Have you been stuck losing the same 10-15lbs over and over again for years, but never getting as lean as you want?
Or maybe it's a client who's stuck in a fat loss plateau.
In today's blog, you'll learn:
→ The simplified nutritional science behind fat loss stalls
→ My 8 step system to fix fat loss stalls with online clients
→ How to adjust your macros to break plateaus
→ And much more...
This blog is your guide to finally breaking through your body fat settling point, and getting as lean & confident as you've always wanted.
Fat Loss Purgatory
You start a diet.
Make this the summer you finally get abs. (By the way, I can help If you’re struggling with this.)
Things are going GREAT the first month.
You’re down 10lbs, and a few inches from your waistline.
But just went it’s starting to look like this might be “the diet”... (you know, the one that actually works)… you hit a hard fat loss stall.
You macros just don’t seem to be working for your body like they used to.
This is followed by a few weeks of diet purgatory (always feeling like you're dieting, but never making progress), before eventually giving up altogether.
So what's really going on here? Why do so many people seem to have this exact struggle?
Why Fat Loss Stalls
It's well known that to lose fat, calories in must be less than calories out... A.K.A. you need to eat fewer calories than you burn in a day.
Now, the total calories your burn in a day is what we call your metabolism, and it's a lot simpler than you might think.
Basically, your metabolism has four different pieces:
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - The calories your body burns just to stay alive. Even if you lie in bed all day, BMR won’t change. It’s calories burned through things like breathing, your heart pumping, etc. Generally, the heavier you are, the higher your BMR.
2. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) - Your body actually burns calories while digesting the food you eat:
- TEF of protein = 20–30%
- TEF of carbs = 5–10%
- TEF of fat = 0–3%.
3. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (N.E.A.T.) - All the calories you burn in your everyday movement outside the gym. N.E.A.T. is the most controllable variable of your metabolism, and seems to be the biggest difference in the metabolisms of lean and obese individuals. (1)
4. Thermic Effect Of Exercise (TEE) - Lifting weights, cardio, etc. This is the smallest portion of your metabolism - exercise doesn't burn many calories. You could burn 500 calories with an hour on the stairmill, and then drink a 500 calorie margarita in five minutes.
These four pieces of your metabolism account for all the calories you burn in a day.
So, if your food intake has stayed exactly the same (calories in) but you’re not losing anymore, we know that your calories burned must have decreased.
Or as you’ve probably heard it put... Your metabolism has slowed. (*gasps*)
But really, don’t worry.
A “slower metabolism” is a normal part of weight loss, due to something called metabolic adaptation. You didn’t break anything, nor are you doomed to a life of under-eating.
As the four pieces of your metabolism adapts to weight loss and less food (metabolic adaptation), some changes occur:
1. Your BMR drops as you lose weight - A smaller body burns fewer calories. This also applies to TEE, a smaller person will burn fewer calories during exercise.
2. TEF drops, since you’re eating less food - Some of this can be offset by increasing protein intake, but a decrease in calories still generally creates a drop in total TEF.
3. Calories burned via NEAT also drop - When dieting, you’re depriving the body of energy (calories). You’re more lethargic, resulting in less daily movement. Step goals and increasing exercise help, but a decrease in calories burned here is inevitable.
When you eat more, it has the opposite effect on your metabolism - you have more energy, you’re eating more food, and have (potentially) a larger body, so you start to burn more calories.
But in this circumstance, your body is getting smaller as a result of your diet, and burns fewer calories as it shrinks.
Thus, your metabolism slows. Some of this is an inevitable part of fat loss, and actually means you’re achieving the goal of the diet - a smaller body.
To learn more about Metabolic Adaption, Optimizing Fat Loss, And Reverse Dieting, check out my podcast on the topic with Eric Trexler of Stronger By Science ↴
In my experience as a nutrition coach, metabolic adaptation is rarely the reason fat loss actually stalls… I’d say ~5% of the time.
If your fat loss is stalled right now, you’re probably in the other 95%... meaning you don’t need to decrease calories or increase cardio yet in order for fat loss to resume.
The goal within nutrition coaching is always to keep you eating as much as possible, while achieving your leanest, most confident self. So we need to get to the bottom of this.
Why Fat Loss ACTUALLY Stalls (95% Of The Time)
As cool as all of this metabolic adaptation stuff sounds…
...most of the time your fat loss actually stalls due to an error in measuring calories in.
I know, I know. Kind of anti-climatic.
But the reality is, people are often too quick to cut calories when the problem isn’t actually metabolic adaptation, but mismanaging calories in.
This leads to a vicious cycle of...
Cutting calories → still not losing weight → cutting calories → STILL not losing weight → “Ugh, diets just don’t work for me!” → Quitting (for a few months, before you start the cycle over)
Again, this probably sounds familiar.
