Picture this: You’re on a diet and the last few weeks have been a breeze; you’re crushing it – the weight has been coming down, you’re looking leaner, and feeling great.
“This fat loss thing is easy”, you think.
But, then it happens. You wake up one day, step on the scale, and the numbers on haven’t moved since your last weigh in. You chalk it up to a ‘bad day’ and leave it at that. But the same thing happens at your next weigh in. And the next.
“What’s going on?”, you ask yourself.
Well, see, you’ve just experienced a weight loss plateau. Don’t worry, thought because we’re here to help you out.
What are Weight Loss Stalls?
The human body has evolved to keep you alive. When you start a diet and begin losing weight, your body sees this as you starving and tries to do everything to stop that from happening. There are a few key hormones that play a role in body weight (and body fat) regulation, and knowing about these hormones will help you understand why plateaus occur and how you can remedy them.
Leptin is a hormone produced in your fat cells that regulates metabolic rate, appetite, and a few other things such as your mood and libido.
Often referred to as the ‘master’ hormone – leptin has control over a few other hormones that regulate body weight. Leptin levels correlate with total fat mass and total caloric intake: the higher your body fat – the higher your leptin levels and the lower your bodyfat the lower your leptin levels.
As you begin to get leaner your leptin levels begin to drop, bringing with it increased hunger and decreased metabolic rate. The result? Dieting becomes harder.
T3 is a hormone that ‘governs’ your metabolism. The longer you diet and the leaner you get, leptin levels drop and so does T3. Leading to a slowed metabolism. Hence why the leaner you begin to get the harder it becomes to continue getting leaner.
We’re pretty confident you’ve heard of cortisol, aka. ‘The Stress Hormone’. While cortisol has gotten a bad rap, it isn’t the hormone itself that’s bad – rather, It’s the dose that makes the poison. If cortisol levels remain chronically elevated – like during extensive dieting – it can have an impede on your weight loss. During a diet, cortisol levels increase and if you don’t manage this increase, it can make fat loss harder.
We know you’re probably a bit deflated by this point, but don’t worry. As smart as the body is, there are ways to overcome plateaus.
Let’s get into that.
Have You Actually Plateaued?
A lot of the time when people think they’ve plateaued: they haven’t. If it’s only been a week – you haven’t plateaued. If your weight hasn’t budged for more than a week or two – then there’s something wrong. Here’s what you should do.
Weigh yourself daily. In the morning under similar conditions: upon waking, after using the bathroom, and before eating breakfast.
This will give you a pretty accurate gauge of your weight. Once you’ve done this for a week check the weekly trend. Day to day fluctuations are normal and expected. There are a host of things that can affect body weight from one day to the next – lack of sleep, timing of your last meal, stress at work, etc.
Once you’ve been weighing yourself daily for a week, check the ‘weekly average’ (add up all your weigh ins and divide by 7). Have you lost weight this week compared to last week? Weighing yourself daily and checking the trend over the week will give you a much better idea of whether you are losing weight or not.
While the scale will give you an idea of what direction your weight is heading, it’s not always 100% accurate. There are times when your weight may be trending upwards but you’re looking leaner. Or, your weight may be going down on the scale but you’re looking ‘softer’.
Take measurements of your chest, arms, waist and quads. Taking measurements will give you a better idea of what’s going on with your body composition.
1. Do You Know How Much You’re Eating?
You may have started off by consciously reducing how much you eat (reducing portion sizes for example), which is great, but eventually you will get to a point where you will need to ‘re-adjust’ food intake. As you begin to get leaner your calorie requirements will also become lower. So if you’re now at 12% bf but you are eating the amount of calories you were when you started at 15%, you’re consuming more calories than you need.
Track your food intake for the week via a calorie counting app like MyFitnessPal and then make a 5-10% reduction in the calories you’ve recorded.
For example: Let’s assume you track your food intake for a week and find you’re consuming 2400 calories. To kick start weight loss again you’ll reduce calorie intake by 5-10% which means a reduction in calories anywhere from 120 – 240 kcals a day.
2. Are You Cheating?
No, this isn’t a cleverly titled heading where we encourage you to have cheat days.
Most people have this misinformed belief that having one day where they consume a bucketload of food will ‘spike’ their ‘slowed’ metabolism and increase fat loss.
This is nonsense.
For the most part, a cheat day will set you back: it’s not uncommon for people to consume a week’s worth of their deficit in a single day, rendering all their dieting effort during the week a waste.
Instead of cheat days, try cheat meals: one meal on top of your normal calorie intake. Use this day to enjoy foods you’ve been wanting to eat during the week or to enjoy a meal out with friends or family.
3. Take A Break
Let’s face it, dieting sucks. You’re eating less and energy decreases. But it’s a necessary evil. The longer you diet, certain hormones begin to dip, such as leptin, the thyroid hormones, and testosterone.
While a one day ‘refeed’ or ‘cheat meal’ won’t do much for resetting these downregulated hormones, one thing will: the diet break.
The diet break is an intentional and planned 1-2 week period where you take a break from dieting to help you *recover*, both mentally and physically.
Do this : Bring your calories back up to ‘maintenance’ and hold there for a week or two to allow your hormones to come back to baseline.
The diet break will also allow you to recover some of the performance and strength losses that can occur from extended periods of eating in a deficit. You may even continue to lose weight as you transition to maintenance due to reductions in the stress hormone cortisol and drop in water retention that often mask fat loss.
How Often Should You Take A Diet Break?
This depends on two things :
1.How lean you are
2.How you feel
The leaner you start (or become, during the dieting period) the more often you can take a diet break. if you’re around 10-15% bodyfat take a diet break every 6 weeks, any higher and once every other month seems to be the sweet spot.
Just remember the above are guidelines. If you are higher than 10-15% bodyfat and you feel that the diet is beginning to drag and your energy and mood are suffering, take a diet break until everything is back to normal.
4. Increase N.E.A.T
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and is a nerdy way of describing every activity that isn’t ‘exercise’. Things like walking to your car, doing housework, gardening etc are all examples of NEAT.
As the diet goes on, your body will try to conserve energy by making you move less. This means the number of calories you’re expending will also decrease.
Solve this by making a conscious effort to move more. A few examples: Interspersing sitting with standing, parking a bit further away when going to the shops, taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Another simple, yet great way to bump up your NEAT is walking. Buy a pedometer, or use an app on your phone to track how many steps you do in a day. Aim for 5000-10,000 steps every day. While this may seem frivolous, these small activities can add up to an extra 200-300 (sometimes more) calories burned, which is more than enough to kick start fat loss again.
Don’t throw all of these into your protocol at once.
The first thing we suggest you do, if you feel you’ve plateaued, is to simply track your food intake for a week or two and make the recommended adjustments to your intake as mentioned in the article.
From there you can use the other tips at different intervals when you hit another plateau. If done correctly, you should only stall once or twice during a diet.