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Intermittent Fasting And Plateau: What Do I Do Wrong ?

You can hit a plateau at some point when applying intermittent fasting for weight loss. Read our article about reasons for a plateau and what you can do about that.
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Summary

Many of us hit a plateau when applying intermittent fasting for weight loss. This affects our motivation and makes some of us give up. Don’ worry, there is always a reason for a plateau. Let’s have a look at what it can be and what tangible steps you can make to restart your weight loss journey.

Written by
Vera Bokor
Health and Wellbeing Coach

A plateau is the point at which there is an extended period of time where you don't see any change in your weight. There are a few common reasons for a plateau when you are doing intermittent fasting. Theoretically, these reasons can be split into three main groups:

  • Dietary
  • Physiological
  • Psychological


DIETARY REASONS

Waffels, fruits, coffee and fried eggs on small plates on a table.

Yes, intermittent fasting is a great tool for weight loss on its own, but when you are plateauing, you need to think about a dietary approach as well (1). 

We can split this group into smaller subgroups to have a detailed understanding of what dietary problem it can be and how to solve the problem, or maybe a few of them at once. 

1. Dirty fasting

Dirty fasting is surprisingly not the same as intermittent fasting. It allows you to have up to 50 calories during your fasting window, so you can have diet soda, coffee with some heavy cream or MCT/coconut/olive oil or some bone broth.

When you consume any type of sweetener, even if it doesn’t have any calories, your pancreas begins to secrete insulin. The presence of elevated insulin doesn’t allow our body to go to the stored fat. So your body is not able to use fat as the main energy source efficiently (2, 3, 4). 

Massive caloric restriction is the most effective intermittent fasting mechanism for weight loss (where your body has no choice, but burning stored fat). Having creamers and oils might slow down the fat burning process because you still give some fuel to your body, so why would it dig into body fat if there is energy coming from outside? (5).

Do you stop fat burning by doing dirty fasting? No. But you definitely slow it down. Switch to clean fasting to accelerate your weight loss and have only liquids, which won’t negatively affect your fasting, here you can read more about which liquids don’t break a fast. 

2. Fasting only

Doing only fasting for weight loss is quite common practice because it is easy and doesn’t require you to follow any diet, you just restrict eating on certain days of the week. Intermittent fasting has many benefits to offer, but it is important that you take care of yourself by eating the right things and not depriving yourself of nutrients, which can cause health problems and stop the fat burning process. 

When we are fasting, our body actively uses vitamins, minerals and micronutrients for proper functioning. We have to restore them after a period of not eating. You can’t get them if you eat unhealthy foods, which provide mostly energy. 

Having a healthy diet boosts weight loss due to supporting fasting fat burning mechanisms. Read our article “What to eat on intermittent fasting for weight loss” to understand what foods you can have for better weight loss results.

3. Carbs loaded diet

Spaghetti with tomato sauce, cheese, and bread.

It is important to have healthy eating habits for weight loss in general, but combining it with intermittent fasting makes things easier. What if you eat whole, natural foods, but still struggle to move on with your weight loss? The answer can be quite simple, you might have too many carbohydrates in your diet, which causes a plateau (6, 7). 

What happens when you consume carbs? Even if they are healthy choices such as brown rice, whole grain bread, root veggies and beans, you constantly replenish glycogen storage and keep your blood sugar levels quite high. It means, you always have sugar as a main source of fuel, by doing so, you don’t give your body an opportunity and need to use stored fat for energy (8, 9).

In order to fix this issue, you need to have a look at diets, which will allow you to decrease carbohydrate intake and switch to burning fat. Read about such diets here

4. High protein consumption

Not only can carbs cause weight loss trouble, but the same also applies to protein in some cases. Are you surprised? Don’t be, protein, especially lean one, raises our blood sugar (not as much as carbohydrates, but still), which leads to insulin release. We already know that insulin presence in the body doesn't let us get into stored fat. 

One more point about protein is that protein can be converted to glucose in the liver. Having glucose again doesn’t let us use fat as a primary source of fuel. 

Moderate protein consumption helps with a plateau. Having not more than 0.8-1.7 grams of protein for each kilogram of desirable body weight will lead you to weight loss (10). 

