These Are The Most Common Habits That Stall Your Weight Loss, Experts Say

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You may be doing all of the right things like clocking quality sleep each night, eating healthy while avoiding mindlessly snacking, and finding ways to move every single day. But the number on the scale just won't budge. It can be so discouraging and frustrating to wonder to yourself, Why am I not losing weight?

The thing is a weight loss journey is about more than just diet and exercise, though they both help. “It also depends on your age, gender, and starting weight,” says obesity expert Matthew Weiner, MD, the director of bariatric surgery and the medical director of telemedicine at Tucson Medical Center.

Setting reasonable goals for yourself is key to your success. The best way to estimate how much weight you can lose with diet and exercise is to calculate 10 percent of your total body weight, Dr. Weiner says. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you can expect to lose about 15 pounds by changing your diet and upping physical activity alone. Beyond that, it can be tough to lose more—your body will try to resist it and work to maintain your fat and energy stores, he explains.

Your age and sex matter too. Younger adults can sometimes lose up to 20 percent of their body weight by eating right and working out, Dr. Weiner notes. But for postmenopausal women, doing the same might only contribute to five to seven percent.

And generally, it takes men less time than women to see results. “Men do tend to lose weight faster than women, but when you look at the total amount of weight loss over time, it’s not as different as you might think,” Dr. Weiner says. “It might take men two to three months to lose 10 percent, while it takes women five to six months.”

If you're really stuck and nothing is changing no matter what you do, one (or more) of the following reasons may explain why your weight-loss journey is stalling. And thankfully, experts share ways you can bust through each of these blockers.

Meet the experts: Matthew Weiner, MD, is the director of bariatric surgery and the medical director of telemedicine at Tucson Medical Center. Keri Gans, RD, is an NYC-based nutritionist and the author of The Small Change Diet. Jessica Cording, RD, CDN, is a nutritionist and the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers.

1. You’re way overestimating your muscle weight.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought something like the following after stepping on the scale: “I’m still losing fat, I’m just strength training really hard and gaining muscle.”

Most of us have done it, but the problem is, Dr. Weiner says, it doesn’t work that way: Muscle is similar in density to water (while fat has a higher density), so it’s not an apples-to-apples exchange. In other words, refusing to re-evaluate your weight-loss strategy because you’re “working on building muscle” can result in your fat composition staying put.

“A good thought experiment is comparing one pound of muscle to a 16 oz. can of soda [which has a similar density],” Dr. Weiner explains. “Imagine adding that much muscle to your body—you would see it.”

The fix: You would notice yourself actively building enough muscle to tip the scale toward a higher number, so if you basically look the same, think about something other than muscle gain. Consider tweaking your diet a bit to create a caloric deficit to move the needle, or try HIIT workouts to get your heart rate up and burn fat.

2. You’re eating less, but still picking unhealthy foods.

If you consume fewer calories than you expend, Dr. Weiner says it’s definitely possible to lose about 10 percent of your total body weight through dieting alone. But if you want to lose more, you can’t just keep cutting calories. “You have to change the type of food you eat,” he says, “focusing more on the quality of calories versus the quantity.”

Foods digest differently in our body—some slower, some more quickly, explains Keri Gans, RD, the author of The Small Change Diet. “Sugary foods digest quickly, leaving you hungry sooner than later, versus foods rich in fiber,” she says. Fiber-rich foods, like fruits, veggies, 100 percent whole grains, and legumes, help promote satiety and can be an easy weight-loss tool.

For example, if you order delivery for dinner every night, eating fewer restaurant-prepared meals every week for lunch will probably help you shed some pounds at first, but eventually, the weight loss is going to stop unless you make the switch to even healthier lunches (like ones made with fewer oils, dressings, etc.) on a consistent basis. Once you’ve changed the quality of your calories—and are consuming better-for-you foods with more satiating power—you’ll also naturally eat less, which can help weight loss continue past the 10 percent point.

The fix: Even if you’re on a calorie deficit, you’ll want to pay attention to the type of calories you’re consuming, says Jessica Cording, RD, CDN, the author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. “I really encourage people to eat foods that provide a lot of nutrients—there’s a difference, for example, between having a slice of white bread and whole-grain foods,” she says. “The nutrient value will carry you much longer.”

3. You’re not keeping track of what you’re eating.

It’s human nature to judge ourselves favorably, dismissing or underestimating our bad decisions and emphasizing our good ones, Dr. Weiner says.

Translation? You’re likely to pat yourself on the back for eating a salad on Tuesday, while overlooking the fact that you ate two bowls of B&J for dessert (and then still wonder why you’re not losing weight).

