Most of us are stuck in a fat loss hamster wheel.
Lose 5-10 lbs... get excited... fat loss stalls for unknown reasons... get frustrated, quit diet... regain 5-10lbs... rinse and repeat.
I've coached many online nutrition clients out of this cycle, and I've been there myself. So I get it - stalled weight loss is incredibly frustrating, and the reason 95% of dieters never get the lean, strong body they want.
It's time to escape the hamster wheel, and finally achieve the results you've been working so hard for.
As a nutrition coach, the three most common scapegoats I hear about for stalled fat loss:
1. My metabolism must be broken!
2. My hormones must be broken!
3. My gut health must be broken!
Are any of these likely the reason your progress has stalled?
Now, hormones like T3, leptin,
and cortisol make a difference. But with proper nutritional periodization like I use with my online clients, these are effectively
Now, we won't get too deep into all three topics in this blog. Today we're going to focus on metabolism - because while it can be responsible for fat loss stalls - just not in the "broken" type of way most people think.
The components of metabolism can be divided into four categories:
1. Basal Metabolic Rate or (BMR). Accounts for ~70% of daily calories burned. This is just the basal processes to run your body. Energy expended at rest. Calories burned for activities like your heart pumping, breathing, etc.
2. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). Accounts for ~10% of daily calories burned. It actually takes calories (energy) for your body to digest the food that you eat. TEF varies depending on the food you eat:
→ Protein: 20-35% of the calories you consume via protein are burned off during digestion
→ Carbs: 5-15% of the calories you consume via carbs are burned off during digestion
→ Fats: 0-5% of the calories you consume via carbs are burned off during digestion
3. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).
Accounts for ~15% of daily calories burned, but varies A LOT by individual. This is the calories you burn through movement outside of exercise. (Fidgeting,
walking around the house, etc.) Calories burned via NEAT is typically the biggest difference in the metabolisms of lean and obese individuals.
4. Thermic effect of exercise (TEE). Accounts for ~5% of daily calories burned. Calories burned through exercise.
And that's your metabolism.
Now, it’s been shown you can’t really “damage” your metabolism. For more on the most famous "metabolic damage" research, check out The Metabolic Damage Myth.
The truth is, your metabolism isn't some mysterious invisible creature that's attempting to screw over your fat loss aspirations. It's mostly just a product of your current body size, food intake, and daily movement.
As mentioned earlier, despite not being "broken", your metabolism can slow during dieting and cause fat loss plateaus.
What’s happening is a very natural, and normal process called metabolic adaptation.
As your body changes with dieting, your metabolism changes as well.
→ 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.
→ TEF drops, since you’re eating less food.
→ Calories burned through NEAT also drops. 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.
→ Levels of Leptin - a hormone that regulates apetite and fat storage - decrease. This leads to increased hunger and decreased energy expenditure.
Your body is getting smaller as you diet down, and burns fewer calories as it shrinks. Thus, your metabolism slows. This is just an inevitable part of fat loss.
To look at it from another perspective - in the most simplified terms, weight loss comes down to:
Calories In < Calories Out = Weight Loss
Metabolic adaptation causes the “calories out” side of your equation to decrease. So something in the equation needs to change for progress to resume.
And that’s why fat loss can stall due to metabolic adaptation - even if you haven't changed your diet.
The REAL Most Common Cause Of Fat Loss Stalls
All that said, in my last five years working as a nutrition coach with hundreds of different clients, I've found that the most common reason for stalled fat loss isn't metabolic adaptation.
It's measurement error.
The majority of my online coaching clients track their macros (My case for why tracking macros is such a good idea for most), typically following a diet structure similar to THIS.
The thing with macros (or any diet for that matter) is - eating X macros only gets you Y result if you're ACTUALLY eating X macros. Measuring and tracking your food accurately is a MUST to ensure you're actually eating X macros.
Trying to follow a macro prescription, but failing to measure food properly usually leads to people saying...
"I'm eating super low calories, and I STILL can't lose weight!"
