There can be multiple reasons but dieting for a long time with a large caloric deficit can definitely be a reason why you’re not looking the way you thought you would.
Stress, alongside overeating and being inactive, is often the main culprit for a (skinny) fat appearance. Stress has many forms but can be divided into 2 categories:
Psychological stress: high work demands, relationship issues, having kids, a bad boss, anxiety, depression, etc.
Physical stress: food inflammation (can be induced by junk food, inflammatory foods, alcohol, coffee etc), inflammation from training (too much muscle damage, training to often with too little recovery), physical responses to mental stress (upset stomach, upset gut, pain or aching sensations), fractures or muscle tears. EATING TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH is also a physical stressor for your body.
If you have been on a very low calorie diet for a long time, then you might have already concluded that nothing is changing anymore. Your physical appearance might look worse, the scale is not moving or worse, going in the wrong direction. You hold a lot of water in your gut. These are all clear signs that you are producing too much cortisol and/or adrenaline. Chronically elevated cortisol levels decrease your metabolic rate overtime. This is normal because your body always wants to adapt to regain homeostasis.
If you eat 1500 kcals below you maintenance level, your weight will drop significantly in the first few weeks. After that you will notice that your weight loss slows down or starts to stall. This is your body adapting to the stress by decreasing metabolic rate. This is a survival mechanism and is called metabolic adaptation.
When this occurs, you first need to realize that it is never a good idea to diet with a large caloric deficit for a long time. You can do this as a blitz fat loss cycle for 4 weeks (very important note: blitz cycles are only for those who have a high stress resiliency/ very low stress levels. Otherwise you can have adverse effects.) Afterwards you need to go back to maintenance for a while and start a new cycle with a lower caloric deficit which can be done for 12-16 weeks. After that you need to eat on maintenance levels again for a couple of weeks.
So in your case, the best thing to do is start reverse dieting. Keep training frequency to 3-4 times per week and do cardio sessions on your off days but keep them limited to 30-40 minutes max. Add 150-250 calories to your total daily calories. You might gain a bit of weight in the first couple of days or even the first week. THIS CAN BE SCARY BUT IT IS NORMAL. After a while you will notice that metabolic adaptation has taken place and you bodyweight will now stall or decrease slightly. Add another 150-250 calories and keep doing this for a couple of weeks. Wait until your bodyweight stalls again. This way you can bring your metabolism back to healthy levels and you will start to look and feel better again. I think Layne Norton has free content about this subject on his youtube channel where he talks in detail about the do’s and don’ts of reverse dieting.
After a month or 2-3 depending on how you’re reacting you can start a new cutting cycle but be smart this time. Calculate your maintenance calories and aim for a deficit of 0.5 - 1% of your bodyweight in fatloss per week. If you have a lot to loose, go for 1%. Once you reach a bodyfat level of 12%, slow down to 0.5%.
Example: Male, 90 kilos, maintenance calories: 3000
Goal: lose 1% of bodyweight each week → 90/100 = 0.9 kg
1 kg of fat = 7700 calories → 0.9 x 7700 = 6930 kcals/7 = 990 kcals deficit on a daily basis —> 3000 (maintenance) - 990 (deficit) = 2100 kcals per day to lose 1% bodyweight each week.
Once you know your caloric intake you can choose your macronutrient ratio’s (pick one that allows you to be consistent with the diet. Don’t go keto if you love carbs and vice versa). Weigh yourself every morning after you have woken up and gone for a pee and take your weekly average bodyweight at the end of the week. Compare this average to the average weight of the next week and see if you hit your mark (0.9 kg weight loss per week).
If you lost less than 0.9 kg per week, adjust your caloric intake by 100-200 calories depending on how far away you were from your target.
If you lost more than 0.9 kg per week, do the same as above but in the other direction obviously (eating more instead of less).
BEFORE you make caloric adjustments though, first evaluate if you have been equally active each day. The easiest way to keep track of this is by using a step counter. You can buy one for 10 bucks so they’re not a big investment but they are really practical. For example if you take 6000 steps each day, try to get at least 6000 steps each day during your entire fatloss journey. If you do this, you will find that your weight loss will me more consistent and it will last longer before you need to make caloric adjustments again.
Another option is to just increase your activity instead of dropping calories. If you are someone who likes to eat as much as possible, this might be a more valuable option. You can take your step count to 8000 instead of 6000 for example, increase your cardio sessions by 5-10 minutes or just add another cardio session to the week.
Staying in a caloric deficit, choosing the right macronutrient ratio’s to be able to stay consistent with the diet, keeping track of your calories and activity are the most important factors for succes. People tend to freak out over details such as nutrient timing and supplement protocols, but forget that a negative energy balance and macronutrient ratio’s are waaay more effective for long term results. Decent fatloss takes time, if you can accept that you will not only enjoy your cycles more but your results will be better as well. Don’t take the shortcut, go for the long haul.