7 Reasons You are Gaining Weight in a Calorie Deficit

Loosing weight can be SO frustrating especially when you are in a calorie deficit and still not loosing weight. It is not so simple as calories in vs calories out.

So the odds are you have chosen to focus on a calorie deficit for your weight loss journey because Dr. Google or your best friend said it would help you lose weight fast and that it is backed by science. Although being in a calorie deficit can be one part of the equation, it is not the only part that needs to be addressed.  So let’s break down what a caloric deficit is, so you can fully understand other factors involved.

The official definition of a calorie deficit is when one expends more calories than one consumes. That means energy is one of the most important factors. But here are seven other factors that need to be considered—and if they are not, then this may be why you are still gaining weight.

#1 Hormones

Your hormones are the regulators of many of your body’s processes, including metabolism. So, if your hormones are not balanced properly then your metabolism may be slowed, which can make it harder for your calorie deficit to be effective. Some key hormones you need to consider are:

Key Hormones


Cortisol, as you may know is commonly known as the stress hormone because it regulates your body’s stress response! Aside from being our body’s stress meter, cortisol also has the job of regulating metabolism, inflammation and immune function. Some functions of these jobs include, but aren’t limited to aiding in blood pressure maintenance and blood sugar regulation.

When cortisol is released it will raise your blood pressure and blood sugar, which in short bouts is okay, but if it is chronically releases, then this is when your health will be impacted. When cortisol is released it triggers your body to release stored glucose into your blood stream.

Therefore chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to consistently elevated blood sugars (hyperglycemia) which will lead to your body secreting more insulin to regulate this, putting your body into a state of inflammation.

So if you think that you have chronic stress then it is imperative to get your cortisol levels tested.Normal cortisol levels are 6 to 23 mcg/dl ( micrograms per deciliter). Your levels will change throughout your day so it is typically tested in the morning when your levels are highest.


Insulin’s plays a huge roll in metabolism as a whole in many different ways such as:

  • Glucose metabolism
  • Glycogen metabolism
  • Lipid metabolism
  • Protein metabolism

Consistently elevated levels of insulin in your blood stream can lead weight gain from your body storing the excess sugar it produces.


Leptin is the hormone that is released by your adipose (fatty) tissue, which helps you to maintain your normal body weight. This hormone also aids in regulating your appetite by signaling you to know when you are full, therefore helping our maintain a proper calorie balance.

Your leptin level is known to be proportional to your your level of body fat. When you begin to lose weight, specifically fat mass, your leptin level will decrease as well. With this level being lowered it can become more difficult to feel satisfied leading you to overeat.

Thyroid hormones

Thyroid hormones, directly control your metabolism. The two main hormones are Triiodothyronine(T3) and thyroxine(T4), both of which play major roles in weight regulation as they affect how you burn energy. If these hormones are not within their normal ranges and are functioning incorrectly this will directly affect your weight loss goals.

Signs that something may be off

Some signs and symptoms of a hormone imbalance can include but are not limited to:

irritabilityhigh stressincreased heart rate
thinning of hairincreased urinationincreased thirst
darkening of skin around neckthinning of hairincreased hunger
skin tagselevated blood pressureweight gain

What to do if you think your hormones are off

If you feel like your hormones are imbalanced ,then it is imperative that you reach out to your primary care doctor to begin a conversation about your concerns. They will hopefully order labs which will further help you understand your individual needs along yoru weight loss journey.

Once this information is known, set up a visit with one of our Registered Dietitians who can help create a personalized plan for YOU. This plan will include 1:1 nutritional counseling, diet and supplement education as well.

It is important that remember that supplements if not taken right, could lead to health issues. Talking to your doctor or your dietitian. Common supplements that can help with hormonal imbalances include:

  • Myo-inositol
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Vitamin D. You can order a Vit D test here to learn more about your levels.
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Turmeric
  • Ashwaganda

Ask your dietitian which of these supplements are best for you! You can view our supplement store to order.

#2 Decreased Basal Metabolic rate (BMR)

Your BMR is the rate at which your body uses energy while at rest to keep you alive (i.e., your basic functions such as breathing and digestion). A decreased BMR means that you are not burning as many calories while at rest. If your body is not burning as many calories while at rest, then you could easily be overestimating your caloric needs and not truly be in a caloric deficit. 

A few factors that can cause your metabolic rate to be slowed include:

Increased levels of consistent stress

As explained earlier cortisol, your stress hormone, directly affects your metabolism. This can elevate your blood pressure, slow digestion, cause muscle pain and tension, decrease quality of sleep and much more. So managing your stress is imperative. Some ways you can manage your stress include: exercise, therapy, meditation, journaling, breath work and supplementation.