The reality is, you're probably just eating more than you think. We all have a tendency to underestimate our calorie intake.
This 2002 study found that even 10 registered dietitians underestimated their food intake on average 223 kcal/day.
Meanwhile, 10 non-dietitians underestimated their food intake by 429 calories per day, or a whopping 3,003 calories per week.
If you're aiming for a 3,500 kcal/week deficit (which roughly correlates to 1lb of fat loss), this leaves you with a weekly total deficit of ~500 calories - enough to lose 1lb of fat every 5 weeks... a.k.a painfully slow.
The point here is, if your fat loss has stalled - DON'T go slashing calories lower just yet. There's usually no need to.
One of the first things I do when a nutrition client’s progress stalls, is make sure they’re tracking ACCURATELY. We almost always identify a measurement error and progress resumes.
So, if your macros "aren't working", the issue is likely one of the following:
→ Estimating Portion Sizes Instead Of Measuring - 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?
→ Calories From Cooking Oils & Condiments - These are sneaky ones that are easy to forget about. The most common culprits:
^All of these seem like things that "shouldn't
make a difference", but they easily can add up to several hundred
calories per day.⠀
→ Not Tracking Nibbles & Tastes - How many times have you decided to have "just a little taste of peanut butter"... and then another... and then one more. Yeahhhh, me too.⠀Just a little taste of peanut butter, just a few almonds, just a bite of that cookie - each "just a taste" ends up being ~50 calories. "Just a taste" 3 or 4 times can easily add a few hundred calories to your daily total.⠀
→ Not Tracking Entire Meals Or Days - Cheat meals and cheat days easily wipe out an entire weeks work. On the same note, missing multiple meals/days when you don't feel like following the diet structure will also kill your progress.
→ Getting "Too Flexible" With Your Diet - Flexible dieting
works great for most. It allows you to work in more foods you enjoy. But,
foods with lots of ingredients are also much harder to track ACCURATELY.
Eating out frequently/lots of “flexible” foods often leads to stalls,
simply because you can’t track as accurately. (Check out the Top 5 Strategies For Tracking Accurately When Eating Out.)
Tools to help track accurately:
→ A food scale
→ A set of measuring cups
→ A set teaspoons and tablespoons
→ 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.
Adjusting For Plateaus
Now that you’re sure you’re at a plateau, time to adjust.
Now, if your fat loss has stalled, it essentially means you've come to energy balance.
The balance of energy in your body is currently...
Calories In = Calories Out
When you need...
Calories In < Calories Out
So to create an energy deficit and resume fat loss, you can either:
a.) Decrease calories in
b.) Increase calories out
Now, this can get to be a very nuanced conversation. Like 4 Nutrition Strategies For Faster Fat Loss (Without Cutting Calories) mentioned, the components of the food you eat (calories in), and even when you eat it, can increase or decrease calories out.
There are also tons of different ways we can increase activity to increase calories out - more training volume, more NEAT, more cardio, etc.
That said, we're going to assume you're already taking a smart approach to your nutrition, and don't have time to increase your physical activity.
→ In this case, decrease calories by 5-10%.
Basically, we want to lower calories just enough to get back to losing .5-1% of body weight per week - the ideal speed of weight loss for most.
Losing faster than 1% of your body weight is straight up hard mentally. You’ll be super hungry. You’ll feel tired, cranky, and just not all there. It negatively affects your personal and work life, and you're more likely to lose muscle.
Losing slower than .5% of body weight per week is just too slow for most to stay motivated long enough to see their end goal. The .5-1% range creates a happy medium for most.
The Ultimate Guide To Setting Your Macros (For Any Goal) goes into how I set specific macro and calorie targets for online clients much more in-depth. But some general rules of thumb when adjusting macros downwards:
→ Protein intake - Try to avoid reducing protein intake below .8-1 gram per lb of body weight daily.
→ Fat intake - in general, the lowest you want to take fat intake is ~.3g/lb of body weight, daily.
