The Best Steps for Breaking a Weight Loss Plateau (A Tutorial)
In this post, I have cultivated my best tips that are tried and true for breaking any barriers to weight loss that you may have. If your weight has remained resolute and stubborn, there are 9 possibilities for you to try to break a plateau. After spending 20 years of researching the best fat loss methods out there and after losing 45 pounds with a fluctuation up and down of the last 15, I can provide clinically proven methods for you to try, one at a time to get you on the right track.
Each method explained in this post should be tried, one a time, for a week or two weeks, before trying another suggestion. This way you can determine the exact cause of your weight loss resistance. The areas that you will be exploring as potential barriers include your caloric intake, your carbohydrate intake; your alcohol intake; your sugar intake; your water intake; your food sensitivities; your sleep patterns; your stress levels; your exercise intensity, etc. You CAN do this.
I know you have seen people out there who have offered you assistance in losing weight. You’ve heard of health coaches, trainers who have tons of success in helping people break through their weight loss barriers. Perhaps, you’ve thought you wish you knew how you could get the scale to budge? Maybe you’ve seen other people who have previously struggled with their weight, finally break through and get into the best shape of their life and you’ve thought that your body would never agree to the same challenge?
You are aware that it is possible to lose weight without a trainer or an expensive gym membership but you just don’t know where to start. You may be intimidated by the process but I’m here to tell you that with the proper tools and guidance you CAN do this.
The problem is that people don’t know how to begin and feel overwhelmed with all of the information. You may feel your body is beyond repair and that you are doomed to a life of feeling overweight and out of shape. Perhaps, you have tried several diets out there and you have succeeded only to gain the weight back. Perhaps, you are already eating healthy and exercising and nothing is working.
Guys, I have struggled with all of these questions. I used to be 45 pounds heavier. I tried every diet imaginable (low carb, low calorie, high fat, vegan, IIFYM, zone, south beach, and so many more, we don’t have time to review them). I lost and gained the same 15 pounds over and over again. I hired a trainer and went to the gym 2 hours per day, 6 days a week. And while I lost some weight I still was soft, and nowhere near my ideal body composition. I have spent 20 years researching exercise physiology and nutrition trying to configure the best diet for fat loss. It wasn’t until I came across the research supporting hormone regulation and fat loss that I finally figured it out. I started reading more books on hormone regulation, neurotransmitter communication, cortisol’s effect on stress and the many contributing factors that raise cortisol (such as poor nutrition, too much exercise, toxicity, poor digestion, etc). I started using my findings in the clinical setting and started to see folks break through some frustrating plateaus. The clinical evidence spoke for itself. And years later, my weight has remained its lowest ever. There is an answer to how a plateau can be broken.
In this post, I am going to touch on some of the key steps to help you break through your weight loss plateau.
Let’s first address a plateau. This may be defined as three or more weeks that your weight has remained the same. So why won’t the scale budge? Always keep in mind, you need to monitor the physical gains more than the number on your scale. Have your measurements changed? Has your body fat percentage dropped? Are you getting stronger, more flexible and faster in your workouts? These are all indicators that you are indeed NOT plateauing. One can argue that these indicators are much more important than the number on your scale. The scale won’t tell you how much lean muscle mass you have put on. It won’t tell you if the muscle that you are building is retaining a bit of water. It won’t tell you that you ate something the night before that is causing inflammation in your body. It certainly won’t tell you about any hormone fluctuations during your monthly cycle (for you women who know what I am talking about). You have to take into consideration the big picture.
With that said, when addressing a plateau, it is necessary to ALWAYS START WITH FOOD. Weight loss is mostly attributed to diet and macronutrient intake more than fitness. So let’s start with making adjustments where it counts.
STEP #1 Reassess Your Caloric Intake!
