The Dreaded Diet Plateau

Dorothy Stainbrook
Feb 4, 2016 · 5 min read

What is a Diet Plateau?

In the last year of coaching people on high-protein-low-carb diets the most common scenario is a loss of 2–5 pounds in the first few weeks and then a downward trend of about 1 pound per week over the next 6 months. At some point however (often more than one point on the journey) you hit the dreaded “diet plateau”.

The diet plateau is not exclusive to a low carb or slow carb diet. In fact, people generally reach a plateau with every diet under the sun. In researching the various diet plans over time, I’ve come up with a curated list of methods that have seen some success in getting people off the diet plateau and on their way to further weight loss.

Why Do We Plateau?

It seems like everything is cruising along fine, you’ve got the hang of the diet and your sugar cravings are in control. Seeing that gradual weight decrease on the scale in the morning is enough to keep your spirits up, even if it is only .2 lbs. Then….a week goes by with no decrease. Then another week. This is when the going gets tough. Many people will give up at this point, blaming the diet because they know they have been 100% compliant.

Fat loss plateaus can be extremely frustrating at times, but generally they are temporary bumps in the road. It’s important to keep focused on your goal, and look at the overall downward “trend” of your weight loss, rather than minor changes in measurements or weight from week to week.

Sometimes a fat loss plateau can be traced back to some minor changes that may have happened over time (i.e., too many domino foods). Sometimes it is fluctuations in water weight due to stress, hormones or lack of sleep. And sometimes it’s just mysterious voodoo.

Often, after being on a plateau for a couple of weeks you will see a “whoosh” where your body just seems to all of a sudden release a few pounds.

Ferriss on the “Diet Plateau”:

Some of the following methods come directly from Tim Ferriss’ book “The Four-Hour Body”, some of it is what I have seen work in the last year and a half of diet coaching, and some is curated methods from health and fitness blogs and podcasts.

Briefly, here is what Tim Ferriss says about the plateau:

  1. “Don’t start thinking that you’ve plateaued until you have been on the diet 6 weeks. It is not unusual for women to experience their greatest weight loss around the 6-week mark. “
  2. “Eating too late, not eating enough protein (my note: you need at least 20–25 grams a meal), drinking too little water are the three most common causes of hitting a weight loss plateau.”
  3. ” The total percentage of body fat lost per month naturally decreases over time. The number of mitochondria in your muscle tissue largely determines your rate of sustained fat-loss (my note: this is why you need resistance training as part of your exercise routine!). Targeted exercise, even just 20 minutes per week, will often double fat-loss that’s plateaued, and should do so for at least two to four months.”

Simple Tips for addressing a Diet Plateau:

  1. Check ingredient lists of any pre-packaged foods you have been eating and note the sugar, the carbs and the calories. Opt for food that has the least sugar, and then go on to compare carbs and calories. If the food label has 3 grams of dietary fiber for every 20 grams of carbs, it is considered a “slow carb” that will not spike blood sugar in the same way as a simple carb.
  2. Reduce the amount of beans in a day. While beans are allowed (and necessary for energy levels), you only really need about 1 cup per day. More than that and the calories and fats in legumes can stall your loss. Alternatively, if you aren’t on a slow carb diet, have smaller portions of food — essentially decreasing your calories by doing either one.
  3. If you have been using any kind of protein shake, discontinue use for a week and replace it with a whole food, like eggs, chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna, etc.
  4. Drink more water, it is really necessary for high-protein diets. Insufficient water intake seems to be particularly common among women. Make a special effort to drink more water on your cheat day.
  5. Portion out or do not have “Domino Foods”. There are certain foods that, while technically fine to eat on a high-protein diet, are prone to portion abuse. Almonds, which are easy to consume by the handful, contain 824 calories per cup, 146 calories more than a Whopper from Burger King. A few nuts are (5–10), but rarely do people eat just a few. Self-discipline is overrated and undependable, so portion them out ahead of time.
  6. Have a proper cheat day, if you have skipped any recently. There’s a lot of data that shows a spike in calories, and a spike in carbohydrates will help your body to avoid a lower metabolism due to dieting.
  7. Eat more than 60g, but less than 230g, of proteins every day.
  8. Eat healthy fats. Getting enough healthy fats from foods like avocados, coconut oil, nuts, eggs, and fish can help stimulate the right hormones to ensure that your metabolism doesn’t shut down, even when you’re cutting back on calories. Not getting enough healthy fats will cause your hormone levels to suffer and create a risk for adrenal fatigue, which can cause all sorts of problems, including weight gain. Healthy fats are also what keep you full and give you long-term energy, so always make sure you’re getting enough in your diet.

More Robust Ways of Addressing a Diet Plateau:

  1. Start exercising more intensely, this is often the key to getting off the plateau in terms of fat loss — get in some sort of strength resistance exercise of your choice for 3–4 times a week. Some experts estimate that every extra pound of muscle on your body burns 30–50 calories extra a day, while others estimate each pound burns 6 extra calories a day, compared to 2 calories burned by fat. Either way, if you want to increase your metabolism, gaining muscle is the best and most sure way to go about doing so.
  2. Intermittent Fasting . There are several different types of IF and that is another whole post. Google intermittent fasting and get knowledgeable to see if it’s for you.
  3. Find out what your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is using one of the calculators on the web and start tracking calories. The reason for plateauing at each level is usually related to the fact that your metabolism starts to slow down as you consume less food. In addition to building muscle and taking cheat days to increase metabolism, there is some evidence that getting cold (either by taking cold showers, sleeping cold or drinking ice water in the morning) can help boost metabolism
  4. Follow the very, very stringent meal plan that Ferriss lays out in his “Last Mile” Chapter of 4-Hour Body. It is effective for the short term, but not a sustainable way of eating.

Better Humans

Dorothy Stainbrook

Written by

Dorothy Stainbrook, organic berry farmer, heirloom tomato farmer, diet coach & preserve maker in forest lake, MN.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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