Why healthy eating doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss

I eat fairly healthily.

I try and ‘eat clean’.

I follow the 80/20 rule.

And yet, I can’t seem to lose any weight.

I bet the above sounds familiar. We all know somebody whose body never changes despite their claims of watching their diet and eating ‘healthily’. Heck, you may have even found yourself uttering one of the statements above; I certainly have 😉

In my experience as a personal trainer and healthy living coach, it often comes down to semantics (and of course, implementation…).

One person’s definition of ‘healthy eating’ isn’t the same as another’s. I have healthy (and unhealthy) weight friends who are Paleo. Some who eat low-carb. And others who’ve adopted the ‘Mediterranean’ diet.

The 80/20 rule can be interpreted in so many ways (80% of calories from ‘healthy’ foods, making ‘healthy’ choices 80% of the time, 80% of each meal coming from lean protein and veggies…) as to be almost useless as a guideline to eating for ‘health’, much less fat loss.

And don’t even get me started on ‘clean eating’. While it used to be a useful phrase (back in the day when it was primarily used by people who read and adopted the principals of Clean Eating Magazine), the word ‘clean’ is now fraught with judgement (“if my food’s not ‘clean’, does that mean it’s ‘dirty’?”) and widely applied to anything that’s not processed, regardless of how it’s raised or farmed.

In my opinion, many of us grab onto these terms and use them to identify our nutritional strategy because it makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing. Even if we never force ourselves to specifically define the approach or adhere to it on a daily basis.

Below are five reasons I commonly see ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’ eaters stall in their weight loss attempts. Feel free to add your own in the comments section at the bottom of the post.

5 Reasons Why Healthy Eating Doesn’t Necessarily Lead to Weight Loss
  • Too much of a good thing; Just because you fill your plate with lean protein, minimally dressed veggies and heart-healthy fats doesn’t mean you’ll lose weight. Weight loss depends on energy balance; if you consume more calories than your body expends in a day, you’ll gain weight. Regardless of whether those calories come from a grilled chicken breast or a piece of chocolate cake. Sure avocado and flax seed and coconut oil are all ‘healthy fats’, but add them all to your daily protein smoothie and you’re likely to end up with a super-sized meal rather than a post-workout snack. If you’ve truly managed to eliminate processed food and added sugar from your diet, take a good hard look at your daily caloric intake as compared to your daily metabolic rate (the number of calories your body burns in 24 hours). The easiest way to do this? MyFitnessPal. Food tracking may be a bore, but it’s always insightful and a great place to start if you truly want to understand why you’re not losing weight.
  • The devil is in the preparation; What types of methods do you use to prepare your meals? Steaming? Frying? Grilling? Marinading? Do you add dressings and sauces during the cooking process or at the table? It’s all too easy to forget about the tablespoon of oil you sautéed the veggies in. Or the half a can of coconut milk you added to the brown rice. Or the bottled salad dressing you used to coat the romaine lettuce with. Just because these ingredients don’t seem like ‘food’, doesn’t mean they don’t add calories to your meal. Make sure you’re including these extras when you track your food. You may find that they add up to a few hundred calories a day; the calories that make all the difference between losing a 1/2 a pound a week and maintaining your weight.
healthy eating doesn't necessarily lead to weight loss

All I had for lunch was a salad….

  • Out-of-whack macros; Our bodies require three types of macronutrients to function; carbohydrates, protein and fat. According to government nutritionist guidelines, a ‘healthy’ diet will have 45-65% of the day’s calories coming from carbs (preferably complex, like veggies and grains), 10-35% from protein (the leaner the better) and 20-35% from fat (unsaturated are better than saturated and trans are to be avoided altogether). Many midlife women find that aiming for the lower end of the carb range and upping their protein intake accordingly can jump-start a weight loss plateau. Again you’ll need to track what you’re eating now in order to decide how to proceed. And then pay attention and re-evaluate depending on how your body responds to the changes.
  • ‘Treats’*** are no longer treats; I’m all for including occasional ‘treats’ or indulgences in your meal plan. The operative word being ‘plan’. If you know that you’ll be going out for dinner on Saturday night and are likely to join in a glass of wine or a piece of dessert (I always choose one over the other; that’s why you’ll find me looking at the dessert menu before the waiter comes to take our drink order…), plan the rest of your day accordingly. Maybe you eat more veggies for lunch. Or pass up on the afternoon cookie-with-tea. The thing about ‘treats’ is, once they become a mainstay of your diet, they’re no longer ‘treats’. I’ve found that those who self-identify as 80/20-eaters often grossly underestimate their ‘treat’ intake.
healthy eating doesn't necessarily lead to weight loss

