an app like MacroFactor. Adjust as needed to get your actual intake below your estimated TDEE and monitor your progress. Use this link and enter the code FEASTGOOD when signing up to get an extra week on your free trial (2 weeks total). You can cancel anytime before your trial ends without being charged..
When I review clients’ food logs compared to a photo journal of their food, it is common for untracked items to come up. For example, someone might not track salad dressing, seasonings, sauces or condiments.
They may also forget to account for calories in beverages, such as coffee or tea with sugar, milk, or cream. These foods do have calories and they can add up over the course of the day.
Similarly, small bites and licks over the day can add up as well. This might be tasting food while cooking, sampling a bite of a friend’s meal, or finishing a few leftover bites from a child’s plate.
All of these foods need to be tracked as part of the total actual intake for the day.
Solution: include all foods, including condiments & seasonings, and all bites/tastes/samples in total intake for the day.
Tracking At End of Day
Dietary recall (the ability to remember what and how much you ate) is generally not very good for anyone. We are busy and it’s hard to remember all of the details. Plus, people trying to lose weight are even more likely to underestimate actual intake. By waiting until the end of the day to record intake, the risk of error is higher. Also, if the actual intake is higher than planned, it is too late to “course-correct.”
Solution: either pre-plan your day and track the foods you will be eating ahead of time, so that you can be sure to hit your planned target OR track your food in real-time during the day so that you can monitor your intake relative to the target.
Over-reliance on “Calorie-Free” foods
Very few foods are truly calorie-free. Often a label will state zero calories for a small serving size. Labeling rules allow items with less than 5 calories per serving to be rounded to zero.
However, as soon as several servings are consumed, the actual calorie count would be higher than zero. Opening a can of butter-flavoured “zero-calorie” spray and pouring it on vegetables would be significantly more than the zero calories and zero grams of fat shown on the label for a one-second spray.
Solution: stick to the recommended serving size for “calorie-free” foods and recognize that very few of them are truly calorie-free.
“Eyeballing” portion sizes or using imprecise measuring tools can cause you to underestimate your actual intake. For example, 1 tbsp of peanut butter is 15g. Your tablespoon could easily hold more than 15g, especially if you heap the peanut butter to create a rounded tablespoon. It is more accurate to weigh out 15 grams of peanut butter using a food scale.
I personally use and recommend this battery-operated digital food scale. For less than twenty dollars, it’s great value and its slim design fits easily in my kitchen drawers. I love that it has the option to measure in different units, and an easy “tare” (set to zero) button when weighing food in a container.
Solution: use a food scale and measuring cups whenever possible to accurately measure your food. Do not trust your eyes to know.
Incorrect Entries in Macro Tracker App
You can carefully weigh and measure your food, but if you select a record in your macro tracking app that incorrectly reports a too-low calorie count for the food, you will end up with a higher actual intake than you think.
Watch out for the following:
- Total calories do not align with macros for the food item. In general, carbs and protein provide 4 calories per gram and fat provides 9 calories per gram. A food item with very low calories but high macros is incorrect.
- The calorie count for the food item is much lower than other entries for the same food. Look for the most common repeated value and select that food.
- The calorie count in the tracker does not match the nutrition information label on the food. The macro tracker could have an old record that does not match a new updated recipe for the food. Find (or create) an entry that matches the label.
Solution: do a quick check on the “calorie math” for entries that seem too low. Select the most common calorie value that appears for a given food item, and select entries that match the label, where applicable.
Reason 7: You Are Inconsistent With Your Weigh-ins
If you’ve paid attention to the first 6 reasons above, it’s still possible that you’re not seeing weight loss on the scales. This could be due to the following factors:
- Time of day: your body weight will naturally fluctuate over the course of a day. Pick a consistent time of day to weigh yourself.
- Day of week: your body weight will naturally fluctuate from day to day over a week. Either pick the same day each week to weigh yourself or weigh yourself daily and calculate a weekly average weight.
- Week of month (for women): women’s body weight will naturally fluctuate due to hormonal changes over the course of a menstrual cycle. Be patient during weeks where bloating could be impacting the scales.
- Clothing: if you weigh yourself with clothes on, different clothes will have different weights. Ideally, weigh yourself naked.
- Hydration status: being dehydrated will result in a lower weight on the scales, but it does not mean that you have lost body mass. Aim to drink a consistent amount of water each day, usually 2-3L for most people.
