If you’ve ever dieted on your own you know at some point during the diet things will stall out (plateau) and it can be pretty frustrating.
We know the fat-loss equation is calories in vs. calories out, so the first thing you might do when you experience a plateau is to cut your calories down more.
While calorie balance is king and the thing that determines if you’re losing, maintaining, or gaining, there are other levers you can pull first that affect your calorie balance without actually needing to pull calories first thing.
When someone experiences a stall, as coaches we first go through a checklist to be sure it’s a “true” plateau:
But even when those all check out, there are still other levers we can pull before making a drop in calories.
Why would you want to look for other levers instead of just pulling calories back if that’s a simple way to skew calorie balance?
We want fat loss, not just weight loss.
The more calories you’re able to eat while you diet, the more energy you’ll have, the more micronutrition you’ll be able to get since you’ll have more food (which means you’ll stay healthier), and the harder you can train which means you may be able to maintain more muscle mass. And if you maintain more muscle mass you’ll end your diet with better aesthetics and at a heavier weight which means a speedier metabolism, and less likelihood of weight regain.
1: INCREASE PROTEIN 🥩
The first lever you can pull to increase fat loss without a drop in your calories is to increase protein in your diet.
Increasing protein can help get fat loss going again for a few different reasons. First, protein has the highest thermic effect of food.
Just through eating and digesting, you’ll burn 20-30% of the calories from protein.
Compare that to carbs at 5-15%, and fats at 0-5% and you can see why increasing your intake, especially if you’re starting out below .8-1g/lb, can ramp up your calories burned in a day.
Protein is also the most filling macronutrient.
While this doesn’t directly cause your calorie equation to change, it can have an effect on your intake if you’re less hungry.
If you’re tracking your intake and hitting your targets it wouldn’t theoretically make a difference, but if you’re hungry there’s a higher chance of eating past your targets, or at the very least just feeling more uncomfortable.
Protein is also the building materials for muscle tissue, and as mentioned above the more muscle mass you have, the easier your fat loss will be.
While each pound of muscle only burns about 6-7 calories per day, it’s still more than a pound of fat, and that’s at rest.
There are other factors that can increase calorie burn over the day if your body fat percentage is lower. The first is that if you have more muscle you are likely heavier.
A heavier body burns more calories both at rest and during movement. You’re also probably able to put more power into your lifts, making the same training program more thermogenic than at a higher body-fat percentage.
Muscle also acts as a storage unit for glucose, so the more muscle mass you have, the more carbs you can eat and store within the muscle without spiking blood glucose as high or having them stored as fat tissue.
2: INCREASE N.E.AT 🚶
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This includes all of the movement you do outside of structured exercise. NEAT includes things like walking around, cleaning the house, playing with your kids or dogs, and even things like blinking, tapping your heel while you sit, sitting upright with good posture, etc.
There are 4 different ways you burn calories that together are called your metabolism. The components are basal metabolic rate, non-exercise activity, digestion, and exercise.
→ Basal metabolic rate: the largest portion of your calorie burn, and makes up about 60-70% of your metabolism. Your BMR is determined by things like your weight, height, and muscle mass. Short term, we have little control over this.
→ N.E.A.T.: The next highest percentage of calorie burn comes from NEAT, and we do have some control over this one. While you probably won’t want to try to control your fidgeting and blinking, you can increase NEAT by moving more throughout the day.
Increasing NEAT has been shown to make up to a 2000 calorie difference per day in individuals of the same size and gender. (Someone who’s “naturally lean” probably moves quite a bit more than someone who’s “naturally heavier”).
When you diet your body tries to conserve energy to prevent too much weight loss. Our body’s primary goal is survival, so it will down-regulate things like thyroid hormone output and NEAT while increasing hunger hormones to encourage you to stay the same.
Down-regulating NEAT means you’ll start fidgeting less, slouching when you sit, sit instead of stand, and put off doing chores that require energy.
Since we can’t quantify most of these, we track steps.
Step count is a good way of auto-regulating for NEAT, and can be altered willfully instead of something like blinking where you won’t have much control.
Typically as you diet, if you aren’t aiming to hit a step goal you’ll see them gradually decrease over time, and that can lead to an early stall in fat loss progress.
You can use a step goal to make sure that stays consistent.
You can also use it as a lever to pull to keep progress going by increasing your step count over the course of the diet.
Walking more steps is usually more effective than adding cardio because you can add a cardio session but make up for it by walking and moving less over the rest of the day, in which case you’ll be adding fatigue without actually increasing output.
Walking is also easy to add in small doses throughout the day, and has the added benefits of being a parasympathetic activity you can do in the sun, which is also great for reducing stress and getting more vitamin D.
