Dang – I Stopped Losing Weight. What Now?
Reaching a weight loss plateau is frustrating and sometimes so discouraging that people just give up. “I’ve tried all the diets, and this one worked for a while. Dang! Must be my genetics, because I’m doing everything right! Once again, it’s my parents’ fault!” What we want and expect is a consistent daily loss, a straight line down. What we usually get at the outset is some nice drops, a few ups or no changes, and then a flat line.
Let’s look at why this always happens.
First, there’s the short-term effect. Most weight loss approaches will cause people to drop so-called “water weight” rather quickly. It shows up nicely on the scale, but it does not yet reflect what the dieter really wants: losing fat. Under a low-carb approach or the various low-calorie diets, you ingest fewer carbs (glucose), but you are still burning your normal number of calories – perhaps even more because you’ve started an exercise regime as well. It’s all heading in the right direction, but there just hasn’t been enough time to lower your resting metabolic rate. You’re taking in fewer calories so you will look to your energy stores. You’ll first burn stored glucose in its various forms. which is bound up with water molecules that are released when you process the glucose. Hence, you lose your “water weight.” It is inevitable. No way to duck it.
Then there’s the longer-term effect. After a few weeks, our bodies respond to less energy coming in by lowering our resting metabolism rate, or how much energy we burn while at rest. Imagine this from an ancestral or evolutionary viewpoint – food supplies have been low for a while, so we’d better start slowing down to burn less stored energy or we might starve to death. It is perfectly natural. (Here’s a plug for the low-carb approach: if you are restricting carbs and eating high-quality fats, you’ll actually be teaching your metabolism to access your fat stores.
So how do we overcome nature? What to do?
First and foremost, relax. Don’t worry. Weight loss plateaus happens to everyone, on all diets or nutritional weight loss approaches.
There is an informative and entertaining podcast called “2 Keto Dudes” – check it out. These two morbidly obese middle-aged men connected in 2016 to support each other in using the “keto” approach to better health. (“Keto” is a very low carb nutrition style, usually defined as less than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day.) They have both reversed their Type 2 Diabetes and lost tons of weight, although neither is slim. They’ve both plateaued a few times; the Australian dude once plateaued for a year. What did he do? He happily stuck with his plan, driven by his vastly improved diabetes markers, confident that his approach was fundamentally sound. So when did he start losing again? Don’t worry about it. He’s not. Relax, stick with your program. Don’t get discouraged. Your stall was just part of human biology.
After some time relaxing on your plateau, you’ll likely think “OK, enough already. Let’s get going again.” Before you start anything new, track your eating and drinking again. Remember, your resting metabolism is lower, so if you are ingesting the same number of calories you’re heading in the wrong direction. If you are following a low-carb style, you may think you’re only eating 80 grams of carbs a day (or 50, or 20…), but they have a way of creeping back in, so measure your eating for a few days. Do a course correction if necessary.
Now, what to do? Here’s an analogy and a few ideas.
When studying a system, scientists and engineers will sometimes introduce a deviation from the normal or steady state to see what happens. There is a ton of math and science behind this practice of perturbation which I will never understand, so I just take the poet’s very loose approach: get out your hammer and give the system a whack
Whack 1: try intermittent fasting. I’ll write more on this in a few weeks, but you might start by narrowing your eating window from all day to, let’s say, noon to 8 p.m. The purpose is not to simply skip a meal and the calories associated with it. You are taking another step to being able to burn your fat. If that 8-hour window seems manageable for a day or two, tighten it to 6 hours, then 4 hours, then perhaps all the way to OMAD – One Meal a Day.
Whack 2: while trying to lose fat primarily through exercise usually doesn’t work, it is important to move. If you are not exercising, then get going! If you are, try changing your exercise routine. If you aren’t doing much cardio, try fast walking or jogging, or riding that exercise bike. If you aren’t exercising for strength, head to the gym or stay home for a great, short workout.
Whack 3: meditate – just relaxing about your weight plateau may not be enough of a stress relief. Begin a disciplined mindfulness practice. Many people find the app Headspace to be helpful.
Whack 4: the Potato Hack. This is counter-intuitive for the low-carb crowd, but a few days eating only potatoes can work magic. Chris Kresser uses this in his clinical practice to kick-start weight loss; he’s found reference to it from the 1880s. Here’s Chris explaining it in a short video. Note that you get the benefit of resistant starch, feeding your gut microbiome, if you cool the potatoes. You can reheat them if you’d like.
So, relax. Keep your stress low, stick with your program, and if your weight loss has stalled for a while, give the system a whack of your choosing!