And it's exactly why when your macros “stop working” within nutrition coaching, the last thing we do is cut calories.
In fact, we have a very clear system for troubleshooting stalled fat loss.
Here’s what it looks like...
The 8 Step System For Diagnosing Stalled Fat Loss
This is the exact order of operations or questions I take you through with nutrition coaching.
I’ve spent years perfecting this system. This allows us to pinpoint exactly what factor has stalled your fat loss, and adjust your nutrition & training strategy accordingly.
Ready? Start by asking yourself...
1. Have measurements decreased?
My online clients all take body measurements weekly, and drop them into their accountability tracker (shown).
How your measurements are changing is the single biggest factor I adjust your nutrition from.
Your weight stall or even increase due to factors like building lean muscle, stress, digestion, sleep, and hormones… just to name a few.
Measurements give a much more accurate picture of your progress across the course of a week, and are less prone to the fluctuations of the scale.
→ If you’ve lost .25”+ off of multiple measurement sites, it’s safe to say that you’re losing fat. No nutrition adjustments needed.
→ If not, move on to #2.
2. Has weight decreased?
For most, the ideal speed of weight loss when trying to get leaner is .5-1% of body weight per week.
But like I mentioned, scale weight can fluctuate pretty wildly, due to things like water retention from higher sodium intake, stress, and digestive issues.
Most SHOULD see a monthly trend of 2-4% of total body weight lost, but this rarely plays out as losing exactly .5-1% per week.
This is why taking body measurements is so important - online clients will often see weight loss stall, but a big decrease in measurements. This will be followed by a large weight drop a week or two further along.
So don't get caught up in weekly weight changes. Look at the trend over multiple weeks/the month.
This also very much depends on how lean you are already, and how much muscle you’re building as you lose fat.
A great example of this is my former online client Andrea (shown), who only lost 6 lbs over 6.5 months of coaching, but had a crazy body recomposition and measurement changes.
→ If you’ve lost .5%+ of bodyweight, no nutrition adjustments needed.
→ If not, move on to #3.
3. Did Fat Loss Stall Abruptly, Or Did Hunger Largely Decrease?
The reality is, metabolic adaptation is a slow process - a fat loss stall via metabolic adaptation happens very slowly, with rate of loss gradually decreasing.
So if you saw good changes on these macros a few weeks ago, and then an abrupt stall, you probably don’t need to decrease calories yet. The issue lies somewhere in #4-#6.
Similarly, if you’ve been relatively hungry throughout the fat loss phase (2.5-3.5/5 is normal in a fat loss phase) and suddenly see a large decrease in hunger (without drastically increasing the % of protein or whole foods within your calories), it’s likely that calories in have increased, or calories burned via movement have decreased.
→ These are important points to be aware of. Move on to #4.
4. Are you consistently hitting your macros?
This one’s pretty simple - if you’re not consistently hitting your macro goals, then you’re just eating more calories needed to lose fat.
No macro adjustment can make up for a lack of consistency.
Now, if you’re someone that struggles to hit your macros consistently, apply for coaching with me by clicking here.
1. Hold you extremely accountable to a smart nutrition plan
2. Find the best diet structure for your lifestyle. This is where the art of coaching comes in. Often people struggle to stick with diets, because the diet structure is a poor fit for the your lifestyle. A great example of this is watching clients macros compliance and results skyrocket after giving them higher calories on the weekends with something like the 5|2 macro split.
→ If you’re not consistently hitting your macros, no nutrition decreases needed. We’ll likely revisit our diet strategy, and make sure it’s the best fit for you and your consistency.
→ If you are hitting macro targets consistently, move on to #5.
5. Are You Measuring Food Accurately?
Measuring food accurately is very important for macros. Tracking accurately requires measuring most of your foods. I know it’s a pain in the ass... but not as much as kinda tracking for years and never getting results, right?
Truly, this is one I could go on about for a long time… but I’ll try to keep it brief.
Tools to help track accurately:
→ A food scale
→ A set of measuring cups
→ A set teaspoons and tablespoons
The Most Common "Tracking Mistakes":
→ Cooking oils - Even if you don’t apply it directly to your food, but rather line the pan with it, it still gets absorbed. This can add up to hundreds of untracked calories
→ Dressings, toppings, alcohol, and condiments - The two biggest culprits here are salad dressings and condiments like BBQ sauce. Both are sneaky high in calories, and all too easy to forget to track.
→ Estimating instead of measuring - We're typically pretty terrible at estimating our food intake accurately.
→ Not tracking entire meals or days.
