Why Did My Weight Loss Stop? Why Most Weight Loss Protocols Fail Long Term
You were doing well, going to the gym, doing your cardio and meticulously watching your diet but one day your weight loss stops. This is a typical scenario for most men and women trying to lose weight via conventional methods, and perhaps the most frustrating aspect of losing weight is the inherent difficulty in sustaining weight loss over an extended period of time. Regardless of whether your goal is to lose twenty pounds or one hundred pounds, the experience is usually an early (and welcome) loss of weight that slowly and inexplicably grinds to a halt over time. Leaving you to wonder why your weight loss stopped even though you are doing everything “right”? In most cases, weight loss will then begin to reverse itself, with a gradual increase in weight over time. Weight gain that continues even in the face of increased efforts to restrict calories and increase exercise duration and volume in the hopes of stopping the upward movement of the numbers on the scale. Frustrated, discouraged, and bewildered as to why your weight loss suddenly stopped, most will blame on everything from inherently slow metabolisms, to allergies and mystical sensitivity to carbohydrates. However, the reality of why weight loss stops is far more complex, and the often-quoted party line that you should expect to lose one pound per week when dieting is little more than an over simplification of an average weight loss pattern over time. I can tell you from personal experience with my clients, that someone who loses 50 lbs over 50 weeks does not physically lose a pound a week. Weight loss is sporadic, with large declines in the beginning that taper off exponentially as time goes on, with some surprising drops from time to time. Now mathematically this describes a weight loss AVERAGE of pound per week, but in real life no one loses weight in a linear fashion. This misunderstanding of how averages are calculated has driven many to frustration when their weight loss either “stops” for a week or they lose less than the expected golden standard of one pound per week. It isn’t that simple, and if it was, we would all weigh nothing if our bodies kept on losing a pound a week from diet and exercise. Yet, as absurd as it sounds when put into context, the emotional and hopeful parts of ourselves want to believe it will be a simple process. Sadly, weight loss is perhaps one of the most complicated and nuanced challenges that most people face over the course of their lives. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing straightforward about it, and you are always up against powerful physical, behavioral, hormonal and psycho-social factors that seem to do everything possible to hinder your efforts at losing weight. The internet, television and what’s left of magazines dumb down weight loss information into easily digested sound bites that are more a form of entertainment masquerading as advice. Weight loss “information” is an easy way to increase your audience and or sell products and services, but the goal is not about educating you as an individual, it’s about getting your attention. The prevalence of weight loss propaganda makes it really hard for people trying to understand the complexities of weight loss, as you need to grasp these complexities if you hope to master the challenges that long-term weight loss presents. In this article, we will explore some of the mechanics of why weight loss stops, and how losing weight with excessively low-calorie diets and or excessive cardio predisposes you to easily regaining weight, (especially if the weight loss occurs within a short space of time.) Thank you as always for reading and do be sure to share this article with anyone who you believe might find it useful.
Why Did My Weight Loss Stop? The Evolutionary Dilemma
Before going into the question of why your weight loss stops, we should first explore one of the most important principles as it will help make it easier to understand why sustained weight loss is such a challenge. Simply stated:
For survival purposes, the human body has evolved to prioritize gaining or maintaining weight, not losing it.
Our bodies are echoes of our evolutionary past. A past that shaped us as a species through natural selection to be able to promote greater chances of reproductive success. While many believe we are somehow designed to be healthy, the genetic evidence doesn’t support this point of view. The heritable characteristics passed on from our ancestors over hundreds of thousands of generations are not geared towards making us lean, fit and healthy. Rather our genetic makeup evolved mainly for us to survive long enough to reach puberty and successfully reproduce. An inconvenient truth, but if we understand the primary directive of evolution, our modern propensity for easily gaining body fat and the difficulties involved in losing weight begins to make sense. Not because excess body fat somehow make us healthier, but because it can increase fertility. Ancestors who had traits that enabled them to maintain enough body fat to survive the often harsh conditions of prehistoric times and reproduce, passed on these attributes to us today, while those who were not able to do so would not have lived long enough and in large enough numbers to pass on their genes. So, like so many human adaptations, our bodies’ natural inclination to do everything possible to stop weight loss and increase body fat would have been optimal for existence in the sometimes severe and occasionally food scarce environment of the Pleistocene era some two million years ago, but is maladaptive in our current era of superabundant food supplies. And can contribute towards creating obesity and the slew of metabolic diseases that accompany it, while also making it difficult to lose weight long term.
