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Why You're Not Losing Fat: 3 Strategies to Overcome a Fat Loss Plateau

nutritionTheo Brenner-RoachComment

There must only be half a dozen steps from where I stand to where I want to go.

So why does it feel like a million?

Am I nervous, scared, excited…I can’t decide.

So why is my adrenaline pumping?

I do this every day yet recently it’s been feeling different in a way that I can’t quite decipher.

Is it the end of something or is it the beginning?

A million things run through my head as I take the first of only a handful of steps.

Thoughts are racing around my brain at a million miles an hour, merging and fragmenting as they collide with one another, over and over again.

It’s difficult to concentrate.

I begin to realise, that as I take the next step that, whether I like it or not there is a lot riding on this moment.

Unable to decide if I’m tempering my expectations, being thorough or just finding excuses, I try to organise my thoughts into something that makes sense.

I feel like today will be a turning point, a line in the sand that for better or for worse that will change things in a way that I might not recover from.

This is make or break.

Inching forwards I finally reach the scales and step on.

Looking down I see that, yet again my weight has not changed.

It’s been like this for nearly 3 weeks now and like any rationale human being I’ve been ignoring it and hoping it will fix itself.

Clear my strategy isn’t working.

I make a note and step off the scales.

Feeling frustrated I think I’m doing everything right. I’m eating well and training hard but the scales just won’t budge.

I’m beginning to feel cheated, shorted changed and lied to.

Doubt sets in.

Before I throw the plan, the scales and everything else out the window and declare myself unable to lose fat, I decide to do some research and try to find a solution to my problem.

I open up google and type…

Why am I not losing fat?

I read for a while and learn that I’ve hit a fat loss plateau and this is when your weight loss has stalled and remains unchanged for 2 weeks or more.

I also learn that the reason it’s 2 weeks or more is because when losing weight, you’re actually losing a combination of muscle, fat and water.

So seeing no difference over the period of a week could just mean you’ve lost some fat but retained a little extra water and it’s only when it remains unchanged for a longer period that you should take action.

I remind myself that whenever dieting to lose weight the aim should be to minimise muscle loss, maximise fat loss and keep hydration levels normal.

I then read on to learn that after dieting to lose fat for a while its’s inevitable that you reach a fat loss plateau and it’s complete normal, in fact it means you’re doing things right.

Glad I’ve found an answer to my problem, I’m about to begin reading the how to overcome any fat loss plateau when I notice something that reads…

How do I know if my progress has truly stalled?

This catches my eye and I decide to read it first.

I read that the primary indicator is that your weight remains unchanged for 2 weeks or more, as above.

But that there are also a variety of factors that can influence your scale weight that you need to be aware of when tracking how much you weigh.

Any of these factors can mess with the readings on your scale leading to you false conclusions about your weight. You must first address each of these factors before acting on a fat loss plateau.

Are you tracking your calories properly?

Do you actual know how much you’re eating every day? If not then it’s very likely you are inadvertently eating closer to your maintenance which would also cause your weight to remain constant.

Take a week to closely log everything you eat and drink and make sure you’re not taking in any extra calories above your daily target.

Are you as active as you think you are?

 If you calculated your fat loss calorie goal based on your activity levels and those activity levels have since changed then chances are you’re eating more calories than you need to effectively lose fat.

Are you mistaking slow progress for no progress?

When you first start working out progress will come thick and fast, particularly if you’ve got a lot of weight to lose, in which case you may lose 3 lbs a week to begin with.

However, as your body adjusts things will ultimately slow down, even eventually dropping to 0.5 lb a week for advanced trainers who are sub 10% body fat.

The point is things will naturally slow down but just because they have slowed it does not mean you’re not making progress anymore.

Are you eating too little?

Just as eating too much can raise your daily calories to maintenance level, resulting in your weight stabilising or even bring you into a calorie surplus causing you to gain weight.

Eating too little can also cause your weight loss to stall as your body becomes more and more reluctant to burn its energy stores as you continue to under feed it.

Having answered all these questions, I know you should be on track and have truly hit a fat loss plateau. I decide it’s time to use one of the following 3 strategies to smash through my fat loss plateau and continue my journey down to single digit body fat.

3 Strategies to Kickstart Fat Loss Again

Just before reading the strategies I remember something interesting that I read before.

It said how it’s usually at this point people make the same predictable mistakes of increasing their cardio and/or lowering their calories in an attempt to reignite fat loss.

I also remember that this is not a good idea!

In fact, it only serves to make your problems worse by screwing with your metabolism and your hormones, ruining your sleep, your mood and your sex drive as well as demolishing any hard-earned muscle too.

The bottom line: Although fat loss can be aggressive it needs to be so without being to the detriment of your muscle mass and overall health.

