First, before I get into the nuts and bolts of how to break a plateau or speed up weight loss, I want to mention that there are three groups of people who tend to get off to a really slow start when it comes to weight loss while following an intermittent fasting plan. I have seen it time and time again in weight loss support groups: someone complains that they aren't losing weight, or are even gaining weight, and upon further questioning, common patterns can be detected. If you fit into one of these groups, you are going to need more patience than others:
Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let's discuss plateaus and what we can do to speed up our weight loss!
Anyone who has ever attempted to lose weight has faced it: a period of time where the scale stops moving. The dreaded plateau has arrived! It is one of the most-discussed topics in any weight loss group that I have ever been a part of. Eventually, weight loss seems to come to a halt, even for many intermittent fasters. Does that mean the plan has stopped working for you, and that you are doomed to be stuck forever? No!
First, make sure you really are at a plateau.
If you have read Delay, Don't Deny, you recall that my suggestion is to either stop weighing completely or weigh daily, and take a weekly average once per week. Because weight can fluctuate a great deal from day to day, only compare your weekly averages to gauge your progress. There are many weight tracking apps that do this for you. Day-to-day weight fluctuations are not important; all we should care about is the overall trend. Weight loss is not linear, and usually looks more like a zig-zag. You may feel like you are not making progress because of the day-to-day fluctuations, but the overall trend is slowly moving downward. If you are making progress, even slow progress, you are not actually at a plateau.
What can we do when our weight loss seems to have stopped, or if it is much slower than we would like?
So--you have been tracking your weekly average for some time now, and you have confirmed that you aren't losing weight at all, or it is much slower than you would like. If you are losing at a rate of approximately a pound per week average (or more), then STOP WORRYING! That is a great pace, and you don't need to tweak anything. But if your loss is much slower than that, there are most definitely some strategies you can use in order to get your body moving in the right direction again.
But first, let's talk about calories for a minute. When I encourage you to eat to satiety without counting calories and to learn to listen to your appetite signals, and I tell you that trying to calculate calories day after day is not an effective strategy (because all foods are not treated the same in the body, and you also can't control what your body does with the calories you consume), that may give you the impression that the volume of food you eat doesn't matter. That's actually not true.
Yes. Even though counting calories is an ineffective strategy overall, the volume of food you eat does matter. You absolutely can overeat, especially in the beginning. Let me explain.
Fasting properly during the day provides a metabolic advantage because you are able to tap into your body's fat stores. Once your body adjusts to burning fat during the fast, your body doesn't perceive that you're in an energy deficit because it has plenty of fuel. Over time, your hormones--insulin, leptin, ghrelin, and others--begin to work together as they should. You find that your appetite gets into balance with your body's energy needs, just as nature intended. You get full and satisfied and stop eating after an appropriate amount of food. This doesn't happen overnight.
Before your satiety cues get back into focus, you may tend to overeat in your window. This can lead to initial weight gain rather than weight loss, because you are taking in more food than your body needs.
Even though fasting gives us a metabolic advantage, it's not magical. You CAN eat so much that you gain weight. Volume of food does matter.
Until you reach the state where your satiety cues are normalized, you may need coping strategies to prevent overeating. After you eat a plate of food, consider walking away from all food until your brain can recognize that you are full. Give yourself 20-30 minutes. Set a timer if you have to. Don't eat anything else during that period. When 20-30 minutes have passed, ask yourself if you're truly hungry before you eat again. Never eat just because your "window is still open." Don't eat more just because you want to make sure you ate "enough" to get you through the next fasting period. If you are satisfied, that means you should stop eating.
Intermittent fasting is magical in many ways (hormonal magic, if you will), but it's not so magical that you can eat a larger volume of food than your body requires day after day. Work on eating a satisfying amount of food, and then stop. Pay attention to how your body feels. Stop when you're pleasantly full and never eat more just because it's in your window. In time, you should reach the point where appetite signals are working together and it will get easier.
Now--for some plateau-busting and/or weight-loss boosting tips.
While I would argue that intermittent fasting is really more about health than weight loss, and once our bodies are healthy we are more likely to lose the weight we want to lose, I understand that most of us start this lifestyle because we want to lose the excess fat from our bodies. It's certainly why I began intermittent fasting. If we are working so hard to fast every day, we want to be rewarded with measurable weight loss. I get it.
The good news is that you absolutely can make some tweaks that get the fat loss started up again.
Pick and choose from the suggestions below--there are many ways to make this work for you.
First, check your fast. Are you REALLY fasting clean?
