Breaking Fat Loss Plateaus


by Charles Poliquin Iron Magazine


The dreaded fat loss plateau. It’s normal to feel betrayed or blindsided by your body when you’re not losing fat despite your best efforts. This article will provide both simple and complex solutions to bust through a fat loss plateau.


Tip #1: Create a roadmap.


Before we get down to business and talk about the things you can do NOW to kickstart fat loss, take a moment to think about this plateau as a sweet spot:


It’s your chance to answer the question, how will I break the law of averages and avoid regaining the fat the minute I relax my efforts?


Because the real betrayal is that less than 10 percent of people who lose body fat are able to keep it off in the long run. To set yourself apart, you need to create a roadmap of how your going to maintain healthy eating and exercise habits once you’ve got the lean body you’ve been working for.


I encourage you to vividly envision what your daily lifestyle will be like once your fat loss fight is over.


Who’s It For: Everyone, but especially calorie counters and those who follow simple programs like macros since these methods often don’t stress eating nutrient-rich foods.


How To Do It: Ask yourself, how will my habits be different from when I started losing weight? What will happen once the cold weather hits? The holidays? Bulky sweaters? That time-sucking project at work?


Use this plateau time to shore up your defenses and embrace habits that you can literally maintain forever. Give it everything you’ve got to develop a sustainable lifestyle you can take into your leaner, hotter life so that we aren’t having this conversation again next year.


Tip #2: Eat whole foods and eliminate all processed food.


You have probably already adopted this strategy, but it can never be emphasized enough in this high-carb culture in which processed food is king. Here are the benefits of favoring whole foods over processed foods for fat loss:


• The body burns significantly more calories digesting whole foods than processed foods. When we say significantly more, it means roughly double the energy expenditure.


But remember, you’re consuming energy by eating, so although eating whole, nutrient-rich foods is useful for boosting energy expenditure, it doesn’t warrant eating extra meals in the hopes that doing so will burn calories or “keep your metabolism up.”


• Whole foods have more indigestible fiber that reduces hunger and makes people naturally eat less.


• Processed foods contain food additives that have been scientifically engineered to get you to eat more.


• Favoring whole foods has the added benefit of eliminating a lot of high energy foods such as bread, cookies, crackers, chips, pasta, and most restaurant foods.


Who’s It For: Everyone


How To Do It: Plan your diet around vegetables, fruit, meat, beans, nuts, eggs, and dairy. Bread, cookies, crackers, candy, ice cream, diet snacks, 100-calorie treats, and so on are highly discouraged.


Pitfall To Watch Out For: Packaged foods that are “made with whole grains.” Once a whole grain has been ground to make flour or meal it is no longer a whole food. If you want to eat grains, opt for whole boiled ones such as rice or quinoa.


Tip #3: Try food cycling—the calorie method.


Food cycling is a method for creating an energy imbalance so that the calories that are entering the body are less than what you are expending.


There are a number of ways of doing this—you can cycle calories, carbs, or protein. Calorie cycling is the most simplistic method of tricking yourself to eat less.


It’s a variation of the ever popular intermittent fasting, but it avoids some of the harmful effects such as hormone imbalances and food obsessions that come with 24-hour or extended fasts because you eat every day.


Some days you eat normally—as much as you want as long as your choices are sensible—and on others you consciously cut your calories. Studies show that because people know they have the freedom to eat what they want and avoid hunger at least half the time, calorie cycling provides mental relief and replenishes willpower.


It also provides the body with physiological relief so that you reduce the down-regulation of your metabolism that comes from radically cutting calories for a long period of time.


Who’s It For: Calorie counters and extremely busy people who don’t care about nutrition and health and just want to lose fat.


How To Do It: Say you were eating 2,000 before starting to diet and you cut your calories to 1,500, lost some weight, and then plateaued. In trying to re-start fat loss, you cut calories down to 1,200 a day.


This is unlikely to work very well because a) you’ll be hungry all the time, and b) your metabolism will slow and hormone balance will be altered in order to prevent further fat loss.


Instead, try “normal” days in which you eat to satisfaction, and 1,200 calories days in which you restrict your intake. Eat only whole foods and consider going higher in protein and lower in carbs to improve satiety on “fast” days.


Research consistently supports calorie cycling. For example, a 12-week study by Varady had participants alternate normal eating days with days in which they ate 25 percent of calories (about 500). Results showed that they lost an average of 3.2 kg of body fat more than a control group.


Pitfall To Watch Out For: A strict calorie approach to fat loss is not very useful because it ignores the fact that different foods have vastly different effects on our food intake.


Protein, especially animal protein, is well known for reducing food intake and eliminating hunger.


In contrast, foods high in carbs and processed fats stimulate food intake by activating a pathway in the brain called the hypocretin network. A side effect of hypocretin activity is that the body’s use of energy slows and you become sleepier.


Most people will benefit from using this data to create a slightly more complex method of food cycling to accelerate fat loss and overcome a plateau.


Tip #4: Try carb cycling.


Carb cycling is similar to calorie cycling but it’s slightly more complicated because you need to know what carbohydrates are and how different ones affect your metabolism in order to make it happen.


Who’s It For: People following a very low-carb, high protein diet.


How To Do It: If you’ve been on a low-carb diet (say 50 grams from low-carb veggies, fruits, and beans), you’ll eat a higher carb day every 5 to 7 days.


Foods to include are sweet potatoes, high-carb fruits, and whole grains. Depending on your physical activity level, you could eat anywhere from 100 to 200 grams of carbs on your higher carb day.


