Blog Weight Loss Calorie Deficit But Not Losing Weight: What’s The Culprit Behind It?

Calorie Deficit But Not Losing Weight: What’s The Culprit Behind It?

Being in a caloric deficit is a tried and true way of losing weight. Many experts and doctors will tell you that the first step to shedding a couple of extra pounds is to cut down on how much you eat and aim to burn more calories than you consume. However, what happens if you are in a calorie deficit but you’re not losing weight? What could be the cause of this confusing and frustrating conundrum?

Calorie Deficit to Lose Weight: Is It Important?

Yes, it is. 

A calorie deficit is when you eat fewer calories than your body burns in a day to perform all its necessary functions. A safe deficit to help you start off your weight loss journey is consuming 500 fewer calories a day (4). 

The recommended calorie intake per person differs due to factors such as age, sex, environmental temperature, energy expenditure, pregnancy, hormonal status, and dieting behaviors (5).

To determine what your new calorie intake should be, calculate your calorie intake for a couple of days – this will help determine a more accurate average, then subtract 500 from this number.

It’s important to remember that weight gain is caused by consuming a calorie surplus over several months or years. A deficit is needed to help reverse this

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Is It Possible to Be in a Calorie Deficit and Not Lose Weight?

Unfortunately, yes it is.

As stated above, a calorie deficit of 500 calories is necessary for you to start shedding those extra calories. However, sometimes despite carefully tracking your daily energy intake and ensuring you’re in a deficit, you still realize that the number on the scale is not going down.

Sometimes you can even be on a 1,000-calorie deficit daily but still not lose weight. Before you give up on your efforts altogether, here are some reasons that may shed some light on why this is happening:

Increased stress levels

While you may be doing all the right things such as eating well and exercising; excessive or chronic stress levels may hinder your weight loss. When you are always stressed, your body tends to produce cortisol at a much higher level than usual.

Cortisol, aka ‘the stress hormone’, is one of the body’s steroid hormones and is made in the adrenal glands (1). The longer you are stressed, the more cortisol continues to be pumped into your body. Prolonged exposure to cortisol leads to Cushing’s syndrome, a hormonal disorder with symptoms including weight gain, a rounder face, and increased fat deposits in the body (10).

Your weight has plateaued

Once you start cutting calories, your weight may drop very quickly, but sooner or later, this process tends to slow down and can eventually stop. This is called a weight loss plateau and is generally caused by your body becoming used to your new deficit or exercise routine (if you’re currently working out) (15).

See also
Identifying Signs You Are Losing Muscle

While plateaus are frustrating, they can be overcome with a few changes to your lifestyle or diet. To counter this, you can either cut more calories or increase your physical activity. While cutting calories sounds like the easier option, we advise that you start to work out.

Cutting calories may lead to under-eating or being on a very low-calorie diet, which can present several different health risks (14). Exercise can also help you preserve muscle and therefore lose mostly fat.

Read more: Maximize Your Fitness with Calorie Deficit Breakfasts

Slow metabolism

Metabolism or metabolic rate is defined as the series of chemical reactions in a living organism that create and break down energy that is necessary for life. In layman’s terms, metabolism is the process through which your body converts food and drink into energy (17).

People with a fast metabolism burn calories fast when working out or while at rest. On the other hand, those with a slow metabolic rate burn fewer calories while at rest and during exercise. 

While cutting your daily calorie intake can boost your metabolic rate, it doesn’t always work (12). Other things you can do to try and speed up your metabolism include (26):

  1. Drinking more water as it temporarily increases metabolism
  2. Do more high-intensity cardio – high-impact workouts burn more calories than low-impact workouts
  3. Aim to build muscle – the more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn when active and while at rest
  4. Try eating every 3 to 4 hours – digesting food means your body is using energy/calories, so you should eat often but make sure your meals and snacks are healthy and within your allocated calorie deficit for the day
  5. Eat more protein – not only does this boost satiety, but the body also burns more calories in an effort to burn proteins compared to fats and carbs
  6. Drink more coffee or teas such as oolong and green tea, and try eating spicier foods – caffeine in coffee and tea and capsaicin in chili can boost your metabolism, albeit for a short period of time

calorie deficit but not losing weight  

You’re not sleeping enough

When was the last time you got a full eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night for a whole week? Sleep deprivation and bad sleep patterns could be one of the reasons behind three weeks of calorie deficit and no weight loss.

Adults require a minimum of seven hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. However, many people do not often get this. A study from 2017 found that people on a weight loss program with high sleep variability lost less weight and experienced less of a reduction in  BMI (body mass index) than those with a regular sleep pattern (20).

