Why Weight-loss Plateaus Happen

This situation is quite common if you believe a few random web-searches. A person goes on a diet, and starts off amazingly, the lbs just seem to be melting off. Of course, the good times do not last, and well away from their goal, they find themselves experiencing a weight loss plateau. As most do, they rush to Google, put in “weight loss stopped“, “weight-loss stalled“, “stopped losing weight” or another myriad of search terms. They will find a range of sites and forums, where they will be told about setting the deficit too high, exercising too much, having too much cortisol, not eating enough fiber, not hydrating enough, hydrating too much, and a lot of other things.

While the above mentioned are all things that may cause a weight-loss to stall, the number one reason for why people experience stalls is that their caloric deficit is non-existent. A body re-composition is not accomplished in the gym, it is accomplished in the kitchen and the bedroom. Precise nutrition, combined with adequate rest is what builds muscle and what drops fat from your body.

As I wrote in my post on my journey so far, I’ve tried and experimented with most dieting protocols out there and I have eventually experienced both full stops and intermittent stalls as I’ve worked my way ever closer to my goal. There is no single iron-clad doctrine of weight loss, nutrition and exercise, there are multiple approaches that work, and that all have their negative sides. However, they also work off the same principle; a calorie deficit.

Caloric Deficits

A common deficit is set to 500 calories per day every week. This will theoretically cause a 1 lb weight loss every week as one lb of fat contains about 3500 calories. In reality, part of the weight lost will be in the form of muscle, some retained water and reduced glycogen stores. If you set a deficit of 500 every day, and you lose 20 lbs the following will happen to your BMR.

bmr1 bmr2

As you can see, the basal metabolic rate of a 25 year old male, 5 ft has been reduced by 91 calories. While, 91 calories are not really that big of a calorie reduction, but it does represent 18.2% of your daily caloric deficit. In one week, this means a little over a lb less in fat loss. Over a month, the difference is about 4 lbs less lost than expected.

In addition to this comes calories expended from moving around, exercise and various other activities a person undertakes every week. However, a common flaw is that people tend to under-estimate the number of calories they eat, and over-estimate the calories they burn through exercise. Unaccounted for calories are another source, I recently helped someone troubleshoot their diet and found that they consumed 600 more calories each day than they thought, because of not accounting for butter and oil used to cook with, fish oil supplements, and heavy whipping cream in coffee. Thus, this person had obliterated their caloric deficit.

The person engaged in exercise 4 days per week, lifting weights. However, weight lifting has a moderate calorie burn, a 185 lb lifter burns 266 calories for every hour of moderate weight lifting. Add that up for the 4 sessions, and it is a total of 1064 calories every week. However, as the person was not losing weight, or seeing a reduction in body measurements, without those 4 sessions they would be putting on weight.

A calorie is not a calorie

The chapter heading is accurate, protein, fats and carbohydrates (the macro-nutrients) differ in how your body processes them, they differ in how they affect the hormones within your body and they have different thermic effects. Fructose and sucrose are both carbohydrates but are processed in different ways. Fats have 9 calories per gram, where protein and carbohydrates have 4. Fats break down slower than protein, which breaks down slower than carbohydrates. Fat doesn’t spike blood sugar, where carbohydrates do, and protein can do through glucogenisis.

However, this does not invalidate the principle that a caloric deficit must exist in order for weight loss to happen. It is possible to lose weight eating just Subway or twinkies, low-carb, high carb and a myriad of other methods, but they all require a caloric deficit. Body fat is stored energy, and results from having a caloric surplus over a period of time. So, in order to reduce body fat, a person must be in a caloric deficit in order to tap into stored energy reserves (body fat).

All diets create this deficit somehow, either by going straight for the calories, manipulating macro-nutrient combinations, by mandating a certain level of activity, or other methods. Low-carb diets rely on the satiating nature of fats and proteins, and their ability to reduce feelings of hunger. Eating 6 small meals every day relies on portion control and weight watchers rely on portion control. Meal timing diet tools such as intermittent fasting protocols rely on limiting consumption per day through limiting the time available to eat.

Weight-loss Stalls

Whether your deficit is set from the onset, for instance by reducing number of calories eaten every day, as opposed to being a by-product of your chosen weight loss protocol such as intermittent fasting or low-carbohydrate, it is not a static number. The reason is that your deficit depends on your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body expends every day just keeping you alive. Your basal metabolic rate depends on a number of factors, most importantly the amount of muscle mass your body currently holds. Fat in many ways is a dead tissue, it requires very little to be maintained, whereas muscle mass requires constant upkeep.

As you lose weight, you can expect from 10 – 50% of your total weight loss to come in the form of muscle mass, which reduces your basal metabolic rate, thus, reducing your daily deficit over time. When you lose weight, unless you are engaging in heavy resistance training, you will lose some muscle as well, and therefore your deficit will be reduced when your BMR drops.

The second reduction in calorie expenditure comes from your body being less heavy. When I weighed in excess of 330 lbs, I would expend more calories just doing regular day to day activities. This is partially where the reputation of really fat people sweating all the time comes from. When I do a body weight squat now, my legs have to lift 217 lbs, rather than 330, which is the equivalent of squatting with a barbell weighing 113 lbs.

So, not only does the number of calories you burn just being at rest become reduced, the number of calories you burn during daily activities and exercise also go down.

Has Your Weight Loss Stalled?

If you find yourself stalled for longer than 3 weeks, then start by reviewing your diet and look for hidden calories. If you are on a diet program that doesn’t require you to weigh food and count calories then start doing it for a few weeks, just to see if that is the source of your problem. During my first stint on a low-carb diet, I was mesmerized by the promises of rapid weight loss without having to count calories or go hungry. However, after 5 weeks of not losing any weight and in fact gaining a little some weeks, I decided to count my foods for a few weeks. I found that due to the food choices I made of a lot of eggs, bacon and sausage, all cooked in butter. Cups of coffee with heavy whipping cream and coconut oil, plus snacks consisting of high fat meats such as salami, I was hoovering around my caloric maintenance level.

If you are doing this on a low-carb diet, this is also a great opportunity to find out how many carbs you really consume every day. Those 2 grams here and 2 grams there really do add up when attempting to stay under 20 grams of carbohydrate a day, while getting an adequate vegetable intake.

Have you lost quite a bit of weight already, then update your BMR numbers and recalculate your deficit.




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