It’s no secret, fat loss is one of the greatest challenges men and women face during their health journey. Unlike gaining weight, shredding the pounds isn’t as easy especially when you lack the knowledge of how the body responds to your efforts.
What’s unknown is beyond those popular 12-week transformation programs, your body attempts to ward off famine and store fat. You experience the inevitable plateau and are faced with two choices: manage the plateau or quit and return back to your old ways.
Coach Tyler Mounce and I sit down to discuss the reality of losing weight and how you can avoid letting a plateau sabotage your fat loss goals.
The body is a dynamic interactive system
One of the main challenges that comes along with losing weight lies in a lack of knowledge. A lot of people don’t understand that the body is a dynamic interactive system and although your goal is to shred pounds, your body many have other ideas.
“Picture Mr or Mrs Jones” says Amir. “Either through medical necessity or desire or both, they decide to lose weight and improve their body composition. They’ll do what all well-meaning people will do. They’ll join a gym, hire a personal trainer, choose more nutritionally dense food, remove processed foods, and begin their program.”
“First problem they’ll experience is that they’ll expect no response other than ‘I’ll train, eat well, lose weight, and get to my goal’. Their expectation is that their body will have compliance and be in sync with this goal.”
Unfortunately for Mr and Mrs Jones, the body has other ideas. They believe fat is on one side of the chess board with their mind and body on the other, and that they’re simply going to vanquish the fat. In reality, their body is positioned on the other side of the chess board right beside the fat and it’s going to respond to whatever the Jones’ do to it.
“Their expectation is input and output. I train, I eat, I get to my goal, the end”, explains Amir.
The body has surprise for them. The plateau.
When they experience the plateau they’re unprepared and shocked. The 12-week fat loss program they’ve been following religiously didn’t prepare them for it. This often will lead to the person quitting, being disheartened and losing trust in the entire process.
“The body is a dynamic interactive system, and it’s going to have its own way of responding to this new change.”
This is not conventional wisdom. Head to the Barnes & Nobles diet section and pull any fat loss book off the shelf, says Amir. Begin to read chapter one and you’ll be told it’s not you, it’s genetics. If the first page was going to tell you the program is going to stop working and you’re going to plateau, you’ll immediately put the book back on the shelf.
“This is not going to sell; the industry would collapse.”
“The author knows, beyond that 12-week program you’re on your own. It’s implied you can continue the program endlessly and you can go back to the start of the book and begin again.” But we all know across a one, two or five-year period removed from that program, they’re all back to the base line.
Plateau is an inevitable, unavoidable response
How often do you hear people tell you their fat loss journey is going to take time? That their progress is going to slow down at some stages, and they’re simply going to have to deal with it? Not that often.
“People have this idea in their head that fat loss is going to be linear, that fat will go down just like that,” says Tyler. “What it takes to get into the 95th percentile is much harder than getting into the 90th percentile. That last little bit is where all the difference is made.”
The body is a dynamic system and people trying to lose weight will experience lots of undulations. Fat gain on the other hand is linear!
Your fat loss is going to go through variations depending on what your response is to the body’s response. If you’re expecting a steady drop in weight from your starting point to the end, having achieved your goal and that’s it, you’re in for a surprise.
“Your body is going to respond harder the longer you’re in the program, especially if you’re a woman. Females really need to listen to what we’re saying because unfortunately, you’re the disadvantaged gender when it comes to fat loss.”
If you think back to the chess board analogy, the body’s standard first move is to plateau. It’s a cheater. It makes multiple approaches simultaneously and you have no choice in the matter. The approaches may only be of subtle degrees, but they’ll increase in severity depending on the variation and duration of your program, which infers your diet, exercise and lifestyle.
“First thing that happens is you wind up taking less space on the planet. Take a 300-pound layman and his 120-pound sister. It’s easy to imagine he requires more food / more energy than his sister who is half his size. So, if he works hard and drops 100 pounds, his body’s requirements are now.”
