Unexplainable Fat Loss Plateaus Explained

Fat Loss Plateaus and Lack of Progress

Fat loss plateaus and lack of progress are always frustrating. What makes it utterly maddening is when you feel like you’re putting in a superhuman effort in the gym? While reducing calories, but still making no progress? At this point, I usually see two unfortunate things happen.  The first is a knee-jerk “blame the fat on something else” reaction.

Usually, bad genetics or a thyroid problem. Whatever it is, it’s definitely “not your fault”.  The second is the tendency to deny the calories in versus calories out equation. “I’m hardly eating anything and I’m not losing weight. It CAN’T be calories, it MUST be something else!” Carbs are the usual scapegoat.

Why do so many people hit fat loss plateaus that they can’t explain. Leading them to question themselves, their plan and even the basic principles of energy balance?
The frustrations and complaints about “inexplicable” progress plateaus come in many forms.

A good summary of the way many people feel exasperated about this:

“I always hear about the need for a calorie deficit for losing fat. But in my experience, that is not always true. I understand about calories in versus calories out. When in real life with real people, sometimes things become more complicated than on paper don’t they? I just wanted to open a debate that at some point. The body will adapt to a deficit. Weight does not go down even if in a calorie deficit.

And if this adaptation takes place, is it even possible for any person to get really lean like you. Or at least in the 6-7% body fat range? What if his genetics are so bad that no matter what he does. Fat stays there, and at the end, there is no other way than to try things like liposuction? There are cases where women hardly eat anything. While at the same weight, even if they train. Why? This seems so unfair.”

It’s true that the theoretical (on paper) calorie math and your real world fat loss results don’t always seem to jive.  The fact is, you will ALWAYS lose weight in a calorie deficit. There are at least a half a dozen explanations for seemingly unexplainable weight loss plateaus. I will explain them all below…

Body composition improves but body weight doesn’t change much

First, it’s important to remember the difference between weight loss and fat loss. Revealed with repeated body composition tests. With this distinction made,  slightly more accurate to say that a calorie deficit always causes energy  withdrawn from body stores.Not always an immediate and significant decrease in body weight.

You could lose body fat, which would show up visually and through body fat testing. But scale weight may not change. Due to water retention or an increase in lean body mass (LBM). Sometimes you don’t notice or appreciate slow but steady improvements in body composition. Especially when masked fluctuating water weight or increased in LBM.

If you’re focusing on the scale for criterion of success, that alone, a great cause of confusion and frustration over short-term results.

Solution: weigh yourself and measure body composition over an extended period of time and track your results on a progress chart so you can see the trend over time. 

Inter-individual variation in basal metabolic rate

Second, the calorie formulas we use to establish your basal metabolic rate (BMR) are estimations. I’ve found the Katch-Mcardle and Harris benedict equations for BMR/TDEE remarkably accurate and match up to real world expenditure the majority of the time.

However, BMR can vary from one individual to the next. According to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (Bader), the majority of the variance in BMR explained by age, gender and lean body mass (more LBM = higher metabolism), leaving only 19% of the variance unexplained. This unexplained variance is thought to be due to composition of the LBM (muscle vs organ mass), genetic factors and thyroid hormone.

One study showed up to a 25% variance in BMR that couldn’t be explained by body weight, body comp, age or gender. However, this finding was a rare exception. The body of research on the subject says that inter-individual BMR variability in healthy humans is small – usually in the range of a 3% to 8% difference from person to person (Donahoo).

If BMR could vary significantly from what we calculate using the BMR formulas, that’s another explanation for why the results don’t seem to jive sometimes. It also provides one more explanation for the naturally lean ectomorph and the naturally plumper endomorph. This doesn’t mean that calories don’t count. It means some people burn fewer calories at rest than others the same body size. 

Calorie calculation formulas may be inaccurate for some populations and errors can made when using any calorie formula

Third, those same calorie formulas we use to establish BMR, we also use to establish total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Again, these calorie formulas are estimations. In fact, the activity multiplier you use to produce TDEE from BMR is very much a guess.

In some individuals, particularly overweight men and women, the calorie formulas may overestimate your TDEE by as much as 10-15%. Some experts have suggested that different calorie formulas such as the Owen or Mifflin equations be used to accommodate for this potential margin of error or that population-specific equations be used.