We know that hormonal balance drive fat loss more than the old calories in calories out method; however before we try to balance your fat-burning hormones we need to take a look at your diet. Chances are your stagnation is due to something going on in the food and drink department. You are going to have to be brutally honest, here. There is no room for “but” and “can’t”! There is no room for excuses. Take a look at your caloric intake. Do you know how many calories you are consuming? If not, I suggest you use the phone app My Fitness Pal for three days and track everything you are eating. However, do NOT use My Fitness Pal to gauge how many calories you should be getting. It tends to drop folks too low. I’ve attached a guide: Calculate Your Caloric Needs as a PDF for you here to help you determine how many calories you need. Are you above your caloric goal? Overconsumption is probably the reason you are not losing weight. Do this for two weeks and check for any changes in your measurements or movement on the scale. If either measurements or weight decrease, you have found your new weight loss plateau breaker.
If on the contrary, your calories are below the suggested amount, this too, will assuredly explain your difficulty in losing weight. If your caloric intake dips too low, for too long, your metabolism will very intelligently adjust to the new low to prevent you from wasting away. Your body will very smartly hold on to every morsel of food and fat to eschew starvation. I see this all of the time: women who have been chronic dieters on low-calorie diets, exercising and unable to lose weight. In fact, they usually gain weight using this method. The solution? STOP DIETING! Give your body the fuel it needs, and it will burn the fat you want.
As an illustration, if you put a few sticks in your fireplace and lit a match, you may get a flame, but your fire will quickly burn out, and you will not heat up your home. If you slowly add large enough pieces of chopped wood and continually add to the fire when the flames start to die down, you will not only have a blazing fire, but you will heat your entire home, efficiently. Your body is no different. You must give it the fuel it needs (within reason) to create a fat burning furnace; to create a hormone shift that ignites the fat burning capability of the mitochondria in your cells.
What do you do if you have been eating too low of calories you suspect this is the cause? You’ll need to rehabilitate your hormones and slowly start to fill your fireplace up with wood and flames. You can’t throw a ton of logs in and expect the fire to get big. You’ve got to coddle it a bit at first and slowly add in one log at a time until it can burn on its own at full capacity. So, slowly add in 100 calories to your current intake, for one week. The next week add another 100 calories, the next week, etc. Each week, add in this small amount until you reach your maintenance calories. To figure this out, please see the attached pdf that describes how you can determine the proper caloric intake for your body.
Once you hit maintenance, you are going to stay there for at least two weeks. You may need to stay here a month or two to unequivocally help your body to reignite the hormones that are out of balance—and thus, preventing you from reaching your goal. If you are in a hurry, you may miss the opportunity to help your body nourish itself and rehab the damage done by over-dieting. DO NOT SKIP AHEAD OR PASS GO IF THIS IS YOU! I’m serious! Chronic dieting can stress hormone balance and keep you from reaching your goal. It took an accumulation of time to generate the damage; it will take an assemblage of time to heal. BE PATIENT! Stop trying to get in a hurry to reach your goals. You will get there. It is about the journey, remember? Enjoy the process of healing and nurturing that you are creating. Take pride in the fact that you are making it a priority to care for yourself by giving your body what it needs to thrive.
For those folks who have healthier metabolisms and a nominal history of dieting or damage, you will find that you may lose more weight when you increase calorie intake to maintenance for either two weeks before dropping back down to a healthy deficit. Conversely, you can try eating at maintenance for two to three days per week, alternating with a caloric deficit of 200-300 calories on the other days. This method keeps the body guessing and can often be enough to instigate change.
STEP #2 Reassess Your Alcohol Intake!
You’ve taken a look at your caloric intake, and you’ve made sure you are in your Goldilocks spot for caloric intake. If you are on par with this, you will need to dive deeper into your food choices. Be honest with your consumption. Are you drinking alcohol regularly? Alcohol can slow down fat loss up to 24-48 hours after imbibing. If you have been indulging a bit each week, dial it down to once per week (or none at all), if this is the case. How much sugar are you eating? How many are processed foods and restaurant dinners included in your intake? In order to get healthy, you have got to know exactly what is in your food. If it comes in a box and has more than a few ingredients listed, if you are eating out, then you are most likely getting more calories and more stress-inducing toxins than you bargain for.
