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How to overcome the low-carb & keto plateau

Last updated: Apr 19, 2019 at 9:44AM | - Published on: Jan 12, 2019

Written by Raphael Sirtoli, MSc

Scientifically Reviewed by Sarah Neidler, PhD

 

Introduction

If you’ve ever followed the ketogenic diet before, or even been low-carb, you have probably experienced a, possibly quite significant, drop in weight initially, and then eventually you hit a plateau and weight loss stalls. While this may cause a bit of a panic, don’t let it keep your cortisol levels high and stress you out — it’s actually a quite common situation, and there are things you can do to help!

Not losing weight on a low carb diet?

First things first, let’s cover the difference between weight loss and fat loss. While they may seem like one in the same — because isn’t fat loss weight loss, too? — they’re actually quite different.

Weight loss is pretty self-explanatory. Simply, it is a decrease in body mass, which can be a result of a number of factors including loss of body fluid, body fat, or lean body mass (muscle). Fat loss, on the other hand, is a reduction in body fat (adipose tissue) only, which spares lean muscle mass.

It is important to note, however, that when we lose fat, we don’t necessarily lose weight. As muscle weighs more than fat, the body may drop fat while retaining, or even gaining, muscle. This means that you weight may stay the same, but your body composition may be entirely different.

At Nutrita, we focus on shifting body composition. That means, rather than focusing on weight loss, we focus on fat loss. The whole principle behind the ketogenic diet is tapping into fat stores as the body’s main source of energy. In doing so, your body learns to burn stored fat to provide you with energy, and we therefore experience fat loss and altered body composition.

Infographic - Difference between weight loss and fat loss. Which body parameter to track, aiming for a waist to height ratio lower than 0,5.

What is a fat loss plateau?

‘Plateau’ [pronounced: platəʊ] is a French word literally referring to “an area of fairly level high ground”. But it’s also used to describe a process that’s been interrupted. When your fat loss stops and you’re stuck around this new weight, that’s called a fat loss plateau. If you’re on a low-carb diet and this happens to you, you’re experiencing a low-carb plateau.

So what happens to your body during a fat loss plateau?

The human body is a master at adapting to the conditions it’s put in. Its main goal is to maintain homeostasis within the body, so when we eat too much, it will speed up our metabolism, and when we eat too little, it will slow it down. When we stay in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time, the initial weight and fat loss happens, but eventually the body adapts to fewer calories and metabolically adjusts, which is why we observe a stall — this is something we call adaptive thermogenesis [1]. So, in order to break from this plateau, you have to put your body into new surroundings and force it to adapt.

How long can a low carb plateau last?

I know we all wish weight loss had an on/off switch, but the truth is that when it comes to stalls, there’s no set period as to when your weight or fat loss may start progressing again. A keto plateau isn’t one where you simply stop losing weight for a couple weeks. In order to actually be a plateau, your weight loss stall should be more than a month. On average, a keto plateau may start around six to nine months of dieting and generally lasts a few weeks before breaking through it. However, it’s important to keep in mind that everybody is different, so each person will experience a different length of plateau.

How do low carb or keto diets cause fat loss?

Some have snidely said that all diets cause fat loss because they induce a negative energy balance. But fat loss is about biology, not physics. Telling someone they’re not losing fat/weight because they’re not in a ‘negative energy balance’ is confusing a description for an explanation. Moreover, it’s like saying the following absurd things

  • Bill Gates got rich because he ‘spent less than he earned’
  • A fever is caused by a positive heat balance

No, Bill Gates made intricate business moves which resulted in a net ‘money balance’ and fever is an evolved immune response fight invading pathogens with heat. So lets drop the “you’re just not exercising enough and eating too much” fixed mindset and actually think through the biology to find solutions.

One of our body’s main fuel is glucose, a simple sugar.. When we take in adequate amounts of glucose through diet in the form of carbohydrates, we put the sugar to use immediately to provide energy, and any excess sugars that haven’t already been stored as glycogen will promote fat storage rather than fat use. On a moderate to high carbohydrate diet, we have adequate amounts of glucose circulating through the blood and the glycogen stored in our liver and muscles are where we’ll be getting most of our energy. If we start not eating carbs or not eating at all, our glycogen stores will dwindle in a day or two before we have to switch to fat as the main energy source instead.