Amir explains this won’t halt progress, but it will slow it down. You’ll require less energy to move, your exercise becomes more economical because you’re getting in shape. Your system is getting fit, you’re requiring less energy to do the same amount of work.
To go from zero to one has a huge metabolic impact
To train one day after having never exercised before has a huge metabolic impact on the body. “To go from three training days to four days isn’t that big a shift because you’re now fitter.”
Your thyroid TSH that masters the regulator starts to drop slightly. Your cortisol starts to rise due to the overall increase in stress from training, eating well and supplementation, which may need adjusting. Ghrelin, your appetite hormone, goes up subtly. You may even notice the palm size guide for your food serving increases or that you’re licking the spoon after you’ve dipped it in the almond butter.
Then there’s the transcript ‘cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript’, known as CART, which increases the hedonic value of food.
“Stephan Guyenet, is a brilliant researcher who has proposed a case for the food reward hypothesis of obesity. So, there are food scientists making food the most palatable and rewarding as possible, like a Snickers bar for example. These foods aren’t naturally tasty; they’re designed to be tasty. These neuropeptides are the same ones activated as those of cocaine, hence the name. The activation goes up when you start to lose body fat, which is not only making you hungrier, it’s also boosting the reward when you eat those foods to never let you under consume again.”
Why is there a battle? Why does my body hate me?
By enduring these plateaus, you may think that your body hates you, but your body does love you and it’s protecting you against a perceived famine.
“Famine was a problem up until recently when now we’ve got abundance of everything. In the third world, they’re still dealing with famine. We have more food than we know what to do with. We throw away more food than we eat. There are over two dozen more protective mechanisms to prevent you from starving to death than there are to stop you from gaining weight and becoming obese” explains Amir.
“In the Western world we have abundance, but we’re still in the famine physiology. Our environment hasn’t gotten on the same page as our body’s natural instincts to sleep, eat and reproduce.”
Eating isn’t a problem anymore, which is why we’re seeing people gain weight.
“The metabolic costs of gaining food was high prior to the modern-day era”, says Tyler. Back in the hunter-gather times, food was more nutrient dense. To take in however many thousand calories you had to expend whatever the metabolic costs that came at.
“Hunting for things, gathering things, carry things. Now you can get food at 3x as caloric dense at a much-reduced metabolic cost because all it takes is driving to a restaurant.”
Amir poses this picture: a single mom with three hungry kids, where is she going to go? A place offering a $1 menu. You can easily pack down the number of calories that will take you to sustain and increase your weight, without expending much energy. The nutrient content is low, yet the inflammation, palatability and reward are all high.
There’s no single reductive factor regarding our health issues. It’s a combination of abundance, hedonic value of food, technology making it easier to get food, and the fact that the body is still living in the famine world responding to these hormonal changes.
It’s not a trap. It’s something that naturally happens
If you’re educated and guided, you can clear these inevitable obstructions and get to your goal continually making process along the way.
Back to the chess game analogy, the body is playing by its own rules but people are reacting to the plateaus in a common way and it’s usually the wrong response.
“They respond typically, but not methodically. They respond emotionally, with a knee jerk reaction. They get the king and shove it along the chess board with the mentality ‘I’m going to double my training, reduce my portion size, go ketogenic, or do a juice cleanse’. They make the changes to do more on the exercise side and anything that contributes less on the diet side. This stress may seem protective and healthy, but it goes into the same bucket” says Amir.
The common mentality and knee jerk reaction is more exercise of a greater intensity, frequency or volume. The diet gets a further reduction whether it’s in regards to portions or calories. As the gap widens, the push back from the body becomes more severe.
“Progress isn’t 1:1, it’s less than that” says Amir. “It becomes more marginable and you can’t figure out what’s going on. Hunger goes up and at the same time the motivation to train and manage a diet goes down. It’s so common for people to give up because they’re staying in the plateau period longer than they think is acceptable.”
The body responds in a way that’s protective to us. When it experiences the stress and strain bucket filling it up, it translates this as a physiological threat and fits back to manage the perceived risk.
Tyler explains it with an abacus analogy. “You have all these stresses in your life: work, family, financial, dehydration, food driven inflammation, exercise, macro nutrient or caloric deprivation. These are all the beads on the abacus. At some point, you must look at how many of the ‘stress beads’ have accumulated.”
There are some stresses you can’t control, but you do have control over the lifestyle factors. Adding in more exercise or depriving yourself of foods is just adding more ‘beads’ to the stressed side. The more unbalanced your abacus becomes, the more likely your body will move into a defense state.
Marginal results over a long period cause people to quit
When the results become marginal for so long, people begin to think it isn’t worth it anymore and they quit.
“We know at the 5-year mark people are only 2-4 percent successful at maintaining fat loss. Therefore, the care of a good coach is vital to ensure the person is well educated about the pitfalls of fat loss.”
It’s time to ignore the magic pill options and the quick shred programs because the body simply doesn’t work that way. As you stress about your results, or lack thereof, your cortisol goes up. Cortisol causes water retention to increase and then the number on the scale climbs. It’s most likely water, not fat, but that’s not the person trying to lose weight thinks.
Who would want to continue?
If you’re not seeing the results you want and you’re stuck eating kale, you’re not going to be happy. It’s more fun to be happy, so it’s no wonder people swap the kale for donuts when they’re putting in the effort but not reaching their fat loss goal.
The key is to alter your expectations
The key to maintaining fat loss is to alter your expectations. Everyone is going to plateau; however, the frequency will depend on your starting weight and how long you’ve trained for. For example, the leaner you are, the earlier you will experience the plateau.
It’s about implementing the strategy before the plateau hits rather than when it’s occurring. Amir suggests everyone needs a maintenance strategy in place to respond to the body plateauing.
“Every 8 or 12 weeks (sooner if you’re leaner), allow a 1 to 3-week maintenance period to re-stabilize the hormones and kick start progress again. It’s about stabilizing, reengaging those habits and not going backwards” explain Amir.
“Just like when you’re training, you’re doing a period of training hard. But that hard work only manifests itself when we’ve backed off and you’re in recovery mode. We don’t do that with diet though, but we should.”
During this maintenance period, you should eat within your means. For example, if you’re eating 8-9 serving protein, 7-8 fat, 3 servings carbs during your training, but you can maintain your new weight at 6 servings then hang there. Your water may go up or down depending on your cortisol levels.
Settle here for 1-3 weeks and then continue.
In regards to training, this depends on where you are at. You could train normally and just change the form of exercise. Perhaps you could alternate between higher and lower reps. It’s good to get into the habit of exercise variety in a systematic kind of way.
Of course, there are also other lifestyle factors that you should consider too, like sleeping better, but that’s an entire other article!
Spend time at your new weight so your body can adjust and you can move the set point to establish a new weight.
“So few of us are focused on the long game” says Tyler. “Whether you’ve thought about it consciously or not, you’ve always considered a timeline for when expect to see results. A tipping point where your expectations are either met, exceeded or not.”
It may have taken the person 20 years to become de-conditioned and overweight, but their expectations are high. They want to see results quick. Painting the picture of a downward trend is a powerful tool and can help you visualize that fat loss is not a linear trend. You need to buy into the long game.
The plateau, the narrowing, slowing and potential regression are all unavoidable and natural responses. There’s not one single factor that’s involved in this process, it’s an integration of multiple factors.
Our final piece of advice:
- Frame your expectations betterGrow up a little. It might sound harsh, but the most common reaction when you see the number of the scale is an emotional one rather than treating it like a data point. Frame your expectations from your body’s side, not the emotional side. Expect fat loss at time is going to be slow and that the trajectory isn’t going to look exactly like you pictured it.
- Incorporate a maintenance periodExpect that you’re going to plateau at some point and plan in maintenance periods. You’re not going off the rails, you are just resetting and allowing your body to adjust to your new weight. Just a warning, it will get harder and harder as you get leaner, so the maintenance periods are even more vital.