STEP #3 Have you incorporated complex carbohydrates into your diet?
If so, try taking them out (other than fruit and vegetables) for a couple of weeks and see if this helps you. If you have already taken them out, try adding a ½ cup of black beans or roasted sweet potato to your dinner. Add one serving for a week. If your weight starts to shift in a favorable direction, you may deduce that this is beneficial to you. If the scale numbers remain resolute, try adding in a second serving of carbohydrate, for one week. For some people, it is helpful to keep a low to moderate carb diet, versus a more ketotic diet (using fatty acids as fuel versus glucose). However, if you choose to add carbohydrates in, make sure you do so slowly and see how you feel. Don’t just jump in with both servings of complex carbohydrates. If you have been low carb for a while, then you will need to make sure that you are paying attention to your body’s response to carb reintroduction. Are you feeling hungrier between meals? Are you experiencing more cravings? Is your energy going down after you eat them? Is your mental clarity affected? Did your digestion change for the worse? Has your sleep suffered? Has your workout performance worsened? Any of these reactions and responses are signs that adding carbohydrates back in may not be the best choice for you at this time. It doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy these foods, it just means we are going to have to explore other reasons for your plateau.
STEP #4 Are you tracking your sugar and carbohydrate intake?
If you are currently allowing yourself treats (such as chocolate, candies, desserts, etc., try taking them out for a week. Are you snacking on any foods that are not on the approved food list? Do you know how many carbohydrates and sugars you are getting each day? If not, go back to My Fitness Pal or Cronometer and track your food for three days. If you find that your sugar intake is over 30 grams, eliminate the excess. If you find that your net carbohydrate intake (subtract fiber grams from the total carbohydrate grams) is over 75 or 100 grams, then you will need to take a look at your sources of carbohydrates each day. Get all of your carbohydrates from green leafy and cruciferous vegetables, fruits that are low glycemic (berries are a safe bet), and if you’ve added complex carbs in, then black beans or sweet potato, for a while and see if this changes anything for you. Again, try this for one week and reassess your progress.
STEP # 5 Are you eating dairy and nuts?
If you have not tested for food sensitivities, I highly suggest that you find a practitioner who will help you identify any food sensitivities you may have. It may be, if you are eating dairy or nuts on a regular basis, this could be causing inflammation in your body—and thus, causing water retention. If you suspect that this could be the culprit, try cutting either dairy or nuts out of your diet, one at a time, for one week and see how you feel and if the scale budges. If so, you know that you are most likely sensitive to these foods, right now.
STEP #6 Reassess Your Fluid Intake!
If you are not consuming a minimum of half of your body weight in ounces of water per day, then you are going to find losing weight to be challenging from time to time. You cannot expect your body to rid itself of excess toxins, waste materials, and flush fat if you are not providing the cleansing action that makes it all possible. Ideally, you are drinking your full body weight in ounces per day!
STEP # 7 Reassess Your Sleep!
We know that most of your body fat burning takes place while you are asleep. If you are having difficulty falling asleep; you wake up often; you go to bed after 10; you wake up feeling groggy, then you most likely are not burning as much fat as possible. Make every effort to correct this problem—not just for your fat loss—but your overall health. If any of these issues pertain to you then ask your practitioner for a natural recommendation—or better yet, a sleep study. Ruling out sleep apnea is always a necessary method for aiding in a long-term fat loss and reducing cardiovascular risk or premature death. Additionally, you may consider testing your overnight cortisol levels to examine your sleep cycle and circadian rhythms. By doing so, you may identify if spikes in cortisol during the night are affecting your sleep. Sometimes, nourishing your adrenals with a few supplements and decreasing stress (in combination with a nightly restorative routine) is enough to set your biorhythmic patterns back on track. The combination of supplements and stress reduction provides a good place to start if testing is not in your budget.
