Why Does Fat Loss Stall? Talking Metabolic Adaptation + Plateaus

I talk a lot about fat loss - because that’s what I get asked about a lot. Given I’ve had my own successful fat loss transformation I have quite a bit to say on the topic. I remember when I first started I didn’t really know what a calorie was, or HOW to lose fat/ what the actual fat loss process in the body was. Now after years of personal experience, coaching clients to success and educating myself around the topic, I know a hell of a lot more.

How do we lose fat?

My transformation from 2017 - stage in 2018

My transformation from 2017 - stage in 2018

First things first - how do we lose fat? In order to lose fat, we need to be expending more energy than we’re consuming. Meaning we need to exert more energy through exercise/ daily activity than food consumed. This is called being in a caloric deficit.

There are a few different ways to be in a caloric deficit, and this will also depend on the individual. If you’re brand new to training, just weight lifting alone ‘newbie gains’ from resistance training and increased energy output can create enough of a deficit to warrant fat loss. But for the novice trainer, a better approach is weight training and eating in a caloric deficit (less food than required to maintain our current body weight).

Why do we stop losing fat?

Ok, so now we know the basics of how to lose fat - what happens if we’re doing this, sticking to our caloric deficit, training hard and we stop losing fat? You have just experienced the activation of your bodies defence system. Our metabolism slows to prevent starvation, hunger increases and we become better at storing fat rather than burning it. What was once a caloric deficit for us, has now became the calories our body neither loses nor gains weight on. We need to create another deficit - either by increasing energy output (training, steps, physical activity), or eat less food.

The best way to monitor this is through girth measurements, body fat measurement, photos and/ or scale weight so we know when we need to implement certain protocols.

When our metabolism adapts, we see a decrease in our BMR (rate of energy expenditure), a decrease in our NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis aka incidental movement like steps, fidgeting etc) as well as negative adaptations to key fat loss hormones such as leptin (tells us when we’re full), ghrelin (tells us when we’re hungry) and thryoid function.

The best approach for fat loss in my opinion

This is why a progressive approach to a long term fat loss goal is key. Start with being in the smallest deficit possible on the highest calories possible doing the smallest amount of exercise and movement possible. As your metabolism adapts you can either increase training, or decrease calories slightly as well as implementing diet breaks (bringing calories back up to initial maintenance calories through increased carb intake for a minimum of 3 days to mitigate the negative adaptations that occur from eating in a deficit).

When we plateau is when a lot of people lose motivation and tend to over-eat or reduce training and movement. Rather than doing less which is going to do the opposite to your results, this is when it’s more important to stay consistent and break through the plateau by making a change. Don’t sabotage your hard earned results, be smart about it and continue to achieve what you set out to by understanding how our body responds to what we’re doing to it.

Healing my gut - Low FODMAP life

If you’ve followed my journey for a while, you’ll know I’ve struggled with gut health for some time now. Basically since I had some routine surgery for endometriosis result in the perforation of my bowel in 2010/2011 (more on that here), my digestion has never been 100%. I’ve worked for years to fix this and get it to an optimal place, and whilst some things have worked, it’s still not perfect - so the quest continues! This time, I’m trying the Low FODMAP diet, I’m going to be sharing what I’ve learned, if it helps my gut and how exactly I’m doing this with my calories and macros!

Low FODMAP food

What symptoms should I look out for?

Poor digestion can include a number of symptoms. Bloating, loose stools, gas, changes to bowel movements, constipation, burping, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, brain fog, food intolerances and probably a lot more! I suffer from the first two, which makes me feel like I’m not actually absorbing any of the nutrients from the amazing food I’m eating.

What’s Low FODMAP?

FODMAPs are found in many foods and are short-chain carbohydrates (or sugars) that our gut is unable to properly absorb creating IBS like symptoms listed above.

Fermentable: Gases produced by the gut bacteria fermenting undigested carbs

Oligosaccharides: Fructans and GOS commonly found in garlic, wheat, onions and more

Disaccharides: Lactose found in dairy products

Monosaccharides: Fructose found in fruits + corn syrups

And Polyols: Sorbitol + Mannitol from some fruits, vegetables + artificial sweeteners

The idea of the Low FODMAP diet is to eliminate foods high in these FODMAPs, and after a period of time (2-6 weeks) re-introducing 1 FODMAP at a time to figure out which groups + foods trigger your symptoms the most. Everyone will respond differently to each group, there may be some foods within the group that don’t trigger you and others that do - it’s a whole lot of trial and error!

