If you know even a little about nutrition, you'll know that to lose weight, you need to establish a calorie deficit. That is, you need to consume less energy from your diet than you burn off during exercise and activity. Sounds simple enough, right? Why then do some people start out on a new diet regime and their weight climbs up? Today, we'll cover 3 possible reasons you might gain weight, despite being in a calorie deficit.
Weight loss, and fat loss, is sometimes a funny old game. It seems as though you're doing everything right - eating properly, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep. You've been super careful to track everything that you do. It's time to weigh in. Excited to see how much weight you've lost, you gleefully step on to the scales.
Then, reality hits.
Not only have you not lost weight, you're now HEAVIER than you were before!
Anger, frustration and despair begin to set in. You begin to question everything about the world you find yourself in. In a moment of panic and sheer exhaustion, you're ready to throw in the towel and fall back into your old ways.
Don't be so quick to give up! I reassure you during our follow up coaching session. All may not be as it seems.
Can I really be in a calorie deficit and still gain weight?
Evidently, based on years of experience, the answer is yes.
Firstly, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Obviously, there can be occasions where clients think they are in a calorie deficit, but aren't. They either underestimate how much they're eating, or overestimate how active they are. Additionally there may be tracking errors and simply foods and drink that get forgotten about along the way.
For the most part, if you gain weight, it generally means you're eating in a surplus.
However, that's not what this article is about.
Additionally, we're not going to look at sudden changes that may take place. For example, periods of extreme stress, or disrupted sleep, can wreak havoc on our body's natural weight control mechanisms.
Assuming that a genuine calorie deficit is in place, there can still be scenarios where your weight on the scale might go up.
Let's look at 3 such reasons.
If you were previously eating low-carb, you might gain weight on a higher carb diet, even in a calorie deficit.
During a low carbohydrate diet, your body's glycogen stores run down. If you restrict carbohydrate over a period of time, your muscles have very little stored fuel at their disposal. We say that you are glycogen depleted.
The thing about glycogen though is that when we store it in our muscles, we store water along with it. In fact, for every gram of glycogen, our body stores around 3 to 4 grams of water as well. Therefore, if we store just 250g of glycogen, our weight can increase by at least a kilogram.
Conversely, when we deplete our glycogen stores, our body also gets rid of this stored water. Our muscles become less hydrated and our scale weight decreases.
For this reason, people often lost weight very quickly when they reduce their carb intake. At least in the beginning.
Our body stores carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, along with water
If you cut carbohydrates, you lose stored glycogen and water from your muscles. Comparatively speaking, it's like wringing out a wet sponge.
However, after you reintroduce carbohydrates into your diet, your muscle fuel tanks (glycogen stores) fill back up. Additionally, that extra water comes back in along with the glycogen.
Remember, most sports diets include a sensible amount of carbohydrate to fuel activity and exercise. It's not uncommon for clients to start a meal plan consuming more carbohydrates than they're used to, yet still fewer calories than they were previously.
In any case, this carbohydrate weight gain doesn't impact fat loss. As I've said before, weight loss is not the same as fat loss. Similarly, weight gain doesn't necessarily mean fat gain either.
Just as if you were to dunk your sponge in a bath tub full of water. It'd get heavier. However, in the case of your muscles, it's even better. They're now fuelled and ready and willing to work harder and push you further.
You might gain weight if you start taking creatine
In a similar way to carbohydrate, creating also increases the amount of water you store in your muscles.
While everyone is different, it's not unusual to gain over 1kg on the scale during a creatine loading phase.
Water weight gain happens quickly if you undergo creatine loading. However, if you prefer the maintenance method with a lower daily dose, it'll still happen. Albeit over the course of a few weeks.
It's possible to gain weight in a calorie deficit if you've just started weight training
Lastly, if you're new to resistance training, you may see some weight gain in the first few weeks. Similarly, you might put on weight despite being in a calorie deficit if you return to the gym after a long time off.
There are 3 factors to consider here:
All three can result in the scale creeping up. It's common in people who play a lot of sport in their younger years, or were heavily into weight training, and then stop. The plus side to this though is that these people often achieve great changes to their body composition.
Rather than rely on scale weight alone, hopefully you can see it makes sense to include other measurements to help track your progress. In most people, waist measurement is a simple tool to add to their tracking logs.
To clarify, if the scale shows you gain weight in the first few weeks of a calorie deficit, it may be down to:
Take note of how your waistline and other measurements are tracking. If they are reducing and it's only your weight that's increasing, then it's likely you're on the right track.
Keep on going and you'll eventually see your weight drop.