STEP # 8 Reassess Your Stress Levels!
Oh, stress! Everyone has some of it, and most people have a lot of it. It is very common to see people with weight concerns that have had stressful events occur in their life. The stress tends to put the body in a “fight and flight” mode—or if the stress is chronic, the adrenals can become so taxed that they no longer produce adequate levels of stress chemicals. The lack of response can occur as a result of being “on high alert” for too long, and the response is weak or lacking. Whether the adrenals are on high alert or barely responding, stress is usually the culprit. Stressors come in many different packages and may be the by-product of a variety of forms and combinations of triggers. Stressful jobs or the loss of a job, stressful relationships, too much coffee, too much high-intensity exercise, change in income or control of finances, surgery, any infection, any illness (acute or chronic), chronic dieting, chronic cardio, lack of sleep, toxic exposure in the environment and our foods, etc. are all possible stress inducers. There are many contributing factors to a person’s stress level. If you suspect that stress has been an issue, then it is time to take action. To help you out, I have attached a Guide to Reducing Stress in a pdf for you, here!
STEP # 9 Reassess Your Exercise!
To look and feel great, we sometimes go for the most strenuous and challenging workouts we can find. While it is important to challenge your body on a regular basis, if you are frequently exercising with high-intensity, this can cause undue stress and subsequent hormone dysregulation. If you are doing cross fit every day, HIIT training every day, running for extended periods of time, etc. then this may be the reason your body is pushing back and resisting change. If you suspect this is the case, then dial it down. Walk, dance or do yoga in the mornings in a fasted state. Take a longer hike on the weekend or participate in a longer yoga class (90 minutes) or so. Do your HIIT training one to three times during the week, spaced out with enough rest in between these intense sessions. If you are not lifting weights already, start lifting or do a form of body-resistance training for 30 minutes two times a week. This schedule will not over-tax you and will provide the benefits you need to change your physique. You’d be surprised how profoundly you can turn the dial for fat loss in the right direction by simplifying your routine and taking it easy most days.
Conversely, if your workout routine has not been challenging enough, this too, will contribute to stagnation in your progress. Every three to four weeks, you should be changing your routine to keep your body guessing. If you are not currently practicing any intense exercise (for short durations of time), then I suggest you find a type of HIIT training, Tabata sprints, and circuit weight training to elevate your fitness level. Make sure you establish the exercise method that you enjoy and that works for your body (i.e., doesn’t cause stress, strain or injury).
STEP # 10 Reassess the Timing of Your Meals!
If you have gone through the sections above and you have either tried these options or are currently on point with your diet and exercise, then consider changing up your eating window and adopt intermittent fasting. Keep in mind; you will not be changing your caloric intake (although you may find it difficult to get all of your calories packed into a smaller amount of time or fewer meals); but rather, you are changing the timing of your eating. For example, rather than eat a breakfast lunch and dinner, try having a late lunch and an earlier dinner in a six-hour window. So, for instance, you may choose to break your caloric goal into two meals at 12 pm and 6 pm. You can vary the number of hours that you fast, and as a result, you will modify the hours of your eating window. Some days you can try an eight-hour window, other days a four-hour window. See how you feel.
It is best to pair intermittent fasting with a history of eating minute amounts of sugar, lower carbohydrate grams, and higher fat grams. For those of you who know you are in ketosis and have confirmed this regularly with a glucometer (I recommend Precision Extra) to measure ketones in your blood, then intermittent fasting will feel very natural to you as you are accustomed to burning your fat for fuel. You want your ketone levels to be between 0.5 and 5; but, 1.5 seems to be ideal according to some experts.
You can also try a 24 hour fast once a week. I like having a big dinner and waiting until the following evening to have another big meal. I drink a little coffee in the am and have tea and water throughout the day. I enjoy the cleansing and detoxifying effect this seems to have. It also helps to rid the body of inflammation that accumulates from time to time. Either way, you can experiment with this method and see how you feel and how your body responds. I must warn you that not everybody will respond favorably (and with fat loss) to intermittent fasting. Sometimes this type of stressor can increase cortisol and thus create havoc with one’s attempt to drop body fat.
