Does this sound familiar?
“I started a paleo/low carb/low fat/vegan diet and it worked for a while. Then, for some reason it stopped working. I hit a plateau and didn’t loose [sic] any weight for 6 weeks.”
This is fairly common, so if this sounds like something you’ve been through or something you’re going through right now, don’t feel alone. Let’s talk about what’s going on.
This section “I started a paleo/low carb/low fat/vegan diet” is of little consequence. After all, it worked at first so it must have some merit, right? No matter which of these options applies to you, or if a different one applies all together, you’ve hit the same plateau. It’s this section we need to worry about: “for some reason it stopped working.” There is a reason.
Each one of these dietary protocols help you restrict the amount of food you eat without realizing it. Your focus is on eliminating certain foods (carb heavy foods, fat heavy foods, those foods unavailable to cavemen, animals, etc.) so you don’t notice the fact that you’re actually eating less. This is a good thing until it stops working.
The mythical beast that is the weight loss plateau
Type weight loss plateau into google and you’ll get all kinds of ridiculous mythology. Go ahead, I’ll be here when you get back. Set a timer, though, as to not get sucked in to the never-ending spiral of stupid.
Let’s take a look at a possible biological explanation first. You’ve just lost 30 lbs. Some of that was water and some was tissue like fat or muscle. Not only is the tissue you lost now not using calories, but you’ve also most likely experienced something called an adaptive decrease in thermogenesis. Basically, this is what happens when you restrict calories and your metabolism slows down more than expected from tissue loss alone. (Rosenbaum) It happens to everyone. Become okay with it. So, with this in mind you’ll need to re-evaluate your caloric intake and adjust for your new metabolic rate. Heck, that was easy.
Wait, you say you weren’t paying attention to calories before so you don’t know how to adjust? Ahh, I see. Don’t fret, this still won’t be too difficult. First, visit here and calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and multiply that by your activity level – just use the instructions on that page. Be honest about your activity level and when in doubt, err on the lighter side. Once you have your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), write that number down somewhere safe.
Next, we need to get a close estimate of your caloric intake. This is the part that’s going to take some effort and time. You’re going to need to measure your portions, at least for a few days and figure out how many calories you’re consuming. Be honest! I hate to sound like my youth league football coaches here, but you’re only cheating yourself.
Now, after a few days compare your average calorie intake with the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) number you put in your safe place. The former should be less than the latter, by at least 20%. If not, get it there or add activity to up the TDEE. Or both. See which one is easier to attain and go with that. You’ll start losing weight, I promise.
Now, a psychological perspective
There is always the chance that your calorie intake is matching your TDEE but for a different reason: you’re just not that into the diet anymore. When you first ordered whichever book it was that laid out your new lifestyle (I’m using the term loosely here, since a diet book is not a lifestyle change book) you were, as they say in Jeff’s native country, “wicked excited, kid.” You were strutting around telling your friends, “Dude, I’m like, totally primal. I only eat stuff that cavemen ate, only someone else kills the animal for me.” Yes, I’m making fun of you paleo people who think you’re primal. Eustace Conway has been pretty freakin’ close to primal. You’re not. (I could have very easily made fun of the low carbers, low fatters, or the vegans. Relax, it’s just some teasing.)
Anyway, over time you’ve just grown unexcited and you’ve started slipping some not-on-the-plan foods into your routine. You’ve added some carbs, added some fat, or started eating some Neolithic foods. It’s okay, this shit happens. You remember how these plans automatically limited your calorie intake without you knowing it? Well, now that’s not happening anymore. You can solve this by either reigniting the fire you had originally and getting right back in line with the plan or reading over the solution to the biological perspective and putting it to use.
Before they start whining
If I end this post after the last section, I’m going to get people emailing me about how counting calories is also not a realistic long-term lifestyle change. I would then have to reply, stating I agree that’s true for most people and how I should write an addendum explaining myself. I don’t have time for that so please let myself explain… myself.
Counting calories by weighing and measuring foods is not a long-term solution for most people. This is simply a technique to get the ball rolling in the right direction and to get you used to eating a new, smaller amount of calories (I originally wrote “food” instead of “calories,” but that’s not necessarily true). Once you get the hang of what it looks like to eat the proper portions, by all means stop being so neurotic. Or, you could always follow the recommendations in the Environment chapter of SPEED which state that… wait a tick. If I tell you what we say in the book you won’t have to buy it. That wouldn’t be a great business decision now, would it? I’m onto you!
(pssst… just use smaller plates, bowls and utensils. You’ll eat less, I promise)
So there you have it. That’s how you break a plateau – you pay attention to the one thing that governs it all and make sure it’s in check. Good luck!
Rosenbaum M, Hirsch J, Gallagher DA, Leibel RL. Long-term persistence of adaptive thermogenesis in subjects who have maintained a reduced body weight. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:906 –12.