Lack of adequate sleep

Lack of sleep is yet another reason why you may not be losing weight in your deficit. As mentioned earlier, lack of sleep can cause disruptions in hormones, especially those that regulate your appetite ( Ghrelin and Leptin) and Cortisol our stress hormone, which can slow your metabolism. In addition to slowing your metabolism, lack of sleep can also negatively affect your decision-making skills, such as simple addition for adding up your caloric intake, as well as limit your ability to make the most informed nutrition decisions due to elevated hunger levels.  

Ways you can improve your sleep include setting up a bed time routine that allows for 7-9 hours of sleep nightly and limiting screen tie around your planned bed time. If there are any other sleep disturbances, then it is important to reach out to a sleep expert.

Extreme restrictive caloric intake

When you begin a VERY restrictive diet your body is unable to keep up with the demands and energy needs of your basic functions, such as digestion and respiration. So when you add in all of the other non-active activities you do on a daily basis i.e. brushing your teeth or walking around, then your body is shorted even further. This puts your body on high alert as it’s main goal is to keep itself alive! So what happens next is your body begins to slow itself down to burn less energy in order to preserve functioning at all cost. This leads to slowing down your progress and making it harder to lose weight in the future.

Imagine this scenario:

Before you jump into a caloric deficit you are eating regularly and fueling your body you may be burning upwards of 1,500 calories per day, but after jumping into a very restrictive caloric diet you may only be burning 800-900 calories per day. This is significant!

Reminder, the definition of VERY restrictive is individualized as everyone has their own energy needs. Ask your dietitian what your needs look like and if you are over restricting.

Hormonal imbalance

As explained earlier, proper functioning of your hormones matters! The imbalance of cortisol, insulin, leptin and/or your thyroid hormones can directly impact your basal metabolic rate and impact how much energy you are burning on a regular basis.

How to increase your BMR

Way you can increase your basal metabolic rate include:

  1. Eating enough calories
  2. Balance your caloric intake properly between carbs, fat and protein
  3. Increase your water intake
  4. Managing your stress in a healthy manner: counseling, exercise, meditation etc.
  5. Exercise

#3 Decreased Muscle Mass

Your muscle mass may be another factor for why you are still gaining weight while in a calorie deficit. If you have a higher body fat percentage and lower muscle mass, then you will most likely be burning less calories than if you had a higher percentage of muscle mass. When you have a higher muscle mass, your metabolism is increased as it takes more energy to build and maintain muscle than it does fat mass. If this factor is an issue, then most likely the next factor is also not being considered and could be another reason why you are not losing weight in your caloric deficit.

How to increase your muscle mass

  1. Eat the appropriate ratio of protein, carbs and fat
  2. Focus on strength endurance and max strength training.

Ask your dietitian or personal trainer how to achieve these goals!

#4 Overestimated calories burned from Physical Activity

Your level of activity or how you expend your energy is another reason you may not be meeting your weight loss goals. One reason for this is that you may be overestimating the calories you are burning, which would easily put you in a calorie surplus without you even realizing it. 

Another reason is that the type of exercising you are doing may not helping improve your muscle mass, which we know helps improve your metabolism and burn calories more efficiently. While overestimating energy expenditure is a huge factor, the next one is usually the most common mistake.

#5 Underestimating Your Caloric Intake

Being in a true caloric deficit can be hard to accomplish, and most often is not tracked precisely. Precision is necessary when tracking your caloric intake, meaning you should not just track what you are eating, but also the portions you are eating. This means you need to consider label reading, and measuring and weighing foods, for accuracy of your true caloric intake.

This takes time, knowledge, and discipline to accomplish, and most people lack one or all these qualities on a consistent basis, often due to lack of prior education. Therefore, underestimating caloric intake is one of the main reasons why you still are not losing weight. 

#6 Age

Your age needs to be considered as well, because as you get older: your muscle mass decreases (slowing your metabolism), you may have a decrease in appetite (causing too restrictive of caloric intake), and your mobility may be limited (causing too little energy expenditure). So if you are aging (which we all are), then you need to pay closer attention to these factors. 

#7 Alcohol Intake

Alcohol is a macronutrient that most of us forget to calculate in when evaluating our diet. This macronutrient provides 7 calories per gram. Aside from it providing energy that you may not have realized it also will cause: impairment low blood sugar, low testosterone, increased estrogen and fluid and fat retention.

The impulse to reach for foods generally increases upon impairment from alcohol. To compound this having low blood sugar which can also lead to impulsive intake of carbs or other fast foods in order to regulate yoru blood sugar levels. This addition of calories from food in addition to alcohol calories can easily put you over yoru energy needs .

Finally low testosterone from your alcohol intake can lead to decreased muscle mass, which as we mentioned will decrease your BMR.

In Summary

So now that you have all the factors that may be contributing to why you are still gaining weight while in your calorie deficit the next step is to identify the ones that apply to you and your situation. Once you know your limiting factors, it is time to reach out for help if necessary. Ask your dietitian or primary care provider for guidance on next steps to help you achieve your goals. Odds are they have tools that they can teach you to make your weight loss journey individualized and appropriate for your health and wellness vision. 

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