Go back to the basics: only black and unflavored coffee, plain boring teas, plain water, and unflavored sparkling waters. Have you been using just a bit of coconut oil or cream in your coffee? Are you drinking flavored waters? Are you adding ANYTHING to your plain coffee, tea, or water? Are you chewing gum, using breath mints, or breath strips? Perhaps it's making more of a difference than you thought. (YES, IT IS! I promise!) I can't overemphasize the importance of a clean fast.
(Side note: WHY do we long for mouth entertainment so badly during the fast? Fasting is supposed to be boring for your taste buds, not a magical flavor adventure.)
Next, consider your food quality.
Yes, I have often said "Delay, Don't Deny," but there is no doubt that all foods are not treated the same in your body. Highly processed foods are not your best friend if you are having difficulty losing weight. (This includes highly processed carbs, highly processed protein sources, and highly processed fats.) The last thing I want you to do is get stuck in diet mentality, where there are lists of "good" foods and "bad" foods, but consider adding more high quality foods and limiting overly processed foods. I include processed foods to some degree daily, but high quality foods are the basis of my diet--and I am also not trying to lose any more weight. If you read Delay, Don't Deny, you may recall that I eliminated highly processed foods for a period of time in order to get to my goal weight more quickly. I don't want to live that way forever, because I want the freedom to enjoy a variety of foods with no guilt (and bread is delicious), but it seemed to make a difference in the speed of my weight loss. One of my favorite books on the subject is The Science of Skinny. I don't agree with her recommendations to eat frequently throughout the day, but I think her food recommendations are spot-on. Food quality matters more to your body than some arbitrary number of "calories". When you eat a healthy and balanced diet made up of mostly high quality foods, there are many benefits for your body. One is that your gut bacteria are happier and your overall levels of inflammation go down, which can lead to easier weight loss. This is the same article I linked to above (click here), so you can tell I really want you to read it.
Consider switching-up (or tightening up) your fasting regimen.
There are many ways to live an intermittent fasting lifestyle. After much experimentation, I prefer a daily eating window approach, but that doesn't mean it's the best approach for you. You may need to try some different strategies to get the scale moving.
If you use the daily eating window approach but weight loss is slow, consider tightening it up. I couldn't lose weight with anything longer than a 5 hour window, and even a 5 hour window is too long for many people. Shorten your eating window for awhile and see if that helps. My suggestion would be to use a one hour window on weekdays and give yourself a longer window (up to 5 hours) on weekends. As I have said before, specifically in this blog post--it can be helpful to mix things up, rather than get into a consistent daily routine that encourages your body to adapt.
Another idea is to incorporate the up/down day approach into the daily eating window approach. I would suggest that you start with 5:2. That means that 2 days per week, eat 500 calories in one meal, and the other 5 days, continue with your daily eating window, as if the lower calorie days never happened. (This is the ONE time that I am ever going to recommend counting calories.) It's important to make sure you aren't over-restricting on the up days, in order to keep your metabolic rate from dropping. Fast, and then feast!
You can also add one longer fast per week, if you are really motivated. I have seen many people who add a 36-hour or 48-hour full fast once per week and finally start to see results on the scale. Continue with your daily eating window approach on the other days, but add that one longer fast per week and see what happens.
What if you are doing everything right, and the scale is STILL not moving?
For some people, particularly the three groups I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, your body is going to be more resistant to weight loss. You may need one thing, more than any other:
Yes, you need to give it time.
If you are in an intermittent fasting support group, you may see others dropping weight like crazy, while you sit there, week after week, seeing ZERO progress. It may feel like your body is broken, and beyond repair.
Your body didn't put on the excess weight overnight, and the hormonal changes that need to occur behind the scenes also aren't going to happen overnight. Keep on fasting consistently, keep the fasting time clean, and eat quality foods. Let your body heal. Pay attention to how various foods make you feel, and select foods that make you feel good. Focus on the other positive benefits you can detect, and trust the process.
There really are people who live an intermittent fasting lifestyle for MONTHS before seeing scale movement. Trust that once your body is ready, you should begin to see progress.
I highly encourage you to take body measurements if you are someone who is struggling to lose weight. Even though you may not see weight loss on the scale, you may see your measurements decreasing. That means that fat loss IS occurring. Many things can mask fat loss on the scale, and even though it looks like you aren't losing weight, you are, indeed, losing fat.
Never forget: over time, even slow progress adds up. A pound here, a pound there--eventually, you should lose the excess fat at the speed that is right for YOUR body.
Oh, coffee. (By the way...if you are not a coffee drinker, but you drink tea and wonder what you can add to it, you can substitute the word "tea" for "coffee" throughout this blog post and it still applies to you. You're welcome.)
