When Weight Loss Stalls
A "stall" is the term for what happens when people who have been dieting carefully suddenly hit a period where their diet stops working and they cannot lose another pound. Stalls can last weeks, months, and yes, I'm sad to say, years.
Though diet books often make stalls sound like they are unusual, after years of reading online diet support groups my impression is that stalls are far more common than dieting to goal.
If your diet is stalled here are some thoughts that might help you.
1. Weigh and Measure
The most powerful tool you have for combating stalls is the food scale. The next most powerful tool is software that logs your exact food intake.
You can buy a very good food scale for around $25. An accurate food scale that reads in both grams and ounces is the best diet-related purchase you will ever make. Many diet logging apps are available for your mobile.
So if you are stalled, get yourself a scale, set up your software, and then take a day when you are home and weigh everything you eat on your food scale and put the results into your food logging software. Track every mouthful you eat all day long. You may be astonished to learn that you are eating a completely different number of carbohydrates and calories than you had been estimating. For many of us the number will be much higher. For others it will be much lower. Both are problems.
Use your scale to adjust your diet to where you are eating what you thought you were eating. If you have to eat out a lot, try bringing portions home and testing them there. Most fast food and restaurant food comes in portions larger than the sizes listed on the restaurant's web site. You may look a bit odd weighing everything, but once you get into the habit you will start to understand why it is extremely easy to stall.
2. If You Are Eating a Ketogenic Diet Understand the Physiology
Many very low carb dieters stall at three weeks into their diets. This is because at the three week point your metabolism adapts to the high fat low carb diet you have been eating and becomes far more efficient in burning fat.(Technically what happens is that muscles switch from using ketones to burning free fatty acids.) Your body also has made some changes that allow the brain to use more ketones. This, in turn, reduces the amount of carbohydrate needed to run the brain.
If you have been eating a very high protein input much of that excess protein has been turning into carbohydrate. This is because 58% of ALL the dietary protein you eat that is not needed to repair muscle is converted into carbohydrate. The process takes many hours--often up to 7 hours after you eat, but once it is converted, the carbohydrate made out of protein raises your blood sugar and requires insulin for processing just like any other carbohydrate.
For the first couple weeks your body needs about 110 grams of carbohydrate to fuel the brain, but after the changes that occur around three weeks into your low carb diet, that amount drops dramatically. You can now get by with 50-60 grams of carb for your brain and that means that excess carbohydrate that comes from protein now raises your blood sugar instead of getting burnt.
3. Understand How Dieting Can Slow your Metabolic Rate
Our bodies fight weight loss because metabolically weight loss and famine are indistinguishable. So as you lose weight, your leptin levels change and your thyroid slows to stop the weight loss and optimize your chances of surviving the famine your body thinks is going on. The less you eat, the more slowed your metabolism gets.
Slowed metabolisms are not dangerous. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that links very low calorie food intake with increased life span. Whether you are an earthworm or a human being, if you cut your calories down very low and eat that way for a long time you are more likely to live long than if you eat at normal maintenance calorie levels.
But when you cut calories drastically you live longer precisely because you have slowed your metabolism, so you are going to be living live longer with whatever body fat store you have started out with as the slowed metabolism makes weight loss very slow.
Even more significant, if you lose your weight eating a very low calorie diet, you will have to maintain your diet eating a very low calorie diet--a fact whose implications very few dieter really understand.
In fact, the most significant thing you can learn about dieting is this:
The diet you will have to eat to maintain your weight loss is likely to be one that contains only a couple hundred calories a day more than the diet you were eating when you lost weight.
Don't Condemn Yourself to A Lifetime of Starvation
This is a major reason why very slow weight loss achieved eating a diet you enjoy eating and can eat for the rest of your life is preferable to any diet approach that takes weight off you fast, but condemns you to near starvation for the rest of your life.
This is true for carb levels too. The carbohydrate level you will be able to maintain at is not likely to be more than 30 or 40 grams a day more than the level at which you lost the weight.
Many people may say they intend to eat the way they eat on their diet for life, but in the back of their mind is the hidden belief that once they get to goal they can relax and eat a lot of the food they've been denying themselves.
This is never true. And it is the best reason I know to accept that slow weight loss verging on stalls is over the long term going to produce a much happier weight loss experience.
Understand Your Basal Metabolic Rate
But you will have to cut down on something to lose weight, and to figure out what it is you have to cut out, many diet gurus suggest that you avoid eating less than what is called your "Basal metabolic rate (BMR)." This number, which you can calculate using any number of online calculators supposedly tells you how many calories you burn just being alive.
The argument here is that if you eat below your BMR you will push your body into "starvation mode" where it becomes so efficient you can't lose any weight.
Of course, the experience of millions of people around the world who live in areas plagued by famine suggests that if you cut your calories low enough, long enough, you will, in fact, starve to death, Which makes this theory suspect.
But eating below your BMR will slow your thyroid and that may make it take longer to lose weight and more importantly, much harder to maintain your weight loss as the minute you start eating at anything near a normal level your now highly efficient metabolism will store every mouthful as fat. So it is good advice to try to avoid eating below your BMR.
