*This blog is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of the guidelines herein is at the sole choice and risk of the reader.
(I wrote this blog assuming you know how many calories you consume daily. If you don't, go here: The Best Diet For Rapid Weight Loss)
Are you stuck at a weight loss plateau?
Is it hard for you to lose more than 5-10 lbs? (Which you inevitably regain once you get sick of dieting without results.)
Stalled weight loss is incredibly frustrating, and incredibly common.
90% of dieters never get the results they want. It’s not that they’re dieting “wrong”. They just don’t know how to adjust when progress inevitably stops.
To understand why progress stalls, you need to understand what’s going on with your metabolism as you diet.
The components of metabolism can be divided into four categories:
- BMR: Basal metabolic rate. This is just the basal processes to run your body. Energy expended at rest.
- TEF: Thermic effect of food. Calories burned from digestion. Approximately 10% of daily calorie burn.
- TEE: Thermic effect of exercise. Calories burned through exercise. Approximately 5% of daily calorie burn.
- NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Calories burned through movement outside of exercise. (Fidgeting, walking around the house, etc.). Varies. Usually at least 15% of daily calorie burn.
These four components account for the calories you burn through the day.
You start a diet. You’re losing weight. Your goals actually seem achievable. Annnnnd everything stops….. What’s going on here? Have you *gasp* damaged your metabolism?
No. It’s been shown you can’t really “damage” your metabolism. (For more on the infamous Minnesota Starvation Experiment, and how it debunks metabolic damage: The Metabolic Damage Myth) What’s happening is a very natural, and normal process called metabolic adaptation.
Basically, as your body changes with dieting, your metabolism changes as well.
- Your BMR drops as you lose weight. A smaller body burns fewer calories. This also applies to TEE, a smaller person will burn fewer calories during exercise.
- TEF drops, since you’re eating less food.
- Calories burned via NEAT also drop. When dieting, you’re depriving the body of energy (calories). You’re more lethargic, resulting in less daily movement. Step goals and increasing exercise help, but a decrease in calories burned here is inevitable.
Your body is getting smaller as you diet down, and burns fewer calories as it shrinks. Thus, your metabolism slows. This is inevitable.
To look at it from another perspective, weight loss comes down to:
Calories in < calories out = weight loss*
Metabolic adaptation causes the “calories out” side of your equation to decrease. So something in the equation needs to change for progress to resume. And that’s why fat loss stalls, even when you don’t change your diet.
*Note: Hormones, stress, and lots of other factors affect the weight loss equation. But the issue for the majority of people who can’t lose weight isn’t hormonal, just failure to make the proper adjustments.
Are You Really Plateaued?
Before making any changes, make sure that you’re really at a plateau. First, you need to be measuring progress consistently.
When it comes to weight, fluctuations are normal. Your weight will be all over the place on a weekly basis, and won’t give you accurate picture of your fat loss. Don’t change anything based on a week worth of data.
For weight, the monthly trend should be downwards. This is more grounds to make adjustments. But, in some cases weight can be a pretty inaccurate measure of progress:
- If you’re already pretty lean, or don’t weigh very much
- If your main focus is body recomposition/you’re building a lot of muscle
This is why I also like clients to take body measurements: Chest, navel, hips, thighs. If your weight is stuck, and measurements aren’t changing for 2+ weeks, it’s likely time to make a change.
Finally, make sure you’re measuring food accurately.
Your Myfitnesspal diary might look like:
1 steak: 460 kcal
1 bowl of rice: 204 kcal
Total calories: 664
When it should look like:
8 oz ribeye (raw): 658 kcal
2 cups rice (cooked): 340 kcal
Total calories: 998
That’s a difference of 334 calories, for just one meal. If you’re aiming to eat 500 calories below maintenance levels, that essentially makes your fat loss efforts a wash.
Things you should be measuring:
- Fat sources. Avocados, nuts, cooking oils, etc. High fat foods are also the most calorie dense, and can easily add a sneaky couple hundred calories to your daily total.
- Meats. Again, there’s a lot of difference between “1 steak” and “4 oz of ribeye. Like, hundreds of calories difference.
- Stuff you’re eating in bowls. “One bowl of oatmeal”..“½ bowl of rice”.. “6 bowls of cereal”. You’re potentially leaving hundreds of calories unaccounted for. Whip out the measuring cups.
- Anything currently tracked as: small, medium, or large. One medium banana. One large avocado. Lots of room for error here. Weigh ‘em.
Grab a cheap food scale and some measuring cups. A bit of measuring goes a long ways towards your fat loss.
Now that you’re sure you’re at a plateau, time to adjust.
A couple options here:
#1: Decrease calories.
When weight loss inevitably stalls, the first step is usually to decrease calories by 5-10%.
Why not just drop everyone into a huge deficit?
Well, you could.
But for most, losing .5-1% of your bodyweight per week is the ideal speed of weight loss.
Psychologically. Losing more than 1% of your body weight is straight up hard mentally. You’re gonna be super hungry. You’ll feel tired, cranky, and just not all there. It negatively affects your personal and work life.
From the ultra-important adherence aspect: you’re more likely to binge/fall of the wagon entirely due to being ultra-restrictive.
Physiologically: Losing faster than 1% of bodyweight weekly is much more likely to lead to muscle loss. If you want to look great at the end of your diet, prioritize holding onto as much muscle as possible.
So when you plateau, I always recommend you lower calories just enough to get back to losing .5-1% of bodyweight per week (again, look at monthly weight loss, not weekly).
It may take a few weeks longer, but it’ll be easier to stick it out, and you’re less likely to binge/rebound after the diet ends.
How To Decrease Calories
When reducing calories, the most important factor is overall calorie intake.
But, it’s super helpful to understand the benefits of each macronutrient: Protein, carbs, and fat.
