You've been eating healthy, staying consistent at the gym, and drinking lots of water ... so why are you gaining weight instead of losing it? Why is the scale going up instead of down?
There are many reasons why you’re gaining – instead of losing – weight despite doing everything right. Eating too many calories, increased muscle mass, and fluid retention are all examples of reasons the scale is going in the wrong direction.
Let's talk about it.
Reason You're Gaining Weight Instead of Losing It #1: You're Not in a Calorie Deficit
You can eat healthy and go to the gym all you like, but if you're eating more calories than you're burning, guess what? You're going to gain weight.
The formula for weight loss is very simple.
Eat less calories than you burn = lose weight
Eat as many calories as you burn = maintain current weight
Eat more calories than you burn = gain weight
There are many reasons why you can be eating healthy and exercising and still not be in a calorie deficit. Let's unpack them.
You're overeating certain calorie dense healthy foods
Foods like avocadoes, nuts, wholegrains, seeds, oils, and protein supplements (like powders) are totally healthy ... but they're also totally calorie dense.
Even though they're nutritious, and an important part of a healthy diet, eating them in too large amounts can put you in a calorie deficit, which will lead to weight gain.
The good news about nutrient-dense, calorie-dense foods is that you don't need to eat a LOT of them to enjoy their health benefits.
So don't be afraid of them, just go easy on your portion sizes.
Avocado: One serve of avocado is about 1/4 of a whole fruit (without the seed).
Nuts: Stick to 1/4 cup a day, every other day, or even just a few times a week, as a light snack (about 150 calories).
Wholegrains: One serve of wholegrains is just 1/2 a cup of rice/quinoa/pasta, 3/4 cup wholegrain cereal, or 1 slice of toast - and overall, in one day we need about 4-6 serves. It's easy to overdo it (because wholegrains are delicious), and those extra calories can sneak in.
Oils: Oils like olive oil and coconut oil are very good for your health - but in small quantities. Just 2 tablespoons of coconut oil has 234 calories (almost as many as a McDonald's hamburger). Stick to a teaspoon for a single serve, use an oil spray when cooking, and remember ... you only need 2 serves of healthy fats a day.
Protein supplements: I mean, do you really need them? No. (Read here to find out why.) But if you like protein bars/shakes and want to keep using them, have at it. Just remember - their calories count (and boy, they can really pack a caloric punch).
Dark chocolate: I love me some good dark chocolate and it has a LOT of amazing health benefits. But even that 95% all natural dark cacao bar is quite calorie dense. Two squares is a portion size.
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You're eating untracked calorie dense foods
I personally don't track EVERYTHING I eat because I don't want to get obsessive. However, what I don't track is the sugar in my coffee (one coffee a day), and green vegetables.
The truth is, the sauces, mayonnaise, aioli, fries you stole off your husband's plate, the small handful of nuts you munched on while cooking dinner, the sugar and cream in the six cups of coffee you drank today, the wine with dinner and the half a sandwich crust off your kid's leftover plate all STILL have calories.
And if you don't track them, they can add up and put you in a calorie surplus without knowing about it.
If you are tracking what you eat, stay real with yourself. It doesn't mean you have to beat yourself up, feel bad, or restrict your hunger signals.
Just be honest with yourself about it and stay mindful.
You're Not Moving Around During the Day
So I hear you saying ... but I'm staying within my calories and I'm going to the gym every day ... how can I not be in a calorie deficit?
If the only form of activity you do in a day is going to the gym, and you go for an hour, maybe an hour and a half a day ... guess what? That only makes up about 2-4% of your entire day.
If you're just sitting for the other 23 hours a day, you're not going to be burning many calories at all.
I mean, sure you'll burn some (because remember, your body burns calories just to stay alive).
But not a lot.
Certainly not enough to be eating a decent enough amount of food to function.
The more you move around (outside of your exercise time), the more calories you'll burn. This is known as incidental activity.
The more incidental activity you do in a day, the more you increase what's called NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) i.e. the more calories you burn.
It makes it a WHOLE lot easier to stay in a calorie deficit without restricting your calories too much.
Reason You're Gaining Weight Instead of Losing It #2: You're Increasing Muscle Mass
If you're losing body fat but gaining muscle mass, the scale will go up. This is why you can feel stronger and leaner, and your clothes will even start fitting better, but your weight will stay the same or even start climbing.
See, this is why I have a love hate relationship with the scale.
In and of itself, it's not an accurate measure of your progress.
The scale only measures one thing: your body's physical weight. It's the sum total of your fat, but also your muscle, and water, and bones, and guts, and blood, and cells, and skin.
I used to let the scale be the beginning and end determinate of my progress, instead of looking at it for what it actually was: just a single piece of datum.
Now, I hardly measure myself at all because I feel like there are just better ways to track my fitness progress.
Remember, the scale only represents one thing: your body's overall weight.
Whilst some newfangled models of scale profess to detect how much of that weight is fat, water, anatomy and muscle, they're often not accurate.
And many bathroom scales can't even do that.
If you've started a resistance/weights program and you're working hard ... chances are your weight is going up because your lean muscle mass is increasing.
Here's what I mean.
Fat and muscle are two completely different types of tissue in the body.
Fat is less dense than muscle, so one pound of fat will take up more space than a pound of lean muscle.
