This is my response to a reader who sent in a question about how to break a weight loss plateau
Q: I have never been overweight until after high school. I started gaining around 20 years of age and stayed overweight til I was 25. I started working out at a women’s gym for a year, I was persistent. I lost about 30 and I have kept it off til now. I work out at a coed gym now, they took a body fat comp and my percentage body fat was 20 %. I am around 152 and my goal is 140 but i cant get beyond 150. Lately I have been trying to burn at least 1000 calories 3-5 days a week. I have hypothyroidism but luckily by working out i have increased my metabolism. I still have a lil belly I want that gone! I am 5’7 1/2 by the way. I try to eat a lot of chicken and fish for protein and I drink protein shakes every other day, mostly on the days that I lift. I lift 2-3 times a week. Now that you know my stats and stuff, could you give me some advice? I would really appreciate it! Thank you and God Bless!
A: So you’ve upped your exercise to burn an extra 1000 calories a day. Have you compensated for the 1000 calories by adding an extra 1000 calories from protein?
When the body is being worked, it has to have the fuel to support it and when it doesn’t get it, the metabolism slows down to conserve what it’s got. Now, adding an extra 1000 calories from protein may be an exaggeration, but the point is that you will need extra calories from somewhere.
We may get results in the beginning as exercise is increased, but eventually it will slow down. The easiest way to deal with this is to not only increase the exercise (or output), but to also increase the calories (the input). The extra calories increase metabolism and increase thermogenics. It’s a two-fold punch which should increase your ability to break a weight loss plateau.
Cutting Calories Slows Down Metabolism
Most people doing a fat burning program will begin to cut calories, but to cut them more than 15% below maintenance levels (that which is required to keep running your body at it’s current levels of muscle) will slow things down. It’s a very fine line between burning body fat and entering starvation mode, especially if you’re that active in the gym.
Conversely, what people don’t do is increase their calories AND increase their exercise. Exercise will not only build more fat burning muscle, but it also increases the demand for fuel to support that increase in muscle.
Increase Calories, Lose Weight
I have a client who is a personal trainer. She was struggling with a few extra pounds and wanted to lose them. After telling her to increase her protein consumption, she too did not agree with me and did not do it. Finally she gave in and increased her protein following my advice of 2 extra ounces of lean chicken breast with each of her 5 meals per day. A week later she had dropped 6 pounds.
Increasing Calories Increases Metabolism
Metabolism is an amazing function of the human body. It’s been working for millions of years to support our eating habits and keep us alive during times of famine. Where restricting calories slows down the metabolism, increasing calories steps up metabolism to “waste the calories” consumed. Thyroid activity, thermogenics and leptin levels increase during overfeeding.
Food Composition Has To Be Considered
The composition of your food intake also plays a role. Carbohydrates cause an increase in insulin levels as the food is broken down and turned into sugar (rates of uptake depend of the composition of the meal). Insulin can be a powerful ally in your fat loss, but only under certain circumstances.
Insulin is a hormone produced and secreted by the pancreas. It’s primary function is to regulate the level of sugar in the blood, but Insulin also shuttles amino acids and other nutrients into muscle cells, facilitating protein synthesis and promoting anabolism. Insulin can be thought of as a storage and locking hormone. It makes you fat by causing fat storage and it keeps you fat by baring access to fat stores.
Carbohydrates Vs Protein When It Comes To Insulin
Insulin rises due to carbohydrate consumption or when a large amount of calories are consumed at one sitting regardless of their composition. Protein on the other hand has much less impact on insulin creation, but it will if protein is consumed in high quantities.
As sugar is removed from the body, it is used in various ways:
1. Some is used for immediate energy (instead of fat, which is your preferred fuel source)
2. The rest is converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles and liver
3. Anything else that is left after glycogen storage is converted to triglyceride and transported via the bloodstream to adipose tissue for storage. It’s turned into bodyfat.
When insulin is used for immediate energy as in point one, fat burning is put on hold because “getting rid of excess blood sugar takes precedence”. If the excess blood sugar is not removed things can get really bad ie: death.
It’s a natural process that has been taking place since man first appeared on the planet.
“….anything else that is left after glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles is turned into bodyfat… “
By keeping glycogen stores lower, our body should never have excess glycogen to store as fat. You seem to be doing this by actively doing cardio and weight training at your gym. You’re using up the glycogen in your liver and muscles. You can also cut all starchy carbs for your last two meals of the day. I don’t know what you’re eating as you did not mention that in your email, but by increasing calories in the form of protein, a little at each meal, you provide your body with the nutrients it needs without increasing insulin.
Glucagon Unlocks and Burns Fat
Glucagon on the other hand is an unlocking and burning hormone (the exact opposite of insulin). Glucagon mobilizes fat for use as energy, but only does so in the absence of stored glycogen. Glycogen raises blood sugar.
The dark side of Glucagon.
Glucagon is a fat burning hormone and can be a force for good, however, to do it’s job of raising blood sugar, it will in some instances break down muscle to provide that sugar as well as getting it from the liver. Muscle tissue is broken down to provide amino acids for conversion to glucose in a process knows as Gluconeogenesis. If you body is in a hormonal state where it’s a sugar burner, then this can be a bad thing. Conversely, if you’re in fat burning mode, Glucagon is a good hormone.
Using Glucagon To Your Advantage
Eating protein stimulates the pancreas to secrete Glucagon as does not eating anything for several hours. It does this to counter the effect of the drop in blood sugar.
If you’re not eating for a long time, Glucagon will have a catabolic effect (breaking down of the muscle tissue) and is not what we want. To combat this, simply eat more frequently. This is why most effective weight loss programs advise to eat smaller meals more often thereby spreading the calories over a larger time frame as well as keeping your hormones in a balances state to increase fat burning and reduce cravings. As Tom Venuto says, “never go more than 3 hours without eating protein”
Putting It All Together
1. Keep training as you’re doing
2. Eat 5 smaller meals throughout the day
3. Add additional protein and good fats to each meal
4. Lower your carbohydrate intake
5. Never eat starchy carbs in your last 2 meals
6. Add more cardio sessions. ie: from every other day to every day.
As crazy as it seems, adding protein and adding good fats are not what people expect to hear, but it works very well to break a weight loss plateau. Good fats in the form of EFA (essential fatty acids) such as Udo’s Oil or any other balanced omega 3-6-9 increase thermogenics as well. Fat has no effect on insulin or glycogen – it’s neutral in that respect. Fat in the presence of insulin is a bad thing however and you should try and avoid eating fat with carbohydrates. Fat with protein is fine.. Fat tends to reduce cravings while carbohydrates tend to increase cravings. Never eat rice cakes for example. They’re the worst introduction to the food chain in the past 20 years.
My bet is that you’re simply not eating enough. Add the extra protein, monitor your results for the following week and two weeks. If you still haven’t broken the plateau, further increase the protein by another 2 ounces per meal.
Thanks for the question, and before I leave it, I’d like to say how sexy it is to hear a woman say the words “I lift”.