The fix: Tracking your caloric intake in a visible, tangible way—like in a food journal or on an app—can help keep you accountable and “eliminate the bias we all have toward ourselves,” says Dr. Weiner.

4. You’re not eating enough plant-based protein.

Generally speaking, protein has benefits: It fills you up (which means you’ll eat less food over time) and also helps you build muscle, skin, and healthy bones. But when it comes to weight loss, not all protein is created equal. Dr. Weiner warns about over-consuming animal protein—and the fat that typically comes with it—because too much can lead to weight gain and other health problems like diabetes.

Plant-based protein, on the other hand, is different (think: legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains). You can eat higher amounts of these foods without worrying about any negative effects on your health, Dr. Weiner says. “I’ve literally never seen a study suggesting that sources of plant protein like nuts cause weight gain,” he adds.

The fix: Swap out animal protein sources with plant-based ones. Instead of a beef burger, try a plant-based burger made from black beans, mushrooms, or other vegetables.

5. You’re not looking at the big picture.

Frustrated because you’ve been trying for three months and you’ve only lost, like, eight pounds? Before you freak out and try some new fad diet, think about whether your goal is just to lose as much weight as possible right this second, or to slim down healthily over time, so you can keep the weight off permanently.

“We tend to look at weight loss in the short term, when it’s actually a long-term problem,” says Dr. Weiner. “There will be individual ups and downs every day, just like there are in the stock market.”

The fix: Instead of taking a short-term POV on weight loss, consider looking at how your weight has changed over the past several years and how you would like to feel several years from now too.

6. You’re not eating whole foods.

If you’re blowing off diets focused on eating whole, clean foods (think: the Mediterranean diet) you might want to reconsider. Nutrition experts have known for a long time that diets full of whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein, are associated with better weight-loss results than those packed with processed foods (like cereal, crackers, and prepackaged meals).

A 2019 study in Cell Metabolism showed just that: When participants ate diets similar in nutrients (e.g., similar amounts of protein, fat, sugar, and fiber), the group consuming processed foods showed higher levels of caloric intake and weight gain than the group that focused on whole foods.

The fix: Cording recommends making it as convenient as possible to work more whole foods into your diet. That means having things like frozen produce, oats, whole-grain bread, eggs, frozen fish, and leafy greens around your house. “It’s easy to add a handful of spinach to soups and omelets,” she says. Hard boiling eggs in advance also makes for a quick grab-and-go snack when you need it.

To make sure you eat more veggies, start every dinner with a mixed green salad, according to Gans. “An easy way to get more fruit into your diet is to have one serving with lunch as your dessert for starters, then perhaps add at dinner,” she says.

7. You’re eating too many “healthy” foods.

Yes, sometimes too much of a good thing can be not so good. Just because you swapped your nightly bowl of ice cream for Greek yogurt doesn’t mean you can eat twice as much. The basic rule of "fewer calories in, more calories out" still applies, even when what you’re eating healthy.

The one exception? Dr. Weiner says you really can’t overeat vegetables (seriously, the more you eat, the better). “If you ate a pound of them every day, you would still lose weight because it would change your other eating behaviors,” he explains, referring to the fact that if you filled up on veggies, you would reduce your appetite for other less healthy foods.

The fix: Remember that portion control still applies even when you're making healthy food swaps. If you need a little guidance, use a food-tracking app to keep tabs on how many calories you're consuming and adjust accordingly.

8. Your cardio isn’t intense enough.

Remember the info about quality and quantity of calories above? The same applies to exercise, says Dr. Weiner, who suggests focusing on intensity versus duration when you’re trying to lose weight by incorporating exercise.

“If you want to walk for weight loss, you would have to walk 10 to 12 miles per day,” he explains. “Walking one or two miles, like so many people do, is good for you in a million ways—but weight loss isn’t one of them.”

The fix: If you want your exercise to yield results, you could benefit from choosing activities that will boost your heart rate like boot camps, cycling classes, CrossFit sessions, or other high-intensity workouts that maximize cardio.

9. You’re drinking sugary beverages.

Gonna hit you with something totally shocking here: “If you’re drinking even one soda per day, you will never lose weight,” says Dr. Weiner. Ummm, back up for a sec. Is soda really that bad for you? Sorry, but yes: When you drink sugar, it drives up weight gain far more than when you eat it, Dr. Weiner says.

“If you’re hungry and eat a cookie, you will be less hungry, or you’ll eat less at lunch; but when you drink 150 calories, it doesn’t impact your hunger at all,” he explains. So you drink a soda, then you still eat a normal lunch, and all you’ve done is add 150 calories to your daily intake (versus splurging on a cookie and naturally course-correcting by eating 150 calories less later on).