It would be nice to get an accurate calorie estimation right from the start. Fortunately, you can easily reconcile between theoretical (on paper) calorie needs and actual calorie needs with weekly progress tracking and a good feedback loop system. This way, the skinny ectomorph can still figure out the appropriate surplus and gain muscle and the endomorph can still achieve a deficit and cut fat.

Under-estimation of food intake and over-estimation of activity

Fourth, almost everyone underestimates their food intake. The famous New England Journal of Medicine study (Lichtman) is the classic example, where women who swore they were “diet resistant” and had thyroid problems were actually underestimating their food intake by 47% and overestimating their calories burned by 51%.

Some of them were eating one thousand calories more than they thought they were! Ironically, it was these women who were complaining the most about being genetically or hormonally cursed! While some people have thyroid problems or other legitimate medical issues which can contribute to difficulty losing weight, in most cases, there are other, more mundane, yet overlooked explanations for lack of fat loss.

To avoid this calorie miscalculation conundrum, the best plan is to educate yourself about the calorie contents of foods you eat regularly, work off a menu on paper and weigh your food. Do this until you have a good grasp on calories and then do it again any time you hit a plateau.

Reduced calorie needs after weight loss

Fifth, it’s true that your body adapts to caloric restriction – that’s the nature of the human organism – striving to maintain homeostasis and prolong survival during starvation. However, some of the decrease in energy expenditure during dieting has nothing to do with an adaptive decrease in metabolism or “starvation mode”, it has to do with having a smaller body after weight loss.

This will only click for you if you see an example with real-world numbers:

Kevin is a 40-year old active male, 5 feet 8 inches tall and 235 pounds. If you run his numbers through our calorie calculators, his maintenance level is about 3200 calories per day. With a 20% deficit, which is fairly conservative and should not cause undue metabolic slowdown, he would want to eat 2600 calories per day to lose weight.

Suppose he successfully loses 50 pounds and becomes a lean 185 pounder. But then Kevin wants to knock off the last 10 pounds so he can be “ripped!” Now that he weighs 185 pounds, if you run his calorie calculations again you see that…

The math equation has changed!

Kevin is a smaller guy now, so he needs fewer calories. At 185, his maintenance level is now only 2800 a day. He’s burning FOUR HUNDRED CALORIES a day less than when he started.

If he keeps eating the way he did when he was a bigger guy, he will hardly lose any weight because he doesn’t need that many calories to sustain his weight anymore!

Suppose Kevin also forgets to report a measly 200 calories per day – his deficit gone! It’s not that he isn’t losing fat in a deficit – he LOST his deficit. So his weight loss stops, even though he hasn’t changed anything from his original diet plan.

Therefore, his “human nature” tendency is to blame it on the diet not working (moving on to the next “diet of the month”). Or it must be a hormonal problem, genetics, or this whole calories in – calories out thing is wrong.

The energy balance equation is always with us, but ENERGY BALANCE IS DYNAMIC! This means your calorie needs can change based on your body size, activity level and countless other factors. If you fail to adjust your caloric intake and expenditure in real time to accommodate for your continuously changing energy needs, you’re likely to struggle with plateaus and be never-endingly perplexed about their cause.

Metabolic adaptation to dieting (aka “adaptive thermogenesis”)

Sixth, when you’re in a calorie deficit, your metabolic rate can slow down beyond what can be accounted for by the reduction in body weight. This is called adaptive thermogenesis. Incidentally, this is only one part of the starvation mode. Other components of the starvation response include a spontaneous decrease in non-exercise activity (NEAT) and an increase in appetite (there are behavioral changes, not just metabolic ones).

Extensive research has documented the drop in metabolism that occurs from calorie restriction, especially if it’s prolonged and severe. Most studies say adaptive thermogenesis can account for an additional 5-10% decrease in metabolism. However, one recent study (Tremblay) showed a shocking 30.9% drop in metabolism.

This variation may be due to the severity of the diet. Explained at least partly by hereditary factors. It’s totally possible that some individuals. Like ectomorph, those with not so great genetics for fat burning). Might see enough drop in metabolism with dieting to really slow down fat loss a lot.

