With the growing popularity of Intermittent Fasting, a common question I’ve been getting is what happens when I hit a weight loss plateau and how to break out of it.
First of all, don’t succumb to negative self-talk. Your body is a master adapter and its goal is for everything to stay the same. But this, of course, doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your goals, quite the contrary.
Let’s first examine first some of the reasons why you could experience a weight loss plateau while practicing intermittent fasting: you could be eating the wrong types of foods, eating too late in the evening or too close to bedtime, not fasting for a long enough time or not fasting for at least 12-14 hours every day (longer is clearly better if the goal is fat loss).1
Ultimately it comes down to whether or not you are activating your metabolic switch: once you do, your body has no choice but to burn ketones for energy.
But what is the metabolic switch and how is it flipped?
Quite simply it is the very natural process of switching our body’s energy source from glucose to fatty-acids and ketones from our own body fat. This shift actually happens in our bodies while we sleep; instead of storing fat, our body switches to using its own fat as an energy source, naturally leading to fat loss.2
So, you must be wondering, how do I know if my metabolic switch has been activated? Here are some key points you can use as indicators: 1) fasted for at least 12 hours (or 8 hours plus exercise), 2) no or minimal hunger, 3) great focus and energy, 4) calmness, and 5) feeling good. These are all signs that you are using your own fat for energy.
On the other hand, if you experience 1) extreme hunger, 2) headache, 3) low energy or fatigue, 4) dizziness, and/or 5) trouble focusing, your body has not tapped into its fat stores and probably your precious muscle tissue is your source of energy.
So, if you identify with any of these, the key to breaking this plateau is to evaluate your sleep habits, the amount and timing of your food intake and your physical activity routine. Of course, alcohol intake, particularly late in the evening can disrupt your metabolism, so this could be a simple change to make.3, 4
It’s definitely best to have an IF coach guide you on how to train your body to flip its metabolic switch and get into the fat burning zone, but here are a few guidelines to follow.
Let’s start with sleep, since it is something all of us love. The first question is, do you wake up feeling rested? If so, congratulate yourself; you are in sync with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
The next question is whether you feel consistent, strong energy all or most of the day. For many people, the answer to this question is no. If that is your case, most likely you are not sleeping well; so let’s consider here three major aspects – the amount, quality, and timing of your sleep.
Clearly, I could write pages on this topic, but some general guidelines are to get to bed by 11 pm at the latest, end your last meal at least two hours before bedtime, and eliminate or limit exposure to electronic devices before bed.5 An easy way to remember this is the 3,2,1 principle – no exercise three hours before bed, no food (or alcohol) two hours before bed, and no electronics one hour before bed.
The environment you sleep in can make a huge difference in the quality of your sleep6. It should be dark, cold (below 70 degrees), and quiet. If you get the timing and environment down, then the amount should naturally take care of itself. Of course, perfect sleep is not always possible, and on days that you don’t sleep well, try to nap in the afternoon or go to bed as early as possible.7
To maximize your body’s ability to shift into fat burning more during the night, it´s very important that your last meal is completed by 8 pm.8 Dinner should not be your biggest meal, rather, you want to consume the majority of your calories in the early part of the day, either at your break-fast meal or during your 2nd meal of the day.9
Another strategy is to gradually shorten your eating “window”. Although the 16:8 (16 hours fasting and 8 hours eating) plan is best for many people in terms of maintaining muscle and losing fat, it may not sufficiently shift the body into fat burning mode for everyone. If this is your case, I would recommend a 17:7 or 18:6 plan to maximize fat burning. Consistency is also key. Similar to exercise, the more days per week you practice IF, the better; and your best results will come fasting 5 to 7 days per week.
Speaking of exercise, there are two great times of the day to exercise, during your fasting period and during your eating window. Depending on your goals, the types of exercise you perform during each time period, however, may differ a bit.
To maximize fat loss during the fasting period, I recommend low to moderate intensity exercises, such as walking, recreational biking or other forms of deliberate movement, such as tai chi or yoga.10 These activities keep your body in fat burning mode or increase the amount of fat your body burns for energy while fasting. Then, another good time to engage in walking or other forms of non-strenuous movements is right after eating. This can bring the body back into using fat for energy by lowering post-meal glucose levels.11.
If possible, include a cardio workout during the day! This will help you burn calories fast, as it boosts metabolism and helps in fat burning. Bonus: it makes your heart strong so that it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood.
Want to take your fat burning to the next level? Incorporate resistance training 4 or more days per week right before your dinner meal or right before your break- fast meal.12
Stay patient if you hit a plateau and do not be discouraged; it can be part of your weight loss process. Evaluate how you feel, how your clothes fit and if your body measurements have changed. Examine your sleep patterns, your diet and your physical activity and make any necessary adjustments. Remember, your scale may not reflect a loss of body fat, especially if you are exercising regularly. It can be hard to wait but as long as you don’t give up you will break out of your plateau, begin losing weight again and achieve all your body composition goals.