When we deprive the body of dietary glucose, however, as with the ketogenic diet, we force the body into producing ketones to sustain energy. The brain requires the highest amounts of glucose, and in cases where glucose intake is minimal, the body pulls stored glucose from the liver and muscles. If glucose intake is still insufficient for several days and glucose levels become fully depleted, insulin levels drop and the body begins to use fat as its primary fuel source [2]. Making sure your body knows how to rely on fat, whatever your diet, sets the stage for easier fat loss.

Did you know?

So far there are there seems to be good evidence for two reasons why ketogenic diets are so good for fat loss:

1. Metabolic advantage: on average, ketogenic diets cause people to expend an extra 209 kcals/day compared to high-carb diets, and 91 kcals/day compared to a moderate-carb diet [3]

2. Appetite suppression: the metabolic state of ketosis, and/or ketones molecules themselves, suppress (or normalize) appetite. They probably do this modulating gut hormones involved in metabolism (incretins) and our gut-microbe landscape (i.e. which bugs producing which compounds) [4]

What causes the low carb plateau or keto stall?

Hidden carbs

Carbs are in practically everything — from baked goods and cereals (the obvious ones) to keto friendly foods like fruit and vegetables. We live in a carbohydrate rich world where they’re often hard to avoid.

But on the ketogenic diet, it’s crucial to know exactly what you’re consuming and how many carbs it has in order to keep you in ketosis.

Hidden carbs basically comes down to knowing how to read nutrition labels and knowing the ingredients that are in your food. If you’re speaking in terms of fruits and vegetables, be careful with what you eat. Many keto friendly foods still contain carbs, and if you’re not being conscious, the carb count can sneak up on you. If you’re unsure of how many carbs something contains, conduct an internet search and find out.

If you need more information on understanding nutrition labels, check out our comprehensive Keto Guide for more details!

Keto treat, keto junk-food, “fat bombs”

Like any diet, keto also has it treats and cheats that get you to hit those macros. But because keto treats are still high in fat, consuming too many of them can result in a plateau. Nutrita doesn’t push calorie counting, we rather you count grams of high quality animal protein, get your macros right and keep making your meals ever more nutrient dense. But it’s still important to avoid foods that – although technically keto – dysregulate your appetite or partition too many calories towards your fat tissue. When your only goal is to get into ketosis, the calories may not be that important, but when you’re trying to lose weight on a keto diet, it’s important to know because having too much fat will cause you to plateau.

Confusing macros: percentages (%) vs grams (g)

This one doesn’t seem like it plays all that big of a role in the keto stall, but it actually does. As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, if you’re new to the ketogenic diet, tracking your macros and calories is probably highly beneficial for you until you’re able to recognize portion sizes, and our body is able to recognize that it’s full without having to gorge yourself.

But where the problem comes in is when we’re trying to determine portion sizes but we’re not comparing apples to apples.

We recommend sticking to one measurement, for example grams, and keeping track of your food using only that.

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Not eating enough animal protein

It’s hard to eat too much protein. Most people don’t eat enough high quality animal protein. Notwithstanding the rare instances where moderating protein may useful (e.g. cancer, epilepsy), everyone’s plate should have generous portions of salmon, eggs, beef, chicken, sardines and so on when sitting down to eat.

Why? They’re the most nutritious foods available to us. Not only are they filing when you eat them (satiety), they also keep you full for long thereafter (satiation), making intermittent fasting into a pleasant habit rather than a disciplined eating schedule.

1.8 g/kg of protein is the minimum Nutrita recommends. In imperial units this is 0.82 g/lbs You should eat enough high quality animal food in order to obtain about 1.8 g of protein for every kilogram of weight you carry. How much food is that, really?

For a 50 kg (110 lbs) female with 30 % body fat, she would have to eat 90 g of protein in a day. Mind you, 90 g of high quality, highly bioavailable animal protein. That’s equivalent to

  • 5 medium sized eggs and a rib-eye steak

or

  • 1.5 large salmon fillets

If you’re eating 1.8 g/kg of protein but still not losing weight, don’t hesitate to increase it. How much? Try to get to anywhere up around 2.2 g/kg of body weight. In imperial units, that’s 1.0 g/lbs.

To achieve your new protein target, the best thing to do is not just add more food on top of what you’re already eating. Instead, you should replace your less filling and less nutritious foods (e.g. starchy tubers, heavy cream) with the higher quality, more filling ones like animal protein.

