“Molly, I am so frustrated. I have lost a ton of weight over the last 14 months (80 lbs.) but now my body seems totally stuck. I still have some weight that I want to lose, and I am still working really hard and eating clean, but the scale is just NOT budging. Should I just drop more calories? Try to work out more? I am in the gym 6 days a week right now. 4 day body part split (legs, arms/abs, chest/shoulders, back), (3) 60 minute spin classes, (2) 90 minute kickboxing classes, and I usually do cardio on my own if I am not spinning or kickboxing. Thanks in advance for your time.” – Sarah G.
In part 1 of this blog post, I addressed the exercise equation of what I thought was causing Sarah’s plateau. Today, in part 2, I am going to discuss the nutrition component. (The response to this article was so good that I’ve also been inspired to write a part 3 about recovery!)
Keep in mind that my advice is specifically for her, but hopefully my readers can extrapolate and apply this advice to their own situation.
(Please note: there are many paths to get to the same end goal. This is what has worked best for my clients over the last several years, and takes into account both their aesthetic and long-term health goals.)
Ok Miss Sarah…Here are the main problems I am seeing with your nutrition:
1. You have been in a calorie deficit for way too long. I don’t like my clients to be in a significant calorie deficit for longer than 12-16 weeks without at least a week or two of “re-feeding.”
2. Your overall calorie level has gotten way too low. If you’ve been in a deficit over the last 14 months and continued to lose body fat, chances are, you’ve had to drop those calories LOW to keep progress going.
3. You have been paying attention to just calorie level and not food sources, macronutrient ratios (protein/carb/fat ratios), or nutrient timing. This is an assumption I am making based on most of the women who come in my gym and have lost a ton of weight. They usually do it “weight-watchers-style” and simply count calories and don’t pay much attention to anything else.
As you can imagine, those 3 issues can cause fat loss to grind to a screeching halt. Here are the solutions I would suggest for those problems:
1. Make sure that when you are in a caloric deficit on a daily basis for long periods of time, that you schedule in regular re-feeds. Some people have them 1 day a week or once every two weeks, other people allow 10% of their meals to be “off-plan” and have them whenever they’d like, other simply prefer to rotate in a week of higher calorie days every 3-4 weeks. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you are “re-feeding” or significantly bumping up calories and carbs occasionally to maintain thyroid function and keep your body burning fat over the long haul.
2. Never let your calories get lower than 10 x your body weight. (There may be some exceptions for very obese individuals). That is simply too low for the majority of the population, and especially someone who is working out at much as you are. If you are already way below this number, slowly start bumping up your calories. I usually bump up my client’s calories by about 100-200/day every few weeks and monitor progress.
Keep in mind that there is a chance that you will gain some weight back initially. DO NOT PANIC. This is normal. Consider this: You have literally no other option, since you cannot continue to lower calories and stay healthy. You have nowhere to go but up. And actually a ton of my clients lose body fat and inches once they start bumping calories back up.
Also keep in mind that calorie level is very individual and dependent on a number of factors, but if you have absolutely no clue where to start, 15 x body weight is around maintenance for some who is moderately active, and has normal body fat levels.
3. If my assumption is correct, and you’ve simply been focused on calorie level this whole time, consider that you might want to make other changes. I already touched on bumping up your calorie level above, but like I mentioned, you may want to look into playing around with food sources, macro ratios, and nutrient timing. Some general guidelines I like for these are as follows:
A) Food Sources: Choose foods that are as unprocessed as possible. The more nutrition in your food, the healthier you are, the better you feel, the more likely you are to lose body fat. Also, I often play around with pulling gluten, grains and dairy out of my client’s diets as I find that they feel much better, have much more energy, and get relief from different ailments (IBS, arthritis, asthma, skin rashes, acne, dull/dry skin, heartburn, etc.). I simply recommend that you try it for 30-60 days and see how you feel. Worst case scenario, you eat less processed food, and more meats and veggies, right?
B) Macro Ratios: I tend to employ a “carb cycling” approach with my clients where they are eating fewer carbs and more fats on non-training days, and more carbs and fewer fats on training days (protein is similar, but slightly higher on training days). Again, this is very individual. But I would consider cycling your carbs, and getting your increased calories from protein and fat.
C) Nutrient Timing: This one is tricky as some people do really well eating 6 meals a day, while others do better with intermittent fasting, or 3 big squares a day. I am less concerned with when you eat your food, and more concerned with WHAT you’re eating when. For example, since body fat loss is your goal, I’d consume the majority of my carbs in the 2-3 hours post workout. Even on days you don’t work out, I usually recommend that my clients have more carbs at night. Your body is in fat-burning mode when you first wake up, and keeping carbs low in the morning can encourage your body to continue using fat for fuel during the day. Plus, eating the majority of your carbs at night can be very filling and satisfying so you’re less likely to go nuts with midnight snacking. Finally, a high carb meal is perfect for making you feel super sleepy and sending you off to dreamland quickly.
In short, have the majority of carbs within the couple of hours post workout, and/or at night.
See? There is a lot more to it than just calorie level! Below are 3 other little tips to keep in mind:
1. Most people can use their morning and afternoon body temperature to give them information about their metabolism (I say most because there will always be people who stay abnormally hot or cold).
If you take your temperature first thing in the morning for 3-4 days in a row before doing anything else, and again 6 hours later, and you find that it’s consistently below 97-97.5, there is a good chance that your metabolic rate is low. You must focus on increasing calories until you get this number to a more acceptable range.
2. If you have a target body fat %, get slightly below that, maintain that for as long as you can, and then when you inevitably “rebound up” a bit as your program loosens up, you will be at your target.
3. Don’t underestimate the power of set point theory. Your body likes to maintain homeostasis. Maintaining your ideal weight/bf% (or slightly lower) for close to a year is a good idea and will make it easier to maintain in the long run.
OK Sarah. I know I threw a lot of information at you. Here is how I would put it all together:
1. Start by adding 100-200 calories per day every 2 weeks until your calories are close to/above at least 15 x your body weight in calories.
2. Make sure you re-feed and significantly bump up calories/carbs at least once every 2 weeks.
3. Lower your carbs quite a bit on days that you don’t train (eat mostly fibrous veggies and some fruits) .
4. On days that you do train, have the majority of your carbs (~.5-1 gram/lb. of BW) within the 2-3 hours post workout.
5. Avoid carb heavy breakfasts. If you do want carbs one day, have them in the evening.
6. Experiment with pulling inflammatory foods like gluten, grains, and processed dairy from your diet for 30-60 days.
7. Monitor your morning and afternoon body temperature every few weeks and see if it improves as you raise your calorie level.
8. Once you determine your goal weight/size/body fat %, get slightly below there and hold it there for as long as you can.
Well Sarah, I hope you found this post helpful! Stay tuned for part 3 where I discuss recovery modalities that may help you bust through your plateau!
P.S. Every single one of my online nutrition clients has experienced fat loss and lost inches since they started training with me. The common denominator? I raise every single one of their calorie levels immediately when they started. They are now eating between 30% and 55% more calories than they were before they started working with me.