- Sodium intake: high sodium intake can cause water retention. This will result in a higher weight on the scales but it does not mean that you have lost body mass and it can mask actual weight loss. Steer clear of processed foods with added sodium.
- Digestion status: if you have not recently had a bowel movement, food in your intestines can result in a higher weight on the scales. Ideally, weigh yourself after a bowel movement.
- Different scales: different scales in different locations can be calibrated differently. For example your bathroom scales at home can be different from the scales at the gym. PIck a consistent set of scales for weighing yourself.
Solution: Pick a consistent time of day and day of the week to weigh yourself on the same set of scales (first thing in the morning after a bowel movement works well for many people). Wear the same outfit or weigh yourself naked. Manage your sodium and water intake. For women, be mindful of possible hormonal impacts on weight.
Reason 8: You Are Too Focused on Body Weight vs. Body Composition
Finally, it could be that your body weight is not going down but you ARE losing body fat. At the same time, you are gaining lean muscle mass.
The end result is that the scales stay the same. You ARE making progress, but if you are relying solely on the scales, you won’t see it.
Consider adding the following measurements of progress in addition to scale weight:
- Progress photos: take photos of yourself at regular intervals in the same location, same clothing, same pose and same lighting.
- Measurements: use a soft measuring tape to take circumference measurements (minimum of chest, waist and hips and consider also neck, shoulders, thighs, calves and biceps).
- Body fat measurements: get a DEXA scan or use a “smart scale” to estimate your body fat percentage.
- Physical performance: track weights lifted, especially for key benchmark lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift) and pace/time for running distances.
- Subjective measures: keep records of mood, energy levels, and sleep quality.
Solution: incorporate additional metrics beyond body weight when considering progress. Take regular measurements and photos, and consider subjective indicators of your quality of life along with objective indicators like body weight and body fat.
How Much Weight Can You Expect To Lose Eating Below Your TDEE?
Now that you know ways to ensure that you are truly eating below your TDEE, how much weight can you expect to lose?
A reasonable and sustainable rate of weight loss is 0.5-1.5lbs per week for women and 1.0-2.0lbs per week for men. A gradual and steady weight loss is more likely to be sustainable in the long run than a crash diet.
These weight loss rates correspond to ~250-500 calories per day deficit for women and ~500-1,000 calories per day for men. For example, a female with a suggested TDEE of 2,000 calories per day would look to eat 1,500 – 1,750 calories per day.
The higher end of the calorie deficit ranges is more appropriate for individuals with a higher starting body weight and body fat percentage and more overall weight to lose. For example, for individuals classified as obsese according to *BMI (BMI >30) and body fat >31% for women or >25% for men, the higher calorie deficit would be appropriate.
A straightforward BMI calculator asks for height and weight.
A bigger calorie deficit and a higher rate of weight loss isn’t necessarily better. Consider the following drawbacks:
- Higher incidence of binge eating during a very low-calorie diet
- Sleep disturbances
- Irritability and depressed mood
- Low energy levels
- Decreased physical performance during workouts
Other Weight Loss Articles
- My BMR Is 1200 Calories: How Do I Lose Weight?
- My BMR Is 1700: How Do I Lose Weight?
- Can You Lose Fat Eating Maintenance Calories?
- Eating 1300 Calories A Day And NOT Losing Weight (Why)
- Eating 1400 Calories Per Day & Not Losing Weight?
- Eating 1800 Calories A Day And Not Losing Weight (Why?)
- 1000 Calorie Deficit: Is It Healthy & How Much Can You Lose?
- 1000 Calorie Deficit: Is It Healthy & How Much Can You Lose?
It is not possible to eat below your true TDEE and not lose weight. As you lose weight, there are several reasons why your TDEE can decrease due to your new smaller body size. There are also several reasons as to why your actual intake might be higher than you think.
After you adjust TDEE estimates as needed and accurately record your intake, be sure to have a consistent weigh-in routine. Recognize the factors that can impact your weigh-in and consider a broader view of progress beyond just scale weight. You are more than just a number!
Redman LM, Heilbronn LK, Martin CK, de Jonge L, Williamson DA, Delany JP, et al. (2009) Metabolic and Behavioral Compensations in Response to Caloric Restriction: Implications for the Maintenance of Weight Loss. PLoS ONE 4(2): e4377. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004377
Telch, C. F., & Agras, W. S. (1993). The effects of a very low calorie diet on binge eating. Behavior Therapy, 24(2), 177-193. ISSN 0005-7894. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7894(05)80262-X.
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.
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