Being sedentary

If you’ve ever heard the saying, you can out exercise a bad diet, the opposite holds true also. Chances are that if you’re following a well-formulated ketogenic diet, like Nutrita recommends, you’re eating pretty well. But so much of that will go to waste if you’re sitting around all day. The body requires activity and movement in order to burn calories, so while you may be eating a clean keto diet and not overeating, your body doesn’t have a chance to put all that food to good use if you’re not moving about.

Have you already lost some weight on a keto diet? That initial weight loss was quite a bit of water loss during the fat adaption hase. But once your body becomes accustomed to your new way of eating, it’s not going to keep burning your remaining body fat until there’s nothing left. So not only is activity important for building lean muscle mass and keeping the body functioning optimally, it’s also important to keep you away from hitting the keto stall.

By activity, we don’t necessarily mean that you have to be in a gym everyday hitting the weight or treadmill for three hours. Jogging, walking, cleaning, gardening, raking leaves — anything that gets the body up and moving is beneficial.

Stress

As a society, our stress levels are through the roof. Whether it be from jobs, family, school, finances, and just about anything in between, we are constantly stressed. So how can stress play into hitting a keto plateau? Cue: your stress hormone.

When we are chronically stressed, our body produces higher levels of the hormone cortisol, the main stress hormone in the body. High cortisol levels over time will wreak havoc on the body slowly diminishing important chemicals in the brain, taking away sleep, and making it very difficult to lose weight. Now let’s make one thing clear, cortisol is not the cause of your keto plateau. Cortisol is beneficial for the body, in small amounts. It serves to protect the body in times of stress and help to mobilize glucose stores to give the individual energy — it’s why people call it the “fight or flight” hormone.

Circulating cortisol isn’t necessarily a bad thing and there are many good reasons to spike it. However, the problem comes when cortisol is chronically high because we are in a constant state of stress. High blood sugar levels, as a result of high circulating cortisol, promotes fat storage in the abdominal area [5]. This particular way of fattening signals poor metabolic health [6].

Poor sleep

We all know that sleep is important, but somehow, we just can’t get enough of it. If your sleep hygiene isn’t on point and you’ve hit a plateau, it may be a key factor in why.

Poor sleep is another stressor on the body, and when we don’t get enough of it, our body’s compensate in a few different ways.

First, our cortisol levels increase, which, as we know from the section on stress, can cause a whole cascade of negative effects on the body. Our cortisol and melatonin levels should rise and fall inversely throughout the day. Cortisol labels should be highest in the morning and slowly dwindle down towards the evening when melatonin levels start to rise. However, when we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies continue produce more cortisol to keep our body awake and functioning properly. There is a perpetual cycle with lack of sleep and high cortisol levels — one instigating the other.

The second way poor sleep contributes to a weight or fat loss plateau is through unregulated hunger hormones. Sleep deprivation causes our body to increase release of ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, and suppress release of leptin, the hormone that signals fullness [7]. So when your body is telling you you’re hungry, it may be because you didn’t sleep enough.

Infographic - Reduce stress levels with good sleep, practice intermittent fasting, and carefully watch for hidden carbs

 

How to beat the keto plateau

Hunger (healthy) and cravings (unhealthy)

If you haven’t quite got your hunger cues pinpointed, eating can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. We either eat too much and feel too full, or we eat too little and still feel hungry. It’s important to be able to recognize when you’ve reached satiation (stop eating; short-term) and satiety (not wanting to start eating again; long-term). If you’re have trouble losing excess fat make sure the foods you eat do both; fill you up quickly during the meal all the while leaving you with lots of energy that doesn’t make you hungry for another 12 to 16 hours.

Some people like Dr.Troy report that adding a salad to his heavy meat diet helps him stay full and not succumb to cravings. Others however find that the salad will only fill them up for a little while without actually keeping hunger at bay or put an end to cravings – they’ll opt for more steak instead.

Chew chew chew, appreciate what you’re eating and relax.

We may not know why, but at some point or other most of us have had a hard time not over-eating a food that might otherwise be generally healthy. Two common examples are nuts and cheese. More likely though, if you’re stalling on fat loss and still eating nut butters many times a week, it may be preventing your appetite from normalizing. Contrary to what people may think, you can eat too much on a (poorly formulated) ketogenic diet. This is simply because food isn’t just about calories and macronutrients, but also about texture and viscosity – these have great impact on metabolic responses [8].

De-stress

Lowering stress levels is crucial to not only getting through your keto plateau, but also being healthy in general. We know that being less stressed is far easier said than done, so here are a few ways that may help to reduce your stress levels — and they’re also quite enjoyable as well!