Except that figuring your BMR turns out to be not as simple as it looks.
The web is full of BMR calculators all of which use the same formula based on age, gender, height and weight. Plug in those numbers and out pops your BMR.
You can then use a formula to calculate how much additional calories you burn with activity. Doing this is supposed to give you a number which tells you how many calories you have to eat to lose a pound.
Neat, simple, and for most of us a complete fantasy.
Why? Because all these numbers and formulas are averages derived from studies of large populations. The problem with averages is that they don't tell you anything about the individuals whose data contributed to the average. If you average my net worth and Bill Gates' net worth you come up with the information our average net worth is a tad over 28 billion dollars. Do I have 28 billion dollars? No. I do not. So much for averages.
This is why studies of diets show that the average low carb dieter loses 10 lbs over two years. But though this is the average, actual individual weight loss per individual ranges from over 100 lbs to no significant weight gain. The average tells us very little.
And so it is with BMR. The numbers the calculators give you is the average for someone who fits your stats. But you probably aren't average--especially if you have a longstanding weight problem. Or thyroid disease. Or are on medications like SSRIs that cause weight gain.
So while playing with BMR calculators might give you a rough idea of what might be your basal metabolic rate, it is more of a guess than a certainty.
Even worse, the estimated calories burned for activity vary from person to person depending on many metabolic factors, not the least of them being the efficiency of people's mitochondria, which is a genetic trait.
And if you have been tracking calories burned by using the displays on gym equipment, well folks, they are out and out wrong. You can read about this in this New York Times article:
Putting Very Little Weight in Calorie Counting Methods
There is only one way you can check if your BMR and activity calories match the calculations. Weigh and log everything you eat very carefully, eat what the calculators tell you should produce a weight loss, and see if you actually lose the predicted weight.
If you don't, assuming you have been accurate in tracking your food input, it's time to start tweaking your input until you find the level that really works for you. Try eating less for a month. If that doesn't work, try eating slightly more than you were eating to start with.
Some people find they do best if they vary their calories and carb intakes up and down in an attempt to keep the metabolism guessing.
Though if you have pre-diabetic or diabetic blood sugars you don't ever want to raise your carbs higher than the level that keeps your blood sugar within normal limits.
4. Eliminate the Usual Suspects
If you hang out in diet support groups and post about a stall, you're likely to be advised to eliminate certain foods. Here are the most common suggestions you are likely to hear.
a. Eliminate Cheese and other Dairy Products. With 100 calories per tiny 1 inch cube of cheese, a large pat of butter, or a dollop of cream, a logical person should realize you don't need a "dairy allergy" to stall your weight loss with dairy. If you eliminate dairy you eliminate hundreds of calories a day, Do that, and most people start to lose. But you can also start weight loss happening again by eating reasonable portions of dairy and counting the calories dairy contributes to your daily intak.
b. Eliminate Pork. This is a very fatty meat and also tends to be full of salt and injected MSG. Eliminate pork and you may drop some water weight. If you have been eating processed pork with MSG eliminating it may contribute to real weight loss.
c. Eliminate Artificial Sweeteners. There is some evidence that calorie free artificial sweeteners mess up the mechanism our brain uses to decide if we have had enough to eat. Many studies have found people who drink diet sodas eat more food with their diet soda than people who drink real soda. Whether this is caused by the artificial sweeteners is hard to know, though some intriguing research has found that there are tastebud-like receptors in our gut that respond to sweetness and send messages to our brains. When sweetness does not result in incoming glucose, this may cause increased hunger.
Powdered calorie free artificial sweeteners actually contain about half a gram of maltodextrin--pure carbohydrate--per spoonful. Due to weaselly food labeling laws companies do not have to list these under-one-gram amounts of labels. So if you use a cup of powdered Splenda in your baking all that maltodextrin adds up and you've added something like 26 grams of carbohydrate to your food without realizing it.
The sugar alcohols are even worse. Fully one half of all the grams of sugar alcohol you eat are capable of digesting into glucose. Lacitol isn't much better. Only erythritol of all the sugar alcohols lives up to its reputation for not turning into a significant amount of glucose. Beyond that, many people find that eating sugar alcohols cause them to become very hungry--out of proportion to how much glucose they have consumed. Eating a couple sugar free mints, for example, can really ramp up your hunger and cause you to eat a lot more food at your next meal.
d. Eliminate Processed Foods. Most processed foods contain chemical additives, the most notorious of which is MSG. There's some good science that suggests that eating MSG causes people to gain weight. You can read more about that research in this blog post:
Getting Fatter, Maybe it's the MSG in Your Food.
MSG is hidden on labels under names like, "Natural flavoring", "textured protein," "Hydrolyzed protein", "Yeast extract" and many, many more. The best way to avoid eating foods that contain MSG is to avoid buying anything that comes in a bottle or box and cook your own food. Don't buy meats that contain any injected solutions. That eliminates most supermarket pork and turkeys. This may sound drastic, but many people find it really helps their diets. Unfortunately, if you eat at restaurants, particularly fast food and chain restaurants, the foods you eat are almost certain to be bathed in MSG and other chemicals added to give "flavor."