A Guide to Pinpoint the Reason for your Plateau: Part II

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What could be causing your plateau?

I’ve been writing about plateaus lately. There are four main reasons a plateau can happen. On Sunday, I wrote about Potential Plateau Explanation #1: Food Quality. I dissected which food choices are no good for results, even if your calorie intake is on point. Today I’m writing about issues relating to food quantity, and how it’s important to get the right amount of calories, even if you are not eating any junk.


Potential Plateau Explanation #2: Food Quantity 

You definitely can be eating all the right food choices and still be at a plateau. You can eat a clean diet of high-quality food, no artificial ingredients, no added sugars, and no alcohol, and STILL be at a plateau. It’s because you can get too many calories from all these great choices. You need to create a caloric deficit to shed fat pounds.


What is a caloric deficit?

A caloric deficit refers to a negative difference between the calories your body needs for maintenance, and the number of calories you’re eating. If you need 2200 calories per day to maintain your weight, then eating less than this creates a caloric deficit. If you eat more than your maintenance needs, you are not creating a deficit. Maintenance refers to the number of calories you need to maintain the same weight.


How many calories do you need for maintenance?

There are many ways to estimate calorie needs. Unfortunately, many ways are inaccurate. For any of you that have used My Fitness Pal, I’ve seen a significant underestimation of calorie needs for lots of people. For example, I worked with a gal whose My Fitness Pal app told her to eat around 1200 calories for a 500-calorie daily deficit, because they estimated her daily needs at 1700 calories. Turns out that once this gal had hydrostatic body fat testing, which very accurately estimates your calorie needs, her maintenance calories were actually around 2200 calories. A 500-calorie deficit would allow her 1700 calories a day, not 1200 calories. This is a significant underestimation by My Fitness Pal. That gal could eat 500 more calories per day than she thought!


Calories are units of energy


What determines your calorie needs?

Several factors influence your maintenance calorie needs. Weight, height, age, sex, body composition (how much muscle and fat you have), and activity level need to be included. The reason many calorie estimators are off is because they don’t know your body composition. There are very few accurate ways to assess your body composition. Many instruments you can buy for the home, or for use in a gym, can easily be more than 5% off. That’s a big difference. The amount of muscle you have plays a role in calorie needs because muscle burns more calories than fat. Just sitting here, I am burning more calories than I did two years ago because I’ve put on several pounds of muscle, and lost several pounds of fat, since then.

The Harris-Benedict formula is pretty accurate to let you know how many calories you burn at rest for 24 hours (your basal metabolic rate – BMR). If you multiply this number by your activity level (see chart on the website I directed you to), you get a great estimation of your calorie needs for the day. This is my favorite website for accurate calorie estimate without knowing your exact body composition:


What should your caloric deficit be?

I recommend about a 500-calorie deficit. It’s doable. If you do it for a week, you’ll lose about a pound. You are more likely to sustain a 500-calorie deficit day after day after day, compared to anything greater than that. Some people try to do a 1000-calorie deficit. It’s not sustainable for very long. A deficit like this compromises nutrient intake and ability to sleep well.

With a high deficit like this, you’re also much more likely to lose lean mass, which is a big no-no. It’s unhealthy to lose lean mass, and it also decreases your resting metabolism. When people do weight loss the wrong way (a high caloric deficit and no strength training), they WILL lose lean mass. Because resting metabolism decreases this way, this is a major reason for a plateau.


Figure out your maintenance calories & caloric deficit:

Example: (mine)

1. Use the Harris Benedict formula. My BMR is 1396, according to it. I had hydrostatic body fat testing done in September, which is more accurate. It showed my BMR at 1424 calories. The Harris-Benedict is not too far off, though.

2. Multiply by your activity factor. The “moderately active” factor is 1.55 and the “very active” factor is 1.725. I’ll pick somewhere in between. Let’s multiply my BMR of 1424 by 1.65. 2349 calories; these are my maintenance calories.

3. Subtract by around 500. If you’ve only got a few pounds to go, then choose around 300. I’ll aim for 1800-2000 calories to gradually, sustainably lose those last few pounds of fat.


How low is too low?

Remember how I mentioned your BMR above? It refers to the amount of energy your body needs to run all its necessary processes, such as temperature regulation and breathing. If you eat less than your BMR for even a moderate amount of time, your fat-loss/weight-loss will plateau. Go to the link for the Harris Benedict formula and calculate your BMR. If your BMR is 1240, you should aim to get at least this amount of calories. You may eat at or slightly below this number every once in awhile. However, if you were to eat 1100 calories for weeks, you would not see the results you need. You must give your body the proper calories to run all of its necessary metabolic processes! And remember,  if you eat above your BMR, you are also protecting your lean mass. To be clear, though, you can still unintentionally lose muscle while losing fat. This can happen to anyone not strength training regularly while they’re in a deficit.


I recommend doing this:

If you are seeing results with the calories you’re getting, you don’t need to adjust calories now. You may still need to assess your food choices for optimal nutrient quality though.

If you do need to see results, you need to track your calorie intake to see how much you’ve been eating. Tracking calories is intrusive. I don’t recommend doing it long-term.  Sometimes I’ll do it for a few days to remind myself of how much to eat, then I’ll take a couple days off, then do it for a few more days. This way, I’m paying attention to calorie intake, but it’s not a pain the butt every day.

1. Get your BMR from the Harris Benedict formula.

2. Calculate your maintenance needs by multiplying your BMR with the appropriate activity factor.

3. Subtract your chosen number of calories (300-700) to calculate how many calories you need to lose fat. Make sure you are not eating less calories than your BMR.