Ep #101: Getting Past Your Weight Loss Plateau

Strong is a Mindset with Carrie Holland | Getting Past Your Weight Loss Plateau
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I have conversations with clients and listeners all the time who have lost weight, but at a certain point, they stop losing weight despite continuing to eat in a calorie deficit. This is a super common experience when losing weight, so it’s time to talk about the weight loss plateau, what it is, how it happens, and the factors that contribute to a leveling out of your weight loss.

Hitting a weight loss plateau is normal and should be expected for any human cutting their calories to lose weight. It’s inevitable. However, I have some practical tips and strategies you can use to breeze past your weight loss plateau, so you can continue losing weight until you hit your goal.

Tune in this week to discover why your weight loss has slowed down and how to break through a weight loss plateau. I’m sharing the science behind weight loss plateaus, discussing how long it takes to overcome a weight loss plateau, and you’ll learn how to come up with a strategy for getting past any weight loss plateau you experience on your fitness journey.

Are you ready to eat, move, and think in a way that gets you strong both physically and mentally? You deserve to have both no matter how busy you are, and I can help. I’m opening up my one-on-one coaching program for new clients, and I would love to work with you. Click here to learn more about working with me.

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What You Will Discover:

  • The most agreed upon science behind what constitutes a weight loss plateau.
  • Why breaking through a weight loss plateau can take weeks or even months.
  • How your metabolism is contributing to your weight loss plateau.
  • Why we lose weight quickly when we start eating in a calorie deficit.
  • The scientific and habitual causes behind weight loss plateaus.
  • My tips for auditing and self-monitoring if you think you’re in a weight loss plateau.
  • How to address your weight loss plateau and start the work of getting past it.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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Full Episode Transcript:

This is the Strong Is a Mindset podcast, Episode #101. If you’re in a weight loss plateau, let me help you get past it.

This is the Strong Is a Mindset podcast, where you’ll learn how to build both a strong body and a strong mind by eating, moving, and thinking. I’m your host Physician, Personal Trainer, Certified Health Coach and Certified Life Coach, Carrie Holland.

Hey, how are you? What’s new, what’s good? So, what’s good here, we are going to talk about weight loss plateaus today. This has come up a number of times. I’ve gotten a number of questions about it from listeners. And I’ve also had it come up in countless sessions with clients. I realized that it’s something I haven’t yet hit face-on in the podcast. So, we’re going to change that today.
We’re going to get into it. We’re going to talk through your weight loss plateau, what it is, how it happens, and the factors that contribute to it. And then, of course, what to do about it. I want you to walk away with tools that you can use to get past your weight loss plateau. Alright?
Just really quick, before I get into that, I’m going to ask for your help. Since I’ve renamed and rebranded this podcast, one of my goals is to share this information with as many ears as I can reach. To do that, I need your help. So, if you have not yet left a review of this podcast, please do. I would love to get to my next goal of 200 reviews. I’m moving along slowly and steady. But if you have not yet left a review, you can do it in Apple Podcasts.
I definitely do not understand all the inner workings and algorithms, but what I do know is that your written reviews help put this podcast in front of more people who need to hear this message. So, I hope that this podcast has been useful to you in some way. And if it has, it’d be awesome if you can rate and review it.
In the last month, I had not one but two different physicians reach out to me to tell me that they refer their patients to the podcast. And honestly, that is the coolest thing ever. Seriously, it is a huge honor that my physician colleagues would go so far as to recommend this show to their patients. And I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that. So, thank you again for listening and for sharing the show.
So, let’s do it. Let’s talk about weight loss plateaus. Alright, let’s go. First, let’s get straight on what a weight loss plateau actually is. This is interesting. I dug through some science on this, and there are some interesting things that came up when I did this. And no surprise here, but there are lots of ideas and concepts that are not fully agreed upon in the medical and weight loss community about weight loss plateaus.
