You know what’s more maddening than being stuck in an uphill battle? Being stranded in a plateau with nowhere to go. At least when we’re crawling uphill there’s a definitive (although steep and difficult) path. When it comes to fat loss (or any fitness endeavor), being stuck in a plateau can leave us feeling incredibly frustrated and helpless. It seems like no matter what we do, the scale won’t budge.
I’ve been there before, and recently I was reminded of that disheartening situation. I was coaching a fat loss group as a favor for my old boss, and the topic of plateaus came up. Some of the things I heard were:
“I’m eating well and exercising a lot but I’m still stuck.”
“I don’t know what else to do. I feel really disappointed.”
It sucks to feel like you’re putting so much effort into one area and not getting any payoff.
I was in the same boat when I failed to lose the last 5-10 lbs after my initial 15 lb loss. I tried for 3 months to drop the last few pounds but couldn’t get past a certain point.
So what was the deal? What’s going on when our fat loss stalls despite our best efforts? Well, there are two levels.
Level one: Excess calories are sneaking in.
In my case, I was eating too much. Period. Most days I was on point, but I would go way overboard with my cheat meals. And I was having 2-3 really calorically-dense meals a week when I probably should have only been having 1.
(Note: To me, a cheat meal is any meal that puts you over your caloric/macro range for the day. I don’t consider having a piece of chocolate or bacon or a small serving of ice cream a cheat so long as it keeps me in the macro/calorie range I’m aiming for. #iifym)
To be honest, this will be the case with most of the people who are at a plateau. Now, sometimes coaches will recommend eating more when a client is at a plateau because they’re in “starvation mode”–and there is some validity to that, but before jumping the gun and ramping up calories, we should take an objective look at our consumption to see if it is too low or too high. To do this, we should:
Start weighing and tracking food.
To get an objective look at our consumption, we need to measure what we’re eating. There is some resistance to tracking in the fitness space because it can be deemed obsessive, but it’s not something that’s meant to be done forever. It’s simply a diagnostic tool. The bottom line is that if we’re at a plateau that means something needs to change. And we can’t assess what needs to be changed without a detailed record of our habits. It could very well be that the few bites of little snacks here and there put us well over our daily limit. If after tracking we see that we’re consistently over on our calories, we should cut back to the upper end of our deficit. Meaning, if your deficit range is 1300-1500 calories, start by staying in the 1500 range and see if it helps your progress.
Add cardio or intensity
Let’s say you are eating slightly over your deficit and aren’t thrilled about having to cut your calories down. That’s totally understandable. In the case that we don’t want to reduce calories, we should add a cardio session or make our lifting more intense to compensate for the additional calories. That could look like adding 30 minutes of running to your schedule or cutting down the amount of time you rest between sets when you lift. (If you do that, you will most likely have to lower the weight).
Use a pedometer
Admittedly I’m a pedometer freak. They’re a great way to assess your overall activity level. Sometimes when we’re in a caloric deficit, our body subconsciously moves less. This adaptation could be a factor in a person’s plateau. Wearing a pedometer gives us feedback on how much we’re moving so we can take that extra lap around the block if need be. Aim to get 8,000-10,000 steps a day.
Adjust your mindset.
This one was huge and I definitely want to talk more about it soon. I was the biggest victim when I was stuck in my plateau.
Why is this happening to ME?! If anyone else did what I did they would have lost the weight already. I’m just BROKEN!
It was especially bad when I would smell the fried chicken my boyfriend was having for dinner while I picked at my spaghetti squash lol. It’s very easy for us to feel pity for ourselves when we’re not only stuck, but have to watch everyone else eat whatever they want. It’s important to not feed into this train of thought. Not only does it leave us feeling bitter and frustrated, but it lets us justify eating things we might not have if we were in a different frame of mind.
Instead of lingering in negative thoughts, acknowledge them, do your best to let them pass and remove the emotional significance. That might look something like:
Damn, that pizza smells good. I’m so tired of eating this way. This sucks…
And it’s okay that I feel like it sucks. IT WILL PASS. It’s not the end of the world or even a big deal. I’m on a mission and just having a tough moment. Tomorrow I’ll see that my resolve was worth it.
I know in some weird way it feels good to hold on to our resentment (because like I said, it makes us feel justified that this IS hard and poor us), but it only eats away at us and leaves us in a less than optimal mindset.
If you want to take it a step further, practice being grateful for the food you have and own that you made the choice to eat this for a greater purpose.
Level two: Metabolic adaptation
Remember what I said about starvation mode? A more accurate term for that is adaptive thermogenesis. And that’s your metabolism adapting to less calories by burning less calories through a series of different processes.
So if you have meticulously tracked your intake and are on target, yet the weight won’t drop, then this is where you may need to start eating more or take a break from the diet.
How do you know if you’re at this level? If your weight has been stalled for longer than a month, you feel hungry and low energy all the time and you’re not thinking as clearly, then chances are you need more calories.
That doesn’t mean you should throw your hands up and devour everything in sight. Take a more calculated approach by:
This is where you increase your carbs for one day a week. You should keep your protein level the same and drop the fats by 25-30% of what you normally consume. (So if you normally eat 50g of fat you would drop to about 35g). You should eat at maintenance or slightly above. This will help to boost leptin, the hormone responsible for regulating satiety, food intake and energy expenditure.
Eat at or slightly above maintenance for one to two weeks.
This gives your body and mind a chance to recover from being in diet mode. Once you feel your energy levels returning to normal you can resume your diet.
Do carb cycling.
This is a more advanced technique that usually involves low, medium and high carb days. You save the high carb days (usually 2 or 3 days a week) for your most intense workouts and do low carb on your rest days when you’re not as active.
If your weight psyches you out, don’t step on the scale during this period because you will go up a few pounds in water weight. Continue to do moderate exercise–no killing yourself because you’re eating more calories. How long it takes for your metabolism to rebound varies from person to person, but these little diet breaks should be enough to get your furnace burning again.
If you’re stuck at a plateau, hopefully you found these tips helpful. It just takes a little troubleshooting to get to the bottom of the issue. For more fitness, nutrition and especially mindset tips, please sign up for my newsletter using the form on this page 🙂