Top 10 Reasons You’re at a Fat Loss Plateau
Friday, May 12, 2017
LifeTime WeightLoss in Fat Loss, Samantha McKinney, metabolism

When embarking on a mission to get healthy and lose body fat, there are challenges you’re bound to encounter: happy hour temptations, arriving at the club to realize that your workout shoes are still at home, and the increase in dishwashing duties when switching to healthier, home-cooked meals. But none of these compare to the frustration of the dreaded fat-loss plateau. Here’s how it usually goes: you’re trucking along, feeling good about losing weight and gaining muscle. Then out of nowhere, no scale movement or even (gasp!) weight gain. What in the world is going on?

Before allowing yourself to spiral, pause. It can be hard to accept, but it’s true: weight loss is rarely linear. A little weight gain is part of the process. It’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” Fat loss isn’t a simple math problem, and getting healthier and losing weight is a journey full of ups, downs, grit and celebration. But not to fear, there could be several reasons for this fat-loss plateau. Let’s dig in.

1. You’re not journaling.

Ask any dietitian what their clients say when asked for a 24-hour food recall, and nine times out of 10 the answer is, “Yesterday wasn’t a typical day.” Without self-accountability, intention rarely aligns with action to the degree that we think it does. It’s not something to feel ashamed about — it’s part of being human. Our brain filters out what it considers unnecessary memories and retains what’s deemed important, and this applies to nutrition choices. Without journaling, we may proudly talk about the lunch we packed from home in meticulous detail (4.5 ounces of balsamic chicken, 2 cups of lettuce, half a sliced cucumber and 2 Tbsp. homemade dressing). However, we are genuinely forgetting the handful of M&Ms and latte we grabbed when rushing to an afternoon meeting a few days ago. Yes, journaling can be tedious. However, the most important time to do it is when you’re stuck.

2. You’re only using one metric to track success.

If your entire perception of progress hinges solely on the number on the scale, then it can feel like your day (or week) is ruined if it doesn’t go your way. The truth is, our bodies are dynamic and incredibly complex. Each program should include several markers to track and trend over time. As an example, imagine you had a killer workout the day before a weigh-in. Your body is recovering, gaining control over blood sugar fluctuations and building strength and muscle so you can burn more calories in the long run, which may also create a temporary increase in weight as you hop on the scale. When you focus all your hopes on the number on the scale, you may not notice you’ve lost a half inch around your waistline. Instead of looking at the weight number for what it is — a single data point within the context of an entire program — you may decide to say, “Forget it.” And set yourself back by gorging on donut holes and a sugary coffee drink for breakfast. When looking from this perspective, it seems silly, doesn’t it? Make sure you take a 360-degree view of your progress to get the full story. In addition to weight, also track body fat percentage, lean body mass gain, circumference measurements, subjective symptom questionnaires (that assess energy levels, sleep quality and mood), objective lab testing data, benchmark workouts and photos. This combination of metrics will provide more accurate data and a holistic view to determine if you’ve really plateaued or are actually moving in the right direction.

3. You think weekends don’t count.

Ever feel like you’re on point during the work week so you reward yourself Friday with a few cocktails and maybe a dinner out. Then before you know it, Monday rolls around again. Weekends (and any time you’re away from a routine) can throw a wrench into your newfound flow of habits and contribute to a backslide. While following a solid plan five days out of seven seems like an approach that should get you to your goals, weekends account for almost 30% of your time. Yikes! That’s no small number, and until you reign in the weekend celebrations (a Friday does come every single week, after all), you may not see the progress you’re hoping to achieve.

4. You’re (stubbornly) doing it on your own.

“I know what to do, but I just don’t do it.” If that phrase strikes a chord, then a great question to ask yourself is, “How long have I not been doing it?” It obviously won’t lead to progress if you know what to do, but you’re not actually doing what it takes to make a change. Working with a coach is a sign of wisdom, not weakness. Amazing trainers hire trainers. Keen nutrition coaches hire nutrition coaches. Asking for support from a credentialed professional who can provide the structure to support and guide your unique goals and challenges is often the turning point to achieving success.

5. Your workout isn’t burning fat.

There are also many people out there working hard on their nutrition and exercise goals, and still not seeing results. In those cases, the plateau isn’t a lack of trying. Surprisingly, exercising too hard, especially with cardio, is one of the top reasons people might stall in their progress. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive. Reducing exercise intensity or duration when the scale isn’t moving sounds like a ridiculous concept at first. If you find yourself doing high-intensity exercise with every cardio workout to burn more calories, you’re probably achieving that goal. However, those calories are likely coming from carbohydrates instead of body fat, resulting in little to no change in body composition. It’s super important to use individualized heart rate-zone training to make the most out of every minute of your cardiovascular exercise. The most effective way to determine this is through metabolic testing.