Definitely a ‘beer over dessert’ night out…

*** I know that some of you don’t like the word ‘treat’. Or ‘indulgence’. Or ‘cheat’. But whatever you call it, we all know that we’re talking about the same thing; foods that shouldn’t be part of our daily nutrition plan because they don’t meet our health and fitness goals. The end.***

  • You’re easily swayed by product labels; When I asked the members of my Facebook page for their definitions of ‘healthy’ eating, nearly every single response included reference to reducing one’s reliance on packaged and processed foods. Even the ones whose labels include the words ‘healthy’, ‘low-fat’, ‘no added sugar’ and ‘whole grain’. Especially the ones whose labels include the words ‘healthy’, ‘low-fat’, ‘no added sugar’ and ‘whole grain’. Almost all the respondents emphasized the importance of eating foods that still resembled the way they’re found in nature. Food companies are in the business of selling food. They understand that consumers care about their health. They’ve found ways to package and market their products to make them appear more health-giving than they actually are. Cereal and yogurt companies are particularly clever in this regard. Pay attention to the ingredient lists and the nutrition information, not the large font superlatives on the packaging.

Do you follow any of the nutrition approaches mentioned above? Clean eater? Healthy eating? 80/20 advocate? 

Has your approach helped you lose weight (or maintain significant weight loss)?

If so, why? If not, why not?








  1. Valerie Schucht says:

    Great post. I agree with everything except I disagree when you say treats shouldn’t be eaten daily. I think a healthy diet can definitely include a treat every day. And I don’t think that having one treat per day thereby renders the treat no longer a treat. Just my opinion (and it does work fine for my n=1 sample group). as long as the daily treat isn’t a humungous slab of cake or super-sized ice cream sundae… what I am talking about is just a little something to look forward to at then end of the meal. a couple of cookies (often healthy, but sometimes not), a little bit if chocolate, a homemade bar, a small serving of ice cream….

    • Valerie, thanks so much for your comment. And I actually agree with you. I’m laughing a bit because I knew that no matter how I defined “treat”, the word is still very open to interpretation. I think about it as something that we know won’t support our goals if we eat it every day. Which of course depends on serving size as well as frequency!

  2. Very good post! I think these reasons are true for so many people. Also I feel like with only the eating component, the results are so gradual people give up too soon. Without adding exercise change is difficult to see.
    Michelle recently posted…Weekend Race Recap + Trust Your TrainingMy Profile

  3. Great post Tamara. Completely agree. Diet is so personal. I love redefining ‘treat’ It is something I am working on. A treat after dinner could be so really sweet watermelon. If I eat refined sugar, it kicks off my sugar addiction and sends me in a spiral.

    I have also been to overeat which is never good even if it is whole foods
    Stephanie Robbins recently posted…Back to School Affiliate Program – CheggMy Profile

  4. All of this is so true. I get really annoyed at diets that say “eat this to lose weight” – only if you don’t eat other things, and that’s the hard part.
    Coco recently posted…The High Price Of Running In PhillyMy Profile

  5. I SO SO clearly recall when I started on my healthy path being shocked that too much of a GOOD thing backfired.
    all I thought was —->but it was a good thing!!!
    It took me a while to learn even good things arent great when we have too much.
    CARLA recently posted…12 hours of YES!My Profile

  6. My answer is “It depends.” I like all of those methods. I like none of those methods. Depends on how they’re implemented. I also talk to myself because I’m a very cognitive thinker. I ask myself, “Does this help or prevent me from reaching my goals?” I am a firm believer in moderation.
    AlexandraFunFit recently posted…Summer Heat, Exercise and Staying HydratedMy Profile

    • Yes! Implementation is key. But also, people have a tendency to use their proclaimed way of eating as a shield against what they’re really doing….
      Even moderation is a tough one to prescribe because it means so many things to so many different people!

