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.
We had an interesting discussion in our One Meal a Day Facebook group last week. In the intermittent fasting world, rumor has it that a certain fasting guru recommends against a daily eating window approach if you are trying to lose weight. The thinking is that over time, your body will adapt to the plan. If this happens, your body may decide that you have reached a state of energy balance, and therefore your body will happily settle at that point. In the diet community, we call that a plateau, and it is something we all dread.
First of all, I want to let you know that plateaus DO happen in any weight loss plan. So--of course, you should expect to hit plateaus along the way. In fact, understand that weight loss is rarely linear. Expect to see your weight zig-zag in an up, down, up, down pattern over time. The general trend should be down overall, but it will never be straight down. This is why I suggest weekly averaging in my book. When you compare your weekly averages, you can see the overall downward trends that can be masked by the daily fluctuations. Either weigh daily and only compare the weekly averages or stay off the scale and trust the process.
But--what about the body adapting to your plan so that weight loss really does stop? Can we prevent it from happening?
This is such an important point to understand. When you follow an intermittent fasting lifestyle using the strategies I suggest in Delay, Don't Deny, you don't have to worry so much about your body adapting. If, however, you are a rigid meal-timer or a careful calorie/macronutrient-counter, that can actually be a problem. Let me explain why.
The body absolutely can adapt to anything you do that's the same day-in and day-out. If you eat the same exact number of calories, as an example, or always eat a small meal in a 30 minute eating window, then YES! Your body can adapt to that pattern of intake. Your metabolic rate can adjust to match what you are eating, and your weight loss may come to a halt.
How do you keep your body from adjusting to your plan?
Good news! You absolutely CAN apply some strategies to keep your body from adapting to a specific level of caloric intake. And more good news! If you are listening to your hunger and satiety signals, and adjusting your intake based on those signals, you are already on the right track.
I don't eat the same way every day, and you may notice that I don't ever suggest that YOU should eat the same way every day, either. In fact, I say over and over again that you should learn to listen to your body and adjust intake as needed within your daily eating window.
Even though I generally eat "one meal", it's not ever the exact same size, the exact same length, the exact same macronutrients--it's not even always at the exact same time. NOTHING is the same about it from day to day. Some days, I actually eat TWO meals. On vacation, I may even eat THREE meals.
It is important that you learn to listen to your body, and don't be overly rigid in your intermittent fasting lifestyle.
Don't schedule a rigid window that is exactly the same every day. Don't count calories or macronutrients so they are precisely the same every day to hit some artificial or predetermined calorie or macronutrient target. Don't aim for some sort of dietary perfection where you can never relax and enjoy life. THAT is a bad idea.
Instead, be more flexible. Listen to your body. Eat more some days. Eat less some days. Vary your window length. Live your life.
One day your body may be satisfied with a very small amount of food. STOP EATING. Trust those satiety signals. The next day you may need a longer window because you are hungrier. EAT MORE. Trust that you needed more, rather than beating yourself up because you are "weak" or some-such nonsense.
Take a day off for a special occasion. Live a little when life allows.
This is not a rigid plan--it's a lifestyle. And now you should understand this point: making the lifestyle rigid and diet-like is actually counter-productive to your goals after all!
It's both as simple and as complicated as that.
Will you plateau and stop losing? Yes. At your body's ideal weight. Eventually. In a few years, maybe. I assume so, anyway. Even 2 years into "maintenance," I am still slowly losing, according to my changing size. Am I losing scale weight? Don't know. Don't care. I don't weigh. My clothes are looser and my body is still changing. I just had to put some pants away that I wore last spring and now they are too big.
When you do reach "your ideal weight," expect weight loss to stop. Who decides that you are now at your ideal weight? Surprise! It's not your conscious brain. It's your body. When your body decides you are at the ideal weight for the way you are living your life, you should stop losing weight and you will be at a permanent plateau. If you are lucky, it will be at a weight that your conscious-self also thinks is your ideal weight. If so, you have achieved weight loss Nirvana, which is when you feel good at your current weight, and your body is also happy to maintain that weight.
Remember: if you enjoy this lifestyle, then simply relax and enjoy the journey. You won't lose all of the excess weight quickly. You may get to a point, like I have, and stay at approximately the same size for 2 years, with a very gradual loss of extra fat over time. Eventually you should get closer and closer to your ideal weight, and your body will decide when you are there. Not you. It may be higher or lower than you thought it would be. Mine is actually lower than I thought it would be, according to my what my body has decided. And I'm not mad about 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.