→ Carb intake - Carbs are non-essential. However, cutting carbs unnecessarily low usually leads to adherence issues.
Basically, protein typically stays the same (or occasionally increases) as online clients get deeper into fat loss phases. You can adjust carbs and fats mostly to preference, just avoid dropping fats too low.
The Magic Is In The Adjustments
The adjustments are where the art of coaching come into play.
The reality is, fat loss is pretty simple.
In theory, adequate nutrients and a sustained calorie deficit are all you need to get the lean body you're chasing.
Fat loss is simple, but not easy.
So many outside factors effect your nutrition - lifestyle, goals, dieting history, training, social circles... that finding a diet you can make work with your lifestyle, and achieve your desired results along the way is much easier said than done.
Plus, there's a big difference between getting a result and sustaining a result.
A calorie deficit is the tool we use to get you the results you want.
Diet breaks, refeeds, proper nutritional periodization, lifestyle adherence strategies, and lots of EDUCATION are the tools I give you as a coach along the way to sustain your result long-term.
Basically, we need to do more than just drop your calories - we also need to make sure that we're pulling calories and macros in the way that is absolutely easiest for you. This looks very different depending on the individual.
Below are a few of my favorite ways to adjust the diet structure to fit YOU, and educate clients on how to SUSTAIN a leaner, stronger body in the process:
1. Protein-Sparing Modified Fast Day (PSMF)
Here, the goal is to keep calories as low as possible, while still hitting your protein goal. Basically, you just focus on eating lean proteins and lots of veggies on a PSMF day.
For example, your day could look something like:
→ Fasting until noon (black coffee only)→ Meal 1: Chicken breast + lots of veggies
→ Snack: Tuna mixed with non-fat cottage cheese (actually super good)
→ Meal 2: Lean ground beef or turkey with seasoning, mixed with salsa and veggies
→ Meal 3: Non-fat, plain Greek yogurt mixed with whey protein
This is a strategy I've been implementing with a lot more of my advanced online coaching clients recently.
Most of the time, when we decrease a nutrition coaching clients' calories, it's a drop of 500-800 calories spread across the week.
By implementing a PSMF day, we can often knock that entire deficit out in a single day, meaning the rest of the week the client doesn't have to decrease calories.
For most clients, it's super easy to fast until noon-ish, and eat a bit less on a Sunday (pair your PSMF with a rest day from training). This can speed up your results a lot, without noticeabley increasing the difficulty of the diet.
2. 5|2 Calorie Loading
This is one of my favorite methods for promoting dietary adherence with clients looking to get lean.
Here's how it works:
→ 5 days per week, you’re in a calorie deficit - This is where your fat loss is happening. The size of the deficit depends on how aggressively you can handle cutting. Typically 15-30% below maintenance.
→ 2 days per week, return calories to maintenance levels, or a slight surplus - The increase in calories should come almost exclusively via carbs. This is important.
Our goal here is increasing leptin.
As you diet, levels of the hormone leptin drop.
For a variety of reasons, low leptin makes fat loss harder - namely, increased ghrelin levels (the hunger hormone). Your body also expends less energy (burns fewer calories) when leptin levels are lower.
However, leptin levels increase with carb intake. 48 hours of higher carb intake is typical enough to tell the body to raise leptin levels - leaving you less hungry and more energetic going back to the deficit. This is a big part of why all of my online nutrition coaching clients take diet breaks as well.
All the above aside, the 2 days back to back of higher calories are a GREAT adherence tool. They give you a nice break from the grind of dieting, and let you feel like you have a life.
3. Undulating Calories
Here, you'll split your week up into 3-4 days in a deficit, and 3-4 days closer to or at maintenance. I like this strategy for online clients that are chasing body recomposition - losing fat and building muscle at the same time - and aren't as focused on seeing the scale drop quickly.
→ Pairing a higher intake kcal intake with training days means improved gym performance. To maintain/potentially build muscle while cutting fat, this approach works well.
→ Psychologically, having such frequent higher calorie days makes diet much easier.
