I am a 38-year-old woman who weighs 140 pounds. I’m so frustrated because I’ve been exercising regularly — on the treadmill five days a week (30-40 minutes each time) for four weeks — and eating 1,200 calories a day, but I can’t seem to lose any weight. What am I doing wrong?
Weight-loss plateaus can be so frustrating — particularly when it feels like you’re doing all the right things. In one of my earlier columns, I talked about a study in which some women on a restrictive diet didn’t lose any weight until nearly two weeks into it — so you’re not alone. The bottom line is that if you are burning more calories each day (through routine activities and exercise) than you are eating, you will eventually lose weight.
I can’t tell from your question whether you’ve already lost some weight and are stuck or if you can’t get started. Either way, let’s first take a quick look at where the calories your body expends go each day. Sixty to seventy percent of them are used just for the “bare basics” of life when your body’s at rest: breathing, keeping your heart pumping, and regulating body temperature. Another 10 percent of your calories go for digestion and processing the foods you eat. The last component, the one over which you have the most control, is calories burned for physical activity (from just sitting around to working out on your treadmill), which typically account for 15 to 30 percent of your daily calorie expenditure.
It’s tough to say how many calories any one person burns each day because there is tremendous individual variation. In one study on overweight women of the same age, weight and height, calories needed to maintain the “bare basics” varied from 1,263 to 2,152 calories per day. If you’re a woman at the low end of that range, weight loss is going to take longer and potentially be more tedious for you.
So, what to do if the scale seems stuck? Here are some thoughts:
1. Keep a food diary to see if you really are eating what you think you’re eating. (You really shouldn’t go below 1,200 calories a day.) In general, people tend to underreport the amount of food they’re eating. If you make note of everything you eat, not only will it help you pinpoint where some extra calories might be coming from, but it might make you stop and think before you pick up an extra handful of pretzels. Of the 208 “masters” of former weight problems in my book “Eating Thin for Life,” three out of four of them keep track of what they eat, at least occasionally, even though most of them have been maintaining weight loss for years.
2. Weigh and measure foods for a while — another way of making sure that you’re not eating more than you think you’re eating. See if you’re consistently going over the portion sizes listed on packaged foods. Do you have to use measuring utensils and a food scale forever? Probably not, once you get the hang of it. Although still vigilant about portion sizes, nine out of ten “masters” suggested that they no longer weigh and measure foods. Some do it just once in a while.
3. Step up your exercise — if you have the time, your body can handle it, and it’s OK with your physician. Sometimes, however, when people are building muscle because of exercise, the scale gets stuck for a while because muscle weighs more than fat. In other words, you could be losing fat but it won’t show up on the scale right away because of an increase in muscle mass.
4. If you’ve already lost some weight and you’re stuck at a plateau, try focusing on what you’ve already achieved, rather than where you want to go with your weight. Also, measure your success by more than just the scale. That is, commend yourself for being more fit, feeling better about yourself in general, being in a more “up” frame of mind — or whatever else your efforts at eating healthier and exercising are getting you. With time, weight loss should follow.
If you continue to do all these things and still don’t lose weight, you should ask your doctor if he thinks he should run some tests to determine if you have a medical problem that’s getting in your way.