I dug in and tried to find what is most agreed upon, and most relative in the medical world. But be forewarned that, like so many things related to health and fitness, there is no one right answer. First things first, let’s define it. A weight loss plateau; it’s pretty straightforward. A plateau means you are no longer losing weight. So, when your weight stops changing, despite eating in a calorie deficit, you have hit a plateau.
A few things to know about this, it is entirely normal and expected that you’re going to hit a plateau. That will be true for any human who tries to cut her calories to lose weight. Eventually, you will hit a plateau. There is no avoiding it. And we’ll get into the reasons for that in just a few minutes.
But the next thing that always comes up is, how long? Meaning, how long do I go before I call it a plateau? How many weeks without losing weight, and then you call it a plateau? I get asked this question all the time. When I dug around, there is no medically or scientifically accepted definition for a weight loss plateau.
However, the timeframe that came up most often was three to four weeks of no weight loss. In my own coaching experience, I’ve found that it’s very person dependent. But usually, after four weeks of no weight loss, despite eating in a caloric deficit, then we’ll call it a plateau.
So, then the next question that inevitably follows is, how long do they last? And that is another difficult question to answer. It will largely depend on what is contributing to the weight loss plateau in the first place. Once we do some sleuthing, which I will do with the client during her coaching sessions, we can get to the bottom of it and figure out why she is most likely in a plateau, then we make a plan to address it.
But in full transparency, it may take weeks to bust through a plateau. For some people, it may take months. I know, just saying that I can hear the collective sigh. I’ve heard it from my clients. But I want to be truthful and be honest. It can take a while to get through a weight loss plateau. It does not mean that it’s impossible. Not at all, but I’ve said it before, I don’t sugarcoat here, and I want you to know what you might be looking at. Okay?
To review, a weight loss plateau is defined as no weight loss, despite eating in a consistent caloric deficit. There is no set time of stalled weight loss that defines a plateau, but the accepted number is about three to four weeks. That plateau can last a few weeks up to a few months. Okay?
Now, let’s talk about the causes. Why do weight loss plateaus even happen? There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, let’s talk about your metabolism, because this is going to be one of the most important contributors to your weight loss plateau. When you’re in the early phases of weight loss, you may notice that you lose weight fairly quickly. If you establish a calorie deficit and stay consistent; keyword “consistent,” you may notice that you start to drop weight fairly fast in the beginning. Those first few pounds are likely going to be related to depleting your glycogen stores.
What’s happening here is that when you decrease your calories, your body then turns inward and it looks to its own glycogen stores as a source of energy. And as your body starts to break down those glycogen stores, it will also release water.
From a math perspective, because you know I’m a math nerd and I love thinking of it this way, for every gram of glycogen that your body breaks down, you will release three grams of water. So, early on in your weight loss, you may lose quite a bit of water weight, and you may notice that you’re peeing more and maybe even feeling a little thirsty because of that water loss.
And then, once you deplete your glycogen stores, your body will turn to fat as its next source of energy, and weight loss will continue. But here’s the thing: Your brain can’t use fat as its energy source. It can use ketones, but it can’t use fat. Your brain prefers glucose. And if your body has used up its glycogen stores, then it will turn to your muscle next.
Your body can break down muscle and convert that protein into glucose for energy. That’s an important thing to know. Okay, so let me backup for a second because I’m getting really nerdy here, and I want to make this really simple.
Your body will use up glycogen stores when you’re in a caloric deficit. Beyond that, your body will also start to break down muscle in order to give it an alternative supply of glucose when it stores run out. So, you’ll ultimately lose at least some muscle, and this will come back to impact your metabolism.
And that’s important. I’ve mentioned it before, but muscle mass is one of the highest contributors to your overall metabolism. It takes energy, in the form of calories, to fuel your muscles. So, when you diet and get into a prolonged, or especially if you get into a severe or overly drastic caloric deficit, your body may start turning to muscle protein as a source of energy.
The end result here is that you not only lose muscle mass, but you also lose that contribution of muscle mass to your metabolism. And that is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. Okay? That’s one piece of your metabolism puzzle.
