By far one of the worst feelings is when you've been working diligent for weeks...even months...to hop on the scale full of hope...to see nothing.
No change. No drop in weight. Not even a gain. NO change whatsoever.
How many times has this happened to you? You've worked for a couple weeks, see no change, and then just give up...because why bother?
Now, before you go ahead and throw in the towel, let's talk about it.
There could be a NUMBER of reasons you’re not seeing results. It could be that your calculations are off and aren’t in a sufficient enough deficit to get results. It could be that you’ve adapted to your deficit intake and need to make some changes to keep things moving. It could be that you’re tracking isn’t 100% accurate (unfortunately really common). It could be that you’re too stressed and too overworked for your body to make real progress. Lastly, it also could simply be that you haven’t given it enough time to work…
No diet is ever going to be perfect. You will hit plateaus. Your calculations may be inaccurate. You may encounter crazy stress on occasion [like a quarantine]. If every diet was perfect, then I wouldn’t have a job…because no one would need my help.
Dieting is hard physically. You’re eating in a deficit which means you’re not fueling yourself 100%, meaning you're not feeding yourself all of the food necessary to fuel all activity (exercise and non-exercise activity) in a day. Additionally, some of your body’s energy is going to burning fat (helping you lose weight) rather than to your workouts or energy you need to get through the day. This means that you are going to be more fatigued especially the longer you’ve been in a deficit, which is physically hard. You’ll likely be more sore, under-recovered, and won’t feel 100%, which isn’t always a fun thing to do. This also will create a high stress environment, with more inflammation and the effects that come from that.
Dieting is also hard mentally. Going into a deficit is a stress. Inflammation is going to be higher because your body is overworking itself, trying to survive and thrive on less than what it’s used to. This bumps up cortisol, your stress hormone. As you eat in a deficit, your body is going to send out hormones bumping up your hunger and cravings, which you’re going to want to indulge in. Frequently fighting hunger and cravings isn’t fun. It takes a mental grind that overtime does make things tougher. Constantly feeling tired or lethargic isn’t a great feeling. It’s going to fight you to want to give up. To stay on track, you’ve got to mentally dig in a bit deeper and fight the urge.
So why do we do it?
Because the reward is that much better.
Think of your hardest workout ever or if you play(ed) sports, the toughest game that you won. I can guarantee that you wanted to give up 3/4 of the way through that game or workout. But did you? No. Every year, CrossFitters and non-CrossFitters nationwide (even worldwide) honor Lt. Murphy by completing “Murph” (1 mile run, 100 pull ups, 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, 1 mile run in a weighted vest). Every person gets to some point where they’re done mentally and physically, but they don’t quit. They know that eventually it’s over. They know the reason behind doing the workout. They know how shitty it will feel to give up and the reward they will feel by embracing the grind and digging in a little deeper to get the work done. They may have to make some changes and “troubleshoot” their approach by either modifying the movements, taking longer breaks, completing fewer reps/set, grabbing some water, etc.
Same thing goes with your diet. You will want to give up 3/4 of the way through...maybe even a quarter of the way! You just have to 1. remember your “why” and the reward that will follow (look good naked, fit into those jeans you’ve always dreamed of, be able to love the body you’re in) and 2. troubleshoot what isn’t working.
This blog post is going to teach you all the steps you can take to troubleshooting your diet, when either nothing is working, or you’ve simply just hit a plateau and your progress seems to stall.
Troubleshoot Your Diet
Option 1. Increase your deficit
If nothing is working or you’ve been in a deficit that was working but now has stalled, you need to create more of a deficit. Let's go back to the mantra:
Calories in < calories out
This is the sure, guaranteed way of getting a diet to work. If you’re not losing weight, this is your starting place.
If you put yourself into a deficit and waited at least 2-3 weeks with no results to show, then there is a small chance you didn't create enough of a deficit to start. Everyone is different. Some people can start losing weight on a small 5-10% reduction in calories. Other people, myself included, need a bit more aggressive approach by creating a larger deficit to work off of. I always recommend starting off a diet with a smaller deficit and adding to that if need be. As already mentioned, dieting is hard! The intention of any diet, at least coming from me, is to find the minimal effective dose to create a desired stimulus. You could cut 1000 calories and be guaranteed to lose weight...but this large deficit will create massive amounts of hunger and cravings, crashes in energy and recovery, and a whole slew of side effects making it pretty unsustainable. If we could get the desired stimulus with say 300 calories (a whole 700 calories more!), then why cut 1000 calories if you don't have to?