The reason carb cycling works is that during the period that you are restricting carbs, fat burning increases and you deplete muscle glycogen, which is a storage form of carbs in the body. Then, the carbs you eat on your higher carb day are used to replenish glycogen stores rather than stored as fat.


Carb cycling also keeps the cells sensitive to insulin and the brain responsive to the hormone leptin so that you don’t experience deranged hunger.


Start with a two-week low-carb phase in which you eat as much protein and vegetables as you want, but keep your carb intake at 50 grams a day. After 14 days, start the carb cycling every 5 to 7 days.


Pitfalls To Watch Out For: Continuing to count calories.


Just focus on eating whole protein (meat, eggs, dairy, beans), good fats (fish, butter, olives, avocado, coconut oil), and a boatload of vegetables. Don’t worry about the fat either—just keep your focus on protein and veggies and your fat intake will take care of itself.


Tip #5: Increase your protein intake.


Protein is your friend when trying to overcome a fat loss plateau because it preserves lean muscle mass and is more costly calorie-wise for the body to breakdown.


Who’s It For: Anyone with a poor protein intake (1 g/kg of body weight or less).


How To Do It: If you’re already eating a high-protein diet (above 1.8g/kg/body weight) your unlikely to get any benefit from eating more, mainly because you’d have to force feed yourself.


But, if you haven’t tapped into the power of protein and need to kickstart fat loss, it’s a great tool that will increase your resting energy expenditure and keep you fuller.


For instance, a 3-month study by Soenen that didn’t include exercise found that a small increase in protein intake from 0.9 g/kg to 1.2 g/kg produced a loss of 0.6 kg or 1.1 percent body fat and an increase in lean muscle mass of 0.9 kg. The results were statistically significant compared to a control group.


Try 1.6 g/kg/body weight of protein, which is double the U.S. RDA of 0.8 g/kg, because this amount has been shown to be ideal for preserving lean muscle mass when calories are reduced. Pair it with strength training and you will radically improve fat loss results.


Pitfalls To Watch Out For: Increasing protein intake will build lean muscle mass, so the scale may not go down even though you’re losing body fat. Don’t worry—you’ll have less fat and look leaner and firmer.


The scale is a big fat liar when it comes to body composition and this is the reason we talk about losing “fat” instead of “weight.”


Tip #6: Strength train or mix up your workouts.


Strenuous exercise is an excellent tool to help you kickstart fat loss if used properly. The key is to do something different because our bodies become accustomed to the demands we place on them very quickly and stop responding as they did originally.


Who’s It For: Everyone, especially non-exercisers or cardio junkies


How To Do It: Strength training is the best choice if you’re not exercising or not doing so properly because it will raise energy expenditure by building muscle.


Use multi-joint lifts like squats, deadlifts, lunges, presses, rows, and chin-ups with 30- to 60-second rest periods and loads in the 70 to 85 percent of the 1RM range. Always count tempo and keep volume high.


If you’re already doing this type of training, you need to mix it up and there are numerous ways to do so. Here are a few options:


• Use a circuit training format in which you alternate upper and lower body lifts (try chin-ups and deadlifts, and squats and bench press).


• Shorten your rest periods to 10 to 30 seconds.


• Try a high-intensity training program such as doing 6 reps with a 85 percent load, then rest 20 seconds and do 6 more reps. Rest 20 seconds and repeat a third time. Do 3 to 4 sets per exercise.


• Add sprint interval workouts or strongman training to produce a lot of growth hormone and increase post-workout energy expenditure, while supporting lean muscle mass.


• Increase your non-training physical activity (walking, biking, yoga), especially if you have a sedentary job.


Pitfalls To Watch Out For: Extending your workout time or relying on cardio. Steady-state exercise is unlikely to produce good results, especially if you’ve been doing if for sometime (newbies can often lose some fat by starting a cardio program, but the benefits wear off quickly and fat gain returns).


Tip #7: Improve your circadian rhythm.


Your circadian rhythm is your biological clock and if it is out of whack, you will experience hormone imbalances and greater stress. An altered circadian rhythm can seriously stunt fat loss and is very likely to lead to fat gain in the long run for the following reasons:


• It leads you to naturally reduce energy expenditure and move less.


• You’ll feel less motivated to work out and will have a harder time pushing yourself.


• Hormones involved in metabolism will be altered, making you more likely to store fat around the middle.


• You’ll have trouble sleeping, which will increase stress levels and further exacerbate a poor metabolism.


For example, a 2012 study by Chaput found that in a group that was cutting calories to lose fat, those who slept better and longer lost the most fat. Specifically, an increase in sleep of 1 hour led to an average loss of 0.7 kg of body fat.


Who’s It For: People who have trouble sleeping and anyone struggling to overcome a fat loss plateau.


How To Do It: Circadian rhythms are a complex topic, which is the reason we wrote this article. Here are some tips in brief:


1.) Avoiding eating late at night because this can cause alterations in the hormone leptin so that you experience constant hunger, poor sleep, and altered body temperatures. Eat at least 2 to 3 hours before bed time.


2.) If you’re hungry before bed and worry it will keep you awake, try consuming green veggies, or a “good” fat such as coconut oil because they won’t spike insulin or affect leptin release.


3.) Eat in the morning because this will set your circadian rhythm up for the day by reducing the hunger hormone ghrelin.


4.) Avoid training at night if you have trouble sleeping. The best time to exercise is in the late afternoon because that is when body temperature is highest and protein synthesis peaks at 5 p.m. so recovery will be accelerated.


Pitfalls To Watch Out For: None. There’s no drawback to improving your circadian rhythm because doing so will reduce your stress, decrease inflammation, and help you sleep better.





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