  7. Katie Hill says:

    Tamara, thanks as always for the encouragement! Your posts seem to come at the perfect time…like when I am struggling with doubt.

    My own personal way to maintain my weight has been to increase my protein somewhat and decrease the carbs. It takes time but eventually the results always come. I find that my day is one of making constant choices. However, these micro-decisions have become so second nature that they really aren’t cumbersome. In fact, I have felt more freed up because there is a sense of control…I’m not at the whim of a carb craving. For example, if I know there’s a dessert I would really enjoy having, I simply take in fewer calories at some point during that same day, opting to cut a carb, rather than a protein.

    The exercise component for me is ensuring that I’m feeding my muscles…the more lean tissue, the more calorie burning at rest that is going on, so if I am in a snack mood, I usually opt for a protein source (lean or not) rather than a carb because my muscle growth is a tangible reminder of either good or bad choices.

    • Katie, must be ESP 😉
      I’m so glad my posts help. I love your approach. I’m a huge believer in taking all the decision-making out of things. Once those decisions become regular habits, we don’t have to waste mental energy (or willpower!).
      Sounds like you’ve figured out what works for you. 🙂

  8. Bill Edwards says:

    It’s the first time I’m reading your posts, and I’m impressed. Of course, the devil is in the preparation, and it’s that thing which we utterly miss. And, besides, often the fitness instructors don’t shed light on this aspect. Probably, that’s why, we often struggle with the weight loss goals.

  9. Seems to me that the bloggers who write about how hard it is to lose weight through healthy eating and exercise (or that you even gain weight!) are always the ones who still advocate for the government’s very outdated (and industry-influenced) guidelines telling us to get most of our calories from carbs. And who are OK with sugary foods like dessert being considered as treats or rewards… (to me, that is fostering an unhealthy relationship with food – food is for nutrition, not reward).
    Our society’s carb addiction, and especially sugar addiction, is costing us so much, and it is going to cost us so much more as the current adult generation (who are mostly overweight or obese) ages. I worry about how our already over-extended healthcare systems are going to handle it.
    I’ve never been overweight. I definitely had a sweet tooth though, but I gradually cut sugar out of my diet, over a period of years – I barely even eat fruit now. (It takes a while, but you DO actually lose the taste for it! No more cravings – in fact, the idea of what normal people consider “dessert” now, like cheesecake or pretty much any cake, just grosses me out – I would feel sick!).
    Two years ago, I decided to try the lower-carb diet. Nothing extreme, but just having way less bread, rice, potatoes and pasta than I used to, and slightly more protein (meat, fish) and lots more healthy oils (mainly avocado, nuts, olives). I have always eaten lots of vegetables. The foods that I replaced the carbs with are so rich and filling that I was never hungry – I never counted calories or restricted quantites, just changed the balance of what was on my plate. I effortlessly went from 137 lbs to 122 lbs, which means I am now exactly in the middle of the recommended weight range for my height. (I wasn’t overweight to begin with, just on the high end of my healthy range – I’d bet that for people who are overweight, the weight loss would be much more dramatic).
    Healthy eating and exercise WILL make you lose weight if you are overweight. BUT CARBS ARE NOT HEALTHY – at least not in the quantities that most North Americans eat them. Those government guidelines still tell us that cereal and whole-grain bread and pasta and brown rice etc. are healthy foods… but they are not. But the grain industry (among others) has far too great an influence on what the government recommends. Get your info from scientists and medical researchers who are NOT backed by industry!