Why Did My Weight Loss Stop: Understanding Metabolic Rate
Having understood the general evolutionary perspective of why weight loss stops and why it’s so easy for us to regain weight, it’s important to explore how weight loss stops. And this requires some familiarity with how our bodies expend energy. There are three main factors to consider:
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
Work Induced Increase Above Metabolic Rate
and Diet Induced Thermogenesis
The first and by far the largest way that our body burns calories is via our Resting Metabolic Rate. Which accounts for 65- 75% of total daily energy expenditure in sedentary adults. [1,5,9] Resting metabolic rate depends mainly upon how much lean muscle mass you are carrying and to a lesser degree, thyroid hormones and protein behavior.
The second component of energy expenditure is known as Work Induced Increase Above Resting Metabolic Rate, which refers to the amount of energy expended during physical activity. This figure can vary widely as it depends on how physically active an individual may or may not be over the course of a day. For example, an athlete or someone engaged in large amounts of manual labor would logically have a higher energy expenditure compared to a sedentary man or woman. However, it also depends on gender, body composition, adaptation to activity and the physical size of the individual performing the activity. (All of which we will explain in detail later).
The final component of energy expenditure is diet induced thermogenesis, which refers to the energy our bodies need to use to break down and digest the food we eat into components it can use. Protein, for example, has a high thermic effect, as your body requires more calories to break it down during digestion than it does carbohydrates or fats due to its molecular structure. That being said, the digestion of all foods incurs an increase in energy expenditure, and diet related thermogenesis accounts for about 10% of our daily energy expenditure. Although, among obese individuals this percentage is sometimes lower, possibly due to increased insulin resistance which has some effect on the amount of energy used during digestion.[3,4]
Why Did My Weight Loss Stop: You Got Smaller & The Bigger You Are the More Calories You Burn
Contrary to the myth that men and women who are overweight have slow metabolisms, the truth is that absolute energy expenditures of individuals who are obese are generally higher than that of a man or woman with a lower bodyweight. Two factors account for this discrepancy:
- Individuals who are overweight or obese tend to have higher fat free mass than those who are not. [5,6]
- Larger bodies require more energy to move and thus overweight or obese men and women expend more calories during physical movement than someone of lower body weight.
In keeping with the laws of thermodynamics, a larger body will always require more energy to move than a smaller one. As an example, men on average burn more calories than women because they are usually bigger and have more fat free mass. The relationship between body weight and energy expenditure is one of the reasons endurance athletes go to such extremes to shed as much excess body fat as possible in order to use less energy during events. The differences are significant, as a typical 190lb man burns 1,380 kilocalories per hour running at a brisk 11 miles per hour, but a 130lb man will burn 40% energy running at the same pace. That’s why you won’t see someone on the larger side in the winners’ circle of major marathons, long distance cycling, triathlons or any distance related sport, as natural selection favors those with smaller, more energy efficient bodies in the winners’ circle. Thus, from a weight loss perspective, the more weight you lose, the fewer calories you’ll burn, while exercising which will at some point mean you will stop losing weight, and may even start regaining it, even if your diet remains the same.[8,9,10]
Weight loss also brings about a decrease in energy expenditure as there is usually an increase in mechanical efficiency. When someone loses a significant amount of weight, their efficiency in the performance of physical exercise increases. Such adaptations mean fewer calories will be burned while exercising. These are some of the factors that account for weight loss never being perfectly linear, but instead tends to slow down and eventually reverse over time. A reversal and slowing that was at one time attributed to the set point theory. Set point theory neatly placed the blame on the proclivity of most obese individuals to return to their previous weight with the idea that our body has a homeostatic feedback system for keeping our fat stores constant. A built in system that would do everything possible to return you to previous body fat levels if you lost weight by creating adaptive changes in resting metabolic rate and thyroid hormones. Set point theory set the stage for weight loss as a bleak and somewhat Siphyean task for those trying to slim down, but while it was once regarded as scientifically plausible, further research has failed to find hormonal or metabolic compensations that can neatly explain the tendency for most people to regain weight.