Two people of the same height can both weight 63 kg but look COMPLETELY different.
If one person has a higher percentage of muscle than fat, she's going to look leaner. If the other person has a higher percentage of fat than muscle, she's going to look softer/less lean.
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How lean muscle mass makes the scales go up
So, you've started eating healthy, doing your cardio and lifting heavy at the gym, and your body starts torching through its fat stores.
You watch with glee as the number on the scale begins dropping and it motivates you to keep going.
You start lifting even heavier, going to the gym a lot more, and getting stronger and stronger ... but then a funny thing starts happening.
The number on the scale stops dropping. In fact, it starts going up.
This is about the time that people get obsessed with the scale, restrict their calories, or give up on the whole thing.
But don't be one of them!
Keep going! You want to be increasing your muscle mass, even if it makes the scale go up.
Why increased muscle mass is a good thing
The more lean muscle mass you have on your body, the more fat you'll burn at rest.
Your body burns calories just keeping muscle mass on your body - so the more lean muscle you have, the more calories you burn sitting around watching Netflix.
As you start losing fat and increasing muscle mass, you'll develop sexy, toned curves in all the right places.
I always say - your size might be determined by cardio, but shape is built in the weights room.
Plus, muscles keep us young, make us strong, and give us the power to get through physical activity with ease.
They're a sign you're getting stronger, and fitter, as well as leaner.
So see that scale for the liar that it really is, and feel encouraged by an increase in muscle mass - it means you're getting closer to your goals.
How to measure your progress instead
Especially if you're lifting heavy, cut back on the amount of times you weigh yourself. I promise it'll change the game.
Instead, focus on measurements - if the scale's not budging but your measurements are going down, it's a good sign you're burning fat and building lean muscle mass.
You can also focus on how well your favourite dress fits, or how much stronger you're getting with every workout.
There are a LOT of ways to track your progress and honestly? Your scale just isn't the most accurate.
Reason You're Gaining Weight Instead of Losing It #3: Because You're A Normal Human Being and That's Just What We Do Sometimes
A person's body weight will naturally go up and down throughout the course of a day for myriad reasons.
Listen to me ... it's PERFECTLY NORMAL for your weight to go up and down for no reason at all.
You're a human being ... our weight is SUPPOSED to fluctuate.
It can fluctuate month to month, week to week, even day to day.
It's SUPPOSED to.
It doesn't mean you're doing something wrong.
It means you're a human being who is functioning normally.
The average adult's weight will fluctuate by up to 2.72 kg (5-6 lb) a day.
And there are ALL KINDS of reasons why.
Listen as a woman, I swear I gain about 5 kg around that time of the month with the fluid retention and the funky belly and the whatnot.
And it used to REALLY upset me.
But then I realised ... hey, you know what? My body is just doing its period thing and in four days' time my weight will be "normal" again.
So I bought myself a pair of maternity jeans with extra room just for when I'm on my period and decided not to stress about it anymore.
Because hey ... at least it means my hormones are regular.
Here's why your weight might be going up and down on a daily basis:
You just drank a bunch of water: And it's slooshing around in there like a big ol' hot water bottle. Don't worry. You'll pee it out or your body will use it. If you find it happens regularly, either (a) talk to your doctor (especially if you seem to hold onto it in places other than your tummy), (b) sip regularly throughout the day rather than gulping down big drinks at once, or (c) make sure you're not drinking TOO much water - your wee should be pale yellow, not completely clear.
You're eating a lot of salt: Pay attention to how much salt you're eating in a day. This can cause a LOT of problematic fluid retention. If you're eating mostly wholefoods, you should be fine, but even things like bread and sauces (especially soy) contain a lot of sodium, which can add up. If you just ate something savoury, like a bag of chips, popcorn at the movies, or pizza, leave it a while before you jump on the scale.
You're Team Carbs (like me): Listen, the day you stop worrying about carbs is the day the second part of your life begins. Carbs are GOOD for you! But sometimes they can make you retain water. If you've just eaten a big plate of pasta, maybe it's better to skip weighing yourself for the next day or two.
Hormones: A bunch of scientists a lot smarter than me have theories why us girls get bloated around our periods. Some believe it's due to hormone fluctuations around our menstrual cycle. Others believe that it has more to do with our food choices around that time of the month. In any case, studies have shown fluid retention peaks on the first day of our period - which is honestly half the reason I feel so awful on that first day (the other half of the reason I feel awful is crippling pain, but that's a story for another day). It does you no good to weigh yourself around your period - hold off until Day 5 of your cycle. I promise you'll feel better.
Moral of the story = day to day fluctuations are NORMAL. They're nothing to worry about, or to freak out that you're losing progress.
But if you notice a PATTERN i.e. the scale doesn't budge day to day, or it keeps increasing, only then should you start worrying about calories or muscle mass or any of that other stuff.
Remember that weight fluctuations are a completely NORMAL thing. They don't mean that you're doing anything wrong: they just mean you're a living, breathing human.
There are MANY reasons why you can gain - instead of losing - weight despite doing everything right. Eating too many calories, increased muscle mass and fluid retention are often the culprits ... and sometimes your body is just bein' a body.
And that's okay.
It's easy to feel defeated, but don't: remember to focus on other things besides the scale, celebrate the non-scale wins, and stay on your game.
You're doing amazing.
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