If your weight loss has stalled, but you had been seeing steady weight loss for at least 4-5 weeks, then it's likely your metabolism has started to adapt to its new intake. Your body doesn't like stress or change, which is what a diet does. Your body will try and create homeostasis (a fancy word for normalcy) by lowering your caloric expenditure by slowing down nonessential processes. As a coach, I try to avoid this by regularly including planned periods of increased intake with refeeds and/or diet breaks [if you're ready to lose weight with PLANNED breaks and added food, apply here for coaching]. BUT you could still have a relatively highly adaptive metabolism, which means you need to go further into a deficit to get a desired stimulus.
To create a new deficit, aim to decrease your intake by 10-15%, coming from a combo of fats and carbs. Make sure to keep fats above 0.3g/lb bodyweight to protect hormones.
But what if you're already struggling with your current intake and can't imagine eating less? See option 2!
Option 2. Add in cardio
If you are at a pretty low intake (<1600 calories), have been dieting for a while, or mental motivation is getting in the way (meaning it’s unlikely you’ll adhere to a decreased intake), then the next stop is adding in activity to increase your daily expenditure. By keeping intake constant but doing more you’re increasing your deficit as we did in option 1…just in the opposite direction.
You have three options of cardio to add in: low, moderate, and high intensity.
Which one you add honestly depends on a number of things: your current training program, your stress levels, your schedule, etc. Lucky for you, I’ve already written a great post on all things cardio.
Option 3. Remove calorie-dense foods
1. Eat like a bro
2. Increase your volume of food
The bro-diet, although simple, is the best way to be successful. The simpler your meals, the less deviation you're going to have in your diet because the fewer secret ingredients that are going to be present and the less error you’re going to have in your food logs. One cup of white rice, 4oz ground turkey, and 1c broccoli is roughly 25g protein, 45g carbs, and 5-10g fats. That’s pretty consistent and will stay consistent with every meal. Going to the store and getting a delicious sub may be tasty and interesting, but you truly have no way of knowing the macro breakdown. The simpler you are with your meals, the more successful you're going to be because you're hitting the same amount of intake every single day with very little deviation. Not only that but you're now eating less calories making the deficit a lot easier and making results come in a lot faster.
If you're not cooking your meals and constantly finding yourself eating out at restaurants, there's likely a lot of calories you're missing in your MFP. The more control you have over what goes in your mouth, the more accurate you will be. YES eating out at restaurants is fun...BUT so is seeing results. You don't have to avoid restaurants all together but limit to 1x/week preferably and rely on your own chef skills instead.
The next thing is to remove most of the calorie dense foods and swapping out for foods that have fewer calories. This lets you eat more food and increase the volume of food you’re eating per meal without racking up the calories. It takes 10 cups of broccoli to equal 1 cup of pasta. Most of this is going to entail swapping a lot of the heavily processed foods for more whole foods (fruits and veggies). Keep most of your carbs around your workouts so you don’t see a lag in performance but stick to whole foods outside of that window. This also keeps your micronutrient intake high, keeping you healthier.
Option 4. Implement a diet break/refeeds
Diet breaks and refeeds are planned breaks from a diet that boost mental motivation, prevent metabolic adaptation, and keep adherence and consistency high in a diet.
Refeeds are 1-3-day breaks that are included every 7-14 days. If you’re just starting a cut, you can go with fewer refeeds every week. I typically will start a client in a 6:1 approach (6 days in a deficit, one day refeed of an extra 50-100g carbs). As the diet wears on, I’ll increase the number of refeeds while also increasing the time between them. This could look like a 10:2 or 14:3 approach, meaning a 2-day refeed every 10 days or a 3-day refeed every 14 days, respectively.
Diet breaks are saved for when motivation is pretty low, and adherence is starting to fall apart. These are longer breaks that are used every 4-8 weeks depending on the person. If in a cut, I recommend bringing calories up to maintenance or just below maintenance and tracking protein only.