A day on my plate:

I’ve had to change things up because my diet consisted of large quantities of vegetables, which are the main offenders (as well as fruits) when it comes to foods high in FODMAPs. I’ve also had to adhere to my daily calorie and macro goals, so it’s been an interesting switch - there are some foods that you can eat unlimited, some you can eat up to a certain amount of and others you have to avoid entirely. I’ve been using the Monash University FODMAP Diet app as they’ve got a boss Food Guide of the foods you can have and in what quantities. Here’s an example with rough quantities of what I might eat in a day:

Breakfast:

  • 50g rolled oats

  • 100g strawberries

  • 50g almond milk

  • 10g chia seeds

  • 12g powdered peanut butter

  • 100g egg whites

  • 100g strawberries

  • 10g peanut butter

Snack:

  • Almond milk cappuccino

Lunch:

  • Wild salmon

  • 75g broccoli

  • 80g pineapple

  • 100g red pepper

  • 75g green beans

  • 200g pumpkin

  • 100g basmati rice

  • 20g organic ketchup

Dinner:

  • Steak

  • 300g white potatoes

  • 65g zucchini

  • 10g butter

  • 45g broccolini

Snack:

  • 40g rolled oats

  • 50ml almond milk

  • 100g strawberries

  • 10g peanut butter

As you can see, there aren’t heaps of different things i’m using - I rotate these foods every day, the only things I might add are different proteins (White fish, chicken, turkey etc), but the above is essentially what I’m working with each day. I find it really hard to stick to a diet if it’s boring, so herbs, spices and butter have been saving my taste buds and helping me stay on track!

How’s your gut going?

So far I’ve noticed a small change - I’m still getting bloated but not as frequently, my stools are harder more regularly but still not all the time, I have days where it feels like it’s done absolutely nothing, and days where it’s feeling on track. It’s a long term game though - so sticking to it consistently is key. I had a week in Melbourne where I went a little off track (at my sisters hens it was harder to stick to Low FODMAP eating out) so I have been at it for about 2.5 weeks so far. Once my symptoms reduce more, I’ll be re-introducing groups one at a time in small quantities.

Important to note: we shouldn’t stick to a Low FODMAP diet forever, a maximum of 12 weeks is ok, but make sure you’re re-introducing these foods (other than anything you know has a really bad reaction with you).

I’ll check in again once I’ve finished the elimination phase and start on the re-introduction phase! Hope this helped! :)

Soph xx


Wanting to build some lean muscle and shred fat alongside your FODMAP diet? Check out my 8 Week Lean Out programs - gym OR home based available :) x

Struggling with fat loss + building muscle? Try addressing these factors!

Obviously the right nutrition and training programs are super important when it comes achieving your goals - be it fat loss or building muscle. Other than these two things, we need to consider our lifestyle factors that also impact our ability and rate of fat loss.

I’ve written about these lifestyle factors as well as protocols to implement that will help you to improve on them to put you in the optimal position for any body composition goal you have!

1. Diet Adherence

healthy bowl

This is actually the most important factor for any diet or body composition goal. If you’re on a diet you’re unable to stick to… well you’re not going to achieve your goal. Discipline will only take you so far until old habits take over. It’s important to consider what your preferences are for an enjoyable diet. What foods do you want to incorporate, how many meals do you want to eat a day, do you prefer high carb or high fat, are there certain foods you can’t live without, do you need variety across the day or week, do you prefer routine?

For me, I like to have at least 60g of fat in my diet in a day so that I can flavour my food with nut butter, butter and other fat sources - this makes my food a lot more enjoyable and increases my adherence to the diet. Obviously when you start ‘cutting’ phases there mightn’t be as much flexibility when calories are lower, but those times should only be for short periods.

2. Stress

A lot of people think of stress only as highly stressful situations - for instance “I’m really stressed at work with deadlines”, “I’m really stressed about a conversation I have to have with a colleague”, “I’m really stressed about an event I have to host”, “I’m stressed about a Dr’s appointment I have” etc.. 

People actually underestimate the amount of stress they’re under, because they think these situations are the only ones that create stress responses in the body. We also adjust to the amount of stress we’re under and it kind of becomes the ‘norm’. What we don’t realise is that the smallest things can cause a stress response in our body. Stress is basically anything that makes a change in our body. Things like changes in temperature, allergies, intolerances, inflammation, emotional, physical or physiological stress! 

Our Autonomic Nervous System regulates our states, broken into our parasympathetic state known as rest, digest and recovery  and our sympathetic state known as our fight or flight response. We do need some stress in our lives - without stress, there are no adaptations (muscle growth, fat loss) but most people have TOO much stress which leads to the problem. 

How stress affects fat loss:

beach meditation

Over production and constant cortisol in the bloodstream can lead to:

  • Lowered immunity

  • Excess inflammation

  • Down regulation of gut health

  • Lower testosterone and increased estrogen

  • Decreased brain function

  • Reduction of key neurotransmitters, such as Gaba (our ability to be calm), Dopamine (our drive and motivation) and Serotonin (our feel good hormone - the precursor to melatonin which is the hormone that helps us get to sleep).