This doesn’t mean the laws of thermodynamics are not operating. Meaning some people are burning fewer calories than they think they are. This could lead to a lot of frustration for dieters who don’t realize what’s really going on.

A diet break of 7 days (or longer) at maintenance or a carb cycling (re-feeding) strategy.  Helps fix up the adaptive drop and get metabolism back up to speed.

Good nutrition practices in general such as those explained in the Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscleor the Body Fat Solution programs can help minimize this metabolic adaptation in the first place (conservative calorie deficits, proper protein intake to maintain LBM, training, etc).

The right question and the wrong question

If you were losing weight but your weight loss has stopped completely, you’ve lost your caloric deficit for one or more of the reasons listed above. The question to ask then, is NOT “what if a calorie deficit doesn’t work,” but “why did I lose my caloric deficit?”

I don’t mean to downplay how complex your body’s weight-regulating mechanism, metabolism and neuro-endocrine systems really are. Obesity is the simplest problem known to humankind when you consider that obesity is caused by an energy imbalance. But at the same time it’s the most complex problem known to humankind when you consider how many factors can contribute to that energy imbalance. Dozens? Hundreds? Maybe thousands?

There are many medical and health factors that can influence fat loss. These conditions, beyond the scope of this article and explored with a medical doctor or clinical professional. However, even in these clinical cases,  invariably find that the energy balance equation affected in some way. So in the end, still calories in versus calories out.

For example, certain conditions may decrease BMR. Exercise thermogenesis or non-exercise thermogenesis (energy output) or they may increase appetite (energy input). In the end, regardless of whether you suspect it’s hormones, prescription drugs. Maybe digestive disorders or a metabolic problem, it all comes full circle to thermodynamics anyway.

However, there’s one last factor to consider. Nutrient partitioning. Referring energy pulled from and stored while in a deficit or surplus, respectively.

Beyond Calories in Versus Calories Out: Energy Partitioning

Suppose you DO have a calorie deficit. Withdrawing energy from body stores. Guaranteed to draw all that energy from body fat? No. If your hormones out of whack, and  stressed, overtrained and sleep deprived. Or if you don’t have mesomorph genetics, you could lose much of that weight in muscle.

And, if you’re in a surplus, guaranteed to gain all the weight in muscle? Of course not. We all know too well, excess food will go into fat storage. If you’re doing resistance training, then a small surplus, hopefully directed into building some muscle. This partitioning process is influenced by many factors, including training, nutrition, lifestyle, hormones and genetics.

Mesomorphs are genetically gifted in the partitioning department.  With nutrition and training  in place, mesomorphs seem to partition all of the surplus straight into muscle tissue. Even with optimal training and nutrition, the endomorphs seem to partition half of the surplus right into fat!

By now, everything should be coming into focus. Fat loss is a complex neuro-endocrine process. Yes genetics and hormones involved. Yes, body composition changes don’t end with calories in versus calories out. Also nutrient partitioning to consider. Affecting not just whether you lose weight or gain weight, but what kind of weight you lose or gain.

People are making a huge mistake when it seems like the calorie numbers don’t jive. Assuming it’s ALL genetics, ALL hormones, ALL health problems or worst of all, that the calorie balance model of weight loss is wrong. Even though genetics, hormones, etc. are contributing factors, at the end of the day, the laws of thermodynamics and the calorie balance equation are always there.

Can anyone get lean? Some people stuck with genetically dictated body fat.

The implications of all this to a person’s ultimate progress? Anyone to get “ripped” or for a guy to hit 6% body fat if the factors above working against him?

I believe that anyone can reach their ideal body composition goals. I even believe that most men could get as lean as single digit body fat. Women could reach the low to mid teens in body fat, if that is their goal. But the journey will undoubtedly be harder for some than others. That may not seem fair, but who ever said life’s fair? Besides, for every inherent weakness, we have an inherent strength. For every weakness we overcome, we develop a new strength.

Excess body fat, genetically influenced. But genetics just one factor. Obesity genes do not express themselves. Hormones do not run amok unless you succumb to the”obesogenic environment”.  Eating excessive amounts of food, eat unhealthy junk, live a sedentary lifestyle. Allowing temptations and negativity to drag you down.

You didn’t get to choose your genetics, but you do get to choose your attitude and your behavior.