Beyond that, beyond what we know that happens to your muscle, we also know, from a straight physiology standpoint, that your body will do whatever it needs in order to match the caloric deficit you’ve created. Again, it’s homeostasis; your body wants to be in balance. So, if you cut your calories, your body’s natural survival response is to cut its energy output by reciprocally cutting its metabolism to match the new lower caloric input you’re giving it.
That happens in a couple of ways. First, when you take in less food, you will need less calories and less energy to digest your food. Remember, that’s the thermic effect of food, and it can make up about 10% of your total energy expenditure. But if you decrease the amount of food that you take in at baseline, then your thermic effect of food is going to go down too, as your body needs less energy than before to digest a smaller amount of food. Okay?
Other mechanisms of metabolic adaptation are physiologic, and they make sense when you think about them. When you have a smaller body, you will need less energy to maintain it than if you were in a larger body. There are decreased energy requirements for basic bodily functions, like maintaining circulation, breathing, digestion. Your total energy requirements will go down when you lose weight, by nature of having less body mass overall.
Okay, so let’s also talk about the impact of exercise, and how weight loss exercise and a plateau all intersect. This often gets overlooked, but I want to point it out. When you lose weight, you will burn fewer calories during exercise than when you are at your higher weight. That’s because you have less total mass overall to move during exercise when you’ve lost weight. So, exercise will require less energy.
You also have less body mass to heat up and cool down during exercise, which also requires less energy. So, this all adds up to mean that weight loss can result in a reduction in the number of calories that you burn during exercise.
The other thing to note here is that whether you exercise or not, your body adapts to the training stress of exercise. Remember, your body is efficient, it is smart, and it likes to be in balance. So, your body can adapt to training and burn fewer calories with the same workouts over time.
And this is a good thing, because it means your body is using calories more efficiently; it’s smart. But at the same time, it can be frustrating because this adds up to less of an impact on your metabolism. It’s less total energy output overall. Okay?
Alright, another factor contributing to your weight loss plateau is your hormones. Let’s start with leptin. So, leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells. It’s considered a satiety hormone. It sends messages to your brain that it is full and satisfied, so you don’t feel compelled to keep eating.
But what happens when you lose weight? Your leptin levels decrease. So, you have less satiety hormones floating around. You have less of the fullness signal traveling to your brain. The decreased leptin level may increase your appetite and slow down your metabolism.
And then, let’s talk about ghrelin. Ghrelin is your hunger hormone. It’s produced by your stomach and tells your brain to go look for food. So, when you cut calories to lose weight, most likely, your hunger hormone, or your ghrelin, will increase and tell your brain, “Hey, let’s get some food around here.”
So, you’ve got two major hormones that are sounding the alarm, and are essentially working against you when you put yourself into a calorie deficit to lose weight. There are certainly other hormonal signals at play here. But I wanted to highlight those two, as they are the most common that come up and most significant.
All of this is to say that there are a number of metabolic adaptations that happen when you lose weight. We talked about your energy stores in the form of glycogen and protein, your muscles, the impact of exercise, and the impact of hormones. And they all add up to decrease your metabolism in order to match the decreased energy that you’re taking in. This can all contribute to your weight loss plateau.
And last, one other major reason that you may be in a plateau is that you may not actually be in a calorie deficit. So, I saved this one for last because this is a bit of a bigger issue to unpack. But I think it’s important that we go there and talk about it for a minute. I see it all the time with my clients, and I want to dive in.
So, think about it. Often, when you start a weight loss program or a diet or you change up your routine, there’s early motivation at the outset. You may be totally on board; you may be self-monitoring, food journaling, or using a tracking app to be super precise about what and how much you’re eating.
You’re writing out your meal plan, you’re sticking with it. You’re not veering off track; you’re not snacking, you’re not taking bites or tastes of things. You are on.
But then, weeks or months go by and things get a little looser. Again, this happens all the time. Where I see this play out most often is with your protein intake. I’ve said it before, but often, just changing the proportion of protein in your meals is enough to make a huge difference in your satiety levels.
