T Nation

What to Do When a Calorie Deficit Isn't Burning Fat?

So, I’ve tried posting this issue in a handful of places and each time it quickly deteriorates into me vs everyone on the internet. As though I’ve gone into a religious forum and declared war on their god.

So I was thinking today, man I’d like to run my thoughts by SOMEONE sensible, who won’t just resort to insults and that brings me here because I feel the inhabitants of this forum are a cut above most of the others. I’d like to think combining that with a genuine plea to just keep things civil might yield a result.

Issue: This question isn’t for me, my body comp is fine and always has been. But I was a personal trainer in my 30s and the guy who trained me was pretty elite level (although we only touched on this subject once). So I had a good foundation for the basics at least. I then tried to apply this to my SO when she started notice the need to get in shape. And nothing I threw at the problem impacted it in any way whatsoever. And it’s been like this for around 6 years now.

So again, please refrain from knee-jerk insults, just read the data and see if there’s some kind of rare and unusual possibility because we’ve tried the usual suspects.

More details:
We almost always do the basics of high protein and, whenever feasible, weights (heavy as poss) but usually no cardio.
In the past she tried quite a severe cut in calories and when that didn’t work, she tried keto and when that didn’t work she tried intermittent fasting and when that didn’t work she ramped up the IF to the point where she was eating 500kcals per day and refeeding every 3rd or so.
After this it really was pointless to keep going so here and there, full years would go by with nothing followed by reluctantly diving back in to the issue.
I have to add that early on, I had a full body body-fat scanner, we counted every calorie, trained hard in the gym, squats, all that, and after about a month or two, the scanner told us no change in body fat.

Present situ:
Currently getting back into it, two or three months in with little change in appearance, her estimated TDEE is hard to pin point but as a very sedate person with like 4-5 30 minute weight sessions per week, I’m guessing 1300 but could be way off.
She’s 5’6, around 135-140lb, est. BF around 25% ish (don’t have any way to check now so eyeballing it).
But her appetite is awful. Every time we decide to count for the day it’s shocking, like we’re struggling to get 1200. She’ll eat about 5-600 in the day and then there’s just the evening meal left, and she only has enough appetite for around 350-400 kcals. Around 75g protein on a bad day, 100g on a very good day.

I’ll have to stop here as this will get too long to be readable.
*** I don’t want attention, I’m not trolling, I’m not lying, I’m not accusing science of being more stupid than me, I’m not a snowflake. I just want ideas.*
One idea centers around adaptive thermogenesis. She’s tired all the time. Could her body be burning everything except fat (glycogen and muscle?). I dunno. Any thoughts appreciated.

That sounds like crashed metabolism. Hardcore homeostasis.

There are others on here more familiar/educated about it than me though. That was just to get the ball rolling.

  1. She is not active enough to need a large intake. 1200 calories at her BW would not be unheard of to maintain her present weight.

  2. Nobody ever wants to hear this but she/you both are either not tracking correctly and/or she is lying about “snacking”.

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It sounds like she needs to find activities she likes to do (hiking, swimming, sports, etc…) to get her activity levels up and her appetite up. If her appetite is such that she can only take in 800-900 cals per day, there seems to be some underlying problem.

Also, I wouldn’t do things like keto, IF, etc… that can really mess some people up especially if they’re struggling just to eat normal.

Lastly, it’s clear you are quite invested and concerned with her appearance and results. It could simply be she doesn’t share your goals or thoughts on this.

I’d focus not at all on appearance or bodyfat percentage or counting calories, but rather on eating for health and well-being. She will look better if she feels better, and than means having a normal appetite and additional activities beyond the weight room.

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Have you had any lab work done? Particularly thyroid?

thyroid tests have been on the cards for ages now, but never something that we can budget for as they can be a bit pricey.

She has got a few milder symptoms of underactive thyroid such as fatigue, bad thermal regulation and has previously had thyroid nodules (which had to be removed). But yes it’s going to have to be checked at some point. Only thing is, from my limited research, I gather an underactive thyroid can only cause a small increase in fat storage and most of the weight comes from water? I dunno for sure though.

It’s a hard cycle to break out of because the fatigue prevents activity, which blunts appetite and so on.

Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to get some tests done to figure out why she’s tired all the time?

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I would seriously consider getting some thyroid labs.

You gather wrong. It is a master gland and can effect every cell in your body. So, basically it can do whatever it wants!


If you are truly tracking every calorie and she’s actually being honest about what she’s eating then I’m guessing it’s either a medical condition OR she’s eating so little her body is in starvation mode and is trying to hold onto everything put into it.

