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Nutrition: The Dreaded Weight Loss Plateau

Nutrition: The Dreaded Weight Loss Plateau

March 12, 2022
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In our last post, we've gotten a good start on a weight loss journey. But what happens if the "losing streak"...stops?

If you’ve ever tried a fad diet, or even if you’ve taken the lifestyle approach to your health, you might be familiar with the weight-loss plateau

You've been working hard to follow a healthy, low-calorie diet and improve your exercise habits, and your reward has been watching your weight go down and feeling better. Now, however, for no reason you can identify, the scale has stopped budging. You've hit a weight-loss plateau. (Source


It Can Happen to Anyone

I am certainly familiar with the frustration of a weight-loss plateau that stems from the complete cessation of weight-loss. I am also familiar with how many people try to break through this plateau by increasing their caloric deficit—either consuming fewer calories, attempting to burn more calories, or a combination of the two.

In fact, much of the advice that is typically given for how to break through these plateaus includes doing just that, and this includes the source cited above, which is from the Mayo Clinic. Two problems that we’ve already identified with this, however: zero calories is a natural limit to how much of a caloric deficit we can achieve and, to use me as an example, if at least two-thirds of my calories are expended as a matter of basic bodily functions, then it would take some fairly extreme, and possibly even unhealthy, levels of activity to increase my caloric deficit in any meaningful way. 

I can tell you that my experience has been that increasing a caloric deficit upon hitting a plateau can actually result in weight gain, or at least ensure the plateau will persist. As supplemental support of this experience, here are some articles that essentially report the same:

I Lost Weight Eating 2,200 Calories Per Day

Eat More to Lost Weight? Yes, It Can Be a Successful Strategy

Why Eating Fewer Calories Won't Help You Lose Weight


Why would increasing a caloric deficit result in weight gain?

“In the short term a reduction in energy intake is counteracted by mechanisms that reduce metabolic rate and increase calorie intake, ensuring the regaining of lost weight” (Source).

Translation: there are things within your body that seek to compensate for the fact that you aren’t feeding it enough. Moreover, you risk “damaging your metabolism” by eating too few calories, and it’s probably pretty obvious that damaged metabolism would complicate things further (Source). 

 

Calorie Tracking: No, All Calories Are Not the Same 

When it comes to implementing a strategy for calorie consumption, it's implied that some tracking is involved. There are plenty of tools to do this, including the MyFitnessPal app.

One thing that I appreciate about MyFitnessPal is how many items you can find off of restaurant menus. When my wife and I first embarked on the nutritional part of our lifestyle, it was very difficult to go out to eat and know what we could eat. To be sure, MyFitnessPal made things easier, but time was also required to learn and get comfortable with pulling the trigger on ordering what we wanted. Most of the issues that we experienced, however, were related to the quality of food choices, not the simply the number of calories. 

The best way to understand our initial struggle is to start with the nutritional lifestyle that we adopted: the Paleodiet. These are the key points to the Paleo diet, as we have implemented it: 

 

  • Avoiding food with added substances, whether those substances are added prior to processing, or during processing—this effectively rules out processed foods. 
  • Avoiding foods with cane sugar. 
  • Avoiding other “cheap” carbohydrates and starches—think: white foods like bread, pasta, potatoes, etc. 
  • Avoiding dairy. 
  • Getting the bulk of our calories from protein and fat. 
  • Following the 80/20 rule—as long as the meals that we eat are 80% of what we are trying to achieve, we’re fine with that. 

 

Remember when I pointed out above that I have heard, firsthand, individuals within the exercise and health profession say that all calories are the same? Well, here’s where I get to address that.  

The significance of discussing carbohydrates, protein, and fat is that these are all macronutrients and are the sources of the calories that we consume, so to speak. The reason I reference them as the sources of the calories that we consume is because it implies that there might be a difference in the calories that you get from each—and that is indeed the case: 

Each macro provides a certain number of calories per gram. Carbs like rice and potatoes provide 4 calories per gram, proteins like meat and fish also provide 4 calories per gram, whilst healthy fats like nuts and avocados provide 9 calories per gram. (Source

And just to further illustrate some of the uniqueness to be found within macronutrients, fat is "also important in delivering fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K into the body" (Source).

