When we change our diet, cut our calories and begin a fitness plan, we typically alter our energy expenditure by taking in fewer calories than we burn. At first, this imbalance helps fat loss because it makes the body tap into fat stores for fuel. Our body prefers balance, though, so it gradually adjusts to our changes by burning fewer calories in order to protect its fat reserves. This is usually when we stop seeing the same results, and hit a weight-loss plateau.
A weight-loss plateau may occur because:
- Your body simply needs a “rest” period to adapt to calorie reduction.
- Your current calorie intake may be in balance with your calorie expenditure.
- You have reduced your calorie intake by too much. Excess calorie cutting prompts your body to respond by slowing down your metabolism in order to conserve calories. You’re also at risk of losing muscle with excessive caloric restriction.
- During weight loss, water is generated in the body as a normal part of fat metabolism. This process can lead to water-related weight gain.
- A hormonal imbalance is interfering with your body’s ability to burn fat.
- For women, fluctuations of a few pounds may also be related to their menstrual cycle or water retention.
What can you do to break through a plateau?
The two most important steps in getting your weight loss moving again are altering your eating habits, and changing your exercise program to challenge your body and shake things up. You must also honestly evaluate your lifestyle and any negative symptoms you may be experiencing to determine why you’ve hit a plateau.
Here are a few ideas to help you power past a weight-loss stall:
1. Take tyrosine to boost your dopamine: Tyrosine is an amino acid – a building block of dopamine and thyroid hormones in the body – and a supplement available at most health-food stores. It takes four weeks to reach its full effectiveness; sometimes starting this at the beginning of a weight-loss program is a good idea since studies show levels of dopamine decrease after a few weeks. As a brain chemical, dopamine influences pleasure, alertness, learning, creativity, attention and concentration — and naturally suppresses appetite and aids weight loss.
The trouble is, as you lose weight, dopamine (your fat-loss friend) tends to take a dip. It’s just one of the ways your body works against you by attempting to maintain the status quo. But you can wake up your metabolism by supplementing with 1,000 mg of tyrosine each morning on an empty stomach. Since tyrosine increases the production of both dopamine and thyroid hormone, it could give you just the boost you need to push past your plateau.
2. Mix up your workout: Fire up your metabolism (and calorie expenditure) by increasing your activity level. This simple step can “reboot” your metabolism and restart your weight loss. For example, if you usually exercise for 20 minutes each day, try 25-30 minutes daily. If you are already exercising for a sufficient length of time, increase the intensity. Do 15-20 minutes of interval training instead of 30 minutes at a slower pace. Varying your workout routine can also help.
3. Try cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach: If you can manage it, try doing a 30-minute cardio workout (no longer!) first thing in the morning before breakfast. Why? In some cases, this technique may be just the trick your body needs to kick-start your metabolism.
4. Pump some iron: Remember, muscle is metabolically active tissue. Muscle mass determines our basal metabolic rate (i.e., the number of calories we burn daily while at rest). The more muscle we have, the more fat we can potentially burn, even while sitting around or sleeping. If your fat loss continues to stall, boost the intensity of your strength-training routine by increasing the amount of weight you lift. A personal trainer may be an excellent investment at this point, even for just a few sessions to get you back in gear.
5. Be sure to rest and recuperate: Recovery is an essential part of your exercise program. Proper rest allows your muscle fibres to grow and prevents the elevation of cortisol and other stress hormones that can happen when we over-train. Track your resting heart rate immediately after you wake up for about a week or two. An increase from one week to the next could be a sign of overtraining. Remember, excess cortisol tears down the muscle tissue you’ve worked so hard to gain, which will ultimately cause your metabolism to slow down.
6. Keep a food diary: If you feel your nutrition is off track but can’t figure out where you’re going wrong, try keeping a food journal. You may start to recognize dietary saboteurs, which can help you get back on track. Have a professional nutritionist or naturopathic doctor assess your diet if necessary.
7. Ensure your weight loss expectations are realistic: Safe weight loss is one to two pounds of fat per week. During the first few weeks of a weight-loss program, you may lose more than that, although most of it is water. After losing this initial weight, people tend to lose an average of one pound a week, which is still considered good progress (even a few pounds a month is good).
8. Drink plenty of water: As fat cells begin to shrink, they release toxins that need to be removed from our system by our liver, kidneys and digestive tract. If we don’t take in enough water to support these processes, the toxins may interact with our hormones and cause increased fat storage or inability to burn fat. Water can also help make us feel full and regulate our appetite, as many of us mistake thirst for hunger. To calculate how much water you need, multiply your body weight by 0.55. Divide the result by eight to determine the number of cups you need to drink each day.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique.