Tips for overcoming a weight-loss plateau

I meet so many wonderful people through my work, and a common thread is that many struggle to reach their goal weight. In particular, highly motivated Type A personalities who give 120% – and more – of their best. They exercise hard and follow their nutritional plans to the letter, so it is particularly frustrating for them when they hit a weight loss plateau.

What is a weight loss plateau?

Trying to achieve your goal weight is not easy. More often than not, there is a rewarding and rapid loss at the start of a diet and then at some point, the kilograms seem to stick, despite ticking all the boxes of eating well and working out hard. So why does this happen? Here is a quick look at 8 common weight plateau culprits:

1. Check insulin resistance

If you’re struggling to shift weight, it’s worthwhile getting your insulin resistance tested. Aesthetics aside, fat around the abdomen can be a sign of insulin resistance and can have serious health implications for your organs. In an Instagram Live interview I conducted with nutrition expert Amy Berger, she had this to say on the subject of fat loss in women: “People know insulin as a blood sugar hormone. But it really does so much more than that.” Amy explains, “Insulin inhibits fat burning, it’s a growth promoter, so while we know it doesn’t cause cancer it certainly gives it more of a growth-promoting signal. It also ages you more, which is why people with insulin resistance and diabetes age more quickly”.

The best way to investigate insulin resistance is to do a fasted blood test – checking for both insulin levels and fasting glucose. Amy also adds that if you are not seeing a change in body weight or shape, but you’re keeping your blood sugar, insulin levels and other biomarkers for health issues in check – then at least know that there are good things still happening metabolically on the inside. This is very helpful because it shifts the main focus from weight to your state of health. It’s not all about the scale.

2. Balance cortisol

Another hormone that can disrupt weight loss is the stress hormone cortisol. It’s important to keep an eye on this one as stress produces excess cortisol, which increases your appetite and signals the body to shift metabolism to store fat. What’s more, imbalanced cortisol can also disrupt the natural levels of insulin.

I strongly recommend that you take the time to restore your cortisol balance and retrain your body to cope with the pressures of modern life. Lifestyle skills such mindfulness, regular exercise and learning to recognise your stress triggers can help you minimise your stress-reaction. I have touched on this topic previously, which you can read here

3. Optimal carb, fat and protein intake

While low-carb, high-fat diets may have many benefits for wellness, watching your carb and fat intake is important too. Because each of us is one-of-a-kind, it makes sense that there is no one-sized solution for all. Some of us have to be very strict about eating fewer carbs, while others need to watch the fat intake. Below is a good baseline of what one should be eating, but take it as a guide and tweak it to suit your specific needs.

CARBS

Most of us do well on between 30 – 150g of net carbs daily. A full ketogenic diet (which is based on the principle that you get more calories from protein and fat and fewer from carbohydrates) includes <50g of carbs which is roughly 5 – 8 servings of green veg a day, with not much left over for regular starches. On a more moderate low-carb diet, you can aim for 100 – 150g of net carbs a day.

FATS

Eating enough fat is key to your health. That said, fat is also calorie-dense, supplying twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein, which means that excess fat intake is not necessary and can negatively impact health.

PROTEIN

It’s also important to monitor protein intake. If your goal is to lose weight then increasing protein will help. Protein is more satiating than fat or carbs. It also increases thermogenesis, meaning you’ll burn more fat if you eat more protein. To burn fat, go for 1.0g protein per ½ kg of your body weight.

4. Restore gut health

I’m a big fan of Dr Sara Gottfried who emphasises the importance of healing one’s gut. She notes that while many of us may have chronic constipation, gas, bloating, discomfort and weight loss resistance, we don’t realise that the gut is often the root cause of the discomfort. “Leaky gut” and/or Dysbiosis1 (a microbial imbalance) are the common culprits, so start doing your homework about improving gut health and work with a functional medicine expert to restore the balance.

Food sensitivities should be ruled out too. As much as 70% of the body’s immune system is in the gut and once the immune response is triggered, it reacts as though it is under attacks and begins storing fluid and increasing weight. When I spoke to Patrick Holford about this, he said he’s seen people lose as much as 5 kilograms in 2 to 3 days, simply by eliminating food they’re intolerant to. It sounds extreme, but water retention is often an immunological response to food intolerance and is definitely something to look at.

5. Optimal exercise

As a rule of thumb, 75% of weight is determined by food and 25% by exercise. This means watch the diet and sweat more. Mix up your exercise routine. Take a cleansing walk after dinner. Do burst training like HIIT (high intensity interval training) which is believed to burn up to 20% more calories than with resistance training, or take a barre fitness class (in person or online). Whatever you choose, really push yourself with exercise. Remember though, if you’re overweight, obese or ill, get your doctor’s approval first.

6. Breaks from sitting

“Sitting is the new smoking” is a phrase that’s been trending. It’s quite shocking to hear, but sitting increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sitting for too long slows down the body’s metabolism and the way the enzyme lipoprotein lipase breaks down our fat reserves. Extended periods of sitting is also associated with increased blood pressure and glucose levels.

Small amounts of regular activity, even just standing and moving around throughout the day is enough to bring the increased levels back down. Those small amounts of activity add up. In fact, scientists have suggested that just 30 minutes of light activity in two or three-minute bursts could be just as effective as a half-hour block of exercise. So I would advise setting regular reminders on your phone or smartwatch to get up and move.

7. Good sleep hygiene

Sleep directly affects your ability to lose weight. Many studies demonstrate how poor sleep negatively affects the brain’s capacity to regulate appetite and interferes with the gut-brain connection. It can also disrupt the hormone system, resulting in high blood glucose levels and increased insulin resistance, which leads to fat deposition inside and around the abdomen, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Dr Sara Gottfried says that sleep governs over 600 genes, including weight loss genes (such as CLOCK) as well as the genes that predict your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. She recommends that you need eight hours of sleep per night to lose weight because the gene variant can raise your daily levels of ghrelin which is a hormone that makes us feel hungry and decrease your leptin which signals when we are full. 

8. Emotional wellness

Something that really resonated with me in my IGTV chat with Amy was that if your diet is perfect and if you are exercising well but are still not shifting that weight, your problem isn’t food and food isn’t going to fix it. I couldn’t agree more.

If you’re in an unhappy relationship or your work life isn’t great, your diet is not going to solve your problems. There is an important reason why it’s hard to lose weight when you are stressed and there are definitely times when emotional health should take priority over weight loss. 

Feeling well means feeling whole, balanced, vibrant and alive. In other words, nutrition, exercise, emotional health, relationships, community, spirit, purpose and mindset are key areas for wellness. They are interconnected and weight loss is a by-product of being healthy.

RESOURCES
Explore more of my interviews and blog posts on weight loss:

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