6. You’re not strength training.

When it comes to exercise adaptation and changes in metabolism, resistance training is gold. It’s one of the tried and true ways of supporting healthy blood sugar regulation (which is a keystone of fat loss), and it helps with building lean tissue. Lean body mass can be thought of as a currency of health as it increases the calories you burn daily and prevents injuries. When you’re on a weight loss journey, it may be confusing to hear “lean body mass gain.” It may be tempting to think, “I’m going to lose the excess weight first, then build muscle.” On the contrary, focusing on building lean mass during your fat loss journey — which provides a toned aesthetic — yields improved results and a more efficient metabolism. Get your lift on.

7. You haven’t had an “oil change.”

Any exercise or nutrition program should have a period of active recovery. Think of it as a short period of time after every training cycle (about 12 weeks) to regroup, recover, and get ready to get back at it again. When it comes to fat loss and nutrition, a targeted reset every three to four months can be a great “oil change” for maintenance of health and metabolism. After losing body weight, the toxins stored in fat cells can release and create disruption.1 Following a structured, short-term D.TOXSM program — which includes a whole food-based diet, fiber support, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and botanicals — can be an amazing catalyst to support sustained progress. Aim for doing an “oil change” every quarter.

8. You’re jumping to the fun stuff and skipping the basics.

It’s human nature to want the easy route: the magic bullet, the one simple thing or strategy to achieve results quickly. That’s never truer than when you are at a fat-loss plateau. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of options. Should you do carb cycling or keto? High intensity interval training or a month-long yoga focus? Gluten-free, dairy-free or egg-free? While each of these strategies can have a time, place and, to be honest, an allure of simplicity, give yourself a gut check on the basics. Long-term, healthy fat loss includes a diet plentiful in vegetables, low in processed foods and added sugars, and adequate in quality proteins and healthy fats. It’s not as fun and sexy to talk about, but they’re fundamentals that can’t be shortchanged. To boot, there’s no such thing as optimal health. There’s no shortcut, supplement or fad that can make up for the full metabolic detriment from the accumulation of sleep debt, chronic dehydration, mounting unmanaged stress, being sedentary (or not striving for 10,000 steps or more daily), or even loneliness and lack of social connection.2 Get the basics down, drink water, eat your vegetables and surround yourself with meaningful connections and support.

9. You’re on a (runaway) bandwagon.

It’s amazing how much extremism and dogmatic thinking exists in the world of health and fitness. Within the industry, those who have a common goal of helping others to get healthier ironically end up duking it out for “the” best approach: the one-size-fits-all, all-inclusive, applies-to-everybody type thinking with nutrition or workout strategies. If you’re following an approach that claims to be the answer for everyone in all situations — buyer beware. The truth almost always falls in the middle of the extremes, and the context of these various approaches means everything. Most of them have legitimate rationale, but to believe they apply to everyone is foolish. If the approach you’re trying isn’t working, or has stopped working, it’s time to change things up and work towards finding a program specific to your individual goals.

10. You’re doing what everyone else is doing.

Even if you’re not on a narrow-sighted bandwagon, it’s easy to get wrapped up in what everyone in your surrounding circle is doing and perhaps seeing success with. For example, let’s say your friends go on an extremely low-carbohydrate diet. So you join them. They continue to lose weight, but you plateau. It’s easy to think that the logical next step is to go lower in carbs; if that doesn’t work, maybe drop them to an even lower level. But here’s the question: when does it end? Are you sure this is what you need? What if you have a thyroid issue, low cortisol or one of the countless other concerns that might not go hand in hand with a low-carb approach? You could be making your metabolism worse. At the end of the day, your plan should be personalized. Your body is unique and is likely to require its own unique tweaks, approaches and strategies. Be focused and diligent on using the data you have (subjective symptom questionnaires, metabolic testing and laboratory testing) to shape and refine an approach that’s designed for you.

There you have it. Plateaus can happen for countless reasons, which may be overwhelming, but pinpointing the cause also provides immense hope. If you’re stuck and looking for guidance, please reach out to weightloss@lifetimefitness.com. We’re always happy and honored to help you break through that plateau and work toward the success you deserve.

Thank you for reading. 

Samantha McKinney, RDN, LD, Program Manager

Reference:

  1.      http://search.proquest.com/openview/67aecb683f61a6c540f6e0da05a7bd74/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=38864
  2.     https://muse.jhu.edu/article/44865/summary

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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