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Mental Preparation For Weight Loss: How Do You Stay Mentally Strong And Committed For Long-Term Weight Loss?

It should be noted that even when you do not reduce your food intake but sleep more, you are likely to lose weight, while less sleep, even in a calorie deficit, prompts the release of cortisol, which tells your body to hold on to fat (25).

Your weighing scale is lying to you

Most of us have a weighing scale in the bathroom. However, these scales are not as accurate as you may think. Something as minor as moving the scale from one surface to another can affect the number it displays.

It is also recommended that if you choose to use a bathroom scale, you should make sure it is calibrated and always measure yourself at the same time of the day as this reduces the margin or error in weight shifts (8).

Water weight

Initial weight loss, either through a workout plan or a healthier diet, is generally due to water weight loss and not fat loss. However, your body can sometimes hold on to or retain water, which leads to excess fluid retention and a higher number on the scale.

To make sure you are not holding on to excess water, reduce your intake of sodium by consuming less salty foods, reduce your carbohydrate intake, and exercise more. If you are taking medication, checking the side effects may be helpful – some meds can cause water weight gain, even in a caloric deficit (29).

Muscle growth and increased bone density

For a beginner, being in a calorie deficit while working out (both cardio and weight training) will cause fat loss and muscle growth (7).

While fat and muscle weigh the same, the latter tends to occupy less space, which means that you will look smaller while somehow still weighing the same. Working out also increases bone density (28), which is great for bone health but could also affect the scale.

Polycystic ovary syndrome

Women who are battling PCOS find it incredibly hard to lose weight. Due to this illness, their bodies tend to produce too much insulin and have imbalanced levels of ghrelin, cholecystokinin, and leptin (hunger and satiety hormones).

These factors make it harder to lose weight even in a calorie deficit – too much insulin causes the body to hold on to fat – while the other hormones make it hard to stay in a deficit (34).

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You are currently on your period

During your period, your appetite changes, which can make you crave sugary and high-calorie foods that may affect your calorie deficit.

At the same time, even if you maintain a 1,000-calorie deficit during this time, hormonal changes could cause water retention. If you weigh yourself at this time, chances are that you may think your diet isn’t working (30).


For menopausal women, the relief of finally being done with monthly cramps is often overshadowed by unexplained and sudden weight gain.

Calorie deficit but not losing weight during and after menopause is a common occurrence in women. Even worse, some even realize that they have started gaining weight in a calorie deficit despite also working out.

To combat this

  1. Fine-tune your diet – Older people generally require fewer calories. Check your intake to ensure you are actually in a deficit (18).
  2. Incorporate weights and strength training into your weekly workouts – Getting older means more muscle loss, making it easier for you to gain weight.
  3. Address your sleep – Sleep issues during menopause are an ongoing battle that many women have to deal with (35).

As we’ve demonstrated above, a lack of sleep affects not only what and how you eat, but also how your body processes stress and fat storage. Consult a doctor to find ways to help you sleep better and for longer

calorie deficit but not losing weight  

Exercising and Calorie Deficit But Not Losing Weight

Imagine killing yourself at the gym five days a week and eating less than you did before, but the scale does not budge. Or even worse, the numbers just keep going up. To most people who are trying to lose weight, this is an actual living nightmare.

It is even worse if this is your current situation and you cannot understand why. Here are some reasons why the scale may not be showing what you would like it to (33):

You’re eating too little

If you’re eating 1,200 calories but not losing weight, it could be that this deficit is actually too much. The problem with some of us is that we think being in a calorie deficit means starving ourselves by eating the bare minimum. This is not the meaning of a deficit and it can also be life-threatening.

When you eat too little, your body assumes you are starving and goes into ‘starvation mode’. Here, your body will try to save itself by holding on to fat. Your metabolism slows down, and you lose muscle, which makes you burn fewer calories while at rest (6).

If you are experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, decreased immunity, hair loss, constipation, or depression and you’re in a deficit, you may be under-eating. Failure to stop this may result in even worse issues such as malnutrition, infertility, and osteoporosis (31).

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How to Lose Weight After 50: Discover 23 Ways to Lose the “Dad Bod” or Menopause Belly After 50

You’re consuming the wrong foods

Calorie deficit but not losing weight could also be linked to the kinds of food you consume. A huge part of healthy living and weight loss comes from the amounts and types of food you eat on a daily basis. Being in a caloric deficit does not mean that you can keep eating pizza, white bread, insane amounts of cheese, and burgers every day, but they won’t derail your progress if you consume them in smaller amounts.