The fact that there are differences in the calories available in each macro essentially explains three things. 


  1. How we can get full quicker eating certain foods, as compared to others.
  2. How we can easily gain weight by simply eating the wrong foods, which would mean we are consuming the wrong balance of macros.
  3. How someone could consume the number of calories recommended per day, but still end up malnourished.


I used to be more strict when it came to monitoring my macros. Starting out, I tried to target 40g-50g of carbohydrates—yes, that is very low, but I found that I handled it pretty well. In addition, I try to be sure to get the daily recommended amount (DRA) of protein, which is just about universally accepted to be 0.8g per kilogram of body, or 0.36g per pound of body weight (Source)—although, I recently heard Diana Rodgers, RD, suggest on a podcast that the DRA of protein is insufficient, but I couldn’t find anything in print for this post. Other than that, I basically round out my calories with fat. 

 

Professional Intervention 

Another interesting thing about macros is that discussing them naturally takes us in the direction of talking about how professionals might be able to intervene and help with weight loss. The reason for this is because the most accurate way to tell what balance of macros that you should be consuming is through DNA analysis: 

Since the sequencing of the human genome, there's been a lot of interest in nutrigenomics. It’s long been clear that we don’t all respond the same way to the same dietary interventions. Some people do really well on a higher fat diet. Others develop high triglycerides or cholesterol on the same diet. Some people lose more weight when they reduce carbs. Others lose more weight when they increase complex carbs and reduce fat. (Source

The way I see it: because some of our ancestors were more nomadic than others, evolution has played a significant role in determining what foods are best to feed our bodies via the genes that have been passed along. 

Nutrigenomics (also called nutrigenetics) “looks at how our genes determine our response to nutrients in food and beverages” (Source). Further, medical practices, like Wild Health, have begun focusing on patient health through the lens of their DNA. In other words, upon becoming a patient of such a practice, the first step is providing your DNA profile. Your DNA profile is then used to develop a regimen of care, and this absolutely includes nutritional recommendations. 

You might not be comfortable with the idea of sharing your DNA like that, and I get it—I am not comfortable taking that step either. Nevertheless, simply being aware that genes can make a difference can help us understand that what might work for others might not work for us. Alternatively, it might help us to understand why we might not be able to do it on our own, without professional intervention. 

In my case, I sought help in dealing with insulin resistance

People with insulin resistance, also known as impaired insulin sensitivity, have built up a tolerance to insulin, making the hormone less effective. As a result, more insulin is needed to persuade fat and muscle cells to take up glucose and the liver to continue to store it. 

In response to the body's insulin resistance, the pancreas deploys greater amounts of the hormone to keep cells energized and blood glucose levels under control. This is why people with type 2 diabetes tend to have elevated levels of circulating insulin. The ability of the pancreas to increase insulin production means that insulin resistance alone won't have any symptoms at first. (Source

 

Some of the consequences of insulin resistance

 

  • A waistline over 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women 
  • Blood pressure readings of 130/80 or higher 
  • A fasting glucose level over 100 mg/dL 
  • A fasting triglyceride level over 150 gm/dL 
  • A HDL cholesterol level under 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women 
  • Skin tags 
  • Patches of dark, velvety skin called acanthosis nigricans

(Source

 Speaking of our hormones, of which insulin is one, trouble with weight loss can stem from issues imbalances to be found in other hormones (Source), or even thyroid issues (Source), so those could potentially be investigated by a health care provider to help someone achieve the health and/or weight loss that might be eluding them. 

 

Most Importantly, Give Yourself Some Grace

 The last thing that I want to highlight is the simple fact that health, much like a lot of other things in life, should be treated as a marathon, not a sprint. I referenced the fact that some people might be overwhelmed in trying to get a handle on their health, and I certainly understand that. My advice would be to simply take it one step at a time, begin with nutrition, and understand that, no matter what you try, progress might not happen as quickly as you would like it—but it can, and will, happen, if you stick with it. Be sure to not be too hard on yourself and to give yourself credit for any progress you experience. With that being said, it's probably fair to say that the goal of this post is to simply help folks do all they can do to be healthy, because that's where our quality of life begins.


I am not a medical expert and this information is not intended to be medical advice. Consult your doctor regarding weight loss and health issues.