Many of us get into fitness in order to lose weight, and focus on dieting to do so. I’ll be writing more about weight loss in the future, but for now the graphic below by Bret Contreras does a really good job showing how diets allow you to lose weight.
In a nutshell, in order to lose weight, you must force your body to use energy that is stored as fat by consuming fewer calories than your using.
Many of us have started dieting, and seen some decent results. Then, all of a sudden the weight loss stopped. There are two processes that are most likely the cause of this plateau.
Change in BMR or NEAT
In my other article on how to calculate your macros, I discuss the two concepts of BMR and NEAT as it correlates to energy expenditure. If you’d like to learn about these in more detail, check out that post.
As you lose weight, your BMR will decrease. This will cause you to need to continue to decrease your caloric intake in order to continue losing weight. In addition, when you’re in a caloric deficit (especially for a long while), you tend to sit more, not fidget, and just in general move around less. This is a result of feeling more fatigued, and your natural desire to conserve energy. If your NEAT does decrease, you will need to decrease calories to compensate.
Essentially, as you lose weight and move less, you’ll need to adjust to those new conditions. Fairly straight forward.
Metabolic adaptation is a catch all term describing how your body reacts to a caloric deficit. If we think back to the caveman days, losing weight was a sign that things were going down hill. Food is scarce, and your body is trying to help you stay alive for as long as possible with this limited supply of food. Three main things may happen while you’re trying to lose weight.
- Increased mitochondrial efficiency
- Decreased metabolic rate
- Promotion of catabolic processes and reduction in anabolic processes
Increased mitochondrial efficiency essentially means that your body starts to rely more strongly on cellular processes that are able to generate energy (ATP) more efficiently. Think of your cells as little lazy powerplants, that as soon as they realize that calories are scarce, start being more careful with the calories that they are given. Your body will also behave in a similar way, and slow down your precious metabolism in order to prevent future fat loss.
In addition, hormone balances will start to shift, and reduce anabolic processes (the building of molecules) and start to promote catabolic processes (the breaking down of molecules) in order to preserve energy.
Common Issues About Metabolic Adaption
Many people think that when they are in a caloric deficit, they are somehow doing damage to their metabolism. Almost like they’ve caught some sort of disease. The good news is, metabolic adaptation is not a disease, and instead a process that works both ways. When you’re looking to gain wait, your body will most likely do the opposite process, and increase your metabolism in order to prevent weight gain. You’re body just wants to maintain homeostasis, and may be mad at you for trying to mess up its day.
There is also the misconception that when you’re in a caloric deficit, metabolic adaptation will make you gain weight. To me this seems silly. Metabolic adaptation is not a wizard, it cannot create energy out of nothing. What may be happening is that your metabolism decreased, causing you to stop losing weight. This would mean that you are no longer in a caloric deficit, and instead at a maintenance level of energy expenditure.
The summary is this, if you’ve stopped losing weight, you will most likely need to lower your calories or increase your exercise. Most likely a mixture of both. Whatever you decide to do, you need to re-introduce a caloric deficit.
One other piece of advice, if you’d like to maintain your muscle mass, ensure you’re eating enough protein. You’ll most likely need to eat more than you would in a caloric surplus, about 2g/kg of body mass per day.
If you’d like a much more detailed explanation of how weight loss works, I’d suggest checking out this article from strongerbyscience.com.