Socialize

This deserves a stand-alone articles but suffice to say, social support (i.e. community) is serious risk factor for all-cause mortality.

“Data across 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, indicate that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity)” [9]!

This makes total sense given what’s known about how humans evolved to live in highly social tribes and would die rapidly if separated from it. Feelings of loneliness serve a survival purpose, staying alive by finding people that’ll care for you. Feeling lonely is in a sense an emergency, as reflected in our physiological response to this chronic phenomenon, whereby the longer-term less-essential functions like immunity are downregulated to favor short-term stress responses (e.g. more adrenaline and higher blood glucose levels).

Meditation

When we get stressed, hormones surge through our body causing our heart to pump harder, our breathing to increase, your blood sugar to rise, and any non-crucial body functions to shut down. Meditation is a great way to calm the body and bring it back into homeostasis. During meditation, your body remains awake and alert, yet very calm, which allows it to get to a place of healing. So why is meditation good to de-stress? It can help to:

  • Decrease heart and breathing rate
  • Decrease and stabilize blood pressure [10]
  • Decrease production of stress hormones [11]
  • Reduce inflammation [12]
  • Increase production of positive neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and endorphins [13]

Breath work

We all breathe in order to stay alive, but the majority of us don’t really breathe — and by that we mean deep breathing. If you’ve never tried it before, deep breathing is an amazing way to relax both the body and mind. By slowing down your breath and inhaling and exhaling deeper than normal, we provide our cells with significantly more oxygen, therefore allowing our muscles and mind to relax causing a decrease in heart rate and cortisol levels, and increase in mood and perceived stress [14].

Wim Hof method breathwork, the fancy scientific name being hypercapnic hyperventilation, is a eye-opening breathing technique with alluring clinical research behind it [15]. It’s often paired with ice-water immersion. The breathwork does the following:

  • increases core body temperature (stimulates non-shivering thermogenesis)
  • increases blood flow (vascularization), especially of capillaries
  • rounds of the breathwork induces high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) followed by high levels of oxygen (O2) in the blood. This effectively is a kind of metabolic training allowing you to increase your capacity to buffer metabolic acids (like CO2) produced when exercising or holding your breath
  • releases levels of noradrenaline twice as high as first-time bungee jumpers!
  • partially modulates the autonomous nervous system (ANS). Any degree of conscious control was previously thought to be impossible.
  • stops your immune system’s response to a marker for pathogens called LPS: no fever, no shivering, no nausea or discomfort. Any degree of conscious control of the immune system was previously thought to be impossible

How do you do it? Breath in maximally and then out partially, following your own comfortable ‘circular’ pattern – doing 30 to 50 breaths per round. Try doing 3 to 4 rounds per session. For the best guidance go to the website. If you do this in water, cold or otherwise, do it with someone supervising you in case you black out due to poorly executing the breathing technique.

Spend time in nature

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the simple act of spending time outdoors can decrease levels of stress — and by outdoors, we mean in nature (lakes, forests, etc.) as opposed to in a city. In a 2010 study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine showed that forest environments promoted lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than city environments [16], all of which are factors related to stress.

Essential oils

Essential oils are powerful chemical compounds and shouldn’t be taken lightly. They can be burn the digestive tract if taken with water and insufficiently diluted. Dermal contact also allows them to penetrate the bloodstream so you shouldn’t lather them on with disregard. In fact, a drop or 2 of concentrated essential oils on the toes can be smelled in the breath ! If you have an autoimmune disease or unusual skin reactions to creams or plant compounds, be very circumspect when using essential oils.

That being said, they have interesting properties worth exploring.

They’re also known to to de-stress people, possibly because of the oil’s scent molecules reaching the olfactory area (the nose) of our brain, where they can affect many systems that control heart rate, emotions, memory, hormones, stress and more [17]. And if you don’t find them relaxing you can always use peppermint oil to fight molar infections [18]!

They’re versatile compounds.

But there’s more than one way to use an essential oil or blend. Steam inhalation, massage, or diffusion, the results are often beneficial for symptom relief. Some of the oils most commonly used to de-stress are lavender, bergamot, lemongrass, ylang ylang, and frankincense. So next time you’re stressed pick up an essential oil and give it a try!