That alone can lead you to lose weight because of protein’s effects. It keeps you fuller longer. It takes the longest to digest, more so than carbs or fat. It can decrease nighttime snacking. It can decrease cravings. So, you may be super motivated to pay close attention to your protein at the outset. You may be measuring it out and weighing it.
And then, time goes by and you start eyeballing. And you may not just be eyeballing your protein, you’re eyeballing everything; how many carbs you’re taking in, how much fat you’re eating. Everything just gets a little looser.
I see this happen with alcohol, too. Often, you may start out making drastic cuts in the amount of alcohol you consume, and that alone can have a huge impact on your weight loss. But then, time goes by or holidays or vacations happen and things start to slide. And even though you’ve been at it with your weight loss for a long time, you start to backslide because you’re not as consistent as you were from the outset.
Again, I’m not pointing this out to call you a liar. Okay? I’m not calling you a liar, promise. But I bring this up because it’s natural, it’s common, and it’s human nature. Left to our own devices, we tend to revert to what we know. We go back to what is easy and comfortable, and that often means that things we did before, that didn’t really help us, start to creep back into our lives again. It’s a habit, straight up habit.
So, before you swear that your metabolism is broken, or that it’s all a loss, and you swear nothing’s working, take a close look at what and how much you’re eating. If you’ve stopped journaling or stopped logging, this may be a really great time to bring it back for a short while. I’m not going to tell you that you need to track or journal for forever, that’s not it. Instead, I think of tracking or journaling as two different forms of self-monitoring that you can use as tools. They’re always at your disposal, and you can always come back to them. They give you data. And the more data you have, the more you can make an informed decision about what to do next.
So, if you think you’re in a plateau, I would suggest self-monitoring for at least five days; that’s a totally arbitrary number. But what I want to see is what you’re actually doing, both during the week, and especially on the weekends. I’ve talked about weekends before; I’ve made an entire podcast about it. I’ll say it again here, but often it’s your weekends that are totally derailing your efforts. Most of the clients I work with have busy workweek schedules, and that isn’t too much of an issue. It’s the weekends, when time is less scheduled, you’re at home more and you can go by your pantry, or you’re going out to dinner multiple times, or there’s alcohol flowing. All of those things add up, and in combination they can put you in a weight loss plateau.
So, please take a look at what you’re actually doing by self-monitoring, to ensure that you’re actually in a calorie deficit before you declare that you’ve hit a plateau. Okay? I’ve seen this come up enough times, and I’ve found that this is actually most often the culprit, even more than any of the other metabolic issues I just mentioned.
Alright, so now that we’ve talked about some of the most common contributing factors to your plateau, let’s talk about what to do about it. I have a number of things to consider. Let’s go through each of these. First and foremost, this is probably a good time to reassess your calorie needs. And you can think about it this way. Your calorie needs are not going to be what they were after you’ve lost five or even 10 pounds of fat.
Your calorie needs will likely go down unless you’ve put on a ton of muscle, which I’ll get to in just a few minutes. So, if you’ve lost a decent amount of weight by eating in a calorie deficit, and then you’ve hit a plateau, it may be that you need to reassess your overall calorie needs and determine what would be a new caloric deficit for you.
I think of it as an ever-shifting baseline. Knowing what we just talked about in relation to your metabolism, we know that when you lose weight, your metabolism decreases. It will eventually settle and declare itself at a new lower resting level, and you will be in a plateau. And then, you can reassess and decide what the next step is to continue to create a caloric deficit, if your goal is to continue losing weight.
But here’s the thing, there’s a point at which it is not going to make sense to keep cutting your calories. I do not ever recommend anyone go below 1,200 calories in a day without medical supervision. Because below that level, you run the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which is no good. Beyond that, that is just not a lot of calories, and you will likely be miserable. When we’re getting down to the 1,200 mark, we really have to look at what your goals are. Because below that you’re running the risk of health issues. Okay?
