The first half of your diet goes well... but a few months in, results creep to a halt, and you never achieve the lean physique you wanted.
Have you watched this story play out over and over the last few years?
If so, today's blog is for you. You'll learn...
↦ The science behind why fat loss stalls
↦ The 8 step system we use to help online clients fix stalled fat loss
↦ How to adjust your macros to break through plateaus, and finally get as lean as you've always wanted
Let's dive in.
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 you 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.
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.
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.
Key Consideration For stalled fat loss
In my experience as a nutrition coach, metabolic adaptation is rarely the reason fat loss actually stalls… I’d say ~5-10% of the time.
If your fat loss is stalled right now, you’re probably in the other 90-95%... meaning you don’t need to decrease calories or increase cardio yet in order for fat loss to resume.
Since the goal within nutrition coaching is always to keep you eating as much as possible to fuel your performance, recovery, and lifestyle... we need to get clear on what else (outside of metabolic adaptation) can be causing a fat loss stall.
Why most fat loss actually stalls
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 calorie intake or calorie output.
People are often too quick to cut calories when the problem isn’t actually metabolic adaptation, but mismanaging calories in/calories out.
This is exactly why with our online clients, the last thing we do is cut calories when fat loss stalls.
One of the most beneficial things to helping out clients achieve amazing results has been establishing our 8 step system for fixing stalled fat loss... which of course I'm going to explain to you right now.
The 8 step System for fixing STalled Fat loss
This is the exact order of operations we take a client through within nutrition coaching.
This allows us to pinpoint exactly what factor has stalled your fat loss, and adjust your nutrition & training strategy accordingly.
Ready? When faced with a potential fat loss stall, start by asking yourself...
1. Have Measurements Decreased?
Our fat loss focused online clients take body measurements weekly, and drop them into a metric tracker (shown):
How your measurements are changing is typically the single biggest factor we adjust nutrition from (in a fat loss setting).
Your weight loss can 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 fat loss progress across the course of a week, and are less prone to the fluctuations of the scale.
DECISION MAKING KEY:
↦ Have you’ve lost .25”+ off of multiple measurement sites? It’s safe to say that you’re losing fat. No nutrition adjustments needed.
↦ If "no" to the above, 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 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 our very own Coach Andrea's transformation when I helped her with her nutrition - she only lost 6 lbs over 6.5 months of coaching, but had a crazy body recomposition and measurement changes.
DECISION MAKING KEY
↦ Have you’ve lost .5%+ of bodyweight (on average) over the last two weeks? If so, no nutrition adjustments needed.
↦ If not, move on to #3.
3. Did Fat Loss Stall Abruptly, And/Or Did Hunger Largely Decrease?
The reality is, metabolic adaptation is a slow process. So a fat loss stall via metabolic adaptation happens very slowly, with rate of loss gradually decreasing.
If you saw solid fat loss changes on these macros a few weeks ago, and then an abrupt stall, you probably don’t need to decrease calories yet, and 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.
DECISION MAKING KEY:
↦ Simply take some time to self-audit: has hunger largely decreased and/or did fat loss stall abruptly? From here, 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.
DECISION MAKING KEY:
↦ If you’re not consistently hitting your macros, no macro decreases needed. We’ll likely revisit your 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. (I.e. 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.
DECISION MAKING KEY:
↦ 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. Fat loss will resume shortly.
↦ If you are measuring food accurately, move on to #6. If you are measuring food accurately, move on to #6.
6. Are You Consistently Hitting Daily Movement Goals?
Like we talked about earlier, N.E.A.T. (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is the most manipulatable variable of your metabolism.
Metabolism varies a lot in how it responds to over-eating or under-eating - especially N.E.A.T. From my experience as a nutrition coaching, most client's metabolisms will fall into one of two categories:
#1: 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.
#2: 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 N.E.A.T. 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 N.E.A.T.) 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.
DECISION MAKING KEY:
↦ If you realize movement has decreased (or been inconsistent), determine a realistic step goal you can hit daily, and stick to it. 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 noticeable changes. So if it’s been less than two weeks since your last macro adjustment, you likely need to just give it more time.
DECISION MAKING KEY:
↦ 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 8-12 Weeks?
From a psychological perspective, dieting just gets hard after 2-3 months of pushing. Both physical and mental fatigue (a.k.a diet fatigue) start to creep in, and - often without even realizing it - attention to the finer details of dieting that have a big impact on results (I.e. tracking everything, using your food scale, movement) starts slipping.
This is why most of our online clients are prescribed a diet break every 8-12 weeks.
Despite not seemingly having a large amount of physiological benefits, the psychological benefits of diet breaks are large for most. We almost always see dramatically improved adherence (and thus, fat loss) post-diet break.
To learn more about all things diet breaks, check out our blog on the topic here.
DECISION MAKING KEY:
↦ 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, fat loss is likely stalled. It's time to make a macro adjustment.
[For a guide to making macro and/or movement adjustments, click here now.]
We take online clients through an entire 8 step process before decreasing macros... because a macro adjustment isn't needed more often than not.
So be smart (a.k.a. use our system) when determining whether you really need to decrease macros or not.
If you're ready to stop guessing and start achieving the physique you've always wanted, click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.
We apply proven, science-backed nutrition & training methods through individualized coaching to help you get the body you want, and teach you on how to keep it for a lifetime.