The fix: If you’re really craving a sweet drink, Gans recommends making your own by adding a splash of 100 percent fruit juice or fresh fruit to plain seltzer. You can also buy a flavored sparkling water—just read the label first to make sure there isn’t a lot of added sugar and calories.

10. You’re not sleeping well.

Working the night shift also puts you at a major disadvantage, according to Dr. Weiner. The disruption to your circadian rhythm, he explains, can lead to weight gain—and switching back and forth between night and day shifts, like many people do in order to spend more time with family, is the worst of all. It’s just nonstop disruption to an otherwise healthy, normal sleep-wake pattern.

For example, a 2019 study in the International Journal of Obesity observed weight loss over the course of 12 months in nearly 2,000 participants and found that those with less variability in their sleep patterns were more likely to be more successful in their weight loss efforts.

The fix: Of course, not everyone has the luxury of choosing their work schedule or having a flexible boss. But if you are able to tweak your work schedule or work with your manager to avoid this, you should.

11. You work at a desk job.

Never underestimate the power of keeping your body moving regularly throughout the day. “Overly sedentary lifestyles make it harder to lose weight,” says Dr. Weiner. “If you wake up every morning and then sit at a desk for work, then come home and sit on the couch to watch TV, [weight loss] won't happen.”

The fix: Cording suggests exercising when you have time during the day—before work is always good because you don’t have to worry about where the day takes you. “You can also break your activity into smaller bursts, doing 10 minutes before work and 10 minutes after,” she says. “Something is better than nothing.”

Other hacks she recommends: Consider getting an under-desk exercise machine like a small elliptical or bike, keep free weights in your workspace to use when you get downtime, or take your work calls on the go.

As for the actual amount of exercise you’d need to do to help you hit your weight-loss goals, Cording says it varies from person to person.

12. You’re eating too often.

There was a time when eating frequent, small portions of food throughout the day was promoted as a way to lose weight, but science is beginning to show that intermittent fasting might lead to better results. Dr. Weiner agrees, saying that getting the right amount of calories in a short period of time followed by a longer period of time where you get little to no calories can be more beneficial to your health than eating all day long (even if it’s small, healthy meals or snacks).

The fix: Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist before trying an intermittent fasting diet, this way they can help you figure out a schedule that makes sense for you. (For the record, the 16:8 or 14:10 diet is usually recommended for beginners.) There are also some groups of people for which intermittent fasting is not recommended, like anyone with blood sugar regulation issues (e.g., diabetes) and pregnant people.

13. You’re not drinking enough water.

Can drinking water really help with weight loss, or is that just an urban legend? It’s for real: A 2014 review of studies published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found several links between water consumption and weight-loss results.

The fix: Basically? Yeah, you should be drinking more water. Women should drink about 2.7 L or 11.5 cups of fluid per day, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

14. You’re drinking too much alcohol.

Not to be a killjoy, but your bi-weekly happy hour could also be interfering with your goals. Alcohol is connected to weight gain for a few reasons: For one, it contains empty calories (which can grow astronomically high when you start drinking cocktails), and two, it changes your relationship with food.

People typically eat more when they drink because their appetite is increased and they stop paying close attention to calorie consumption. Drinking alcohol may also negatively change the way your body burns fat.

The fix: Cutting back on alcoholic beverages can help reduce your overall calorie intake. Another option is to opt for beverages that are lower in calories, such as some hard seltzers, gin and diet tonic, light beer, tequila with just lime juice and soda, or vodka and soda.

15. You have a medical condition that makes weight loss harder.

Any medical condition that affects your hormones (like hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome), your insulin levels (like diabetes), or your blood pressure (like heart disease) will make it more difficult to lose weight.

Any injury that results in limited mobility can also contribute to weight gain, partly because it can lead to muscle loss—and less muscle means you are burning less when your body is at rest—and partly because it will reduce your ability to exercise regularly, Dr. Weiner adds.

The fix: If you've tried everything else but the needle is still not moving, it may be time to check in with your doc and see if an underlying medical issue is preventing you from losing weight. Once that's taken care of, you should be able to start losing weight again or you may want to work with a registered dietitian, who can help you create a diet that works for your specific needs.

16. You’re getting older.

All the diet and exercise in the world won’t cancel out the fact that it’s just plain harder to lose weight the older you are. In your 20s, you might be able to cut back on booze and cake for a few weeks when you want to lose five pounds, but in your 40s, it’s gonna take more effort.

The fix: Focus on resistance training to build muscle mass, which can ultimately help you burn more at rest, and in turn, jumpstart your weight loss if you're stuck.