5. Low calorie diet

Lettuce with tomatoes, fresh herbs, and mushrooms.

Not all the diets work correctly. You might think that by restricting your calories, you will speed up your weight loss, but as practice shows, it might work the opposite way. 

Intermittent fasting provides lower calorie intake by itself and intentional calorie restriction can be counterproductive. When you dramatically cut off the number of calories you consume, your body sets “on” energy saving mode to support the main body functions and doesn’t use fat as fuel, because it is a complicated process (11).

Having a nutritious, energy dense diet will not just prevent metabolism slow down, but it actually can help you to speed up your metabolism. 

6. Unhealthy breakfast

The most pleasant moment of intermittent fasting is of course breaking it. We are waiting for this moment with no patience and dreaming of our favourite dish without thinking of the outcomes. 

One of the most important things about breaking a fast is that you should not go from fasting straight to stuffing your face with food again. There are benefits of breaking the fast correctly, such as not feeling too hungry or having stomach problems like vomiting or diarrhoea and also supporting prolonged fat burning effects (12).

Gradually start eating with no rush, avoid highly refined products, choose healthy foods, reduce the number of carbs and switch to complex ones. Read our article about how to break your fast correctly.


Summary:

Dietary reasons are the most common reasons for plateauing, it doesn't matter if you apply intermittent fasting for weight loss or not. Also, combining intermittent fasting and dieting accelerate fat burning progress.


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PHYSIOLOGICAL REASONS

Woman at a doctor's office.

Not only dietary mistakes are the reasons for a weight loss plateau. There are some reasons caused by physiological characteristics. They can take a while to fix, but without their solution, it is very difficult to go on with your weight loss process.

1. Stress

Stress is an enemy of healthy weight loss. You could experience it yourself or hear from your friends, that when we are stressed, we lose weight, but it is not that one, which we want to lose.

When we have some problems, our body responds to this stressful situation by releasing the hormone cortisol. This hormone has very specific features, it preserves fat from being burned and breaks down muscle mass for energy production. That’s why people lose weight, but they lose muscles, not fat. Cortisol, when secreted constantly due to chronic stress, keeps insulin levels high (13, 14). 

Both of these factors affect weight loss and lead to a prolonged plateau. What can you do about that? Well, there are a few suggestions:

  • Try to solve the problem, which causes a stress response
  • Apply breathing exercises straight after a stressful situation
  • Do some sport to lower cortisol levels
  • Practice yoga and mindfulness
  • Have camomile tea in the evening
  • Take bath with sea salt and lavender

2. Poor sleep

Young woman lying in bed, sleeping.

Poor quality sleep and lack of sleep cause a spike of already well known hormone cortisol. If you don’t sleep enough or your sleep is disturbed by something, it’s the same as if you had a stressful event. 

To fix this problem, you need to sleep well. And one night of bad sleep can seriously affect your weight loss process. It’s not enough to have good sleep only one night after you slept bad. Cortisol takes time to drop it down and usually, it takes a few days (15, 16, 17). So, if you want to achieve your weight loss goal, make sure that:

  • You sleep 6-7 hours a night
  • You go to bed at 10-11 pm 
  • You don’t eat late
  • You don’t take vitamin D before going to sleep
  • Nothing disturbs your sleep
  • You don’t use your phone/TV/computer at least an hour before going to bed
  • It’s dark and chilly in the bedroom

3. Dehydration

Everyone knows that drinking plenty of water is good for you, but not everybody knows why it is important for weight loss. 

Fat has a few functions in our body. One of them is a deposit one. Fat stores not only fat-soluble vitamins but also water. Do you remember what camels have in their humps? Correct- it is fat! It protects them from dehydration, where there is no water around. The same applies to fat in our bodies. If you don’t consume enough liquids, your body might prevent fat burning to save yourself from dehydration. And when you don't consume enough water, it decreases lipolysis (fat burning).

Have a look at how much liquids you consume and if you got stuck on a plateau, drinking not enough water can be a reason. (18, 19, 20)

4. Thyroid dysfunction

Not all the physiological problems you can solve yourself, sometimes you need medical help. If you noticed that the number on the scale doesn’t go down anymore, but actually crawls up, you feel tired and swollen, no matter how long you sleep, you are sleepy anyway, it means that you may have some problem with your thyroid functioning.