Is there anything that inspires more affection from the intermittent faster than coffee?
Coffee wakes us up in the morning. Coffee is there for us when we are fasting. Coffee is that friend we can always count on. Coffee may even stimulate autophagy! Click here to read more. That is seriously the best news I have heard all day.
BUT--coffee is also one of the biggest stumbling blocks to living an intermittent fasting lifestyle for many people. In fact, one of the hottest topics on any intermittent fasting support group is this:
"How should I take my coffee?"
The answer is simple: BLACK. Period.
But, but, but.....
People do NOT want to hear that they need to switch to black coffee. For many, it's like they just heard the worst news of their lives and we are asking them to do something that is against their moral code. It is at that point that people start to search for reasons why it's "okay" to add "just a little" something into their coffee.
Why do we so desperately want to add something to our coffee?
Well, I'll be honest: black coffee is not something that tickles and amuses your taste buds. If you are used to a creamy and/or sweet concoction that passes for coffee--your daily "hot milkshake", if you will--then black coffee is going to taste like poison at first. Trust me--I've been there. When I first realized that I was going to have to switch my coffee to black in order to fully benefit from an intermittent fasting lifestyle, I decided that I would rather skip coffee altogether than drink it black. I went cold turkey, and the headache I got from the caffeine withdrawal was definitely not pleasant! But the longer I went without coffee, the more I realized it wasn't just the hit of caffeine that I enjoy. I really missed coffee. So--I added it back, and I knew it was going to have to be black. (Anyone else thinking of the AC/DC song, Back in Black, right now, or is just me?) The first day, I choked down that black coffee...and I didn't die. Over the next week or two, I started to actually enjoy it without wincing. Now, I can't believe what a baby I was about switching to black coffee. Drum roll: I actually prefer it black now.
You may think that there is NO WAY you will ever be able to switch to black coffee.
"It's okay for YOU, Gin, but I REALLY hate black coffee. I just can't do it."
If I had $1 for every person who told me that, I would have a big pile of dollars. Yes, YOU can. So many people start out just like me--grimacing through the black coffee. Then, they don't hate it anymore. After that, something funny happens. They'll try coffee the old hot-milkshake way that they used to drink it--only to discover that miraculously, they now PREFER it black. Then--another miracle--people realize how much easier it is to fast now that they are drinking their coffee black. It's very common for someone to post something like this:
"I can't believe I am now drinking black coffee...and I actually enjoy it! AND--fasting is so much easier now that I have switched! I didn't believe you, but it's true!"
You can thank me later. I'll look forward to it, in fact.
So--why is it important to have it black? Isn't there something we can add to the coffee so that it is more delicious, that is compatible with an intermittent fasting lifestyle? The answer is no.
Believe me, I've heard it all when it comes to our beloved coffee additives. People REALLY want to add something to coffee. There are so many ways to rationalize adding things to your coffee, but here are the most popular. (By the way, everyone always adds the disclaimer, "It works for me!", so I am going to add it to each statement, below, to make it more realistic):
Let's address those one by one.
My favorite artificial or natural sweetener doesn't add any calories to my coffee, so it is fine.
This is a big one. We have been trained for so long that "calories" are the dieter's enemy, right? Avoid calories and you will be fine! Following that logic, anything with zero calories must, therefore, be the dieter's best friend. However, the more we understand about how the body works, the more we realize that there is so much more to weight loss and maintenance than calories in/calories out. In fact, there is so much to this topic that it is beyond the scope of this blog post. Someone should write a book. Oh, wait. I did. And if you don't yet understand the role that insulin plays in fat storage, then you need to click here immediately and get my book, Delay, Don't Deny. In it, you will learn in detail why any kind of sweetener (or sweet taste) is a no-no during your fast. For now, remember this: anything that spikes your insulin, such as your preferred artificial sweetener, or even that innocent-sounding "natural" sweetener, is a bad idea if you are fasting. When you fast, your goal is for your body to dig down into your fat stores for energy. Since insulin is a hormone related to fat storage, the last thing you want to do is spike insulin during the fast. It's not the calories that are the problem: it's the insulin release. Sweet tastes cause insulin release. Just remember this: sweet=no. As I said, there is a much more detailed explanation in Delay, Don't Deny, so look for it there.
I only add a little creamer/milk/cream, and I'm still losing weight.
First of all, there are big differences between creamer and milk/cream. Let's break them down.
Creamer is absolutely a no-no. When we say "creamer," we are usually referring to a chemical concoction that has been developed in a lab. Now there are even some "natural" creamers, but these still contain something sweet. Refer to point #1, above--sweet=no. Creamer is never going to be a good idea.