→ The downside is, this approach isn't well suited for rapid fat loss, as your low days have to be very low to create a large weekly deficit. That said, the disparity between high and low days is up to you.
4. The Matador Approach
Named after The Matador Diet Study.
Basically, you spend 1-2 weeks in a calorie deficit, followed by 1-2 weeks at maintenance intake or a slight surplus.
→ Definitely slow, but sustainable. Similar to undulating calories, I like this approach for clients who are chasing body recomposition, or have trouble sticking to a diet for long time frames - it’s easy to push hard for 1-2 weeks, when you get a long diet break around the corner.
→ Similar to the 5|2 method, the sustained higher calories also help offset some of the negative adaptations of dieting. Less hunger, more energy when you get back to dieting.
→ Unless you're creating a very large deficit in your deficit weeks, fat loss will be much slower than it would be following a more linear approach. Again, getting results is all about finding what you can adhere to.
5. Adjusting Carb/Fat Ratios
There are very distinct "high-carb/low-fat" and "low-carb/high-fat" camps out there.
This is odd, because the truth is...
When calorie intake, protein intake, and fiber intake are matched... it doesn't really matter THAT much.
Stanford University's DIETFITS STUDY (Diet Intervention Examining the Factors Interacting With Treatment Success) proved this.
DIETFITS was a 12 month clinical trial of 609 overweight adults, with the goal of determining the effect of a healthy low-fat diet vs. a healthy low-carbohydrate diet.
For the first 8 weeks, the low-fat reduced fat consumption to <20 gm/ day. The low carb group reduce carb consumption to <20 gms/day.
Next, participants were allowed to add 5-15 gm (daily) of fats or carbs back in each week until they hit “the lowest level of intake they believed could be maintained indefinitely.” No instructions for restricting overall calorie intake were given.
→ Mean 12 months weight change: -5.3 kg for low-fat VS. -6.0 kg for low-carb
→ No difference in body fat percentage or waist circumference
→ Both groups saw improved lipid profiles and lowered blood pressure, insulin and glucose levels
→ LDL decreased more in the low-fat group, HDL increased more and triglycerides declined more in the low-carb group.
Basically, both diets worked well. No significant difference between the two groups results.
To apply this - if you have a preference for more carbs or more fat - set up your macros as such.
Let's say your macros are currently...
180g Protein | 290g Carb | 69g Fat | 2,501 total kcal
You're having trouble sticking to this, as you really miss fattier foods like steak. So you swap your macros to...
180g Protein | 180g Carb | 118g Fat | 2,502 total kcal
Now you're able to eat a lot more steak. In turn, you stick to your calorie and macros goals much better. Your fat loss speeds up as a result.
Swapping carbs for fat or vice versa often increases clients adherence, without having to actually decrease calories. If your diet doesn’t suit your carb or fat preference, try this.
6. Invest In A Coach
The reality of fat loss is, it's all about finding a plan the works for YOU, and sticking to it consistently for a long, long time.
A coach helps in both regards.
Your success depends on having a plan individualized to you. This is why I take online clients through such a thorough initial assessment - it guarantees that everything that makes you unique is taking into consideration when building your plan.
When you start online coaching, our strategy session and nutrition assessment ensure you'll get a plan that fits exactly to your specific needs and lifestyle. We'll also determine what's missing in your nutrition preventing the optimal hormones, lean muscle gain, and fat loss you want.
We work together to determine the diet structure that best fits your lifestyle. There is no one-size-fits-all approach here - you don't have to track macros, go low-carb, paleo, or anything of the sort. This is about finding the nutrition strategy that works best for you.
On top of individualization, accountability is crazy important.
For most of us, the missing piece keeping us from creating the bodies we want isn't knowledge, it's consistency.
This is exactly why I have a coach of my own.
Accountability leads to consistency. Consistency creates success.
You'll constantly have me in your corner as a guide, with all the tools
you need to be successful. I'm also here to call you out when needed.
You'll learn everything you need to know to sustain your results for the
rest of your life, without me.