Next, if you’re in a plateau, take a look at the content of your meals. I’ve said it hundreds of times, but protein is essential. If you’re not getting at least 20gm, but more like 30gm, of protein per meal, there’s your target. I said it earlier, but I’ve seen it happen to so many of my clients. I’ve read about it in the literature. And it’s true, you can lose weight by increasing your proportion of protein in your meals for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. It improves satiety. It keeps you full for longer. It helps regulate your hunger hormones. It decreases craving and snacking at night. So, making that adjustment alone can have a major impact on your overall calorie intake.
I think of your meal in terms of a pie graph. We want to increase protein’s portion of that pie graph, and decrease either fat and carbs in response. And for most of us, that’s probably going to mean carbs, because they’re the easiest to get in and they’re the easiest to overshoot. At the same time, don’t forget fiber. Fiber is definitely underrated, but it is essential and most of us just don’t get enough. So, we want to aim for 25 gm to 30 gm of fiber daily. There are a number of health related reasons to increase your fiber intake. It can help lower your LDL, or the bad cholesterol. It keeps your gut happy by normalizing your bowel movements. It helps keep your blood sugar in check, and it can keep your risk for diabetes lower.
So, from a weight loss plateau perspective, like protein, fiber helps to keep you full longer. And the idea here is that if the foods you eat keep you fuller for longer, you’ll be less likely to overeat or snack excessively. And this will help to keep your weight in check. If you’ve hit a plateau in your weight loss, audit yourself and see if you’re getting at least 90 gm to 100 gm of protein per day, and at least 25 gm to 30 gm of fiber in a day. Aiming for both of those targets will help you stay full and satisfied, and may lead you to eat less overall. Okay?
Alright, the next thing I would recommend you do if you think you’re in a weight loss plateau is take a look at your alcohol intake. I mention this separately because this is something I see commonly, and I want to pull it out. Often, when I start coaching with a client, she’ll be super motivated and she’ll cut way down on her alcohol, like I said. But then, over time, she’ll loosen up and start to have a few drinks here, a few drinks there over the weekend.
So, whereas before, at the outset, she might have been having maybe one drink at most in a week, over time, to relax, maybe she’ll have a few more drinks in a week. And while that may not seem like a big deal, it is enough. Because what happens is that one drink can lead to two drinks. Or one drink leads to a handful of chips or peanuts, or bites of things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Alcohol disinhibits you and can lead you to not only drink more, but it also can lead you to eat more. I would encourage you to really look at how much alcohol you’re drinking, especially compared to when you started working on your weight loss, and see if you’ve loosened up at all. That could be what’s leading to your plateau. Okay?
To piggyback off of these first three suggestions; looking at your calories, looking at your protein and fiber intake, and also your alcohol intake; here’s the next suggestion. Do some self-monitoring. I’ve talked about self-monitoring before, and I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty here. But if you’re not sure that you’re in a true plateau, or if you think that your nutrition has gotten a little looser since starting to lose weight, I highly, highly recommend doing some sort of self-monitoring to get a sense of what is actually going on.
As a reminder, self-monitoring does not mean you have to pull out your MyFitnessPal. But for some people, that may be what you need in order to get the data you’re looking for. For others, it can be as simple as writing down everything you put in your mouth for 5-7 days; as long as there’s a weekend in there. It can be pen and paper, and as simple as you recording what you eat.
Because once you do that, you give yourself data, and you can use that data to make tweaks. So, maybe you’ll see that you’re actually not getting as much protein as you thought. Maybe you realize you need to measure your protein more closely for a short while, to remind yourself what 30 gm of protein in a meal looks like, instead of eyeballing it.
Or maybe you see that your fiber intake is not what it was at the outset of your weight loss journey. Or maybe you see that you’re eating more processed hyper-palatable, high-calorie foods than you realize. Or your intake of alcohol has gone up. Or that your weekends are the culprit, and that’s where you’re undoing your calorie deficit.
I list out all these examples because these are all things my clients have discovered, when they’ve gone back and self-monitored, when they thought they were on a weight loss plateau. So, a short burst of self-monitoring may be super helpful and give you all kinds of information.