Finally, I’m onto the strategies as I scroll down and continue reading.

Strategy 1 – Diet Break

A diet break is exactly as it sounds, it’s a 1 – 2-week break from your fat loss diet where you eat at maintenance calories.

This helps you in 3 main ways:

  1. It gives you some mental reprieve
  2. It restores your leptin levels
  3. It has the added bonus of making your muscles look fuller

Firstly, when you’ve been eating in a calorie deficit for a while (4 – 8 weeks) it can be tough just to keep going, your energy levels go down, you motivation wanes and you find yourself getting hangrier and hangrier (hungry & angry).

By taking a 1 or 2 week break you give yourself the headspace to quite frankly recharge and start giving a shit again.

Secondly, this break gives your body a chance to raises its Leptin levels. Leptin is the hormone responsible for regulating energy expenditure and food intake. Basically, it works to let you know when you’re full based on your available energy so you don’t overeat.

You can think of Leptin as an appetite suppressor. (1)

As you lose body fat the amount of Leptin reduces which is why you get hungrier and find it more difficult to regulate your hunger as you lose more fat.

Taking a diet break will allow you Leptin levels to rise again so you can go back to eating in a calorie deficit and losing weight again without feeling ravenous all the time.

Thirdly, increasing your calories to maintenance level is enough to gain the benefits you need but not so high that you’ll gain any weight. In addition, with the increase in carbohydrate you muscle glycogen stores will refill and when they do they will draw in water giving you a fuller, leaner look.

Calculating maintenance calories

Bodyweight in lbs x 12 = maintenance calories

Setting macronutrient ratios

  • Protein = 0.8 – 1g per lb of bodyweight
  • Fat = 25 – 30% of daily calorie goal
  • Carbohydrate = remainder of daily calorie goal

After the 2-week break you will be primed and ready to go back to eating in a calorie deficit and continue losing fat. You can cycle between lower periods of a 6 – 8 weeks combined with 2 week breaks until you reach your desired weight. 

Strategy 2 – Refeed Days

A refeed is commonly described as a planned increase in calories used when dieting to negate some of the downsides of eating in a calorie deficit. Namely;

  • Decreased leptin levels (and an increase in hunger)
  • Reduced resting metabolic rate
  • Reduced activity levels
  • A worse mood
  • Lower motivation

Refeeds do this by boosting leptin levels.

The first step is to determine how often you should refeed.

If you are pretty lean (10%) or have been eating at a deficit for a long time then you are more likely to be suffering from metabolic adaptation. (2)

Also, referred to as adaptive thermogenesis, (3) this is the decrease in energy expenditure primarily as a result of a decrease in activity levels as a result of eating in a calorie deficit. (4)

If this describes you then start with one refeed day a week.

If, however you’re above 10% body fat or in the early stages of your fat loss diet then start with a refeed once every 2 weeks and adjust from there depending on your response.

To set yourself up for the refeed you want to raise your calories to maintenance level and then set up your macronutrients as follows:

  • Protein = 0.8 – 1g per lb of bodyweight
  • Fats = as low as possible (20-30g is what’s largely recommended)
  • Carbs = everything else goes to carbs

It’s as simple as that.

Keep your protein constant, fats low, carbohydrates high and refeed your way to leanness.

Strategy 3 – Re-calculate your calories

Re-calculating your calorie goal is a very simple process but it is often overlooked.

As you lose fat your bodyweight obviously decreases which means your caloric needs change. This becomes more and more pronounced the more weight you lose particularly if you were starting from a high weight.

If you’ve addressed all of the factors that can influence your weight, have tried one or both (at separate times of course) of the strategies above and you’re still stuck, then maybe it’s time to re-calculate your daily calorie needs.

To do this use the following equation:

Take your new bodyweight in lbs x 12 = new fat loss calories

To get your new bodyweight I recommend you weigh yourself daily in the same conditions and take a weekly average.

Whilst implementing this new calorie goal you can also take the time to ensure no hidden calories are sneaking in and that you’re hitting your macronutrients goals as closely as possible.

Do this and you’ll soon see your weight loss start up again.

Wrapping Up

I shut my web browser and step away from the computer feeling re-inspired and raring to go.

Finally, I understand what is happening and how to fix it.

Feeling better about the whole situation I cast off the negativity of my experience with the scale and start making plans to put one of the strategies into action and figure out which one works best with my lifestyle.

*Fast forward 5 weeks*

Coming out of what turned out to be a much need diet break I’m feeling amazing.

It’s been three weeks since I went back to eating in a calorie deficit and my weight loss has been consistent again, losing 1 – 2 lbs a week like clockwork.

I’ve also just introduced refeeds into my eating pattern to see how they work for me.

Things are looking good again as I continue to progress closer and closer to my goal.