Option 5. Change up your periodization
If you’ve been dieting forever, then it’s time to focus on periodization. You generally have 8-12 weeks in a deficit before your metabolism starts adapting. If biofeedback is in check you can simply utilize frequent weekly diet breaks to extend this time frame. If, however, sleep is garbage, energy is low, motivation is terrible, stress is high, and none of this is improved with a 1-2-week diet break, it’s time to reverse to maintenance and stick there for as long as you were in a cut (1:1) before diving back into a deficit. This maintenance period will repair all the damage created from your deficit.
It's not smart to ignore your biofeedback as this is direct insight into your metabolic health. You want to avoid metabolic adaptation at all costs because 1. it creates a TON of stress, 2. is very difficult and tedious to repair/reverse and 3. affects all future attempts at dieting. Your biofeedback tells you how your metabolism is thriving...or not thriving. IF your biofeedback is telling you to pull yourself out of the deficit, then it's smart to listen...otherwise you're likely going to be regretting it further down the road.
Option 6. Stress management
Manage your stress. This is a sure way to get weight loss moving in the right direction. Constant stress bumps up cortisol. Cortisol brings cravings up and interferes with hormones, including your hunger hormones. This makes binging, or just deviating from your diet, way more likely.
Stress also leads to inflammation. I was going through a period where I was beyond stressed, due to a number of life stressors. I realized this, and took a day to de-stress. I got a massage, took a bath, disconnected from my phone, and all screens for that matter, and slept 9 hours. Overnight, my weight dropped 6lbs. Did I lose 6lbs of fat overnight? No. But I lost all the retention that was created from the stress I was letting build and build.
Practice mindfulness and meditation. Take more rest days. Go for walks (which will also increase daily expenditure!). Go to yoga (not hot yoga). Read instead of watch TV every night. Disconnect. Take frequent breaks.
Sleep more. In a study that compared people who slept 4 vs 8 hours, the 4-hour sleepers on average ate almost 600 calories more in a day than the 8-hour sleepers. Not only does a lack of sleep bump up cortisol, stress, and as a result, cravings, but you also have more time in the day to eat.
Option 7. Be honest…
This one may be hard to hear…but it’s been proven, through scientific studies, that one of the most common reasons you’re failing on your diet is because you’re not being honest with your tracking.
You have to track everything…the creamer and sugar that’s going in your coffee, the bite of carrots as you cook dinner, the snacks you sneak in throughout the day, the butter or oils you use while cooking, and the condiments that go with your meals. The little bites here and there that seem like they don’t matter do. Measure your food using a digital scale. Portion snacks out. If you take an extra lick of peanut butter, track it. That’s 8g of fats (almost 100 calories) that you’re neglecting.
This, again, is why eating out at restaurants could be stalling your progress...because you can't be honest...because you weren't the one preparing your meals!
Option 8. Measure biofeedback
There are many times when the scale isn't an accurate measure of progress...but because it doesn't move, it's assumed that the diet is failing.
Track sleep, energy [in and out of the gym], stress, and hunger/cravings to measure progress. Take frequent progress photos and/or measurements. This will help you see progress when the scale is being stubborn and resistant.
Option 9. Be PATIENT
It can take some time for your body to adjust and respond. IF you know you're in a deficit and stress is managed and biofeedback is in check, then it's likely all you need to do is WAIT! I have seen it take 6-8 weeks for clients to see steady weight loss in a cut. They wanted to change 2 weeks in, but I kept them on course, knowing their past diet history and metabolism was probably to blame for the stall. Sure enough, their bodies started shedding pounds and we never had to change at all. One of my clients who's been with me for 2 years at this point started a cut August 2019. It wasn't until October she saw the scale move. We've been on the SAME macro prescription since August 2019 and she's lost 45 lbs. We just had to give it time!
This is one of the top reasons why having a coach is so important...because a coach knows when to change and when to stay put. They don't have the bias you do in seeing results and can therefore keep you more patient in the process. The worst thing you can do in a diet is change week after week to elicit an extra pound lost...If you don't give your body time to respond, you won't see long-term results.
There you have it.
Eight ways you can troubleshoot your diet. Start with one and give it 2-3 weeks to work its magic before moving on to the next option. Don’t try them all at once or else you’ll have no idea what did or didn’t work. Also if one works, then why do more?
This is something I work through with all of my clients. If you’re in this position and at a loss as to where to go next, apply here for coaching.
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.