Fat loss plateaus and lack of progress can be very frustrating. What makes it the most frustrating is when you feel like you’re consistently putting in effort in the gym and reducing calories, but you are not losing. The first response is often to blame the lack of fat loss on something other than not being in a caloric deficit.
It is amazing how many excuses we find for not losing fat weight. Some examples are “I’m just big bone” or “I’m retaining water” or “my metabolism has slowed down as I’ve gotten older” or “it’s heredity, everyone in my family is overweight.” One of the most common I hear is, “I’m hardly eating anything and I’m not losing weight, so it can’t be calories, it must be my carbs!” I think the best one I heard was from a prospective client who said she was trying to lose her “baby fat.” When I asked how old her baby was, she sheepishly replied, “Twelve years old”!
The fact is, you will always lose weight in a caloric deficit, even though genetics, hormones, and other factors contribute. The laws of thermodynamics and the calorie balance equation still apply. The question is not why does a calorie deficit not work, but instead why has it changed?
I don’t mean to over simplify how complex your body’s fat loss processes and metabolic systems are, because it can be quite complex. There are many health factors that can influence fat loss. These conditions are beyond the scope of this article and could be explored with a medical professional. However, even in these cases, you would find that the energy balance equation is affected in some way. Even if it’s hormones, prescription drugs or a metabolic disorder, all these factors affect thermodynamics. There are many explanations for “unexplainable” weight loss plateaus. I will explain three of the most common reasons below.
Under-estimation of food intake and over-estimation of activity: Almost everyone who doesn’t use a food journal or log their intake underestimates their food intake. A New England Journal of Medicine study reported women who swore they were “diet resistant” and had thyroid problems were actually underestimating their food intake by 47 percent and overestimating their calories burned by 51 percent. Some of them were eating 1,000 calories more than they thought they were!
Reduced calorie needs after weight loss: Your body can adapt to caloric restriction by decreasing the metabolism, especially if it’s prolonged and severe; however, some of the decrease, has to do with having a smaller body after weight loss. Energy balance requirements change based on your body weight, activity level and many more reasons. If you do not adjust your caloric intake and expenditure to accommodate for these changes, you’re going to hit plateaus.
A change in your body composition not reflected by the scale: You could lose body fat, which would show up visually and through body fat testing, but your scale weight may not change. On any given day, the scale can lie and your true progress won’t be accurately reflected by your weight.
This is because body weight can fluctuate on a daily basis due to fluid balances and other factors. If you’ve gained a pound of muscle, this is not the same as gaining a pound of fat. Gaining muscle is beneficial to your metabolism and strength level. By consistently burning more calories than you eat, muscle gain will taper and fat loss will continue. The scale will eventually capture your results and you will lose weight.
Over time the scale tells the whole story. If your weight creeps up after two or three weeks, you’ve been eating more calories than you’re burning. The opposite also is true — if your weight decreases after two to three weeks, you’ve been eating fewer calories than you’re burning. A steady weight indicates the calories you’re burning and consuming are equal.
Even if you are in a caloric deficit and losing weight, it’s not guaranteed to be fat. If you are stressed, over-trained or sleep deprived, or if you too severely reduce your caloric intake, much of that weight loss could be muscle. This could produce the dreaded “skinny-fat” look.
By being aware of the factors that contribute to fat loss, you will bust through your plateaus and be successful at losing the fat while keeping your lean, healthy muscle.
Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine and has been in the fitness industry for over 30 years.