You start a diet. At first, the weight seems to drop off quickly. You think to yourself “dieting’s not that bad, I’ll hit my goal weight in no time.” But the body gets wind of your intentions and crashes the green juice infused party. You plateau. So you start eating less. Exercising more. Or both. The weight budges a little, but flatlines again. What the hell? You’re working your ass off and results have completely stalled.
There are many causes that contribute to the dreaded weight loss plateau. One of these is adaptive thermogenesis (also referred to as starvation mode, metabolic damage, and metabolic slowdown). Let’s take a look at what it is and how you can avoid it.
What Is Adaptive Thermogenesis?
Our bodies are amazing. They’re built for survival at all costs. When you restrict food intake for a long time, it’s perceived as a threat—you’re starving and there’s a famine. Your brain doesn’t know that you’re simply trying to look good in a bikini. It fights back through a process called adaptive thermogenesis.
Adaptive thermogenesis is the body’s natural response to long-term calorie restriction. It’s designed to keep you alive when food is scarce. Your metabolic rate is slowed down to maintain energy stores (i.e., fat—yes, the same fat you’re trying to lose). The drop in metabolic rate is 10-15% greater than what would be expected based on weighing less. Let’s look at an example.
Say we’ve got two men that weigh the same amount. One of them has always been that weight. The other person was obese and dieted down. Based on their body weight, we’d expect them to have similar metabolic rates. But because of adaptive thermogenesis, the obese person might only need between 1,700 and 1,900 calories a day to maintain their weight. The person who’s never dieted might be able to eat 2,000 calories to maintain the same weight.
This means that the obese person’s metabolism has slowed down because of long-term dieting. He now has to eat between 5-15% fewer calories a day to maintain the same weight as someone who’s never dieted.
It’s unclear how long the decrease in energy expenditure can last for. But studies have shown it can persist for 6 months up to 7 years after ending your diet. This means that it could be a permanent change.
What This Means to You
Adaptive thermogenesis doesn’t affect every dieter. But it’s one of the big reasons why so many people have trouble losing and keeping weight off. During your diet, it contributes to weight loss plateaus. After your diet, it puts your body in a state primed for weight gain—your metabolism is decreased and your brain wants to refeed after the ‘famine’.
If you’re not smart about the way you diet, your chances of keeping the weight off long term are dismal. Failure rates for diets are between 80-90% with most people returning to pre-diet weight within one year.
Is Weight Loss Hopeless?
Making major changes to your body is hard work, but with the right approach, everyone can build a head-turning physique. With that said, because of factors like adaptive thermogenesis, it will be harder for some people. But if you know how to avoid the pitfalls, you’ve won half the battle. Let’s take a look at some strategies you can use to keep your metabolism high.
How to Avoid Adaptive Thermogenesis
Just as our bodies can slow down metabolism, we can also hack the system to burn more calories. Here are some strategies you can use when dieting.
Go Slow and Have Reasonable Expectations
When we decide we want to lose weight, we usually want results now. But when it comes to weight loss, research clearly shows that slow and steady wins out every time. You want to lose around 0.5-1% of body weight per week. Any faster and you’ll probably lose muscle and increase the chances of rebounding.
Appreciate the Journey
I know. That sounds like a lame as shit cliché. But body transformations are a journey. Once you get that, it’s easier to deal with the ups and downs. Don’t be too strict on yourself. We know that flexible eating is associated with a lower BMI and healthier body weight. So enjoy your cake from time to time!
Eat More Protein
We use energy to break down food after eating—known as the thermic effect of food. And your body uses a lot more energy to break down protein than it does to break down fats and carbs. This is why protein is a staple in many diets. By simply eating more protein-rich foods, you’re fuller for longer and burn more calories.
When you diet, you want to lose fat, not muscle. Your body needs a reason to maintain muscle mass. Enter weight training.
It only takes a couple of weeks of training for metabolism to ramp up in both men and women. After a workout, it can be increased for up to 48 hours. This means that it’ll be much easier to lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight. So, go pick up some heavy shit!
Diet Breaks and Refeeds
If you’re dieting for more than a month (especially low carb diets), you should consider refeeds or diet breaks. These are structured breaks that have a planned increase in calories (specifically carbs). They can be a few days off each month. Or you could take one day a week off. The goal is to raise leptin and thyroid hormones that typically decrease during diets.
Don’t go overboard during these refeeds or breaks. Structure your intake so you’re eating at maintenance or 20-30% above. If you’ve been dieting for a long time, you’ll need to experiment to find what works for you.
Keep Your Caloric Decrease Small
Dropping your calories by 50% or crash dieting is a surefire way to screw up the body. Always start off with the smallest caloric deficit you can get away with. Somewhere between 10-20% works well. Then as your body starts to fight back, you have much more room to make adjustments or increase exercise. If you start off with a massive cut in calories, you don’t have anywhere to go when you hit a plateau.
This is often overlooked but has a significant impact on weight loss. Research has found that dieters are at a higher risk of stress that can lead to adverse health effects. Take your sleep seriously and aim to incorporate some relaxation routines into your day. It can be anything from foam rolling to meditation.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) pick one of the above approaches to avoid a weight loss plateau and test drive it. Start out with an easy change. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
I Need Your Help
I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.
You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what part of dieting you struggle the most with? Willpower? Motivation? The smell of freshly baked goodies?
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