The thyroid is a gland, which releases hormones that are in charge with the speed of your metabolism. When there is an imbalance in those hormones, it impacts all your body. At this point you need to seek medical help and doing intermittent fasting might not be as beneficial for you as for other people. In our article “Intermittent Fasting and Hypothyroidism: Beneficial or a No-Go?” you can read how to break the weight loss plateau if your thyroid is under functioning (21, 22)


Summary:

There are several physiological reasons why you might experience a weight loss plateau. Understanding the underlying processes that result in a weight loss plateau can help you reach the goals, make a short analysis of your sleep, stress factors, water intake and ask for professional help if needed.

PSYCHOLOGICAL REASONS

An old-style typewriter with a sheet of paper with the word PSYCHOLOGY.

1. Lack of motivation

It’s difficult to change your habits, especially related to your lifestyle. Some of us can try intermittent fasting once or a few times, but without seeing dramatic changes we lose our motivation and go back to our old habits. Here, we need to understand that it can take a while to see the results.

When you hit a plateau on intermittent fasting, you should keep your fasting routine. A plateau doesn't mean the end of your weight loss journey. Giving up will definitely not help, but staying strong and motivated will help you to find a way to break the plateau. Remember, that weight loss doesn’t happen overnight and you need to make a choice between your old habits and old body and new lifestyle with fasting routine and desirable size of clothes or number on the scales (23, 24).

2. High expectations 

We all want quick results and it would be better if we don’t need to put a lot of effort to achieve them. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. 

When we start our weight loss journey, we lose a lot of water weight, plus we deprive our glycogen storage. When we get rid of extra water and glycogen, our body finally starts to burn fat and from this point, we should keep in mind that there are physical limitations for burning fat for fuel. The limitation is about two pounds a week. And even if you lose just half a pound a week, it is still progress, it’s not a plateau.

Don’t put your expectations for losing weight too high, be patient and continue what you are doing. Use other methods such as measurements of your body or size of clothes for tracking your progress, don’t rely only on scales, they might not show any change even if you really have them (25). 

3. Multifactorial approach

We’ve talked about many reasons for hitting a plateau on intermittent fasting. One more point is that it might be not only one cause of your plateau. When being stuck on a weight loss journey, you should consider a multifactorial approach and apply a few steps at once to fix the problem. 

Only you can make a conclusion about what stops you from losing weight, fix the problem or a few of them and continue the journey. 


Summary:

Staying strong and motivated can be challenging when you don’t see a desirable result or when there are no changes for a while. Especially at this point, you need to stay consistent, follow your fasting regimen, adjust your thoughts and expectations, be patient and you will see the improvements. Having support from those who understand you also helps a lot, join our community to keep on track.  


The bottom line

There are many reasons for a weight loss plateau when doing intermittent fasting from a wrong diet to lack of motivation. Try to analyze your fasting routine and lifestyle to understand which one stops you from losing weight. Keep in mind that sometimes we have a few reasons for a plateau, where you’ll need to have a multifunctional approach and taking a few steps at once will help you achieve your goals. 

The human’s body is a complicated machine and sometimes its functioning doesn’t meet our expectations. Even when facing a weight loss plateau we still need to love our body, give it time, fix the cause of the problem and soon a positive result will show off.


References:

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  2. Dhillon J, Lee J. Y., Mattes R. D. The Cephalic Phase Insulin Response to Nutritive and Low-Calorie Sweeteners in Solid and Beverage Form. Physiol Behav. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2018 Nov 1.doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.09.009
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  9. Sacks FM et al. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. N Engl J Med. 2009 Feb 26; 360(9):859–73. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa0804748
  10.  Volek J. S., Phinney S. D. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance: A Revolutionary Program to Extend Your Physical and Mental Performance Envelope. 2012
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  12. Mayer E., Fung J., Ramos M. Life in the Fasting Lane: How to Make Intermittent Fasting a Lifestyle—and Reap the Benefits of Weight Loss and Better Health. April 7, 2020
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