Why My Weight Loss Stopped: How Decreases In Resting Metabolic Rate Makes You Regain Weight
What causes your weight loss to stop, (and in time reverse itself), is the often dramatic reduction in resting metabolic rate (RMR) after losing a significant amount of weight. This occurs largely because of decreases in fat free mass (muscle) that accompanies significant weight loss from severe caloric restriction and or aerobic exercise. Apart from your brain cells, lean muscle mass is the most metabolically active tissue in your body and requires more calories to be maintained than any other tissue besides those in your brain. Consequently, any major loss of muscle mass comes with a substantial decrease in metabolic rate. This is one of the reasons why most people who are trying to lose weight will see a pause in their weight loss, and over time start to regain all the weight lost.[8,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20]
Here is a common occurence; most people will lose weight because of a negative energy balance-based diet where you try to consume less calories than your body burns over the course of the day. Usually this will include some aerobic exercise in the hopes of burning off a bit more body fat. So let’s assume you needed 2,000 kilocalories daily to maintain your body weight and you ate only 1,500 kilocalories a day, over time you would lose weight, but that very reduction in weight, (especially if you are losing muscle mass), will reduce the not only your resting metabolic rate but also your work induced increases above metabolic rate. So, in time, your body achieves a state of equilibrium where it won’t lose any more weight even though you are sticking to your diet and exercise regime and are still only taking in 1,500 kilocalories a day. As your body adapts to be able to use less energy as you lose weight. There is only so low you can go, and dieting harder means more muscle loss, which can get you to a place where your weight loss not only stops, but you will start gaining weight even though you are on a low calorie diet and exercising regularly.
This disturbing fact was highlighted in a study of competitors undergoing massive weight loss during the popular television reality show, The Biggest Loser. Seven males and three females, all significantly overweight, were trained under supervised conditions for an average of two hours a day, six days a week for thirty weeks. Performing a combination of aerobics and circuit training. Dietary intake was at least 70% of baseline energy requirements and every seven days a participant was voted off and returned home to continue the program unsupervised for the duration of the thirty-week period. All participants were measured at the conclusion coincident with a live television broadcast.
After thirty weeks participants lost between 127 lbs and 52 lbs. An extreme reduction, as some lost as much as 40% of their initial body weight. But such weight loss came at a price, as fat free muscle mass accounted for approximately 17% of the total weight lost. (To give some perspective, drug free bodybuilders who gradually reduce their caloric intake and increase activity levels have been shown to lose slightly under 4%.) Concordant with this large reduction in muscle mass, resting metabolic rates plummeted from baseline figures by about 350 kcal per day after the first 6 weeks and went down to a low of about 790 kcal per day.
In other words, this reduction of almost 800 kcal would mean participants would have to eat at least two whole meals less than what they started with to MAINTAIN their weight loss while continuing to follow an unrealistic training program for two hours six days a week for the rest of their lives! Possibly even less food would be required over time as metabolism demands decrease with age, making sustainable weight loss a challenge to say the least.
Less extreme weight loss protocols don’t fare much better as men and women following conventional hypo calorie diets alone average a decrease of 25% of fat free muscle mass. While the authors of the Biggest Loser study considered a muscle mass loss of 17% to be relatively small, it’s clear to see that such losses are momentous enough to make weight regain almost unavoidable without continued extreme interventions. Other weight loss interventions such as bariatric surgery can also bring about undesirable reductions in fat free muscle mass from the reduction in nutrient intake. Which results in slower overall metabolism and a higher likelihood of weight regain over time.[12,13,14] These findings might lead you to conclude that serious weight loss in the long term is unrealistic, but this is not the case as conventional approaches don’t create an environment whereby your body adapts in a way that allows you to sustain weight loss long term. The same can be said for intermittent fasting, which also fails over time for the same reasons, but long term weight loss is sustainable with the application of high intensity resistance training focused on muscle building. A protocol focused on increasing muscle mass rather than simply reducing body weight, but one that leads to sustainable body weight reductions.
The Long-Term Weight Loss Solution: Focus On Building Muscle Instead Of Losing Weight
The most important part of any sustainable weight loss program isn’t burning as many calories as possible through cardiovascular exercise and low energy intakes. It’s figuring out how to ensure that your weight loss does not stop and or eventually reverse itself. Since lean muscle mass is the among the most metabolically active tissue in your body, burning a significant share of calories, it makes sense to focus on INCREASING muscle mass instead of blindly trying to cut calories and create energy deficits. More muscle mass means a higher resting metabolic rates, which will allow you to eat more and keep your caloric intake higher and within more natural and practical limits while still losing weight. (See my article on the Evolutionary Argument For Eating More To Lose Weight) Several studies confirm the role of resistance training in preserving muscle mass during diet induced weight loss with concurrent decreases in fat mass. [24,25,26,27] It is an approach that I have used myself during my natural bodybuilding career and in my personal training practice for the past twenty-seven years with literally hundreds of men and women from all corners of the globe.