All your foods are made up of some combination (or at least one) of these “macros”.
The calories per gram varies a bit by macro:
Protein: 4 kcal/gram
Carbohydrate: 4 kcal/gram
Fat: 9 kcal/gram
Sooo which ones do I reduce?
Protein intake: Try to avoid reducing protein intake below .8-1 gram per lb of bodyweight daily. Keeping protein high is crucial because:
- Protein is essential to maintaining muscle mass as you diet.
- Protein has the highest TEF of all the macros. Eating a larger percentage of protein daily means more of the calories you eat are burned off through TEF.
- Protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients (it keeps ya full longer). The hardest thing about diets? You’re hungry. More protein helps.
Fat intake: in general, the lowest you want to take fat intake is 15% of calories. Much lower than this, and you start running the risk of EPA (Omega-3 fats) deficiencies.
Carb intake: Not really a floor here, you’ll survive just fine without carbs. However, you probably love carbs. Cutting ‘em too low will make your diet harder to adhere to. Higher carbs improve training performance.
Basically, always keep you protein higher. Carbs and fats are going to have to take a hit. Try to keep carbs as high as possible, as long as possible. But due to them being the only macro without a “floor”, they’re usually the one that takes the biggest hit.
Got it? Let’s look at a hypothetical client- Gerald.
- Weight: 200 lbs
- Calories: 2505 per day
- 200 grams protein
- 280 grams carbs
- 65 grams fat
Gerald has plateaued, and wants to drop calories by 10%.
2505 X .1 = 250 kcal
We wanna keep Gerald’s protein as is (BW X 1). Gerald enjoys a high fat diet, so we want to keep his fat a bit higher if possible.
That being said, we know Gerald’s training performance will take a hit if we drop carbs too low.
So, we’ll pull the 250 calories evenly from carbs and fat.
-14 grams fat or 126 kcal (14 x 9)
-31 grams carbs or 124 kcal (31 x 4)
For a total deduction of 250 calories.
Gerald’s new intake:
- Calories: 2255 per day
- 200 grams protein
- 249 grams carbs
- 51 grams fat
#2: Increase activity.
Your second option is to simply move more.
This is much less practical than controlling calories.
If you don’t know how many calories you’re eating, figure that out before you focus on increasing movement.
Movement can only increased so much. To prevent mental burnout, and to give your body enough time to recover enough to perform at a adequate level next week, I never prescribe more than 6 training sessions per week (cardio + resistance training sessions combined)
At first glance, pushing exercise + cardio makes sense. But going too hard here is detrimental to your fat loss.
Know what happens when you push it really hard in the gym, while also restricting food? You constantly feel run down and under-recovered. You feel lethargic, resulting in your daily movement outside of the gym decreasing. This lowers total calories burned, and you’re more or less where you started, but exercising a lot more.
So don’t overdo this one. The best approach is generally: slightly increasing activity and slightly decreasing calories when you plateau.
To implement more exercise, you have a few options.
- Add another resistance training day.
- Going from 3-4 days strength training is a good option for most. I start most new clients resistance training 3 times per week. Adding another training day is a natural part of the progression of increasing training volume. Plus, most are ready and excited to take on more. Most are willing to make this trade-off.
- The jump from 4 to 5 training days is much less realistic, as most don’t want to be in the gym 5 times a week. More than 5x/week is unrealistic for most, and leads to burnout.Add more cardio/another cardio day.
- LISS. Low intensity steady state cardio.
- Start here when adding cardio. It’s the easiest (adherence) + promotes quicker recovery.
- Increase your step goal, and focus on moving more throughout the day. For most, around the 10K mark is doable without significantly taking from your life.
- MISS. Moderate intensity steady state cardio.
- This is normally the second option, used to add a cardio day after implementing NEAT increases and more training.
- The rowing machine, stairmill, and elliptical, and bike are solid options here. They’re all relatively low stress on the body.
- Running beats up most people’s joints, and creates a lot of additional stress you have to recover from (with your already very limited recovery resources). I don’t recommend most people run for MISS.
- Start by implementing 1-2, 20-30 minutes MISS sessions per week.
- HIIT. High-intensity interval training.
- HIIT type training is much more stressful on the body, and takes more time to recover from. Limit this to 2-3 sessions per week.
- I like HIIT after resistance training sessions, when you’re already in a “stressed” state. Doing HIIT on off days creates another day where your body has to recover from a huge amount of stressful activity.
- Choose an exercise like: battle ropes, med ball slams, rowing machine, kettlebell swings, bike sprints, etc. (Choose moves without much of a “negative” or you’ll be incredibly sore.)
- 4-8 rounds: 30 seconds all out effort/60-90 seconds rest.
Again, the goal here is to do as little as possible to keep you losing .5-1% of bodyweight per week (on a monthly basis).
For a new client, we would start somewhere like:
3x/week gull body workouts
7k steps per day
With good compliance, this will get results within the parameters we want for at least 1-2 months.
When progress stalls, we discuss the trade-offs the client is willing to make. Normally, it’s a calorie drop + increased steps
3x/week full body workouts
When progress stalls again, the client is likely hungrier, and not as will to drop calories as much. But they are feeling ready to take on more work in the gym.
4x/week upper/lower workouts
8k steps per day.
This should buy us quite a bit of progress. Past this point, we’re really starting to push.
4x/week upper/lower training workouts
10k steps per day
1800 calories per day
4x/week upper/lower workouts
MISS Cardio 2 30-minute sessions/week
10k steps per day
….And so on and so forth.
If we just jumped from Stage 1 to Stage 5, the client would have been overwhelmed, and likely not have been able to stick to the plan, making them conclude that once again, they just can’t succeed at fitness. Which is the last thing we want.
Prioritizing adherence always leads to more sustainable results.