Weight loss and healthy living is a lifestyle requiring sacrifice and dedication. Instead of eating these foods, swap them for healthier options such as leafy greens, fruits, complex carbs (oats, sweet potatoes, and whole grains), lean meats, legumes, and oily fish.

It’s important to remember that even after switching to healthier food options, you should maintain a calorie deficit and keep working out to achieve effective and sustainable weight loss.

Not lifting weights

Contrary to popular belief, cardio and aerobics are not the only exercises that help with weight loss. While cardio will burn a large amount of calories during the workout, the burn does not continue for long after the session is finished.

Weightlifting (aka strength training) may not burn as many calories during the workout, but the calorie burn after the session is finished goes on for much longer. Such workouts also increase your muscle mass, a factor that helps increase energy expenditure and therefore, more weight loss (13, 27, 23).

You’re doing too much cardio

Yes, cardio is important, and yes, too much cardio can be bad. Working out for too long on cardio workouts sends your body into a catabolic state. During this state, the body tends to use complex compounds and body tissue, such as muscle, as fuel.

As previously stated, muscle is essential for calorie burning and weight loss. Catabolism also triggers hormones such as cortisol and glucagon (2), which increase glucose and fatty acid levels in the body.

Other factors that are related to exercising but not losing weight include lack of sufficient sleep, stress, weight plateau, and hormonal issues in women.

Read more: 1,200 Calorie Deficit: Is It a Safe Way To Lose Weight?

Why Am I Not Losing Weight Despite a Calorie Deficit and Running?

There are two main possibilities for this:

1. You have plateaued – Your body may not be used to either your calorie deficit, your running routine, or both. It has made this the new normal and so you won’t burn as many calories as before.

You need to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate. Should you increase your miles? Eat more protein? Eat fewer calories overall?

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Obesity Vs Morbid Obesity: What Is The Difference?

2. You’re gaining muscle – Running may not be a form of strength training, but it still leads to muscle growth (24). Muscle weighs just as much as fat, but it occupies less space in the body. Your bathroom scale cannot differentiate between weight due to increased muscle mass or weight due to fat.

Rather than using basic scales to determine your progress, try getting a body composition scan instead. This is a much more accurate way of determining weight loss and muscle growth progress.

Why Am I Not Losing Weight Eating 1,200 Calories a Day?

This is probably because eating 1,200 calories a day is not enough. While the 1,200-calorie diet is quite popular among new dieters, it is actually too little food for an adult man or woman.

Not only will eating too little not lead to weight loss, it will also cause side effects such as dizziness, extreme hunger, nausea, micronutrient deficiencies, fatigue, headaches, and gallstones (11, 3).

calorie deficit but not losing weight  

What Are Some Medical Reasons For Not Losing Weight?

Medical conditions that may hinder weight loss include:

  • PCOS
  • Chronic stress
  • Depression
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Hormonal changes in women during puberty, pregnancy, or menopause
  • Syndrome X
  • Cushing’s syndrome

If you’ve been doing everything right but you’re still not losing weight, please visit your doctor to make sure none of the above issues are hindering your progress.


  • What if you think you're in a calorie deficit but you’re not losing weight?

If you believe you’re in a caloric deficit but are not seeing results, it may be time to observe what you’re eating a little more carefully. The best way of doing this is to create a food journal or get a reputable app to help you log your daily calories.

After all, as most of us don’t generally know how many calories everything contains, you may find out that you’ve been eating more than you think. If this is not the case, the answer may be one of the above-mentioned reasons.

  • What should my calorie deficit be?

To find out what your calorie deficit should be, you must first determine how many calories you consume per day. This can easily be done by downloading a highly-rated calorie app from App Store or Play Store.

Once you have done this, eat as you normally would and log everything on the app. This will give you a good estimate of your daily intake. After this, you should realize that for healthy and sustainable weight loss, you should be in a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories a day (a 3,500 to 7,000-calorie energy deficit a week).

This will help you lose 1 to 2 pounds a week (9). A calorie deficit is also determined by age and the amount of physical activity you do in a day. The less active you are, the less you eat. Input all these details into your calorie counter and you will find out what your deficit should be.

  • What is a good calorie deficit for weight loss?

A good energy deficit for weight loss is cutting anything between 500 and 1,000 calories a day. While you may be tempted to cut more, it is not worth it as this can lead to nutrient deficiencies, heart problems, and digestive issues(22) and may even cause eating disorders (21).