What about milk and/or cream? Isn't that okay? To make matters even more confusing, one fasting expert (who I greatly respect and may even have a slight crush on...don't tell anyone) "allows" a small amount of heavy cream or milk in your coffee, so I see people clinging to that recommendation like a life raft. He "allows" it, so it's fine, right? Well, why does he "allow" it? Is it because adding a little cream or milk doesn't break the fast? No, it absolutely does break the fast. So, why would it be "allowed"? The answer: compliance. People are more likely to fast if they don't have to give up that creamy coffee. Just like with the sweeteners, though--you are not fully fasting if you are having milk and/or cream. You may be able to "get away with it," but you may also never know how you are cheating yourself out of the full benefits of a clean fast. Suck it up, buttercup: leave out the milk/cream. Give clean fasting a chance. You might just be surprised at the difference you notice!
Fat doesn't spike insulin, so I can add it to my coffee. Plus, some fats boost your metabolic rate!
That's a big one. We hear it all the time from promoters of "Bulletproof" coffee. So, what is Bulletproof Coffee, also known as BPC? Legend has it in the intermittent fasting world that if you add certain things to your coffee, such as coconut oil and/or butter, then your metabolism will be boosted to such a degree that you will burn more fat over the course of the day than you normally would. Who doesn't love a good metabolic boost, am I right? But is it true?
If you ask Uncle Google, you will find all sorts of claims about coconut oil. First of all, let me say that I have no doubt that coconut oil has many fabulous health benefits. I believe it is a wonderfully healthy food, and you can benefit from adding it to your diet. I have some in my pantry right now. However, I do not believe that it has magical properties that will result in your metabolism being boosted to such a degree that you are burning more energy than the energy contained in the coconut oil you just consumed. Let's do some math, and see what we can discover.
Coconut oil is rich in Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs), among other things. Of course, coconut oil isn't 100% MCT oil, but let's analyze MCT oil on its own, because many BPC proponents suggest that the MCT oil is the "magical" ingredient in the BPC (in fact, some BPC recipes recommend that you use pure MCT oil rather than coconut oil to get maximum benefits.) Does MCT oil really boost your metabolism? The answer is yes! In a study, found here, researchers found out that participants who were fed MCTs (30 g per day, divided among 3 meals) had an increase of energy expenditure (EE) of 500 kj per day. That sounds substantial, until you realize that 500 kj equals 119 calories. MCT oil has approximately 8.3 calories per gram, so that means that adding 30 grams of pure MCT oil (coming in at approximately 250 calories) caused an increased metabolic rate of 119 calories per day! Oops. According to that study, you have to consume 250 calories of MCT oil to boost your metabolism by 119 calories per day. Is that some sort of Common Core Math? (Sorry, that's a teacher joke.) Either way, we see that the math just doesn't work out in your favor.
I love Dr. Jason Fung's take on it. Click here to go to his blog post about adding extra fat to your diet. Basically, he says what I just did: if you are trying to lose body fat, do you really think that you will lose MORE body fat by adding fat to your day during the fast? It's common sense. Do you want to run on the fat from your body or the fat from your coffee cup? I know my answer to that question.
Is it ever a good idea to add fat to your coffee during the fast? My answer may surprise you, because the answer could be yes, depending on your situation. Within the fasting adjustment period, BPC might help you adjust to fasting by encouraging your body to switch to fat burning. Of course, you are going to be burning the fat from the coconut oil, rather than your own fat, but it absolutely can help you make the transition. For that reason, you may want to include it during the adjustment period and then gradually wean yourself off of it as your body adapts to burning your own fat. Just don't forget to wean yourself off of it. Also, be careful, because coconut oil can send you VERY QUICKLY to the restroom if you ingest it on an empty stomach. Don't ask me how I know this.
One final question people sometimes ask about coffee:
Is coffee REQUIRED? Do I HAVE TO drink coffee to live an intermittent fasting lifestyle?
The answer is: NO! Of course not. If you don't drink coffee, then why are you still here reading this blog post??? Coffee is not a required part of this lifestyle. Go on about your coffee-free life, and forget you ever saw this blog post.
But--if it is a required part of YOUR life, make the transition to black. You can thank me later.
Plus, you'll feel like such a grown up when you drink it.
Gin Stephens lives in Augusta, Georgia, where she has been following an intermittent fasting lifestyle since 2014. In addition to writing the book Delay, Don't Deny, Gin is co-host of The Intermittent Fasting Podcast, along with fellow intermittent faster and author, Melanie Avalon. Check out www.ifpodcast.com or search for The Intermittent Fasting Podcast on iTunes.