Sleep better

Sleep can be an issue for anyone, whether you follow keto or not. We’re all addicted to devices and live fast paced, busy lives, which aren’t exactly conducive to a good night’s rest. But as we just learned, sleep is important for not only optimal body function, but also to move you through, or prevent, hitting a keto plateau. Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep:

Buy blue-light blocking glasses

Blue lights are everywhere — from our phone and tablets, to televisions and laptops. They emit blue light, which is the wavelength of light the sun gives you during the day but not at night. Your body uses blue light to know when to produce melatonin and regulate basic body processes. Minimizing exposure to sources that emit blue light once the sun goes down or a while before going to bed helps your kickstart your brain’s melatonin production.

If using a device is crucial, consider buying blue-light blocking glasses. These help to reduce the effect that blue light has on the body. Also consider installing light-altering software like f.lux on laptops and tablets.

Exposure yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning and throughout the day as much as you can

Vitamin D exposure via natural sunlight is important for many functions in the body, but it’s also important for sleep. However, when people don’t get sunlight first thing in the morning, are exposed to artificial light during the day, and stay for hours in front of screens when it’s dark out, this really messes with your circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythm is the biological clock orchestrating your sleep-wake cycles, the body’s rhythmic production of melatonin and countless other fundamental biological processes [19]. If you plan on getting a good night’s rest, expose yourself to natural sunlight during the morning and early afternoon hours, and start to reduce the screen time in the evening so your body can prepare itself for sleep.

Maybe supplement with melatonin

The body naturally produces melatonin throughout the day, with it peaking in the evening, as it is part of the body’s sleep-wake cycle. However, if your body isn’t producing enough, getting to sleep may be difficult. In this case, it may beneficial to supplement with melatonin. Studies have shown that exogenous melatonin supplementation helps to increase sleep efficiency and increase total sleep duration [20]. It’s important, however, to think of the right dose of melatonin for you as the minimum-effective dose (MED).

Cannabis and cannabis extracts, like CBD

Cannabis use for medicinal purposes and extracted cannabinoid concoctions like CBD have taken the American health market by storm due to the positive effects they elicit for a wide range of health conditions. For sleep specifically, cannabidiol (CBD) has proven effective for treating insomnia [21], and in a study conducted on lab rats, administration of CBD proved effective in increasing total sleep time [22]. While CBD is useful for increasing sleep time, the active component of marijuana, THC, has been shown to help induce sleep. It has many yet unknown effects on sleep and anecdotally doesn’t help everyone.

It’s important to note, however, that CBD can elicit effects that both promote sleep and promote wakefulness, so it’s crucial to pay attention to dosage prior to consumption. Small doses (~ 15 mg) of CBD promote wakefulness while higher ones (40 to 80 mg or more) are rather more sedative [23,24,25].

Keep in mind that if you’re not losing fat and are still succumbing to cravings, then cannabis may not be a good option for your sleep since it has appetite stimulating effects that may compound the strength of your cravings. For people who aren’t struggling with cravings and appetite regulation, then cannabis is a better option for sleep and relaxation since it interfere with a normally regulated appetite long-term. It increases appetite short-term, but it doesn’t dysregulate long-term appetite mechanisms that allow you to naturally compensate at your next meal.

Get up and move

Many studies have been conducted on the positive effects of exercise on sleep quality, indicating that participating in regular exercise helps to improve sleep [26]. Not only does it help to improve sleep quality, but also to increase sleep time, reduce stress and regulate anxiety, and help with insomnia and other sleep disorders. It’s good for you for many reasons but not because you’re ‘spending calories’.

Conclusion

With that said, if you’ve hit a plateau, don’t worry. We’ve provided you with some of the background reasons as to why you might have gotten yourself there, whether it be eating too much fat, hidden carbs, stress, or poor sleep. It’s always possible that getting a blood draw (e.g. thyroid, triglycerides and inflammatory markers…) could reveal a wonky hormonal profile or something else potentially responsible for difficult fat loss. So don’t forget lab data can be of value too, it’s not just about lifestyle factors.

Nevertheless, our primary advice to you is to really look deep into your lifestyle and figure out what’s going on — monitor your stress levels and sleep, track your eating, log your activity — whatever it takes to determine why you hit a plateau so you can either avoid it next time, or know how to progress through it.

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Written by Raphael Sirtoli, MSc Molecular Biology

Raphael Sirtoli has an MSc in Molecular Biology and is a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at the Behavioral n’ Molecular Lab in Portugal. His understanding of metabolism, nutrition and clinical medicine is the base upon which Nutrita’s knowledge derives from. He loves open scientific debate, Crossfit, football, hiking and cold water immersion.