  • How much of a calorie deficit is too much?

Cutting anything more than 1,000 calories a day is considered to be too much. However, the lowest amounts of calories that should be consumed in a day are (32):

  • Women – 1,000 to 1,200 calories
  • Men – 1,200 to 1,600 calories

As calorie intake is dependent on many factors, it is always a good idea to consult your doctor before you cut any calories, work out, or start any kind of weight loss program.

  • How can I create a calorie deficit?

Creating a calorie deficit for weight loss is fairly easy. Here’s what you would need to do:

  • Consume less food

As stated above, logging your food will give you a good idea of how much food you consume each day. With this number, cut anything from 500 to 1,000 calories, and you will effectively be in a deficit. Replace your normal foods with healthier and low-dense calorie options.

Portion control is also essential. Reduce the number of times you eat out or order out, use smaller plates at home, and stop eating meals in front of your TV or computer (19).

  • Work out more

Physical activity is also essential for a calorie deficit, but eating less will only take you so far. Working out will help burn even more calories, boost metabolism, and build muscle through burning calories while at rest.

  • Combine fewer calories and exercising

While cutting calories is more effective for promoting weight loss than working out, exercise will help you keep the weight off (16). If you don’t work out, you may regain all the excess weight you lost after you’ve finished dieting.

The Bottom Line

Losing weight is something that most people struggle with, so the last thing anyone needs to do is beat themselves if they don’t see results. Being in a calorie deficit but not losing weight makes it even worse.

However, rather than taking drastic measures such as eating less or giving up altogether, you should take a minute and examine the factors that may be causing this. As we have shown, the reasons are many and varied. 

You should take a step back and go back to the drawing board. Watch your water intake, try reducing stress levels, fix your sleep pattern, fine-tune your exercise habits (how much cardio and weight lifting you do), and above all, manage your eating habits and food choices.

Women in particular should pay close attention to what is going on with their bodies. Are you on your period? Going through menopause? Or could it be something more complicated such as PCOS?

The reasons behind being in a calorie deficit and not losing weight are numerous. If you cannot narrow it down to a specific reason, you should consult your doctor as they may be able to help you out. It’s also important to remember to talk to your doctor before you cut your calories or start exercising, particularly if you have a chronic illness.


This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!


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  2. Anabolic and Catabolic in Weight Training (2021,
  3. Caloric Restriction in Humans: Impact on Physiological, Psychological, and Behavioral Outcomes (2011,
  4. Calorie Deficit: What To Know (2022,
  5. Calories: Total Macronutrient Intake, Energy Expenditure, and Net Energy Stores (n.d.,
  6. Can Eating Too Few Calories Prevent Weight Loss? (2019,
  7. Can I Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time? (2021,
  8. Can I Trust My Bathroom Scale? (2018,
  9. Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics (2023,
  10. Cushing’s Syndrome (2018,
  11. Dietary Treatment of Obesity (2015,
  12. Does metabolism matter in weight loss? (2021,
  13. Effect of strength training on resting metabolic rate and physical activity: age and gender comparisons (2001,
  14. Getting past a weight-loss plateau (2022,
  15. Management of Weight Loss Plateau (2022,
  16. Mayo Clinic Minute: Which is better for losing weight – diet or exercise? (2018,
  17. Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories (2022,
  18. Nutrition as We Age: Healthy Eating with the Dietary Guidelines (2021,
  19. Planning Meals and Snacks (2023,
  20. Poor sleep may hinder weight loss, study shows (2019,
  21. Risks of Not Eating Enough Calories (n.d.,
  22. Side Effects of Not Eating Enough Calories (n.d.,
  23. Six weeks of moderate functional resistance training increases basal metabolic rate in apparently healthy adult women (2018,
  24. Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy after Aerobic Exercise Training (2015,
  25. Sleep More, Weigh Less (2022,
  26. Slideshow: 10 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism (2023,
  27. Specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues across adulthood: evaluation by mechanistic model of resting energy expenditure (2010,
  28. The Link Between Exercise and Healthy Bones (2022,
  29. Water Weight: What it is, causes, and how to lose it (2023,
  30. Weight gain during period: What to know (2019,
  31. What are the signs of not eating enough? (2019,
  32. What Is the Least Amount of Calories I Can Eat in a Day? (n.d.,
  33. Why Am I Not Losing Weight? 25 Factors That Can Stal Your Progress, According To Experts (2023,
  34. Why It’s So Hard to Lose Weight With PCOS (2022,
  35. Winning the weight battle after menopause (2019,
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