Can You Gain Weight When You Cut Calories?

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A healthy diet and exercise can help you feel better, regardless of your weight. (Image: dolgachov/iStock/Getty Images)

You're doing your best to lose weight by watching what you eat and reducing portions, but the pounds continue to pile on. Decreasing your calories doesn't bring about weight loss unless you're consuming fewer calories than you burn daily. It's possible you're not cutting enough calories or are accidentally underestimating your intake so you're still eating more than your body uses daily.

It might be time to evaluate your food and beverage intake to see if it's truly compatible with your weight-management goals. If the scale continues to rise significantly for several weeks without explanation, though, consult with your health care provider to rule out a medical cause.

If You Eat Too Many Calories

Cutting calories helps with weight loss, but only if you're eating fewer calories than your body uses for fuel. If you're eating less than usual, but still above your maintenance needs, weight may creep on despite your calorie-cutting efforts.

For example, if you need 2,500 calories a day to maintain your weight, you should aim for between 1,500 and 2,000 calories a day to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. But if you regularly consume 3,600 calories a day, reducing what you eat by 500 to 1,000 calories still puts you at an intake higher than the 2,500 calories you need to maintain your size. You've cut calories, but are still eating more calories than your body burns in a day -- causing weight gain.

To determine how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, use an online calculator that figures your calorie needs based on your age, gender, size and activity level. Be realistic about your activity level too; A study published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that people tend to overestimate by three to four fold how many calories they burn with exercise.

This calculation gives you the number of calories you'll need in order to maintain your weight. From this number, subtract 250 to 1,000 calories to determine how many you should eat daily if you want to lose 1/2 to 2 pounds per week.

Avoid Excessive Calorie Cuts

When figuring the calories to consume daily for weight loss, keep in mind that it's possible to cut calories too much. A 2010 paper published in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that if you do, you could end up slowing your metabolism by as much as 20 percent. When your calorie intake is too low, your body reacts to the deficit by using less energy to perform all of its functions. This helps protect you during starvation, but is rather inconvenient when you're trying to lose weight. A metabolic slowdown compromises your rate of weight loss; you may not gain weight, but weight loss could stall. Avoid caloric intakes below 1,200 if you're a woman or 1,800 if you're a man.

Going on a "diet" can also raise your stress levels, showed a 2010 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine. The stress increases your production of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol induces cravings for high-calorie foods and possibly encourages your body to retain fat. These are helpful adaptations if you're facing the stress related to survival, but not so helpful when you're trying to fit into a size 6. Excessive exposure to glucocorticoids, including cortisol, causes increased fat storage in rodents; but researchers aren't sure whether this translates to humans.

Don't Miscount Your Calorie Intake

Eating salads, whole grains and fresh fruits is a step in the right direction, but doesn't necessarily mean you've cut that many calories. Too much of any food -- even healthy options -- can cause weight gain. People tend to underestimate serving sizes, especially when it comes to foods with higher calories, such as grains, oils and desserts, showed the USDA in 2010. It's easy to take in more calories than you estimate.

Use a food scale, measuring cups and measuring spoons to ensure your portion sizes are accurate. Also start a food diary to track all you eat during the day to pinpoint any snacks you're accidentally forgetting to record. For example, a couple extra tablespoons of ranch dressing on your salad, a beer with dinner and two cookies in the break room adds almost 400 calories to your day.

It Could Be Temporary Weight Gain

Even when you're cutting calories, it's possible to temporarily gain weight due to a salty meal, hormones, inflammation or constipation. A larger number on the scale can make it seem as if you've gained fat, but it's actually only a temporary retention of water or excess fluids. For example, if you weigh yourself right after eating a meal or drinking several glasses of water, the scale will reflect that -- but it doesn't mean you've gained fat. Weigh yourself just once a week and look for trends over several weeks. If, of course, the trend is consistently upward, review your eating plan and exercise strategy.

You May Be Adding Muscle

Exercise goes hand in hand with diet, as it helps you use calories and add muscle. Muscle burns more calories than fat at rest, giving your metabolism a boost. But, if you're working out with weights, you may concurrently gain muscle as you drop fat, especially if you're close to your goal weight. This changes your body composition for the better, but doesn't necessarily dramatically alter the number on the scale. You may actually put on a pound or two of muscle after several months of serious weight training.

Notice if your clothes fit differently and if you look slimmer, despite the rise in the number on the scale. These are indications that you're developing a more muscular frame. Muscle is denser, pound for pound, than fat. It takes up less space and makes you appear firm, taut and slim, regardless of what the scale says.

Even with dedicated effort, expect to gain muscle at a rate of not more than about 1/2 pound per week. Muscle gain isn't likely to show up as weight gain if you're notably overweight and consistently cutting enough calories to lose 2 pounds per week.

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