So you're stuck in a weight loss plateau. If you diet to lose weight you're bound to hit a plateau at some point in time. It's what you do once you hit a plateau that will make all the difference between whether or not you break through and continue losing fat.
The first thing you should do once you hit a plateau is to stop dieting. Don't make the mistake that a lot of people make by restricting calories even further. Cutting more calories sounds like it would make logical sense but this strategy is very counter-productive. Let me explain...
I'm going to discuss what happens in your body hormonally to cause a weight loss plateau then provide you with a solution for how to get out of it. When you diet by restricting calories a lot of hormonal shifts occur that work to down-regulate your metabolism. I'm going to cover the basics and try not to get too complicated. The first hormonal shift involves Leptin levels.
Leptin is a hormone released from fat cells which tell the brain essentially two things; how much body fat you have, and how much you're eating. Leptin basically tells your brain what's going on with your fat and energy stores.
Leptin is very important for among many things as it serves to inhibit fat storage, promotes glycogen storage in the muscle, and increases fat burning in the muscle. The problem is when you diet, Leptin levels plummet. This is followed by a series of hormonal reactions that cause your appetite to increase and your metabolic rate to crash.
During a diet, Leptin levels drop much faster than you lose body fat. After just seven days of dieting your Leptin levels may be down by 50% from normal. With the decrease in your metabolic rate you in essence turn the "fat storage" switches on while turning off the "fat burning" switches. Your body will shuttle energy into fat cells instead of into muscle cells.
So here's what happens...you start dieting by cutting calories and you lose weight. That's pretty obvious and there's no secret here. But as you continue to diet, Leptin levels decrease and your metabolism slows down. Fat storage takes precedent and hence you hit the dreaded weight loss plateau.
Ghrelin is a hormone that serves as a secondary player in all this. When you diet, Leptin levels go down but Ghrelin levels go up. This is what causes your appetite and hunger to increase while you're dieting. There's a whole series of connections here with various nuerochemicals in your brain triggering hunger but I won't bore you with the details.
Just know that it's next to impossible to fight the biology of your body by using "will-power" to lose weight with dieting. You have built in "self-preservation" mechanisms that work to protect you from starvation.
Ghrelin also works to stimulate insulin secretion from the pancreas thus increasing fat storage.
I know what you're probably thinking..."Ok, great now we have yet another reason why diets fail. Not only does Leptin levels plummet when you diet causing your metabolism to crash but your Ghrelin levels increase at the same time making you hungry all the time."
Stay with me, there's a solution to this whole mess. On a side note...Individuals who are obese have been found to have surprisingly low Ghrelin levels which you'd think would be the opposite. You'd suspect to find chronically high Ghrelin levels which would cause them to overeat. But this just isn't the case. This is just another reason why you can't simply blame obese people for their weight problem due to a lack of will-power.
This is a big misconception and people who are quick to make this claim simply don't fully understand how the hormonal systems function. Don't let me get on my soapbox with this subject. I could go on all day about the ignorance most people have with what causes obesity.
I suspect that what causes obese individuals to overeat has something to do with Leptin resistance. In this case, Leptin hormone levels are normal but the cell receptors shut down. This is much the same as insulin resistance and the two are probably connected.
I assume genetics play a large role in all of this but there are steps everyone can take to improve their hormonal balances. Exercise is an obvious factor with burst training for lean muscle development taking a high priority. Also a diet that is naturally low in carbohydrates (eating fruits and vegetables for carbs while eliminating starches and grains) with moderate to high protein and omega-3 fats being the best for overweight individuals.
Alright back to what you should do to break the weight loss plateau. So now I've given you more than you probably wanted to know about Leptin and Ghrelin but at least you have an understanding of what happens when you restrict calories.
Here's the good news...if Leptin levels drop when you diet, the converse is also true when you bump calories back up again. When you do what I call a "re-feed" your Leptin levels will increase along with your metabolic rate.
There I said it! I know it took a while for me to give you the answer but that's it. If you want to break a weight loss plateau you have to eat more.
I know this probably would've sounded crazy if I told you this in the beginning of the article that's why I wanted to explain the reasoning first. Trust me on this one it will work. If you find yourself stuck in a weight loss plateau simply increase your calories for 4-5 days to reset your metabolism. Continue to eat clean using supportive nutrition principals, but just increase your calories by about 20%.
Look to increase your carbohydrate consumption at this time because it will have the biggest impact. Don't be afraid to throw in some starches like sweet potatoes, rice, and legumes.
The whole idea is to create resurgence in your hormone levels thus raising your metabolism again to stimulate fat loss. Don't worry about the extra calories making you gain weight. Your body will replenish depleted glycogen stores in the muscle cells and liver plus you won't be able to store fat fast enough due to the spike in your hormone levels raising your metabolism.
Due yourself a favor and don't get on the scale when you start doing a re-feed. As you increase carbohydrate consumption your body will naturally store water weight. One gram of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) binds 4 grams of water. Your body will be replenishing lost glycogen stores to the cells and be adding water right along with it. The water weight gain is only temporary so wait a week after doing this to get on the scale.
Here are some other clues that your metabolism has crashed due to falling Leptin levels with dieting. You'll probably experience one or more of the following along with your weight loss plateau.
- decreased energy levels, feeling sluggish and tired (even with 7-8 hours of sleep)
- decreased body temperature
- decreased sex drive
- increased sugar cravings
These are all common indicators that you're metabolic rate has fallen and you switched over to a "fat storage" mode. Once you bump the calories back up again you'll likely experience the exact opposite with more energy, higher body temperature, and an increased sex drive.
A simple yet effective diet strategy is to diet for 4 weeks on and 2 weeks off to re-set your hormone levels and metabolism. You can also experiment with some intermittent fasting followed by re-feeds to avoid a plateau.
The simplest and easiest thing to do is just stop dieting once you hit a plateau and re-feed for 4-5 days by increasing your calorie content by approximately 20%. Remember to eat more carbs at this time to help bump up your hormone levels.
Alright there you have it. Hopefully that gives you a better understanding of how to get out of a weight loss plateau and on to further fat loss.