17. You’re stressed or depressed.

Major life changes, like divorce or a death in the family, are often a trigger for weight gain. Stress-eating is a real thing, and when you’re depressed, you’re typically not focused on counting calories or exercising (because it takes so much effort just to make it through the day).

The fix: Dr. Weiner recommends finding holistic ways to manage your stress, even if it’s simply low-impact cardio. And of course, if you’re feeling depressed, don’t hesitate to get help from a mental health provider.

18. You have unresolved trauma.

While this is heavy stuff, it's important to be aware of the correlation between abuse and weight gain. A history of sexual abuse is linked to weight gain, in particular, and the number of people who have been sexually abused, especially at a young age, is staggering: One in three American women report experiencing some kind of sexual violence in their lifetime, per the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The fix: Whether you’re a child or an adult (and whether or not your history is affecting your weight), seek out resources that can help victims of sexual violence or other abuse. Therapy can also be a good way to work through trauma.

19. You’re taking certain medications.

A possibly hidden reason why you’re struggling to lose weight: You’re on a medication that can cause weight gain as a side effect. This includes diabetes medications, antidepressants, and steroid medications, among others.

The fix: Dr. Weiner suggests talking to your physician about your medications; sometimes they can be adjusted to make weight loss more possible.

20. You're struggling with food addiction.

If you find yourself desperately craving food at all costs—and it’s sabotaging your diet and exercise efforts—you could be dealing with food addiction. This doesn’t mean you’re not motivated or “strong enough” to defeat your cravings and lose weight; you may have developed an emotional reliance on food.

The fix: If you are prone to binging or gorging, focus nonstop on food, have trouble functioning in your job or personal life, or suffer from anxiety, depression, or insomnia, reach out to a healthcare provider ASAP to be evaluated for food addiction. It’s a type of eating disorder, and there is help available.

21. You’re doing intermittent fasting, but not eating right.

Intermittent fasting alone isn’t a magic tool for weight loss, Gans says—you still need to be aware of what you’re putting into your body. If you’re not losing weight on a fasting diet, you may still be consuming too many calories during your feeding window.

“You could still be eating too much, foods that are poor in nutrients, or low-calorie foods that aren’t filling you up and leaving you feeling hungry all the time,” Cording says.

The fix: Avoid ultra-processed foods, which tend to be higher in saturated fats, sodium, and trans fats. You should also practice mindful eating to make sure you don't overindulge during your feeding window, and fill up with whole foods that pack a ton of fiber and protein to stay satiated throughout the day.

22. You’re not doing a calorie deficit right.

At baseline, being on a calorie deficit means that you’re taking in less calories than you burn. It can be tricky to perfectly calculate what kind of deficit you should be on, but the National Institutes of Health has a body weight planner that can at least give you some idea of how much you’ll need to cut out in order to see results.

But you also need to keep track of what you’re eating all day, Gans says. “You may think you are on a calorie deficit, but somewhere throughout your day, you are actually consuming more calories without realizing it,” she says. Having too few calories in your day can also be problematic, Cording says—it can leave you hungry and more prone to overeat.

The fix: A general rule of thumb is that you don’t want to cut out more than 500 calories a day from your eating plan. And use a tracking app to make sure you're hitting your calorie goal every day.

23. You’re having healthy fats, but too many of them.

“Even the ‘good-for-you’ fats have calories,” Gans says. The more you eat, the more the extra calories will add up. Knowing portion sizes can help. For example, a serving size of peanut butter is two tablespoons, a third of a medium avocado is one serving, and one tablespoon of oil is a serving.

The fix: A food diary or tracking app can help you assess the amount of healthy fats you're eating in a day. Writing down what you are eating even for a short period of time can help you understand how much you should be consuming each day.

24. You’re distracted when you eat.

Sometimes you need to grab lunch at your desk or maybe you prefer to eat dinner in front of the TV. While it’s okay to do this here and there, regularly being distracted while you’re eating raises the odds that you’ll have more food than you need or planned to have, Cording says.

“When you’re distracted, the communication between your mind and body is disrupted,” she explains. “You’re less in tune with your hunger and fullness cues.”

The fix: Try committing to taking a lunch break or turning your devices off during mealtimes.

25. You’re not eating on a predictable schedule.

You don’t need to eat every meal at set times, but having some consistency is important, Cording says. “When you don’t have much consistency, you can get caught off-guard by hunger and then reach for whatever is around,” she says. “That can lead to you making less healthy decisions and overeating.”

The fix: Gans recommends eating every four to five hours, so you’ll be less likely to overeat at mealtime.

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