For this article I researched science’s answer to a common weight loss dilemma: why am I losing weight but not inches off my ___ (belly, hips, or wherever)?
I’ll share the opinions of what medical & dietary experts consider the most likely causes, and provide their advice for getting more noticeable results from your weight loss program.
4 reasons we lose weight but not inches
*Weight loss could be from losing muscle, not belly or hip fat;
*Weight loss can’t be targeted to a specific area such as belly fat; when & where it occurs is different for everyone;
*Weight loss could be due to losing water, not fat;
*Weight loss could be visceral fat, which isn’t visible.
Next, let’s look at what are considered some of the most likely causes for not losing inches even the numbers on the scale are decreasing.
And up ahead I’ll share tips from dietitians & other weight loss experts for dealing with each of these four invisible weight loss situations.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
What causes this invisible weight loss?
Here are a few common factors that can cause those 4 types of weight loss without visible results that I listed above:
- Exercise program choices
- Losing weight too rapidly
- Diet choices
- Genetics, gender, age
Exercise program choices
The fitness program that you’re on while you’re trying to lose weight can influence your visible results.
Without the right types of strength training & cardio routines, it’s easy to not lose much weight at all, or to see the pounds drop on the scale but not off your waistline, hips, wherever.
* Make sure you’re strength training, so you don’t lose muscle during your weight loss program. (1)
*Science has shown that combining cardio & strength training is a potent plan to get rid of belly fat.
*Consider doing HIIT (high intensity interval training) for the cardio portion of your exercise plan, since it’s been shown to be very effective at going after belly fat.
Weight loss plan
A strong desire to lose weight (a good thing) can be taken to an extreme where poor food choices, unhealthy crash diets, etc., are used to lose as much weight as quickly as possible..no matter what.
(Not a good thing.)
The Center for Disease Control & Prevention says healthy weight loss goals aim for 1-2 lb. lost per week, and weight loss pros in the medical & nutritional communities recommend those guidelines as well.
Weight loss experts have often said something along the lines of
“successful weight loss is 80% diet & 20% exercise.” (3)
Dialing in the right daily nutrition routine is essential for creating an environment in your body so that it will transform how it looks according to your goals.
Here are a few diet & nutrition ideas to keep in mind: (4)
- eat until you’re 80% full
- eat high-fiber foods
- drink plenty of water
- avoid fried & processed foods
If you’re interested in an in-depth look at what nutrition experts recommend for safe weight loss when you’re older, I put their simple advice in this article: Losing Weight After 60.
Genetics, gender, age
These are a few factors we don’t have much control over, and they influence things like the speed & location of our weight loss. (5)
However, all is not lost.
Encouraging (& practical) findings in the fields of nutrigenomics* & others have led to the exploration of creating successful body-transforming weight loss programs, specifically tailored to your genetics, age, & gender.
*nutrigenomics– the science that studies the relationship between our genetics vis-à-vis our nutrition & health.
Bottom line though: Leveling up your diet & your exercise program will be your true ticket to eventual success, even if your genetics slow your progress down a little along the way.
Weight loss without seeing results: the 4 main types
OK, we’ve identified a few of the most common factors related to not seeing the fat loss & body transformation changes while on a weight loss program.
Now I want to go back to those four main types of “weight loss without losing inches” and connect these factors (exercise, diet, genetics, weight loss approach) to those four reasons to help us see who’s causing what.
Knowing that, we can dial in the best medical & nutrition-based advice & proactive recommendations for fixing each of those invisible weight loss scenarios.
I’ll briefly lay out the issue & its causes, then share its solution.
1. Weight loss from losing muscle
What is it
This is when the weight loss you see on the scale (but not on your ___) is because your weight loss program is causing you to lose muscle instead.
#1 Not the best exercise plan for body transformation
#2 Losing weight too quickly
Solution for #1: Incorporate adequate strength training into your exercise program.
What the experts say about muscle loss & strength training
The American Council on Exercise points out that someone on a weight loss program who doesn’t include strength training in their exercise program can suffer muscle loss. (6)
They consider loss of muscle as one of the main reasons for seeing weight loss on the scale but not in the mirror or on the tape measure.
If you’re interested in checking out a simple strength training plan built for body transformation, my article Skinny Fat Workout & Diet for Women & Men here on heydayDo has you covered.
Solution for #2: Keep your rate of weight loss within the recommended medical guidelines of 1-2 lb. per week.
Here are a few tips for maintaining your muscle during a weight loss program:
- create reasonable weight loss goals;
- focus on increasing your strength while working out;
- be consistent and keep track of your progress.
What the experts say about muscle loss caused by rapid weight loss
Clinical weight loss studies have shown that
“If you lose weight too fast, you lose more muscle than when you shed excess pounds more slowly” (7)
In addition to the CDC link I mentioned earlier, medical authorities like the Mayo Clinic advise people trying to lose weight to not go overboard, since that’s potentially unhealthy & an unsustainable approach anyways.
“A weight loss of 1-2 lb. per week is the typical recommendation.” (8)
If you exceed that weight loss pace, here are a couple of signals you’re losing muscle instead of fat – in addition to your tape measurements showing no progress:
- you’re sluggish
- your workouts are harder than usual
- you’re not getting stronger
2. Losing visceral fat vs. subcutaneous fat
What is it
This type of invisible weight loss occurs if the fat you’re getting rid of is visceral fat, which isn’t visible to the eye.