And the key here is that you use that information to make adjustments. I would say, of everything, this is probably the most important thing you can do if you think you’re on a weight loss plateau. We need data; we need real accurate information. I don’t want you guessing. So, the more accurate information you have about what and how much you’re actually eating, the more effectively we can address it and get you back on target. Okay?
Alright, the next thing you can do is ensure that you’re moving. I don’t mean through exercise, though I’m always a proponent of you exercising because it feels good. When I say “moving” in this context, what I mean is all the non-exercise movement throughout your day; or NEAT. That’s your Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
It’s all the things, like walking around your neighborhood, putting laundry away, cleaning your house. It’s all the non-exercise movement that you get. All of that adds up to increase your total energy expenditure, which can be helpful. And it’s no secret, we are a largely sedentary population, and that’s harming our health. So, the more movement you can work into your day, the better.
What I will point out here is that when I was preparing for this episode, I found article after article that mentioned increasing planned exercise; either your duration or your intensity, if you want to bust through a weight loss plateau.
You can take that for what it’s worth, but I have a really hard time getting behind that. I am all for you getting exercise, but I prefer that you do it because you like it and not because it’s a means to an end for weight loss.
I’ve seen it backfire so many times that I just can’t get behind recommending increasing your exercise for the sole purpose of pushing through a weight loss plateau. That, to me, is creating a very transactional relationship with exercise. And it’s a setup for resentment if and when it doesn’t deliver. Instead, I’m going to encourage you to see where you can increase your non-exercise activity. How can you walk more? How can you get more steps in? How can you spend less time seated and more time up and moving around? I think addressing those issues will offer you so much more benefit than forcing yourself into an extra 30-minute HIIT session with the hopes of moving the needle on your weight loss. Okay?
Alright, next. I will also put in a plug to ensure that you’re maintaining your muscle. Again, knowing what we know about weight loss and metabolism, when you lose weight, some of that weight loss is going to come from muscle. Which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. So, if you have any interest in putting on muscle, or keeping whatever muscle you’ve already got, it’s strength training.
I’m cautious about recommending this, given what I just said about having a transactional relationship with exercise. If you know me at all, you know how I feel about strength training. Lifting weights is amazing in and of itself. I don’t want you doing it for the sole purpose of pushing through a weight loss plateau.
Instead, I’m listing it out here because I truly believe there is not a single person on earth who couldn’t benefit from having muscle. So, this goes far beyond what it does for your metabolism or what it does for your weight. Okay? Muscle not only looks nice, but it feels even better. And the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism will be at baseline. The impact on your metabolism is a bonus. So, consider the place of strength training in your life, not only for the metabolic impact but also for the purpose of being strong. Okay?
Alright, another thing to look at is sleep. Sleep deprivation will most definitely impact your weight. This is largely due to the effects that it has on your hormones. Sleep deprivation will increase ghrelin levels and decrease leptin levels. What that means is, you’re looking at an increase in the hormone telling you you’re hungry, and a decrease in the hormone telling you you’re full; no good.
On top of that, chronic sleep deprivation can also cause an increase in cortisol, which is your stress hormone. With chronically elevated cortisol levels, you’ve run the risk of weight gain. And there’s literature that suggests this weight gain is most pronounced in the midsection or around your belly.
So, there’s a lot more to this, but the point here is that you could be doing everything right from a calorie and intake perspective, but if you’re not getting enough sleep, you will likely not see the weight loss that you’re looking for. The same is true for stress management. That, again, is related to the impact of cortisol on your body.
These are two major important factors that have a significant impact on our weight, and we have to pay attention to them. Okay? So, if you have done everything, and you are for sure in a caloric deficit, and you’ve gone through all the other things I’ve listed, and none of them apply, take a look at your sleep and stress levels. They are super important and highly underrated. Sleep matters a lot, and stress management is essential. Okay?
Last, let me address this last question face on. That question is, how much do I eat? Specifically, the question that comes up time and time again is, if I’m currently in a plateau, do I eat less and cut my calories even more? Or do I eat more and give myself a break?
