So, you’ve embarked on a fat loss phase.
Perhaps you’re looking to get ‘beach ready’ for a summer holiday. Maybe you just want to look and feel a bit healthier.
Whatever your goal, you’ll have probably realised that fat loss is anything but linear.
Some weeks you’ll lose 2lbs or more, others the scale doesn’t move.
At some point though, you’re likely to hit a plateau.
What constitutes a plateau will be dependent on your goals and your progress thus far.
For someone who is already in good shape and only looking to drop 1lb or less a week, not seeing the scale move for 10-14 days would constitute a plateau.
For someone who is overweight and looking to lose 2-3lbs+ a week, 7 days without any progress could probably be classed as a plateau.
At this point, people typically go one of three ways:
- They continue sticking to the plan – it’s worked so far, why change?
- They make dramatic cuts in caloric intake.
- They lose motivation and fall off the plan.
In most scenarios, none of these will work long term.
But why does fat loss stall and more importantly, how do you continue to progress when it happens?
1. Start tracking calories (more accurately)
If you’re not tracking calories at this stage, then now might be a good time to start.
Tracking calories allows you to make more educated decisions on how to move forward with your fat loss phase.
For many, physically tracking everything they eat will be enough to kickstart their progress once again.
Psychologically they’ll be less likely to snack on that chocolate bar or accept the piece of cake they’ve been offered at work if they know they have to track it.
I use an app called MyFitnessPal to track calories. It’s very easy to use and even has a barcode scanner that allows you to simply scan your food in and log it in your diary.
If you’re already following a plan that involves tracking your calories or macronutrients, ask yourself; am I being as accurate as I could be?
Are you weighing or eyeballing your ingredients or portions? As humans, we’re not that great at eyeballing our calories, so try weighing everything for a week to see if this restarts your fat loss progress.
2. Reduce net caloric intake
If you’ve been sticking to the same number of calories or the same meal plan for some time, it may be time to turn the screws.
In short, all that’s really happened is that the calories you were losing fat on have now become your maintenance calories.
There are several reasons this has happened. Fundamentally though, you’re now lighter and therefore you require less energy (calories) to complete your daily tasks.
There are two things you can do in this scenario – reduce your caloric intake or increase your caloric expenditure.
A reduction in calories (from carbohydrates and fats) of 100-200 is often enough to kickstart fat loss once again.
Alternatively, adding in a few hundred calories of cardio can often have the same effect.
3. Take a refeed
When we put our bodies in a calorically restricted state for an extended period of time, we often experience what is known as metabolic adaptation.
See, our bodies always want to stay in homeostasis and it will adapt and down-regulate metabolic activity to remain that way.
This will often stem from changes in hormonal activity.
One hormone that’s particularly impactful in fat loss is leptin. This is responsible for several things, but namely sending hunger signals to the brain. This often results in increases in hunger and reductions in satiety.
Caloric restriction may also cause an increase in cortisol – the stress hormone. This, paired with increase in hunger often cause those in a caloric deficit to experience negative changes in mood and loss of motivation.
One method that can help to temporarily normalise these hormonal levels is a refeed.
A refeed day is a day in which you increase daily caloric intake. In the majority of scenarios, taking your calories back up to maintenance will do the trick.
A refeed can also give you a psychological break from the caloric deficit. This may in-turn increase motivation and long-term adherence to the fat loss plan.
To get the most out of a refeed, the majority of the additional calories should come from carbohydrates.
Following a refeed, you can expect to see a temporary increase in scale weight. However, a few days later you should hopefully see some new low weigh-ins.
4. Increase your calories or take a diet break
A small percentage of the time, you may in fact need to increase your calories to breakthrough a plateau.
This is often the case with those who have been too aggressive with their caloric deficit or those who have been dieting for an extended period of time.
Another physiological response to a caloric deficit is the down-regulation of our NEAT levels.
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise-Activity-Thermogenisis, or in simple terms energy that is expended but not through exercise.
This can be anything from the typing at our desk to walking to work or simply fidgeting/moving around.
In an effort to spare energy, our bodies will deliberately reduce our NEAT.
As a result, your maintenance calories will drop and you’ll therefore have a harder time shifting fat.
This is where an increase in calories can be beneficial. By eating more calories, you may find that your NEAT increases.
You may also find that you’re able to increase the intensity of your cardio our weight training sessions, which will likely increase overall daily caloric expenditure.
Another benefit of eating more calories is an increase in thermic effect of food (TEF).
See, for every calorie you consume, your body will use a percentage of it to breakdown and digest it. – this is TEF.
By eating more, your thermic effect of food will increase, which, paired with the increased NEAT may be enough to break through a fat loss plateau.
A diet break is essentially a period at around caloric maintenance usually between 5 and 14 days. Taking diet breaks every 6-10 weeks is recommended when in an extended fat loss phase.
5. Transition into a reverse diet
If you’ve been adhering to a caloric deficit for a significant amount of time and have tried several of the aforementioned strategies to breakthrough a plateau without success, it may be time to transition into a reverse diet.
Whilst this is unlikely to break-through the plateau short-term, it will provide several long-term benefits.
It can help to reverse the negative hormonal changes that you’ve experienced. It can also help to undo some of the metabolic adaptation that happened during the fat loss phase.
A reverse diet is essentially a controlled increase in calories back to maintenance levels or into a surplus.
By incrementally increasing calories you mitigate the risk of excessive fat gain.
Spending some time at maintenance will give your body a chance to grow. Adding muscle to your frame will help to increase energy expenditure as muscle is more metabolically demanding.
This may make future fat loss phases more efficient, especially if you have a leaner starting point.
This isn’t a strategy that I’d go to if you’ve been dieting for less than 16 weeks.
However, if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels despite grinding on low calories and high energy expenditure, it may be time t transition into a reverse diet.
Thanks to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our bodies are extremely adaptive. Whilst this means we’re pretty good at surviving, it’s not ideal when you’re looking to lose fat!
Fat loss plateaus are part of the journey where fat loss is concerned. Whilst it’s important not to panic when it does happen, you do not to accept it and address it.
Hopefully the five tips outlined in this article will help you to get through these plateaus and get you closer to your fat loss goals.
Let me know what you think in the comments section below.