Your diet’s on point and you hit the gym regularly, yet the scale won’t budge. What gives?
We reveal 4 common reasons for stalled weight loss, and how to get back on track.
#1: Restrictive Dieting & Hormonal Havoc
Research indicates that prolonged, low-carbohydrate dieting can cause hormonal disruptions that stall weight loss in some women. This may be due to the fact that very low-carb and low-kilojoule diets can adversely affect the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands (known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis), which interact in a complex way to keep hormones balanced.
Kilojoule intake, stress and exercise levels can all affect these glands and a diet too low in kilojoules or carbs can act as a stressor on the axis, causing HPA dysfunction (often referred to as “adrenal fatigue”).
This, in turn, can lead to fatigue and a weakened immune system. There is also some evidence that low-carb diets can cause increased production of cortisol (known as the “the stress hormone”), which can worsen the problem.
Studies also suggest that very low-carb diets can negatively affect thyroid function in some people, which is essential for a number of bodily functions, including weight regulation.
Jenna Bowes, a clinical dietitian at MME Dietitians & Associates in Johannesburg, also points out that prolonged carb restriction can result in a dysfunctional insulin response.
“A key player in weight loss is the hormone insulin, which is responsible for fat storage and, in excess, can cause weight gain and metabolic complications. Reducing carb intake helps to improve your insulin response and minimising fat storage, but severe and prolonged carb restriction can result in de-sensitising your insulin pathways, leading to a greater response in insulin release when carb-containing foods are eaten,” says Jenna.
She suggests enjoying a consistent and small intake of correct carb sources (like oats, sweet potato, fruit and brown rice), with protein and/or fats, to help achieve better control over insulin.
“Cutting out all carbohydrates is not recommended due to its contribution of vital nutrients to the diet, such as fibre and phytonutrients. The focus should instead be on selecting the right type of carbohydrates and watching the overall amount we consume,” she adds.
#2: Insufficient Activity Between Exercise Sessions
“Not moving between training sessions could be a big disadvantage, because you miss out on burning far more kilojoules,” asserts Bruce Namhing, a Johannesburg-based ETA-certified personal trainer. He recommends making small changes to how you move throughout the day, like parking further away from the centre when shopping or using the stairs instead of the lift.
Bruce adds that a good way to track activity is to measure how many steps you take in a day. “The average person only walks between 3000 and 4000 steps per day, so try to get to 10000 steps a day,” he says. “Luckily, with devices like fitness tracking wristbands, counting steps is easy!”
#3: You’re Exercising Incorrectly
You may gym regularly, but exercising incorrectly can be counterproductive. “For instance, staying with the same training program for too long will stall weight loss because the body will adapt to whatever you give it,” says Bruce.
He recommends changing your training program every six weeks by changing reps, sets and/or weights and regularly performing new exercises, sports and activities.
In addition, too much cardio may prevent you from losing weight because, as long duration, low-intensity cardio sessions can burn muscle and decrease levels of human growth hormone, which is needed to burn fat. Lengthy cardio sessions can also increase cortisol, which can adversely affect weight loss.
So, keep cardio sessions at a high intensity, for shorter periods, to really give your metabolism a fat-burning boost!
#4 – Metabolic Adaptation & Weight Plateaus
Metabolic adaptation is a term used to describe how the body adapts to having a lower energy supply. These adaptations include: a decreased metabolic rate; an increase in hormones that promote hunger and catabolism (all metabolic processes that break down biological molecules); and a decrease in hormones that promote satiety, energy expenditure and anabolism (all metabolic processes that build biological molecules).
Thus, if your diet is too extreme, you may experience these changes, which could adversely affect weight loss. Jenna adds that a restrictive diet will typically lead to the loss of both fat and muscle mass.
“Muscle is responsible for driving metabolism and maintaining a higher resting energy expenditure, and a loss of total mass, including lean mass, results in lower caloric requisition on a daily basis to carry out daily functions,” she explains.
“This means our body will effectively need fewer calories than it previously required to function, which ultimately creates the perfect scenario to regain the weight we worked so hard to lose,” she adds. A lower calorie diet should, therefore, include more protein and should be followed in conjunction with a resistance training program to mitigate muscle loss.
Jenna adds that hormones govern our control over appetite, with ghrelin secreted from the stomach when we are hungry, and leptin released from fat cells to induce satiety.
“However, a lower fat mass means lower levels of leptin being secreted, resulting in a poorer internal control over appetite,” she explains. “Following a severely low calorie diet for a prolonged period can also induce a state of semi-starvation where the body begins to store or retain mass instead of losing it”.
You can lessen the effects of a metabolic slowdown by first avoiding very restrictive, low calorie diets and opting for a more moderate approach. This will reduce your risk of a slowed metabolism and losing too much lean muscle mass. In addition, do not cut your fat intake too much as a lack of fatty acids can lower testosterone levels and increase muscle loss. This, in turn, slows the metabolism.
This article was adapted from a feature by Julia Lamberti-Morreira, which first appeared in Fitness magazine.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.