If resting metabolic rate accounts for 75% of daily energy expenditure, and is determined largely by fat free mass, then trying to lose weight by employing practices that decrease muscle mass is inevitably counterproductive. As such, I have always advocated a zero-cardio approach to weight loss. Controversial only in the abstract, as in practice I have personally attained, (and been able to sustain today), single digit body fat percentages not just for competitions, but all year round. My success falls victim to the potential error of small numbers, but over the course of three decades I have helped dozens drop their body fat to ripped physique competition shape with the same protocol of three brief high intensity workouts a week, proper diet and no cardio.
How and why does high intensity weight training work for sustainable weight loss? It’s simple:
- Increases in in fat free muscle mass from weight training lead to higher resting metabolic rates. [9,27]
- High intensity workouts require a sizable number of calories to return your body to a state of equilibrium and repair the muscles damaged during this form of exercise. This is called excess post exercise oxygen consumption, which can also gradually and permanently decrease body fat levels when used in conjunction with muscle sparing high protein and moderate carbohydrate diets that are not overly hypocaloric. [22,23,28,30]
Skepticism has always existed regarding the use of resistance training as a tool for weight loss, as aerobic exercise is typically associated with fat loss, even though numerous studies find high intensity weight training as being more efficient than conventional aerobic exercise for reducing fat mass.[22,23] Aerobic exercise can reduce fat mass, but it does not increase or preserve fat free mass. On the contrary, steady state aerobic exercise can bring about a reduction in muscle mass, as the body adapts to perform long distance type activity that requires larger fat stores as a primary fuel source. [29,30,31] Not only does aerobic exercise adaptations increase the likelihood weight regain, but from a cosmetic point of view, diet induced weight loss with even moderate amounts of cardio would result in a smaller, but still flabby version of what you started out with if resistance exercise is not included in your regime. There is a slight increase in calorie expenditure for 20-48 hours after aerobic exercise, but only if such exercise is done with sufficient intensity and relatively long duration. [32,33,34,35] Except for this small window, there is no increase in resting metabolic rate. Regardless of how much cardio you do. On the other hand, increases in fat free muscle mass can permanently increase resting metabolic rates, and the “after burn effect” of high intensity training from excess post exercise oxygen consumption is greater than that created by steady state aerobic exercise.[22,23]
Why Did My Weight Loss Stop: Not Enough Carbs
The other key factor that favors high intensity resistance training for long term weight loss without weight regain is the use of a high protein diet designed to increase and spare muscle mass. Studies have shown that a high protein intake of 18% or more of total energy intakes limits weight regain in those who have lost weight. See my article How Much Protein Do You Need) Diet induced thermogenesis accounts for about 10% of energy expenditure and high protein foods not only have a high thermogenic and muscle sparing effect, [9,28] but also promote higher satiety levels after consumption which can limit excessive calorie intake. [36,37,38,39] While zero carbohydrate ketogenic diets are currently all the rage, they have one major flaw, carbohydrates spares protein breakdown during restricted energy intake and so no carbs means you will lose more muscle mass if you are dieting strictly, even if you are weight training.
In our bodies, the health of our brains is prioritized over all else any time calories are lowered. Our bodies are designed to always see to it that brain tissues are continually supplied with its preferred fuel glucose, (carbohydrate). Our bodies can only store a limited amount of glucose in the form of glycogen in our muscles and in the liver, but these stores are rapidly depleted during a low-calorie ketogenic diet. Once these reserves are depleted to nourish the brain and other critical tissues, your body will begin to cannibalize body fat stores, and to some extent protein stores. It’s this mobilization of fat stores that make zero carbohydrate diets so appealing, but without carbohydrates coming in, protein stores, in the form of muscle mass will always be broken down as well and converted to glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. cannibalized as well. Which is one of the reasons why hard to keep weight off long term on a zero carbohydrate diet, as the lost muscle mass will eventually slow metabolism to the point where you weight loss will stop and begin to reverse itself. The often rapid muscle loss will also leave you weaker, and with a less toned body that you started off with.