ANOTHER SPECIAL TIP:
You can assess your body’s stress response rather simply with either tracking pupillary response or heart rate variability. With these two methods, you will have a decent idea (without expensive testing) to determine if your body’s response to intermittent fasting (or any change you wish to try for that matter) is causing cortisol levels to rise. While it is not "hard science", you will find the results to more accurately reflect your stress response than most critics are willing to credit them for.
To track your pupillary response, take your phone into a room without windows and stand next to the mirror with the lights off. Turn the flashlight on either from your phone or an actual flashlight. Shine the light into one eye, from the side. Your pupil should constrict and remain constricted over 30 seconds. If they dilate again before this time, you may have adrenal stress. Granted this method is not super scientific; but, it can give you a baseline for determining your body’s response to a change in your methods (such as starting a fast).
HEART RATE VARIABILITY
Tracking heart rate variability is a rather cool tool for assessing both sympathetic and parasympathetic balance in the body. I recommend that EVERYONE does this. It is possible to train your body to respond more favorably to stressors once you are aware of how your body is reacting (positively or negatively). You can also use heart rate variability to determine if your new method of intermittent fasting is an unfavorable choice for your nervous system at this time. How amazing is that? You get a direct resource in tailoring your habits to fuel fat loss and manage your stress levels! You can try any of the following phone applications: Inner Balance (from HeartMath), bioForce HRV iThlete or HRV4Training app. Keep in mind that some applications require a separate device to help you accurately assess your nervous system's response to stress; but, most will not break the bank. Heck, even some wristwatch fitness trackers have this capability.
STEP # 11 Reassess Your Macronutrients!
If you have evaluated your nutrition and your workouts and you don’t see results, then you may benefit from taking the somatotype quiz (I’ve attached the pdf for you, here) and seeing if your macronutrients need to be adjusted. Some athletic types (mesomorph) may thrive with an increase in protein and a decrease in fat. Also, mesomorphs tend to respond well to increasing their HIIT training, within reason. Thinner types (ectomorph) may find that a slight increase in carbohydrates (again, within reason) and lightening up on their cardio and increasing weight training, help them significantly. The endomorph may benefit from lower carbohydrate intake and increase weight training and long walks or yoga sessions sprinkled in with circuit training.
Now I know that you may be concerned that if your weight stops budging that you will be stuck there inevitably. Let me address that real fast. You can overcome a plateau! It will take time and some discipline on your part. Whatever you do don’t fight it. It is your body’s built-in mechanism for protection. The key is to provide a safe environment for your body to let go of its precious fat. Remember, it is about hormone balance not necessarily calories in and calories out. You can do this. While some folks may find the plateau nothing but frustrating, I can assure you that a plateau is a remarkable gift. It is the body trying to come up with every way possible to keep you from malnourishment; from falling underweight and from dying. Sounds like a good design, right? After all, you can’t just lose a half a pound every week for the rest of your life, can you? You would eventually wither away into nothing! A plateau is the body’s innate ability to sense the change and do what is necessary to adapt to the modification.
Hey, a lot of people get overwhelmed by the process of trying to break a plateau, so do me a favor. Try one of these methods for one week! That’s it. Then, come back to this page and post your comment below.
If you like these tips, would you click “like” or share this with someone you think could benefit from these plateau breakers? Help me share the message and get the word out.
Do me a favor, In the comments below, type in what you thought about this post. Tell me any comments or post a question that you may have because I’ll be personally responding to each one. I’m trying to engage you as a community because you guys are awesome. I look forward to hearing from you!
Thanks again for being here. I look forward to seeing you in the next post where I will be teaching you how to create an exercise routine for fat loss. Until then, Remember every day to supercharge your health. Satisfy your soul. And Simplify your lifestyle.