Paleo Plan

9 Ways to Overcome A Weight Loss Plateau on Paleo

Here’s a question from a Paleo Plan member about stalling out on weight loss…

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Jason and Neely:

I have a question for you. How do I overcome this weight loss plateau? I have been living the Paleo lifestyle since January and have proudly lost 28 pounds. Ideally I have another 10-15 pounds to go.

I typically eat the same thing for breakfast during the week: hard boiled egg and fruit. Lunches are leftover dinner (protein and vegetable). My snacks are fruit and vegetables (raw). I work out (lifting weights and cardio) 5-6 days per week. I would love any suggestions as I have been ‘stuck’ at this weight for 5 weeks.

Thanks,
Kathleen



Hi Kathleen,

This is a common (and very frustrating) problem! I’ll try to shed some light on your situation. I really don’t know what’s going on with the little info I have about you, but here are some ideas.

1. You may be eating too many calories.

Often when you lose weight, your body gets to a lighter set point and then you need to eat fewer calories in order to lose weight. You might be plateauing because you’re eating the same amount of food that you were eating 28 pounds ago. I’m not saying that I think you’re gluttonous or anything like that; sometimes it’s really hard to tell that you’re eating too much.

I’d go to myfitnesspal.com and log what you eat for a few days and see if you’re over your recommended caloric intake. If that’s the case, no need to go nuts and cut out massive amounts of calories, unless you’re actually eating WAY too many of them. Maybe just cut it down by about 200 calories per day and see how you do.

2. You may be exercising too much (or too little).

Exercising 5-6 days a week is a lot, and many people’s bodies don’t like it, so you may have water retention or other signs of inflammation going on. Exercising too much can negatively affect your cortisol levels, which can inhibit weight loss. I know that, “You’re exercising too much” may sound counterintuitive, but I actually see this phenomenon a lot, and it happens to me personally as well. If I exercise too much, I gain weight. It happened when I started doing CrossFit this year, and as soon as I stopped CrossFit, I lost the weight. I’d ratchet it down to 3 days a week for a while and see how that goes.

Conversely, of course, if you were not exercising at all, or doing very little low impact exercise, your body could just need a kick in the pants. Sometimes a bit of intense weight lifting or high intensity interval training is just what your insulin levels and muscle fibers need to get things moving.

3. You may not be sleeping enough or well enough.

Make sure you’re getting 8 hours a night (seriously) in a dark room with no noise. If you need to, wear ear plugs and an eye mask. Or sleep in a room where there’s no snoring spouse. If you don’t get enough sleep, you tax your adrenals and your cortisol levels can get out of whack, which can in turn inhibit weight loss, like I mentioned in the last point.

4. You may be eating too many or not enough carbs.

When you go into myfitnesspal.com, make sure to make a note of how many carbs you’re eating. If you’re eating fewer than 100g a day working out as much as you do, then you may need more. Experiment with carb “refeeds“,  where you eat more carbs than usual one day a week or so. See if your body responds to that.  If you’re eating over 200g a day, you may be getting too many carbs. If that’s the case, then you can start experimenting with eating fewer carbs – less fruit, sweet potatoes, etc. Those are very rough numbers, and everyone is different, but those are some general guidelines to start with.

 5. Try eating more protein in the morning. 

In fact, try eating more food in general in the morning. A lot of Paleo people eat just eggs in the morning, and it doesn’t seem to fill them up for very long, so they end up snacking a lot through the day, often on nuts or fruit, which in my opinion just make you hungrier :)

Add some meat to your breakfast, whether it be sausage, leftover burger, chicken, or whatever. Just get some more protein and fat – and some veggies would be nice, too – in there and see if you feel more energetic, more satiated, and have fewer cravings through the day.

6. Caffeine can hold people back from losing weight.

If you’re a coffee, green/black tea, decaf, etc drinker, consider giving caffeine up to see if it improves your situation. Since caffeine is a stimulant, it affects your adrenals and therefore your cortisol levels (and thyroid and sex hormones, and on and on), and again, messing with your cortisol can inhibit weight loss. Caffeine can also affect your sleep, even if you only have one cup a day. And not getting enough sleep, well, I already went over that in point 3.

7. Make sure you listen to your body’s hunger and exercise cues.

If you’re really tired, don’t work out hard that day, and go to sleep early. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. If you’re done eating and there’s still food on your plate, push the plate away. If you feel weak, lethargic, have achy joints, headaches, feel unmotivated, anxious, depressed, or your athletic performance is waning, those are all signs of overtraining. The cure for overtraining is to stop training so much! :)

8. You may have a tricky food sensitivity.

Sometimes food sensitivities make people retain water, which can make you look puffy and weigh more than you actually would without all that water. Beef does this to me. If I eat beef, I wake up the next morning with puffy eyes and painful joints, weighing a couple pounds more than usual. So don’t dismiss any foods as culprits – it can be anything. I’d start with the first 7 tips above first, though, and if all those fail, move onto testing foods by removing them from your diet for a couple weeks and then trying them again.