→ Getting too flexible, with foods that are hard to track accurately. Nothing at all wrong with going out to eat, but eating food you didn’t prepare yourself always leaves much more room for error - you’ll never know exactly what’s in the dish you’re eating. So even if your macros look perfect in your tracker, eating out too frequently can still lead to underestimating calories.
→ Don’t track using metrics like: small/medium/large. One medium banana. One large avocado. ½ bowl of rice. 1 steak. This leaves a lot of room for error.
→ Weight measurements (in grams) are by far the most accurate. Weigh as much as possible with a food scale. Measure the rest with cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons.
→ Weigh your meats raw (but thawed) and track them as such.
→ If you realize you’re not measuring your food accurately, don’t beat yourself up! This is a common mistake. We’ll take the next few weeks to work through your food diary together, and figure out anywhere inaccuracies could be slipping in.
→ If you are measuring food accurately, move on to #6.
6. Are you consistently hitting your daily movement goal?
Like we talked about earlier, NEAT is the most manipulatable variable of your metabolism.
Metabolism varies a lot in how it responds to over-eating or under-eating - especially NEAT.
From my experience as a nutrition coach, most client's metabolisms fall into one of two categories:
→ Adaptive Metabolisms - For these people, when you eat more, your body automatically increases NEAT to compensate. (Think: subconscious fidgeting, blinking, pacing, etc.)
Your body adapts to higher calorie intake by increasing calories burned through movement - so weight stays the same, even with calorie increases.
The opposite happens on a diet. When you eat less, your body decreases NEAT by a large degree to compensate.
Your body adapts to lower calorie intake by decreasing calories burned through movement - so weight stays the same, even with calorie lower than before.
→ Rigid Metabolisms - These people see very little or no increase in NEAT as a response to overeating. Thus fat gain is a bit easier.
But on the bright side, these people usually don't have to decrease calories as much to lose fat (because calories burned through NEAT doesn't decrease as much as it would for an adaptive metabolism).
To prove this idea - A 1999 study fed 16 people 1,000 calories over their maintenance intake per day.
- Weight gain between individuals varied from .8lbs to 9.3lbs - a huge difference in 8 weeks.
- The change in NEAT between individuals also varied wildly, from -98 cals up to +692 cals per day.
Basically, the 16 people in the study had crazy different responses to eating the same calorie surplus. There's a huge variance in how people's energy expenditure (via NEAT) will respond to overfeeding or underfeeding.
So the point of all this talk is - as you diet, movement will likely reduce. While we can’t account for all of the fidgeting and blinking you might cease to do, we do give all fat loss focused clients a daily movement goal.
This helps ensure that your weight loss hasn’t stalled from a decrease in movement.
Depending on how active you are at work, 7-10k steps per day is a realistic target for most.
→ If you realize movement has decreased, schedule in 1-2 walks per day (or as needed to hit movement goal). Fat loss progress should resume soon.
→ If you are hitting your movement goals, move on to #7.
7. Was Your Last Macro Adjustment Less Than Two Weeks Ago?
The reality is, it just takes time for a decrease in calories to compound to noticable changes. So if it’s been less than two weeks since your last macro adjustment, you likely need to just give it more time.
→ If it’s been less than two weeks since your last macro adjustment, stay put. Progress should pick up soon.
→ If it’s been 2+ weeks, move on to #8.
8. Have You Taken A Diet Break In The Last 12 Weeks?
For most clients, sticking to the diet seems to get much harder after 6-12 weeks - not to mention the potential physiological benefits of diet breaks. (2) I’ve seen much better client results implementing diet breaks every 6-12 weeks, instead of just trying to diet continuously. (Learn all about diet breaks here.)
→ If you haven’t taken a diet break in the last 12 weeks, implement one now for 1-2 weeks.
→ If you have taken a diet break in the last 12 weeks, it's time to make an adjustment.
How To Make Adjustments
So now we’re sure that your fat loss has stalled due to metabolic adaptation, and not mismanaging calories in (or accidentally decreasing movement), let’s talk about how we’d adjust your nutrition & training strategy within coaching.
Basically, we have three options:
1. Decrease calories in.
2. Increase calories out.
3. A combination of both decreasing calories in and increasing calories out.
Of course, we need to get a bit deeper into each of these.
1. Decreasing calories in.
All your foods are made up of some combination (or at least one) of these “macros”:
- Protein, which contains 4 Calories per gram
- Carbohydrate, which contains 4 Calories per gram
- Fat, which contains 9 Calories per gram
So when setting your macros and adjusting your macros, there are some boxes we want to be sure are checked:
✔ You need to be eating .8-1.2g pro/lb of bodyweight (if you’re not used to eating much protein, we’ll start you lower and ramp this intake up over time).
✔ For hormonal health and preventing fatty-acid deficiencies, etc. you need to be eating .3g fat/lb+ daily.