Now that we feel shit and our sleep has been affected our leptin levels drop (satiety) and our grhelin goes up (hunger) which is going to make us struggle to stick to any diet no matter how enjoyable it is!

Elevated stress levels can also create a resistance to catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) which are required to break down fat cells and pull the contents out, and then mobilise is to the mitochondria where it’s utilised as energy - constant stress prevents our catecholamines from working effectively and can decrease our ability to pull out free fatty acids from fat cells to use as energy, aka impart our ability to burn fat.

soph active life

Stress and fat storage also correlates with an accumulation of fat around our belly - so people who say they have trouble reducing fat around their abdomen could definitely look at implementing de-stressing protocols to assist this.

Finally, our thyroid which is our key regulator of our metabolic rate slows down - not what we want when we’re trying to lose fat!

All of this puts us in a terrible position for our bodies to be focussing on losing fat.

So what can I do to de-stress?

In order to mitigate the effects of stress, we need to include more activities that put us into the parasympathetic state (Rest, digest + recover).

My favourite things are:

  • Meditation (I use the Waking Up app by Sam Harris)

  • yoga and stretching

  • reading a book

  • listen to music

  • playing with pets

  • listening to podcasts

  • taking a bath

  • going for a walk

  • journaling 

  • calling a friend

Schedule in a few of these each day to help bring your stress levels down and make sure it’s something you’ll actually stick to in order to see the benefits.

3. Sleep

We need sleep for recovery and repairing, it’s particularly vital to those who work out as when we’re asleep is when we are most anabolic, creating the most regeneration of our muscle tissue.

Bad sleep leads to increased cortisol, decreased leptin + increased ghrelin = we are more likely to over eat.

beauty sleep

Poor sleep can also temporarily lead to issues with our insulin sensitivity, which can stop us from utilising carbs as effectively, which can potentially decrease our body ability to lose fat (this doesn’t impact us if we are in a deficit). But it can certainly make it harder to stay in a deficit if we’re craving more sweet things and feel hungrier.

Improving sleep:

In order to improve our sleep, we need to make sure we have a set sleep and wake cycle.

  • Implementing a bed time routine can assist with this as it will signal to your body that it’s time to go to sleep

  • Get into bed 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep

  • Sleep before 11pm - after midnight we can miss out on a large amount of physical repair according to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) the 10:00pm - 2:00am window is considered the best repair + physical adaptation window

  • Cut out stimulants before 3pm (coffee) - as they increase the stress chemicals and decrease your ability to relax

  • Set your room up to be as dark as possible = better secretion of melatonin (the brain thinks it’s day time and decreases melatonin produced due to exposure to electronic devices which helps us get to sleep). Start using blue light goggles or apps (like f.lux + iPhone night mode) to avoid blue light exposure for proper melatonin secretion

  • Ensure your room is well ventilated - fresh oxygen intake + cold temperatures optimise melatonin production

  • Chamomile and lavender aromatherapy will improve gaba sensitivity to allow our body to enter relaxation state

  • Stop working 2 hours before bed

  • Avoid consuming food 2 hours before bed as digestive system will need to focus on digesting food not resting

4. NEAT - Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis

walking

NEAT = Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis which is basically just incidental exercise - fidgeting, steps, movement are all considered incidental activity.

There have been some studies showing individuals that got under 7,300 daily steps drives up ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel full, which is why my minimum daily steps will always be 10,000!

The more time we spend dieting, the more our bodies try to conserve our energy by moving less, so it will actually stop us from fidgeting, walking etc.. it will be harder to be as motivated or energised to do so. So make sure you’re getting up frequently, getting your daily steps in and ensuring incidental activity occurs even in the depths of your deficit!


Squad goals

Joint the squad and get some badass results with me and my girls! I’ve got gym or home based training programs as well as nutrition programs! Check them out below :)

Why Your Calorie Deficit is no Longer Working

Eat in a calorie deficit (less calories than you're burning in a day) and you'll lose fat forever right? Not always the case! If you've been eating in a calorie deficit with your goal being fat loss for a while (anywhere from a few months onwards) then there's every chance your metabolism has adapted so well, to the point in which you're no longer able to lose fat. Sure you may have successfully lost a lot or a little fat, but your body cannot sustain this for too long.

Read More

Setting up your Macros

I remember being so confused when I first starting counting macros, I wish I had a super basic guide telling me what to do, how to set up apps to use it (I'm going to use MyFitnessPal here because that's what I use), how to measure food and the basic maths behind it all. Hopefully this blog is super useful for you to get started on your macro journey!

Read More

9 Reasons You're Not Losing Fat

You're eating well and training hard but you don't feel like your clothes are getting any looser, or that number on the scale just won't move, sound familiar? I've totally been there. It was one of the most frustrating places I sat - I was training 3 times a week with a personal trainer absolutely smashing my training consistently and eating so clean, but for some reason I wasn't seeing any changes in my body. 

Read More