One of the biggest challenges we face when dieting, apart from dealing with hunger, cravings, and low energy, is that after a few weeks the diet usually stops working and weight loss slows down. In other words, we adapt to all the positive benefits of the diet and start accumulating all the negatives. Welcome to a fat loss plateau
That is just the bodies way of responding to the reduced energy intake. These defense mechanisms were put in place to prevent us from starving to death, and once upon a time, they served us well.
The problem is that these days high density, high-calorie, and highly palatable foods are so cheap and readily accessible in Western society that there is little chance of us starving to death. Unfortunately, the body hasn’t evolved and caught up with modern times yet, so we still have these aggressive, in-build mechanisms to defend against weight loss. This is what makes weight loss and especially weight loss maintenance so challenging for most people!
Our defense mechanisms for preventing excess weight gain are far less aggressive than those defending against weight loss. That’s why it’s much easier for most people to gain weight than lose weight.
Having said that, there are numerous strategies that we can use to prevent and overcome fat loss plateaus.
The more aggressively you cut calories at the start the faster the onset of metabolic adaptations will be and the quicker you will enter a fat loss plateau. This is especially true for leaner individuals.
Long term this makes it extremely hard to stick to a diet, which is why all these 8-week challenges or extreme 12-week transformations ultimately fail, even when people get results in the short term.
They do not enforce sustainable long-term dietary habits and individuals often blow out afterward. The blowout inevitably leads to a panic attack and out of desperation these individuals will look for another quick fix. That is how the cycle of yo-yo dieting begins!
We’ve seen this time and time again. People get stuck in this vicious cycle for years. Had they been a bit more patient in the beginning and taken their time a bit more to get lean, and put in place sustainable long-term dietary habits, they would have achieved their goal much sooner.
When you start with a modest caloric deficit the onset of metabolic adaptations is much less severe, it gives you some room to move when you plateau, and it allows you to establish long-term sustainable eating habits. If you can’t see yourself following a particular diet for the rest of your life, it is not sustainable.
When most people start an exercise program they try to do as much as they can soon as they can. However, just like reducing calories too abruptly is not desirable, the same is also true for doing too much exercise too soon.
Whether you create an energy deficit through diet or exercise, if the deficit is too severe, the onset of metabolic adaptations will be faster and more pronounced. In addition, doing too much exercise can increase the risk of overtraining, especially when you are in a caloric deficit.
Therefore, it is better to start off with less exercise in the beginning so you have more room to increase later on…
Diet breaks involve a short period of 1-2 weeks where calories are brought back to maintenance. Studies have shown that diet breaks can increase weight loss efficiency by offsetting some of the negative metabolic adaptations in response to caloric restriction (1,2).
What we mean by increased weight loss efficiency, is that you can achieve greater weight loss for the period that you are in a caloric deficit. That should not be confused with faster weight loss.
Although you might be losing more weight while you are in a deficit by implementing diet breaks, you are also spending time not being a deficit at all, which can increase the total time required to hit your goal.
If you are not time-bound, implementing diet breaks is a great strategy to give you a psychological break from dieting, reverse some of the negative metabolic adaptations, and allow you to maintain a higher caloric intake versus continuous dieting.
We typically recommend a diet break every 6-8 weeks for most people. Leaner individuals may need a diet break every 3-4 week while very overweight individuals that have a lot of weight to lose can get away with having a diet break every 12-16 weeks.
Learn more about diet breaks here
Although the research on refeeds is not as compelling as with diet breaks, we still have some research to suggest 2-3 day refeeds can work quite well for some individuals (3,4).
While diet breaks might actually reverse some of the negative metabolic adaptations to dieting, refeeds more likely just attenuate those adaptations. For example, if you normally crash after 4 weeks of dieting, by implementing refeeds, you might be able to extend the duration of your diet to 6-8 weeks before you need to take a full diet break.
One of the reasons people plateau with their weight loss is because unknowingly their spontaneous activity decreases. In other words, they move around less. This is an adaptive mechanism in response to caloric restriction or exercise to conserve energy.
Tracking your daily step count is one of the best ways to track your spontaneous activity and making sure that your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) stays up.
However, the step count is not perfect. It doesn’t account for key factors of spontaneous activity such as fidgeting. In addition, as you lose weight the same step count will no longer yield the same energy expenditure because you are carrying around less weight.
In order to compensate for this, you should consider increasing your step count every 2-4 weeks. We typically start most clients out on 8,000-10,000 steps per day and gradually bring them up over a 12-week period. Most clients will end out on around 15,000 steps per day.
If you don’t have the time to increase your steps that much, consider getting your extra steps in by adding in low intensity cardio. Generally, 10 mins of low intensity cardio equates to about 1,000 steps.
The topics covered in this article and mitigating a fat los plateau are taught in details in our online nutrition courses.