    • Jackie, thanks so much for your comment. Believe it or not, I agree with you completely. And you’ve touched on one of my pet peeves about the ‘Guide’. I regularly recommend down-grading the number of servings of grains and bread products for my midlife female clients. We know that it doesn’t serve their nutritional needs or hormonal profiles at this point.

      I do regularly read the science and nutrition literature, but you may not realize that personal trainers are required to work within a fairly narrow scope of practice when it comes to giving nutritional advice. And alas, the Food Guide is the basis for that scope (at least in Canada). One of the reasons I’m working towards getting some additional certs in nutrition! 🙂

      • Thanks for your reply Tamara. Hmm, that makes sense of a lot of things to me, what you say about personal trainers being required to make recommendations within that narrow scope of advice. I hope you get the qualifications you need to be able to work outside of the box!
        I’m sure you’ve heard of Dr. Robert Lustig already… if you’re not already following him on Twitter, you should – @RobertLustigMD. He’s completely against the corporate buyout of how science gets messaged to the public, and he is always tweeting links to new (real) scientific studies about health and diet.

  10. The biggest problem for me has been the macros as well as eating too little.
    Julie recently posted…Live Bloggin’ at FitBloggin’: “Nice Job Maintaining This Week!” Why Being as After is SO HardMy Profile

    • Julie, I hear you. I find that having set breakfasts, lunches and dinners that I rotate through really helps with this. I don’t worry about being bang-on, just in the ball park. And I’m mindful of that ‘time of the month’ when carbs tend to inch up 😉

  11. amazing post and great tips you have included. I think the phrase clean eating doesn’t necassarily mean that food is dirty but I can understand why you would say this, but I think when people are eating pizzas, burgers, chips or chocolate all the bad stuff they feel like their body isn’t clean. This is how I see this phrase being used. Eating healthy in moderation could possibly lead to weight loss but I can see where you are coming from with point 1. Even though you have healthy food on your plate, piles of it won’t help with weight loss especially if you are piling chicken onto your plate. I am 100% agreeing with you and would recommend MyFitnessPal to those who want to lose weight by healthy eating because you can track your intake of calories. Many people do forget about the oil they use to cook their food with and dressings. I know I sometimes do and its amazing to see how many calories are in such small drizzle of a dressing. I like to grill/oven my food and steam veg. Its much more healthier than frying isn’t it?

  12. I HATE DIETS!!!!!!!! Ohmygosh I hate them so bad. 1. It seems like MOST of them completely eliminate a whole food group altogether; 2. SOME of them focus on the calories/fat/etc, but then it doesn’t matter WHAT the food is…Ex. Weight Watchers. Have we all done this? K. Might work. But is ANYONE paying attention to the INGREDIENTS in all of the WW products?!?! Good lawd.
    I don’t associate with any of it. I think it’s a lifestyle of balance. And by balance, I don’t mean that if I am wanting some chips, I just go out and buy Doritos. No. I will buy a HEALTHIER version of chips. Kettle, pop chips, Garden of Eatin’…I want chocolate? I haven’t bought a reese cup in YEARS. But I’ve definitly eaten a few over the past few years. In the form of Justin’s, or Newman’s Own, or Unreal. Dairy free ice cream? Heck. Ya.
    And yes, I have been known to overeat on the healthy stuff as well. (Current problem I am dealing with.) But I KNOW this. I’m just being lazy right now b/c i’m, well, lazy. And marathon training. haha. But I know that when I get off track, I go back to fitness pal app. In one day of tracking, I can see the problem!
    And call me a meanie, call me whatever, but I am kinda tired of the whole “accept and love your body at whatever size you are” thing. I’m sorry, but I kinda feel like, it really doesn’t matter how “healthy” you are eating, if you are at an obese weight, you aren’t TOO healthy….b/c extra weight causes health issues, right??? I mean, you don’t need to be 115 pounds and a size 4 to be healthy, but c’mon. Am I being a jerk?
    K i’m done. Because I could go on and on about this subject.


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