As long as we have those two boxes checked, we can really set carbs and fats to your preference. The more advanced you are, the more likely we are to mess with carb/fat ratios and the like, instead of strictly focusing on the best approach for your adherence. (For more advanced individuals with the goal of getting as lean and strong as possible, I generally like to keep protein in the 1-1.2g/lb range, fat in the .3-.35g/lb range, and fill the remaining calories with carbs.)
→ If you're not making progress, normally a 5-10% reduction in weekly calories will be enough to get fat loss to resume again in a fat loss phase.
→ If progress has just dipped slightly (e.g. you’re still losing, but slower than .5% of body weight per week), your adjustment will likely be closer to a 5% decrease.
→ If progress has stalled hard (e.g. no weight or measurement changes in 2+ weeks), we’ll err towards a 7.5-10% decrease.
It's pretty rare that I'll drop someone's calories by more than 10%, unless we need to be super aggressive for a strict deadline (e.g. a photoshoot. By the way, check out my client Rachel’s exact nutrition & training prescription to get photoshoot lean here.)
This reduction in calories can come from carbs, fats, or a combination of both. We never drop protein below the .8-1.2g/lb mark. To build or maintain your lean muscle in a fat loss phase, it’s essential to get adequate protein.
→ Pull from fats if… you’re still above the fat threshold (.3g/lb), and are chasing as much lean muscle gain or maintenance as possible.
→ Pull from carbs if… you’re at the fat threshold, or just prefer a higher fat diet.
→ Pull from both if… your food choices are the most important factor to sticking to your diet. This will allow you to keep the same foods in your diet (just in smaller portions), instead of having to drastically cut back on carb heavy or fattier foods.
So let’s look at a hypothetical client to illustrate this.
Intake: 2505 Calories | 200g protein | 280 grams carbs | 65 grams fat
This client has hit a hard stall, and we’ve decided to decrease calories by 10%.
2505 X .1 = 250 Calories
→ We’ll keep protein as is (BW X 1).
→ The client enjoys a high fat diet, so we want to keep fat a bit higher if possible.
→ That said, we know the client’s training performance will take a hit if we drop carbs too low.
So, we’ll pull the 250 calories evenly from carbs and fat.
-14 grams fat or 126 kcal (14 x 9).
-31 grams carbs or 124 kcal (31 x 4).
...for a total deduction of 250 calories.
New intake: 2255 Calories | 200g protein | 249g carbs | 51g fat
2. Increase Calories Out
Your second option is to simply move more. This is generally much less practical than controlling calories - it usually takes less effort to decrease calorie intake by 200 (you just eat less), than it does to increase calories burned by 200 (which equates to an extra ~30-45 mins of movement per day).
Your options here:
→ Increase training volume. We strategically add more sets of compound movements to your training, or add in another training day.
I’ve seen this strategy work best with those that are newer to proper training, and have only been following a smart training program 2-3 days per week. The problem is, the more we increase volume, the more “recovery resources” your body needs to repair itself. Recovery resources are already very limited on a diet, so for more advanced individuals who have been following a smart training strategy 4+ times per week, a big jump in volume would often be detrimental to results.
→ Increase aerobic work - I prefer to start here when increasing calories via movement for most (outside of those who can realistically add training volume within their recovery abilities). Aerobic work is easier, and actually helps your recovery.
We would generally start by increasing your step goal close to the realistic limit you can hit (~10k for most), and next add 1-2 sessions of incline walking or cycling for 30-40 mins at a heart rate of 120-140 BPM.
If the client prefers, this can also be something like shorter and more intense (but still aerobic focused) bouts (e.g. 2,000m on the rower @2:00/500m pace. 2 min rest. Repeat x4.)
→ Increase anaerobic work - While quicker, anaerobic work is much more stressful on the body, and takes more time to recover from. I generally limit this to 1-2 sessions per week, and prefer to tack this onto the end of a session in the form of a fat loss finisher (learn all about programming the perfect finishers here), rather than standalone sessions.
Really, when programming cardio the most important factor is that you’re doing something you can stick to. So if you absolutely hate incline walking, it’s not going to be in your program.
3. A combination of both decreasing calories in and increasing calories out.
This is pretty self-explanatory. If you would rather increase movement a bit (e.g. add in 1 aerobic session) and decrease calories slightly (e.g. 4-5%), instead of a large decrease or increase in either, that’s perfectly fine.
And that’s your roadmap to fixing stalled fat loss and FINALLY achieving the leanest, most confident version of yourself.
If you want more expert nutritional guidance, daily accountability, and a strategy fit to your specific needs and lifestyle, click here now to apply for Online Coaching.
About The Author
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit.