This article is specifically dedicated to those whose goals are either to lose weight, lose fat or both. For those of you whose goals are to maintain their weight or build muscle, feel free to move on to the next articles. This article addresses weight loss plateaus, how they occur and how to break through them.
For the rest of you who are at the right place, welcome back! You should now have an action plan. You have calculated your daily caloric requirements, created your ideal caloric deficit based on your preferred rate of weight loss and whether you want to maximize fat loss and retain muscle mass or just want to lose weight.
So, what are weight loss plateaus?
If you have been dieting for a while, you may have noticed that you are not making as much progress as when you first started dieting. This is perfectly normal and fortunately, there are ways to work around that. However, a weight loss plateau is when your progress completely stalls!
Let’s say you have been losing weight/fat for 5 weeks at a rate of 1.5-2 pounds per week. Awesome! Suddenly, the numbers on the scale are not moving down any further. You assume its normal fluctuation the first week and decide to keep at it for 2 more weeks. 3 weeks later and your weight is still exactly the same. What the heck happened? You, my friend, have run into a weight loss plateau.
Why and how do weight loss plateaus occur?
The reason why you stopped losing weight could be because of either a new caloric requirement or other physiological reasons. In essence, it’s all about physiology. The human body has several innate survival mechanisms that it uses to fight back against the caloric deficit you have been imposing on it, prevent you from starving and keep you alive, which is a good thing, obviously. There are many defense mechanisms that your body uses, however, I will not go into extreme detail of each one because you probably don’t care and it will require too much explanation. If you want to learn a bit more about those mechanisms, you can simply look them up on Google scholar. But, worry not, I will still tell you how to work your way around those mechanisms as well.
#1) Decrease in metabolic rate
This is the first and most often used mechanism by the body to conserve as much energy as it possibly can. Remember how you calculated your daily caloric requirements based on a few factors? Well, when you continue to deprive your body from the energy it needs for a long period of time, your body fights back by slowing down your metabolism a bit so it can conserve more energy. Still confused? Let’s see an example.
Your originally estimated daily caloric requirement = 2500 calories / day.
You create a caloric deficit of 500 calories per day so that you lose one pound per week.
You are now eating 2000 calories per day to lose 1 pound of fat per week.
You diet for some time; your metabolism slows down and you stop losing fat.
Your new daily caloric requirement decreases by a number of calories (cannot be predicted unless you go through trial and error) = 2000 calories per day!
Thus, your calories in = calories out = 2000 calories!
The human body is pretty smart, ha? That’s exactly what happens when your progress stalls and metabolism slows down.
How does the body decrease metabolic rate?
Simple, your body starts dedicating less energy to bodily functions that are not essential to your survival. In more extreme scenarios, the body completely shuts down some functions to conserve that energy. Some examples of those bodily functions are, but not limited to:
- Sex drive – If you are in danger of dying from starvation, why the heck would your body waste energy on giving you morning wood? Thus, your body dedicates less energy to sex drive. That’s why dieters often experience decreases sex drive. This is especially true for leaner individuals.
- Hormonal production – Instead of wasting energy on making more testosterone, estrogen, DHT…etc. your body will prefer to save that energy for later use. That’s why dieters often experience decreases in optimal hormonal functions. This is also more true for leaner individuals. The leaner you get and you continue to diet, the more your hormones will be off balance. This is not an optimal time for mating, your body thinks!
- Energy levels – Dieters always experience less energy when dieting. The longer they diet, the more lethargic they feel. That’s your body’s way of conserving energy, don’t worry.
Okay, so my metabolism apparently slowed down to save me, what the heck do I do now?
There are two ways to go about fixing this:
- Decrease your calories even further.
- Increase your caloric intake temporarily.
If you want to continue losing weight and not waste any time, simply reduce your caloric intake by 250 calories at a time and track your progress. You will most likely start seeing the scale move again.
NOTE: This is not always ideal because your body will once again decrease your metabolic rate even further to conserve energy. This can cause a myriad of issues such as: sub-optimal hormonal levels, sub-optimal thyroid function, less libido…etc. Look up dieting and temporary metabolic damage if you are interested in reading more about this subject. Note; there is no such thing as a permanent metabolic damage!
Or, you can take the second route: increase your caloric intake.
But, wait, wouldn’t that be counterproductive and make me gain weight?
Maybe, but the weight you gain -if any- will be insignificant and might actually result in some lean mass (separate article). But here is how you should increase your calories:
Simple increase your caloric intake by 250-500 calories for 1 week to put yourself in a caloric surplus. This will trick your body into thinking that you are finally starting to get more food again. As a result, your metabolic rate will increase once again and you will feel much better due to your body giving back energy to its rightful owners (bodily functions). You will perform and feel better. After 1 week of being in that caloric surplus, you simply create a caloric deficit once again! So, you decrease your calories once again by 250-500 calories and track your progress. The scale will definitely start moving again.
I personally prefer this method because it’s healthier and more conservative. This also known as refeeds. Another way refeeds can be incorporated into a diet is by simply being in a caloric deficit for 5-6 days a week and then eating a caloric surplus for the remainder of the week (1-2 days). You can do this every week if you would like. This will prevent your body from slowing down metabolic rate (at least not as fast as with traditional caloric deficits), make you feel good, keep you sane since you will be eating a lot of food and will thus keep you more committed and consistent to your diet and training program.
Also, keep in mind that since you weigh less now than you originally did, your daily caloric requirements will decrease accordingly. For instance, if you weighed 200 pounds at the start of your weight loss journey, then you lost 20 pounds, now you weigh 180 pounds! Thus, your maintenance calories have now decreases since you weigh less. Thus, a lower number of calories are needed by your body to maintain itself.
#2) Ghrelin and Leptin
I briefly explained what Ghrelin and Leptin hormones are and what they do in the satiety index article. But, how do those two critical hormones affect metabolic rate and weight loss?
Leptin is known as the satiety hormone. Majority of leptin is produced by white adipose cells (fat cells) and it’s your body’s way to tell the brain that you are satiated and have energy to indulge in energy demanding functions. For instance, if you are starving, your leptin levels will be out of balance and the brain will sense that you haven’t been taking in as much as energy as you should. Thus, it makes sense for your body to not waste stored energy on energy demanding functions such as hormonal optimization, sex drive…etc. the main goal now is to survive! So, leptin tells your brain that you are full and should stop eating since you are consuming an adequate amount of energy (energy requirements have been met).
Leptin is also proportionally related to body fat percentage. The more fat (energy) you carry, the more leptin you have in your system. This tells your brain that you have more than enough energy to keep you alive. However, producing too much leptin can be problematic since your body can build up tolerance to it, or in other words, you become leptin resistant! Leptin resistance then causes improper communication with the brain. That’s why obese individual who are leptin resistant often suffer from improper hunger inhibiting signals. Leptin resistance occurs due to release of too much leptin by fat cells, which then try to bind to receptors. However, since leptin comes knocking on the receptors’ doors so often, the receptors learn to “ignore” leptin and leave it knocking on the door. This can make someone feel hungry when they’re not. In plain English, obese individuals have tons of energy stored and won’t die of starvation anytime soon, but due to their leptin resistance, they often indulge in huge meals since the body’s way of sensing fullness and hunger is off balance. Fortunately, leptin sensitivity can be reset, don’t worry. This happens with proper dieting, learning what the feeling of “hunger” really is, getting your body fat levels down and learning how to eat real food as opposed to junk food.
In addition to inhibiting hunger and sensing fullness, leptin also has an effect on your metabolic rate and has a relationship with your thyroid. If your leptin levels are sub-optimal, your metabolic rate will be sub-optimal. So, you get a double whammy of metabolic inefficiency.
That’s also why lean individuals usually only eat when they’re truly hungry as opposed to perceiving that they’re hungry. They usually don’t eat that much either. In others words, lean individuals have better metabolic rates and are more sensitive to leptin.
How can we restore our leptin sensitivity?
- Do NOT diet like an idiot! Losing too much weight too fast will throw your leptin levels off balance and it won’t be long till your body slows down your metabolic rate and forces you to feel hungrier than usual, which will be counterproductive to losing weight/fat. That’s one of the main reasons I recommended not to aim to lose just “weight” and to not diet too fast. However, obese individuals will be good for some time. If you are leaner, be careful and diet a bit slower.
- Work on losing “fat”. One of the main reasons you should aim to lose just fat and to retain lean body mass is that the more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolic rate will be! So, you end up losing fat faster. Also, the less fat you have, the less leptin your fat cells produce. Thus, your receptors “crave” leptin since it’s not acting like an annoying neighbor.
- Throughout your weight/fat loss endeavor, feel free to increase your caloric intake every once in a while. Now, if you have been eating a caloric deficit of 1000 calories for the past 8 weeks or so, maybe you should eat at a slight caloric surplus for a few days. By a slight caloric surplus I mean something like 250 calories above your daily caloric requirements. Why 250 calories? Because by that time your metabolic rate will have slowed down a bit anyway, and your maintenance calories will have decreased by a bit (we can’t know by how much). You also weigh less now, so your maintenance calories have decreased. Thus, the 250 calories surplus will in fact be closer to 350-500 calories.
- This caloric surplus you eat for a few days will help your body sense that it’s finally getting enough energy once again, thus it’ll prime itself to work normally once again, optimize hormones, improve leptin sensitivity…etc. Your body will also appreciate those extra calories and put them to good use. Don’t worry.
- Another way to go about maintaining optimal leptin and other hormone functions is to include refeed days in your program. I already explained refeed days above.
- Eliminate junk/processed foods as much as possible and focus on eating real quality foods. Junk food has been proven to activate the reward center that are also activated when we experience pleasure. This then disrupts hunger/fullness signals in other parts of the brain. In plain English, junk food can cause a false perception of hunger, which indicates sub-optimal function of leptin. Real food doesn’t have that effect. Eat “clean”, people.
It’s also worth mentioning that you improve your leptin levels and sensitivity, your mood and emotional state will improve as well as your sleep quality. Which then results in better diet adherence and faster fat loss and muscle gain.
Leptin is also related to inflammation. Obese individuals tend to have higher levels of inflammation. Thus, it’s a good idea to consume omega-3/omega-6. You’re better spending your money on fatty fish as opposed to fish oil supplements.
Moving on from leptin, let’s discuss its twin brother, ghrelin!
Ghrelin acts the complete opposite of leptin. We said that leptin is the satiety hormone and that it inhibits hunger by sending a signal to your brain that you are full. However, ghrelin is responsible for controlling appetite. Ghrelin is what initiates hunger. It is what tells your brain that you need to start eating. Ghrelin is a peptide hormone produced in the stomach that manages your appetite. Thus, it increases before a meal and decreases right after you eat. Since leptin and ghrelin counteract each other’s effects, individuals whose leptin levels are off balance will also suffer from sub-optimal functioning of ghrelin. Like I mentioned above in leptins’ explanation, obese individuals who are leptin resistant will suffer from improper communication between many hormones and the brain, which results in the brain losing ability to sense hunger and fullness properly. Thus, those individuals will feel hungry when they’re not, although they just eat or might be meeting their daily caloric requirements just fine. Ghrelin sub-optimal functioning will induce those individuals’ appetite and have them eat more than they should. And since their brains cannot sense fullness properly, thanks to leptin resistance, they will eat more than their bodies really need. As you can tell, this is counterproductive when trying to lose weight.
How do we manage optimal levels of ghrelin?
In addition to following the same steps listed under leptin, do the following:
- Instead of having 1 HUGE meal, have smaller meals. For instance, instead of eating a 1500-calorie meal, break that down into 2-3 smaller meals of 500-750 calories and distribute them evenly throughout the day. This will promote satiety and will help your body and brain restore “factory settings”.
- I cannot emphasize this enough, eat REAL food. I think you should know why by now.
- Drink a lot of water and zero-calorie beverages to promote satiety.
- Eat a lot of fiber to promote satiety and optimize your digestive system.
By now, you should be able to understand why and how weight loss plateaus occur and how to intelligently work your way around them. Just follow the guidelines above and you will be making progress consistently and breaking through plateaus like a horse.
PS: at the beginning of your weight/fat loss journey, you will feel hungry more often, which is normal since your body’s satiety and hunger hormones are out of balance. Good news is that after a while of eating properly, your hormones will be primed for optimal function once again. Stay strong, suck it up and stay consistent. After a while, your body will learn when to eat and when to stop.
For those of you whose goals are to just lose weight or fat, you’re done! Feel free to jump to the protein, supplements or any other chapter. If you are interested in learning how to eat for optimal muscle growth or body recomposition, check out the next few articles in this “calories'” chapter.
Singh, M. (2014 , Sep 1). Mood, food, and obesity. Retrieved from Frontiers in PSychology: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4150387/
Wikipedia. (2016). Ghrelin. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghrelin
Wikipedia. (2016). Leptin. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leptin