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No such thing.

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$225 off the internet. Google discountedlabs to find some site that work. Come on buy her a gift that might save her life. An while I am on the subject of bloods a female hormone panel would be in order. Her PCP should do this for free. If her T/P/E is out of wack it will affect her metabolism. Ability to burn fat. Look into the type of birth control she is using if it is heavy on the P that is not helping.

Yeah I made up “compete clinical starvation mode” to sound smart.

But it is highly unlikely this is the case unless she has been basically eating nothing and/or is anorexic

Probably a messed up metabolism

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How does that make you sound smart?

You did not make it up but, it is bullshit. “Messed up metabolism” also no.

Do you have pictures or research of this so called starvation mode? Other than those of Auschwitz prisoners?..oh wait. Perhaps fat Africans in famine stricken countries?..oh wait.

Read Minnesota starvation experiment.

Sorry kid didn’t realize you were a doctor, must just be messing up counting calories just like you said… oh wait, maybe you should read the opening paragraph first? Haha…


I won’t comment on thyroid checks, bloodwork, etc as I have little knowledge of that. The people suggesting if are ones I know from this forum and whose opinions I respect, so it certainly isn’t a bad idea.

What I can offer:

  • kudos on trying to help your SO. It’s a can of worms I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. The relationship dynamic can (often) make this kind if thing really hard to do because instead of interacting as peers you’re interacting in a more student/teacher or boss/employee way. Can it be done? Sure. Easily? Not so much.
  • you may not be entirely aware of everything she eats and drinks day in, day out. It wouldn’t be so much her lying to you, rather not being aware that in this situation EVERYTHING other than plan water or black tea or coffee needs to be taken into account.
  • more than anything she needs to invest in the process completely. When she does, she will be much more forthcoming in terms of recording intake, engaging in activities, etc and especially making her own effort to learn about the subject.
  • in a lot of cases, even though the exercise side isn’t so important as diet, it can be symbolically important to the subject so her enjoying it or finding it satisfying will be important.

I’m just thinking out loud. I’m no expert but I would try following course of action:

  1. 2-4 weeks brake from weight training
  2. 4-8 weeks brake from calorie deficit, slightly above maintenance, 3-4 big meals per day, whole foods (generaly eating helathy, healthy fats, moderate to high carbs in all meals, moderate proteins, something like 20(proteins)-30(fats)-50(carbs)
  3. Magnesium, cink, ashwaghanda suplementation
  4. Increase NEAT, very very much (walking, swimming, cycling, gardening etc. no intensive cardio, only steady slow), some yoga, meditation etc

Obviously she’ll gain weight but I believe such reset is needed because I’m sure she’s swimming in cortisol after so long calorie deficit and frustration with no results.

  1. After 2-4 weeks introduce weight traing again and after 4-8 slowly, gratuadly increasing calorie deficit.
  2. VERY IMPORTANT - mindset - she must be aware of consequences (weight gain) and don’t stress about it, take one step back to make two forward.

Sorry for my english.

Than, if she starts losing weight, maybe 2/2 or 4/2 approach be better in her case than continous deficit. I mean 2/4 weeks on - 2 weeks meintenance.

What is your “takeaway” from that experiment? We reviewed it in my exercise physiology graduate program. The subjects showed a massive reduction in metabolism, almost across the board severe depression, psychosis, muscle wasting, signs of virtually zero testosterone. Calories had to be down regulated due to reduced metabolism by far more than the loss of body weight, and estimates are that subjects began on about a 750 calorie daily deficit, but calories had to be dropped to maintain weight loss. Also, the subjects were white, healthy, mostly physically active male volunteers who knew that they would be “starved” for 6 months which likely impacted the pool of volunteers. Reduction in body temperature and respiration rate as well as adjustment in calories needed to maintain weight loss indicated a significant reduction in metabolic rate.

In addition to this, we know that a reduction in calories causes a rise in insulin counter-regulatory hormones that result in hepatic insulin resistance, and cells, especially muscles virtually stop making glycolytic enzymes when glycogen is chronically depleted.

In fact, the M.S.E. in practice only set out to reduce calories by about 25%-30% per day which is basically what current studies suggest is optimal for body composition improvements, and yet, the subjects were physiologically/psycholigically traumatized and had to have their calories constantly down regulated over 6 months.

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Him not being a “doctor” is irrelevant. MDs as a group are among the most nutritionally mal educated people around, far moreso than the general population.

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s-a-r-c-a-s-m my friend