This is a complicated one, for sure. Let’s talk through this. First and foremost, when we’re talking about whether to increase or decrease how much you’re eating, this is assuming that you are in a true weight loss plateau. Okay? That means you’ve gone through and evaluated what you’re eating very carefully, and have confirmed that you are actually eating in a consistent calorie deficit. That is essential.
I know that this is obvious, but I want to spell it out. That is, if you are not in a consistent calorie deficit, you cannot be in a weight loss plateau. A weight loss plateau happens after you’ve been in a consistent calorie deficit that was at first resulting in weight loss, but now is no longer resulting in weight loss. Again, the keyword here is “consistency.”
Everything we’re talking about from here out is assuming a true, consistent caloric deficit that was once working, but now isn’t. So, now that I’ve beaten that dead horse and made it super clear, assuming that you have been in a true legitimate caloric deficit, and you’ve truly plateaued and your weight loss, the question becomes, do you cut calories even further? Or do you give yourself a break and eat in maintenance, or even slightly above maintenance?
You may see that in the literature or on influencer pages, and you may see it referred to as a “diet break.” Let’s look at both sides of this coin here. First, let’s look at the option of cutting calories more.
So, that is clearly going to be the more challenging of the two options, but it is not impossible. Again, remembering what we know about weight loss to date; in order to lose fat, you need to establish a consistent caloric deficit. If that process has stalled for you, we’re looking at decreasing your calories further.
But that’s not always an easy thing to do. And this is especially true for my baseline inactive low-muscle people. If you are not active, and if you have low muscle mass, this is going to create a challenge. Because what this means is that we’re not going to have a lot to work with. Remember, the more active you are, and the more muscle you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate will be.
But if you’re neither active, nor have much muscle mass, your calorie needs at baseline are not going to be super high. And then, in order to lose weight, we have to go and try to establish a caloric deficit on top of what is already a low metabolism to begin with. So, we’re left with very little calories to work with.
To get you into a calorie deficit, we’d be looking at you eating very low calories, and often, this will take you below 1,200. That’s just not safe unless you’re being medically monitored. So, this goes back to what I was talking about a few weeks ago, and why often I will put the focus on building muscle first, before we try to start cutting your calories.
It will feel better, both from a strength standpoint and from a metabolic and caloric standpoint, to be adding to your body in the form of muscle versus trying to take fat and calories away from it. This is especially true if you don’t have a lot of muscle to begin with.
I say it all the time, I’ll say it again here, muscle feels good. It feels good to build it with strength training, and it feels good to feed it with protein, whole grains, and healthy fats. Okay? So, if you are very inactive, you’ve tried losing weight and you’ve hit a plateau, you may want to start looking at building muscle first before you try to slash your calories any further.
Now, if you’re already working out and have a good base of muscle, and you’re eating in a consistent calorie deficit, and you’re in a true weight loss plateau, then you have a decision to make. You can decide to cut your calories further; you can absolutely do that. But I would simply ask you to think about what that’s going to mean from a sustainability standpoint.
It is no fun to strong-arm yourself into a super low caloric intake that is not sustainable. So, I would simply look at what you’re currently doing, and consider what it would look like to cut your calories even lower. What is that going to mean for you? How hungry are you now? How hungry will you get? Is this feasible? Is it sustainable?
I know these are hard questions to consider, and hard questions to answer, but I think it’s essential to ask those questions before you go and do anything. And that’s because I want you to make an empowered, informed decision. I don’t want you deciding to cut your calories, eating like a bird to lose just a few more pounds, only to rebound, over eat and regain it all back.
That will be more damaging physically, metabolically, and psychologically than staying at your plateau and deciding to be done losing weight. The impact of cyclic weight loss, or yo-yo dieting, cannot be overstated. It’s really important to consider how sustainable cutting your calories will be before you go and try it. Okay?
One other thing I want to mention, and that is the “diet break.” So, I said it before, but you may have come across that term in science literature, on health and fitness websites, and from influencers. And while there is no one widely accepted definition for a diet break, what I found most commonly is that a diet break is considered four days or longer of eating in caloric maintenance, or slightly above.
