Originally published on johnfawkes.com
If you’ve been struggling to lose weight for a long time, it’s likely that at some point the following has happened: you start a new fitness plan, filled to the brim with enthusiasm. You lose some weight, and you feel great. Then your weight loss slows and you get worried. Then it stalls completely, and you feel dejected. You don’t know why it happened, so you try harder. After a few more weeks of weight fluctuations, you give up. Most likely you regain the weight.
If you struggle with yo-yo dieting, frequently making initial progress only to backslide, there are five things that are likely going wrong. If on the other hand you never even make initial progress, you’re probably just not trying hard enough. But if you’ve repeatedly lost fat only to gain it back, you’re about to learn exactly why that happens.
1. You stopped sticking to the plan
What happens: You started dieting and exercising, and you lost weight. You followed the plan to the letter…for a while. But lately you’ve been missing workouts, cheating on your diet more, and your progress has stalled.
Why it happens: When you start a new program, there’s often an initial burst of motivation that makes it easy to stay on track. After a while though, your motivation weakens, and your willpower with it. Then when your progress stalls, you lose more motivation, and go into a motivational death spiral.
The fix: The mistake people usually make here is in thinking that they went wrong by falling off the wagon. In fact, their fitness plan in most cases wasn’t psychologically sound to begin with. You need a plan that you can stick to- that means the workouts can fit into your schedule fairly easily, so no hour and a half workouts six days a week.
It also means no starvation diets that force you to give up all the foods you like. Having an occasional cheat day can make it easier to give up your favorite foods on other days, and cheating on a schedule is immensely preferable to cheating whenever your willpower gives out.
Which leads me to the second aspect of a psychologically sound diet- it shouldn’t rely solely on motivation or willpower. Those always give out. Instead, you need systems that not only help to keep you motivated, but take willpower and motivation out of the equation. I’ll be talking a lot more about this in my next article- a good system will allow you to follow your plan regardless of how you feel on any given day.
2. You lost muscle mass
What happens: You lose fat, but you lose muscle with it. Muscle burns energy all the time just to maintain itself, so as you lose muscle, your metabolism slows until it matches your caloric intake, and you stop losing weight. Quite likely you even regain weight.
Why it happens: Two reasons. First off, you eat too little protein, or even too little food in total. Second, you don’t lift weights to stimulate your muscles to stay strong. Maybe you don’t work out at all, or you focus on long-endurance cardio which breaks down your muscle tissue.
The fix: Lift weights 2–4 times a week. If you do cardio, make it shorter and more intense- think sprints, not 5ks. Eat more protein and make sure you’re eating enough overall. Also, make sure you’re getting enough sleep.
3. You produce less thyroid hormone
What happens: Your thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone, which is sort of the master hormone that controls your metabolism. Overweight people usually have low levels of T3, the most active form of thyroid hormone, to begin with. In the course of a fat loss diet, T3 levels often drop even further, slowing your metabolism.
Why it happens: Two reasons. First off, simply restricting calories can cause T3 to down-regulate as your body tries to maintain its weight. Second, your diet may actually be depriving your thyroid of the nutrients it needs to make T3.
The fix: Make sure you’re getting enough of the nutrients your thyroid gland needs. Iodine is by far the most important, but B vitamins, zinc, iron, copper, selenium, and sodium are all important here too. To counter T3 down-regulation due to reduced caloric intake, you can either have an occasional cheat day, or otherwise cycle your caloric intake up and down on a regular basis.
4. You produce less leptin
What happens: Leptin is an appetite-suppressant hormone produced by your fat cells. It’s the reason people reach a fat set point instead of just growing forever or shrinking to nothing- lose fat and you get hungrier, gain fat and your appetite goes down.
Why it happens: Because you lose fat. Fat loss, in and of itself, is the culprit here. Take a moment to rage at the unfairness of that.
The fix: When your leptin drops, you can eat more vegetables and drink more water to curb your appetite. There’s also some evidence that eating fish and low-carb foods in general can help with leptin control, particularly if they take a long time to digest. Weight lifting will also help shunt any extra calories you eat to your muscles rather than fat, possibly building muscle and boosting your metabolism.
To actually raise your leptin levels without gaining fat though, you need to occasionally jolt your fat cells with some extra calories. So, calorie cycling or cheat days again.
5. You have nutrient deficiencies
What happens: In the course of losing weight, you gradually develop deficiencies in various vitamins and minerals. Maybe protein too. Over time the effects of these deficiencies pile up, causing you to stop losing weight as well as suffering other effects depending on what exactly you’re deficient in.
Why it happens: Because you’re not eating certain essential foods. This is common on fat loss diets when people think “eat less of everything” rather than “eat more of this and less of that.” It also happens when people treat multivitamins as a full substitute for real food, which they absolutely aren’t.
The fix: While fat loss requires eating fewer calories overall, you should actually eat more meats and vegetables. Fruit, other than non-sweet fruits like avocados and tomatoes, can be problematic since fructose will stall fat loss, so I usually save it for my designated high-calorie days.
In fact, if your food is low in caloric density, the amount you need to eat, in terms of volume, can be surprisingly high. Stop thinking of meat and vegetables as merely “okay,” and start thinking of them as good and required with every meal. Vegetables in particular- eat as much as you can, with as much variety as you can. If you have the time and money, consider getting your vitamin and mineral levels tested so you can understand which foods you need to eat more of.
How to sustain your weight loss
When we put all of this together, it’s clear that there are just a few strategies which, when combined, tend to solve all five of these problems. They are:
Lift weights- This will prevent muscle loss and the accompanying slow-down, keep you looking good, and maybe even allow you to gain a little muscle. Remember, when you gain muscle, you lose fat. A good guideline for most people who are fairly new to weightlifting is 2–3 full body or 4–5 split body workouts per week.
Cheat days- Hopefully by now you can see why I love cheat days. Physically, they solve the thyroid hormone and leptin problems, and can help with vitamin deficiencies by giving you a day to binge on fruit. The psychological benefits are at least as important though- a cheat day means you don’t have to give up your favorite foods altogether, and having cheat day to look forward to makes every other day easier.
Cheat days should occur anywhere from once a week to once a month, and you have to earn them. That means you don’t cheat on your diet on any other day. It also means your diet on other days is sufficiently restrictive to cause fat loss.
Aim for a 20–40% caloric deficit- This is the range that I consider both effective and sustainable, both physically and psychologically. A 20% deficit is good for slow but steady weight loss, while 40% is more appropriate for shorter fat loss cycles. A larger deficit will cause muscle loss, deficiencies and fatigue, while a lower deficit will cause little or no weight loss as your body adjusts to it. With a deficit of 30% or more, cheat days may be needed to keep your metabolism from slowing down.
Focus on adding in good foods- Too often, in dieting, people focus on cutting out food. Then they go hungry, and they assume that learning to just deal with hunger is part of losing weight. For the most part, it’s not.
Instead, follow the “crowding out” principle- eat more of certain foods to crowd out the foods you’re not supposed to eat, and keep yourself from going hungry. This doesn’t mean to get hung up on magical thinking around “superfoods,” which don’t exist. It just means, learn which foods best support your diet and can be eaten in virtually unlimited quantities. On a fat loss diet, this would be meats and non-starchy vegetables; consider them required in some quantity, and allowed in unlimited quantities.
If you want to lose fat and keep it off, download your free copy of 12 Simple Fat Loss Workouts.