It’s bound to happen sooner or later: you hit a weight loss plateau. They’re soul-destroying, frustrating, and demotivating but you’re going to face them at some point so deal with it.
Now, I think of myself as a decent coach. Better than those mindless muppets with the collective IQ of slug smegma who claim carbohydrates are to blame for everything. And yet, I’ve never had a client who wouldn’t hit a plateau.
Plateaus are a normal part of the fat loss process, okay?
You’ll face more than one until you reach your goal. Each new plateau will likely be longer than the previous one. However, as long as you don’t plow butt-first into a Doritos-covered couch and quit, you good.
Now that you know that plateaus are normal, it’s time I blast your face off with a bunch of information on how to get over plateaus. There are only two possibilities why plateaus happen and two solutions to get over them:
Progress enemy #1: The Lack Of Adherence
This isn’t exactly mind-blowing stuff but people are notoriously bad at estimating their caloric intake. As many as gajillion studies1,2,3,4,5 have shown underreporting calorie intake as much as 50% is common6.
You might swear you’re consuming 1,500 calories per day, and you can’t figure out why you’re stuck at a plateau. I get you because there might exist people who can’t lose weight even when being in a calorie deficit.
They probably ride invisible unicorns or something. Truth is, you’re more likely to be eating 3,000 calories a day.
This is the most common reason why people hit plateaus. It’s not because their diets don’t work, genetics are rubbish or thyroids are wrecked. They’re just eating too damn much in most cases.
I don’t blame you, though. Some of my clients did this too. Unconsciously. People often fail to adhere to a diet without realizing it.
They start a dumbass crash diet of extreme unsustainability (like keto) and cut carbs to 50 grams. They’re able to stick to a diet like this for a while via white-knuckle starvation but over time, they “drift toward the middle.”
Oh-oh! And what about those dumbfuck cheat days?
You’re 100% on point with your diet for 5-6 days and then erase a week’s worth of 3,500 caloric deficit with 2,500 calorie cheat day. By the end of the week, you barely have a calorie deficit, and your body fat loss is immeasurable.
That’s all kinds of not smart.
Solution: Double-Check Your Nutritional Intake
The first thing you should do is to make sure you’re tracking everything you eat accurately. How well did you follow your diet plan last week? Have you logged in all the snacks? Drinks? Veggies? Fruits?
You should always journal your food intake so that you could double-check it when progress stalls.
Eyeballing your portions can work for people trained in calorie tracking. If it works for you and you’re losing weight, great.
But if it doesn’t work, it’s time to get your shit together and start tracking calories.
If you’re accounting for everything you’re eating, getting all your workouts in and still not losing weight, then there’s only one possibility left why you’re not progressing:
Progress enemy #2: Calorie Deficit Has Diminished
Your body wants to keep homeostasis. It’s hard-wired to preserve the status quo and it doesn’t give two shits about you wanting to look like Brangelina from the neck down.
It strives to prevent weight change, therefore, various metabolic adaptations occur that decrease your energy (calorie) expenditure:
- Decreased Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
This is the number of calories required to keep your body functioning at rest.
Soon after you start dieting, RMR goes down. This happens because of hormones like leptin, thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen changing7 in a rather negative direction. Interestingly, the size of your organs in the body decreases in the first week of dieting too8.
- Decreased Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA)
Before you hit a weight loss plateau, you usually lose some weight. When you lose weight your muscles become as much as 20% more energy efficient9.
Simply put, you burn fewer calories for any given amount of activity than you would before a diet. Compared to calories you used to burn your body now thinks you’re farting around in the gym.
- Decreased Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
NEAT is the energy expended for everything you do that’s not sleeping or sports-like exercise. Think walking to work, typing, performing yard work, and fidgeting.
NEAT goes down as you get into a calorie deficit. People simply get fatigued while dieting. They move around less, choose to park themselves on the couch, and kill brain cells with TV rather than go for a walk.
The problem is that decreased NEAT can make a measurable impact on your progress. Studies show reductions in NEAT ranging from 100-500 calories per day10.
Once you lose some weight and these adaptations (among a few others) occur, what started as the 500-calorie deficit has now diminished or closed up completely.
As Alan Aragon once said:
People mistakenly consider these adaptations to be some sort of failure. On the contrary, this is merely a “landing” on the way down the non- linear staircase of weight loss. Weight loss plateaus are supposed to happen, and when the weight loss goal is large enough, plateaus are unavoidable.
Luckily, metabolic adaptations and, thus, plateaus are easy to overcome.
Solution: Re-establish The Caloric Deficit
If you double-checked your nutrition compliance and it’s spot-on, then you have lost your caloric deficit due to metabolic adaptations I just mentioned.
The solution is simple: re-establish the caloric deficit. You have three options to do that:
- Decrease energy intake via diet
- Increase energy expenditure via physical activity
- Combination of both
Which one should you choose? It’ll vary widely within individuals.
How much room do you have for increasing training duration or intensity? If you already train 5 times per week with ass-busting intensity, then adding more probably would turn you into one massive bag of aches. You might be better off cutting calories from your diet.
How much room is there for cutting calories from a diet? If you’re someone who consumes 1,300 calories per day, then reducing food intake even further might make you see your dead grandpa beckoning you toward the light. Unsustainable.
Once you decide which way to go, a small adjustment will get your weight moving again. But how small? Gee, I thought you would never ask.
Through working with so many clients I found that all you really need is to decrease calorie intake by 50-150 calories per day. Trust me, you don’t need to make more aggressive cuts.
This is why I harp on the importance of tracking food intake in my 8 Week Nutrition Education Program. If you don’t know how much you’re eating, how are you going to make these adjustments? Huh?
Once you make adjustments, be sure that you give them at least a week to work. Don’t do stupid things with your diet if your weight doesn’t change the next morning.
Lastly, I want to emphasize how important starting a diet with a caloric intake as high as possible while still seeing weight loss is.
You should never start dieting on, say, 1,200 calories. What’s your plan when a plateau slaps you in a face? You have no room for these 50-150 calorie adjustments.
Starting a diet with a caloric intake as high as possible gives you room to make further adjustments if or when additional plateaus occur along the way.
If you ignore my advice, I’ll find and kidney-punch you.
True weight loss plateau is defined as 4 or more weeks being “stuck” with unchanged bodyweight. Don’t confuse it with “false plateau” that can happen because of:
1. Menstrual cycle for women
2. The lack of sleep
3. Illness/injury causing inflammation
4. Excessive stress
Hyperfocus on fixing these before you make any adjustments.
Weight loss plateaus are almost never caused by some magical physiological anomaly. If you stopped losing weight, you’re no longer in a calorie deficit.
The only question you need to ask yourself is: “what happened to my calorie deficit?”
If you don’t know the answer, hire me to coach you through this mind-numbing torture, what you say?
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