Here’s the idea or the theory behind this. The idea is that if you’ve been restricting and cutting calories to lose weight, you are impacting your metabolism. So, the idea is to give yourself a break and allow your metabolism to stabilize by taking a break from eating in a caloric deficit.
This is different from a “refeed,” which is generally a shorter amount of time that you’re eating in maintenance or slightly above. I’ll be the first to admit, this is where it gets a little sticky. Because depending on where you look, you will see all kinds of variations in what constitutes a diet break versus a refeed.
The one and only thing I found agreement on is that they’re different in duration. So, refeeds are generally shorter, like one to three days. While diet breaks are four days or longer, and can even go up to one, two or more weeks.
So, here’s the cool thing to know. This is cool. As I was preparing for this podcast, I was digging through the literature and I found a systematic review and meta-analysis that was just published in January of 2024, that looked at the difference between continuous dieting versus intermittent dieting with scheduled diet breaks. What it found was that taking diet breaks was found to have significantly smaller reductions in resting
metabolic rate compared to continuous dieting. And this was especially true for people who are not strength training. Okay, so in plain English, taking scheduled diet breaks may be useful for decreasing the impact of dieting on your metabolism. That is super cool. What we don’t know yet is how long the diet break should last, or whether it should be done in calorie maintenance or calorie surplus. We don’t know exactly the details of which way is best to protect your metabolism. But I would bet that more research on this is forthcoming, especially after this article.
So, what do you do with this? Well, after reading this article, which is a pretty good quality article, I would suggest a diet break if you’ve been in a plateau. I’m picking arbitrarily based on this study. But you could do a week or even two weeks of eating in a slight caloric surplus, like 250 or so calories, and then go back to your deficit. This is entirely arbitrary.
If you look at the study, the patterns are all over the map. So, we just don’t know yet what the perfect or most effective diet break is. But we do know that those breaks can be helpful to reduce the negative impact of dieting on your metabolism. And that is essential. You can choose to keep plugging away at a continuous calorie deficit. But based on what we currently know, I would consider a diet break, where you eat in a slight surplus to mitigate the impact to your metabolism. Okay?
So, there it is. We just went over what a weight loss plateau is, why they happen, and most importantly, what to do about it. I know this is a complicated topic. We can keep going on about this here, but the key takeaways to note here are: One, weight loss plateaus are entirely normal and they are expected. They will happen to any human who is trying to lose weight. Second, there are a number of reasons for a weight loss plateau. But the key piece is determining whether or not you’re actually on a plateau. And in order to be in a plateau, you need to have been eating in a consistent calorie deficit; keyword “consistent.”
And last, there are a number of things you can do to get out of your plateau. Like, reevaluating your calorie and macro needs, checking your alcohol intake, concentrating on building muscle, increasing your non-exercise activity, increasing your self-monitoring, managing stress and sleep. And then last, you have a decision to make. You can choose to cut your calories further, or you can choose to take a diet break.
So, I hope this helps you the next time you wonder if you’re on a weight loss plateau. What I find most commonly is that your weight loss plateau is multifactorial. So, consider these factors and which apply to you. Consider what you can do differently. You may be surprised that a subtle tweak to what you’re doing, that may be enough to get you back into a deficit. Okay?
Thank you again for hanging out with me. I’ll catch you again next week.
Hey, if you’re looking for your next great read, I’ve got you covered. Head over to CarrieHollandMD.com/books and download my list of most favorite reads. I’ve got two collections waiting for you. One is all about work-life balance. The other is a collection of books that have changed my life. I’ve referenced many of these books in the podcast, and now you can access those titles all in one place.
Again, that’s CarrieHollandMD.com/books. Check it out and find your next great read. Thank you for listening to the Strong Is a Mindset podcast. If you want to learn more about how to build both a strong mind and a strong body by eating, moving, and most importantly, thinking, check out CarrieHollandMD.com.

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