Now the ingestion of small amounts of carbohydrate favors the utilization of body fat stores, rather than precious protein from muscle mass reserves. Starvation studies have shown that as little as ¼ ounce of carbohydrate ingested can reduce protein wasting by about 50 percent. Over the years coaching natural bodybuilders, I have seen competitors lose fat faster on zero carbohydrate diets, but the difference in overall fat loss between those on zero carb diets versus those on lower carb diets was indistinguishable over the course of a few months. That being said, those with some carbs in their diets always looked better, maintained more muscle mass and were stronger than the ones electing to go with zero carb options. Who in contrast, were fatigued, moody and more prone to binge and regain all the weight lost immediately after the contest. Faster isn’t better, and while muscle mass loss is lower in natural athletes who use cardio in conjunction with aerobic exercise, it is always higher in those who weight train without employing any cardio whatsoever. [41, 32,42,43] In the end, any protocol that does not take into consideration the maintenance of lean muscle mass can’t be taken seriously considered as a long-term weight loss solution.
Examples Of High Intensity Training Effecting Long Term Weight Loss Without Cardio
In my personal training practice, I have worked with forty five significantly overweight men and women who lost 50lbs. Six of them lost 100 lbs or more in addition to literally hundreds who have lost 10-25 lbs employing three high intensity weight training sessions, zero cardio and a high protein, moderate to low carbohydrate, natural food based diet. Energy intake is never excessively restrictive. Emphasis is on sustainable approaches, behavior modification, and a diet focused on enhancing muscle growth instead of just cutting calories for short-term weight loss. Of note, among the six clients I worked with who lost 100 lbs or more, their final weight loss was similar to the results cited in the Biggest Loser study. However, our low volume high intensity, lifestyle centered approach took only twice as along, (an average of 13-15 months) and involved only thirty minutes of high intensity resistance training each week. Nothing more and nothing less. Unconventional, but an effective program tried and tested over the past 28 years built on the science of maximizing resting metabolic rates, diet induced thermogenesis and absolute energy expenditure in a practical and sustainable manner. Most importantly, clients increased muscle mass over time with limited weight regain, with only 7 out of the 45 clients who lost an average of 50lbs regaining more than 70% of the weight lost after a year. A success rate of 84% which isn’t perfect, but significant when compared to the failure rates of 35-80% reported in most studies.
Reduction in body fat through high intensity weight training is one of the ways to sustainably lose weight and keep it off without having the stop and reverse effect of almost all conventional diet and exercise regimes and I encourage everyone to consider a regime built on increasing muscle mass as a long term solution to the problem of weight loss maintenance. Don’t fall prey to the idea that weight training will make you big and bulky. If you lift weights and eat poorly you will get fat and get that bulky look many would rather avoid. But without the use of anabolic steroids and by following a proper diet, intense weight training might make your muscles a little bigger, but not by much. It will however make you significantly smaller, especially around the midsection area. Women tend to shy away from weight training as they believe that training with weights will make them look masculine, but this is not the case and sadly this line of thinking has stopped so many women from achieving their fitness goals. (Read my article Should Women Lift Weights Like Men) Only by increasing and preserving muscle mass can you get the strong, fit, lean, tight and toned look that is so widely sought today. A look that you can’t get from just cardio and dieting, or any protocol that does not include serious weight training, and a nutritional approach that allows for maximal muscle growth and preservation. Cardio and keto diets may be popular but won’t help you develop the skeletal muscle you need and will predispose you to regaining the weight you worked so hard to lose.
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Thank you Kevin for always sharing your story and thank you for all you do to help us in our journey to stay fit and healthy. I am always able to take something from your articles to help improve my weight loss goals.
At about age 43, I went from 49kg up and up in weight, until I finally peeked at 66kg at around age 48.. At the first signs of weight gain I joined a gym, and I exercised my butt off trying to lose the weight, but it didn’t seem to help. When I reached the 66kg mark, I gave up Coca cola and in a short time dropped 6kg. I then tried to choose mostly low glycemic foods, but that didn’t change much and although I was still exercising madly, I remained still in the little bit over weight range, despite my best efforts. It wasn’t until the end of December last year, that I started a ketogenic diet and since then my weight has steadily declined. I have gone from 59kg, where I was just hanging stagnantly, down to now 52kg, as of the end of August. I had about a three month, fat for fuel, adaption period and suddenly my athletic performance increased markedly! Also my VO2 max rose from 42 to 43. I’m now 56 years old. It’s still hard to get my head around how you can eat a heap more fat and lose weight!
Your encouragement and practical wisdom gives me the confidence to trust your experience and knowledge, even when I’m not seeing the “results” this lifestyle practice demands (and I committed to.) As my understanding increases, I also grudgingly admit, unequivocally, that my energy and stamina are greater than they’ve ever been in my entire life. Thank you for keeping the integrity of long term sustainability foremost, and not sacrificing a worthwhile goal for short term results.
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