3: MANAGE SLEEP AND STRESS 😴
Speaking of relieving stress, stress is one of the aspects you can modify to improve fat loss outcome.
Stress doesn’t directly cause a stall in fat loss, or cause fat gain, but it does do a few things that can have a big effect.
→ Stress increases cortisol. Cortisol can cause sleep disturbance, blood sugar disregulation, and water weight retention.
When water weight is up it can mess with a dieter's confidence in their plan because it looks like you’re stalling or gaining weight when you’re actually just puffy and bloated. If you lose confidence in the plan you can make changes too quickly or give up altogether.
→ Stress causes a lot of people to overeat, or have cravings for calorie-dense foods, which increases the likelihood of going off-plan.
→ High stress compromises sleep (and vice-versa) which has its own set of problems.
Sleep has a direct correlation to muscle mass and fat mass.
Studies consistently show 7-9 hours of high quality sleep has better outcomes for health, increased muscle mass, better recovery, and less body fat. Poor sleep means higher grehlin (the hunger hormone), and lower leptin (fat burning, hunger-suppressing hormone). For a deep dive on sleep check out our blog on mastering sleep.
If you or your client stalls in their fat loss, check sleep quality and quantity before pulling more calories. Not only can helping them improve their sleep get fat loss going again, but pulling calories too low at an inappropriate time can make sleep even harder.
To see an immediate improvement in sleep, try implementing a sleep routine. Your routine can be tailored to you, but an example might look like:
→ Reading with low light. Bright lights and screens suppress melatonin and make it harder to sleep.
→ Brain dump journal. This helps keep your mind from racing when you’re trying to fall asleep.
→ Meditate or deep breathing. These put you into a parasympathetic state and make it easier to fall asleep.
4: IMPROVE FOOD QUALITY 🥦
If you have protein and calories dialed in and see fat loss stall, you may need to check the sources of your calories.
Believe it or not, the sources of your calories can have an impact on the “calories out” side of the equation, and make a difference in your fat loss.
One reason for this is the thermic effect of food. This was covered in the protein section, but notice each macro has a range of percentages of its calories burned through digestion.
Whole, unprocessed foods will tend to be higher in that percentage range while processed foods will tend to be lower in that range.
In this study the thermic effect of food was compared between two meals, one “whole foods” meal vs. one “processed foods meal.”
The processed foods meal burned 10.7% of total calories in digestion, whereas the whole foods meal burned 19.9% of calories in digestion.
That can add up to a huge difference over time!
[*Side note: The processed foods meal was a cheese sandwich made with white bread and american cheese. The whole foods meal was a cheese sandwich made with whole grain bread and a slice of cheddar cheese.
Whole grain bread is less processed than white bread, but I still would consider that to be pretty highly processed.
I speculate that if they were to compare equal amounts of carbs, fats, and proteins in something like whole grain bread and cheese, vs something truly unprocessed like sweet potato and almonds, the sweet potato and almonds would have an even higher thermic effect.]
Another similar anecdote is that peanuts or almonds will have a higher thermic effect than peanut butter or almond butter, respectively.
The processing (grinding) of the nuts means your body just does a little less work to break the food down during digestion, and requires less energy output (calories burned) to do so.
Not only do whole foods have a higher TEF, but they are more satiating than processed versions.
The unprocessed food typically has more fiber, which is great for fullness and digestive health, but they also are usually more voluminous, which activates the stretch receptors of the stomach to keep you feeling more full, and less likely to have hunger and cravings throw you off-track.
A great way to visualize this is, again, peanuts vs. peanut butter. Think about a 2 TBSP (⅛ cup) serving of peanut butter. It is about the size of a ping pong ball, and has 190 calories. A serving of peanuts has the same calories and macros, but is double the size at ¼ cup.
One more very important reason to make sure you’re including mostly whole foods is for your health.
In the height of the IIFYM diet popularity this one got completely tossed out the window, but it’s starting to become more well understood that your health is actually an important piece of fat loss.
You can improve your health with less-than-optimal food selection just by decreasing body fat and/or adding muscle mass.
But whole foods give you more micronutrients and enzymes that will keep your energy levels up, sleep on point, and hormones in check.
One example of this is thyroid hormone, which has a large amount of control over your metabolic rate.
Selenium, iodine, and B vitamins are important for thyroid health.
Processed foods will have much lower amounts of any vitamins, including these 3.
The same can be said with other organs and hormones with other vitamins you’ll find in more abundance in whole foods.
So if you have more than 20% of your food intake coming from processed foods, it would be worth swapping them out for unprocessed sources to eke out more fat loss.
Making these other adjustments before pulling calories down further and further can make a huge difference in the success and amount of discomfort you feel in your fat loss diet.
These are the same science-backed strategies we implement with our online clients undergoing the physique transformation process.
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