9. See a specialist.

I don’t know how many of these things apply to you, but this is what comes to mind when I hear that people are having weight loss plateaus. I have a feeling you’ll have some success if you start experimenting with these things. If you don’t, then I’d strongly suggest going to see a Paleo friendly naturopathic doc. You can find one in your area on www.primaldocs.com. They’ll do some testing to figure out what’s going on. Who knows? Maybe you have yeast overgrowth or a parasite that’s causing weird stuff to happen. Maybe your thyroid is out of whack and you need to take herbal and nutrient supplements for a while. It could be a lot of things. Maybe your sex hormones are out of balance and need some nutrient support.

I hope this helps! It’s a little overwhelming, I know, but start with number 1 and work your way down the list. And be as honest as you can with yourself about all of them! You’ll never know if something is affecting you negatively unless you experiment with it.

Kindly,
Neely

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11 Comments

  1. Great post. Love the bit about working out too much. I think may fall into that category. I’ll try to cut back and see how things go.

  2. Barbara

    Great article and I really appreciate your suggestions. I’ve been Paleo for a year. I had dramatic weight loss right away, then it slowed to a crawl. I am building muscle too though, so I can understand the slowing of weight loss.
    My question: I went to myfitnesspal.com and signed up. Is there a way to make the dietary tracking more paleo friendly, or do we just keep track ourselves? Right now its saying 200 grams carbs, 50 fat and about 50 protein. If I ate that many carbs I’d gain weight for sure, and I’d be hungry all the time from not enough protein and fat :)

    • Neely Quinn

      Barbara – Yeah, when I use myfitnesspal.com I just ignore the macronutrient numbers they give me. I suggest you do the same – you’re smarter than they are :)

  3. allison

    @Barbara, you can customize your goals (I make mine about 100g carbs). Otherwise, it favors the SAD numbers- high carbs, low fat, etc.
    Great post!

  4. Hi,
    I just started 6 days ago with paleo from a very SAD diet, but i’ve already been dropping a pound a day :)
    Basically way to much soda, beer, dairy, grains, and legumes so the switch to paleo has really given my body a drastic shock (for the better). From what i’ve looked at in my research is something that you might want to reconsider is your fruit intake because it has a pretty high amount of sugar. This makes fruit around 400 to 800 percent more calorie dense then veggies, so a switch to even more veggies and just have the fruit in the morning could help you get over your plateau. I am absolutely no expert and could be profoundly misguided but it seems to have worked for me.
    Thanks for reading

  5. Sean Murray

    My only criticism is relating to the use of myfitnesspal. It’s focus tends to be on weight and takes no account of body fat percentage. Think it leads to the calorie counting obsessive compulsive behaviour of traditional dieters. Paleo differs itself on not having people obsess about that aspect.

    When weight loss is the defining metric its tricky. That weight coming off could be valuable lean muscle mass which we want to keep on rather than lose. More muscle mass = better total calorie expenditure??

    I work with CrossFitters but this would end up having them sacrifice strength gains and lean mass all for the number on a scale. I’m trying to move people away from being a slave to the scale and though your post is very useful..myfitnesspal maybe not.

    • Neely Quinn

      Sean Murray – I totally agree that myfitnesspal.com has its shortcomings. It tells you you’ve eaten too much fat, too much protein, and too few carbs on a Paleo diet because it subscribes to the government’s food guidelines. However, having used a lot of these tools, I’ve found that myfitnesspal is the easiest to use, has a large amount of foods in its database, and the interface is super intuitive and not messy. I just ignore what it’s telling me in general about the macronutrients and take the calorie suggestions with a grain of salt, knowing that it’s probably a little low. I should be more clear about that in my posts about using it – sorry about that. Thanks for bringing this up!

  6. Your article sparked my interest, especially item #6. I have two autoimmune diseases- Hashimoto thyroid and Menieres. I have been feeling terrible with my thyroid pill- and have fired a few doctors due to their lack of interest… I believe the fillers in my thyroid med is causing me distress. I finally convinced my doctor that something was wrong, I asked that she test my cortisol levels. the results were shocking- Excessive high AM cortisol levels. she also changed my thyroid meds to armour.
    I am not a heavy coffee drinker but I do have a cup a morning, I will follow your advice and stop immediately.What else could be trigger these high levels.. I fear it may be another autoimmune disease. I am pretty strung out at work and I have enough energy in the evenings for dinner then pass out at 9pm. I have problems sleeping the entire night, normally I wake up at 3 or 4am and sometimes i can go back to sleep other times I toss and turn. I am trying to educate myself on the “cortisol” issue. can you recommend some resource links for me.

    • Neely Quinn

      kathy – Definitely keep your blood sugar stable by eating plenty of fat AND carbs (plenty of sweet potatoes and fruit every day). Don’t skimp too much on the carbs because it can be hard on your adrenals and thyroid. Try to stay away from just plain old sugar as much as possible until your blood sugar is stabilized. Definitely remove the caffeine (all of it – not just coffee), get plenty of sleep, and try to reduce the stress. Also, when you have the energy try doing some short, intense workouts, Paleo/Primal style.

  7. Great post. I love it. This is very informative. I want to avoid this to much.
    Thank you again.

  8. Allison

    I am really surprised the author of the response did not suggest that the person cut out fruit which the writer of the letter said they ate at breakfast and for snacks. Fruit is sugar, so it should be limited. Replace some of the fruit with a vegetable. Also, lifting weights slowly can help drop some more weight.

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