By Jill Levy
You might think that burning fat and managing a healthy weight simply comes down to eating less. But this is in fact a common mistake, considering that severe calorie restriction — especially when coupled with too much exercise, lack of sleep and stress — slows down your metabolism.
If you’ve tried all types of diets and lifestyle changes but still aren’t seeing results, then you’re probably frustrated and wondering: Why do I struggle to burn fat?
Below we’ll look at habits that commonly keep people from reaching their ideal body composition, including those related to calorie and macronutrient intake, exercise and more.
10 Possible Reasons Why You're Not Burning Fat
If you’re finding it hard to slim down a bit and decrease your body fat percentage, ask yourself if you’re making any of the below fat-burning mistakes. (And, of course, you should always consult your healthcare professional prior to beginning any new dietary or lifestyle regimen.)
1. Eating too few calories
Overall, not eating enough calories, aka being in a severe calorie deficit, slows down your metabolic rate, meaning your body adapts by burning fewer calories overall. This is why you might initially lose some weight when you begin dieting, but then plateau and find it hard to keep making progress.
To keep burning fat, aim for moderate calorie restriction, meaning several hundred calories (at most) per day less than your body typically needs to maintain your weight.
And remember that all calories are not necessarily equal when it comes to boosting your health — “empty calories” from junk foods are easy to over-consume and not filling.
Make healthy food swaps by prioritizing protein, healthy fats and whole foods that contain antioxidants and fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, 100 percent whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts and seeds.
In particular, up your soluble fiber intake — found in oats, barley, peas, carrots, beans, apples, citrus fruits and psyllium — that has been found to help reduce your appetite and assist in healthy weight management.
2. Not eating enough protein
Protein-rich foods, such as meat, milk, eggs, beans and fish, are not only satisfying and great for controlling your appetite, but they also can help rev up your metabolism. Your body works hardest to break down protein compared to other macronutrients (carbs and fats), and in the process it uses up extra calories.
Protein also helps you to hold onto more lean muscle mass, which is important for sustaining a healthy body composition.
3. Consuming the wrong types of fats
Foods that contain lots of fat — such as oils, avocado, nuts and seeds — may be calorically dense, but fats in your diet are essential for many functions.
Healthy fats (like olive oil, fatty fish and nuts) help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and also facilitate production of important hormones, including testosterone, estrogen and others that can positively impact fat-burning effects.
If your diet lacks healthy fats, you’re also more prone to experience cravings and to wind up filling up on processed carbohydrates and sugar, which typically raises blood glucose (sugar) levels and often contributes to overeating and weight gain.
4. Eating around the clock
Not only does what you eat matter when it comes to fat burning, but when you eat does too.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a dietary tool that involves eating within a short “eating window” and then fasting for about 14 to 16+ hours per day, including overnight while you sleep.
IF has been shown to boost fat burning and to promote normal, healthy insulin sensitivity, which means it helps your body stay metabolically flexible.
One of the simplest ways to begin practicing IF is to eat an early dinner and then fast until late morning the following day, or to skip breakfast altogether.
If you find intermittent fasting too unpleasant, simply try to go a few hours between meals without taking in any calories. And aim for early dinners.
Your body is mostly made up of water and it needs to stay hydrated in order to properly digest foods, eliminate waste, allow your muscles to function and keep you metabolically healthy.
While there isn’t one standard amount of water that every adult needs to drink daily, it’s best to drink water throughout the day and to aim for between 8 to 13 cups per day (on the higher end if you’re active and have a bigger body mass).
Carry around a water bottle with you while you’re out and about, and try incorporating other fluids into your diet, too, such as herbal tea, fresh pressed green juices and bone broth.
Is caffeine okay? Drinking either one cup of coffee or green tea about an hour before a workout can provide a safe, effective energy boost to help with fat burning.
6. Lack of exercise (either cardio, strength training or both)
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the biggest contributors to an unhealthy weight, inflexibility, lack of strength and poor posture. For the most fat-burning effects, aim to do a combination of cardio/aerobic exercises and strength-training each week.
When doing cardio, it’s best to aim for about 40 minutes or more if you want to encourage fat burning, since this helps muscles to use up glycogen and dietary fuel before turning to body fat for energy.
If you’re not already lifting weights or doing circuit workouts involving bodyweight exercises several times per week, make a point to start.
Strength training can raise your metabolism for up to 48 hours and helps you build muscle, which uses up calories. It also guards against catabolic activity that can eventually lead to a loss of muscle tissue.
7. Always doing the same exercise routine
While a mix of aerobic and resistance-training is ideal for healthy weight management, keep in mind that your body will eventually adapt to your exercise routine if you keep it exactly the same over time.
The goal is to keep challenging your muscles, joints, ligaments and heart by incorporating new types of movements and new loads (meaning heavier weights and/or more reps).
Try switching up the exercises you do by adding in some yoga, Pilates, cycling, circuit training, hiking outdoors, etc.
You can also benefit by incorporating some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which raises your metabolic rate even after you’re done exercising as you recover. HIIT involves doing intervals of difficult exercises, followed by short rest periods, and repeating for about 25 to 35 minutes.
8. Sleep deprivation
If you have a busy schedule and feel like you’re always jam-packing tasks into your day, you may be tempted to skimp on sleep in order to get more done. But getting enough sleep, between 7 to 9 hours per night for most adults, is crucial for supporting a healthy metabolism.
Sleep not only gives you energy for physical activity during the day time, it also helps to support normal hormone production, promotes immune system health, and plays a role in managing your appetite and normal, healthy insulin sensitivity.
For example, you’re more likely to have high cortisol levels when you’re fatigued, which can cause cravings for junk food and increased fat accumulation around your midsection.
9. Unmanaged/chronic stress
Just like being sleep deprived puts you at risk for burnout, low motivation and a high appetite, stress does the same thing.
Chronic stress actually negatively impacts your metabolism and ramps up production of cortisol and other “stress hormones,” which as mentioned above, can make you hungry and cranky.
To help you relax, make a point to build stress-relieving activities into your day such as walks outside, reading, meditation, socializing, journaling and so on.
10. Over-exercising and not prioritizing recovery
While exercise is great for building muscle and slashing fat, too much can actually wind up backfiring. Overtraining without enough rest in between difficult workouts can lead to injury and fatigue, and ultimately places lots of stress on both your body and mind.
It’s okay, and even encouraged, to do light and moderate types of exercise every day, such as walking and yoga. But if you’re doing long cardio sessions, HIIT workouts and strength-training circuits, be sure to take rest days so your muscles recover and you keep stress hormones within a healthy range.
Jill Levy has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for six years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.