This type of fat (visceral) is often the first to go when you’re in the early stages of a weight loss program, so at first you’ll see the scale go down but your measurements won’t, unfortunately.
This is normal.
Two kinds of fat in our bodies
There are two kinds of fat we store in our body, subcutaneous & visceral, and roughly 90% of our fat is of the subcutaneous variety. (9)
Subcutaneous fat is the squishy fat just below the surface of our skin; it’s the fat we can pinch, and the fat we look at & measure.
Reducing visceral fat isn’t noticeable
On the other hand, visceral fat is located deep within our bodies, typically surrounding our organs, and so it is invisible. (10)
And in a caloric deficit state like you are when you’re on a weight loss program, visceral fat is usually the first fat to get burned off. (11)
But since it lies deep below the surface of our skin, you won’t see a visible difference in the areas on your body you’re concerned with reducing (belly, legs, or wherever).
Risks from visceral fat
Note though…visceral fat poses a lot more potential health problems than the subcutaneous fat you’re concerned with getting rid of.
Too much excess visceral fat increases you risk for:
- insulin resistance;
- heart disease;
- even certain cancers.
So there is a huge upside for you & weight loss program if you’re reducing your visceral fat, even though it might not look like it in the beginning.
Solution for reducing subcutaneous fat
As Livestrong.com points out, subcutaneous fat is harder to get rid of than visceral fat, and there isn’t anything special you can do to target it.
Losing inches where you have subcutaneous fat built up will always come down to the foundational weight loss principles all medical & dietary professionals endorse:
* a healthy daily caloric deficit;
* smart weight loss food choices;
* the right exercise program.
3. Losing weight from water weight loss
What is it
This type of invisible weight loss happens when the weight you’re losing isn’t your visible fat, but rather water that often comes from your muscles.
Common signs & causes of water weight loss
Here are a few signs or reasons you’re losing water weight that’s not noticeable, rather than the visible fat you’d like to make disappear:
- Clothes feel the same
- Big daily weight swings on the scale
- Rapid weight loss
- Low-carb diet**
** – Research trials have shown that a low-carb diet is more effective than a low-fat diet for weight & fat loss, but they also cause water weight loss too, as explained below. (16)
The truth of the matter is, at the beginning of a weight loss program, science has shown that the first bunch of pounds that are going to go are likely to be from water weight. (17)
That’s because, well, it’s just the way it is…because that is simply how our bodies work:
*You’re in a calorie deficit (more calories burned than you’re eating & drinking);
*In this state, your body doesn’t get enough energy from your diet – that’s how weight loss happens;
*Your body then goes for the carbohydrate glycogen, but that runs out pretty quickly;
*So for energy, your body now turns to the water that’s attached itself to that glycogen it just used up.
Result: Noticeable weight loss that may or may not also produce a noticeable reduction in size in your _____ (pick the body part you’re trying to shrink).
Again, this is because in this scenario, you’re not losing fat, but water.
4. Losing weight in places other than where you’re measuring
What is it
This type of weight loss is when you’re seeing visible results on your body but they’re not in the places you’d hoped.
The reason this type of weight loss happens is not caused by something that can be fixed: it’s a law of nature (as far as the human body goes).
Unfortunately, some companies marketing weight loss & exercise products have perpetuated the false idea that we can somehow pick & choose where we lose our fat.
It’s just not true, and it goes by a few different names:
- spot reducing
- fat targeting
- belly fat targeting
- localized fat loss
What weight loss experts say about fat targeting
from Very Well Fit:
“…spot reduction is a myth…the body doesn’t only draw energy from the cells in the area we’re working. It gets energy from the body as a whole”.
from the American Council on Exercise:
“The systems responsible for this process (fat burning) do not take into consideration the parts of the body you would most like the fat to be drawn from.”
from Health Status:
“It’s simply impossible for a person to influence where their body draws the fat that is metabolized into energy.
Each person’s body has a natural pattern of where fat is added or dropped — some people will lose fat from their stomachs first, while others get slimmer hips.”
Genetics play a role in weight loss & gain location
Earlier we looked at how genetics have a say so on how a weight loss program is going to go for each of us.
Taking it one step further here, it turns out genetics also influences where weight loss (& the original weight gain) occur for each of us too. (18)
Solution: Don’t be too concerned about this if you see it happen to you, since we now know that the exact “where” of fat loss is out of our control.
If your diet & exercise plans are top-notch, you’ll eventually hit your goals, body transformation-wise.
Tips for a more noticeable weight loss
Here’s a brief summarizing of all of the main pieces of advice from all of the weight loss & dietary experts I reference in this article:
* Focus on fat loss, not weight loss – because if you’re doing all the right (& simple) things, the fat will eventually start to go away.
* Understand you can’t spot reduce an area with exercises or unproven supplements – stick to the basic plan of a great diet & exercise program and you’ll succeed.
* Consistent cardio & strength training combined is the most effective way to exercise in order to lose body fat & inches all around.
* Be on a sound diet that’s nutritionally complete – nothing extreme like a fad or crash diet. Lose weight slowly & consistently within healthy guidelines.
I hope that my article on losing weight without losing inches (and how to fix it) is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.