As someone who's been doing intermittent fasting (IF) for over a year, I've experienced firsthand how effortless it can be to decrease my body fat, just by essentially skipping breakfast and eating from noon until 7 p.m. My husband, four CrossFit buddies, and two neighbors saw my success and decided to give it a try, too — they've all experienced weight loss, plus the other benefits including improved digestion, decreased bloating, more energy, and mental clarity.
One friend recently said she'd lost 10 pounds but has hit a plateau and was wondering what to do. Good question! I spoke to Dr. Luiza Petre, a board-certified cardiologist and weight-management specialist, about what to do if you're doing IF and you experience a weight-loss plateau.
Dr. Petre pointed out that weight loss isn't a straight line down — it's "hills and valleys," and our weight fluctuates so much from day to day that it's important to assess the overall trend. If you see it going down over the course of a few weeks (sometimes it can take months), then that's not a plateau — it's normal!
If it's been months and you haven't seen the scale budge, or you're seeing weight gain, here's what she recommends:
Don't Just Look at the Scale
The number of pounds you weigh isn't always the best judge for progress. Sometimes the numbers haven't budged, but your body composition can look leaner. Or sometimes you can gain weight and look like you've lost it. So before you underestimate your progress from a scale standpoint, check your body fat percentage, how your clothes fit, how strong you've become, body measurements like waist size, and go through monthly photos. Maybe you've only plateaued when it comes to the scale, but you're transforming in other ways.
You may also want to meet with your doctor to make sure there isn't a hormonal imbalance slowing down your metabolism, a medication you're taking, or some other underlying issue that could be affecting your weight.
Check in With Your Caloric Intake
OK, so if you've taken all of that into consideration and you're still experiencing a standstill in your progress, check if you're consuming any calories during your fasting window. Cream or sugar in your coffee, lemon juice in your water, vitamins, sucking on mints or other candies, chewing gum, drinking BCAAs or protein shakes, or eating the last few blueberries on your kiddo's breakfast plate — all of these will trigger your insulin, and you want to keep insulin levels low in order to burn your fat stores for energy. Stick to zero-calorie black coffee, tea, and water.
You also obviously want to take a look at the total number of calories you're consuming during your eating window, making sure you are in a calorie deficit. Dr. Petre says, "Intermittent fasting is not a magic wand where you can overeat and still lose weight."
If you're used to eating whatever you want and grazing during your entire eating window, which is part of the beauty of IF, then it would benefit you to take a few weeks to be diligent about writing everything down or using an app like MyFitnessPal to track your calories. Track every handful of nuts, every bite of leftovers you're putting away after dinner, every tablespoon of oil — everything! Use measuring cups, spoons, and a food scale. It might feel strange, but it also might give you insight into why the scale isn't moving.
If calorie counting is too strict for you, taking photos of what you eat may be enough to keep portion sizes in check. Or if you know you're overeating during your window, to the point of feeling stuffed, just pay more attention when you eat, and be mindful about stopping when you're satisfied.
Dr. Petre also says to take a look at the quality of what you're eating, and avoid processed foods. She says, "Eating a high-quality, organic diet is extremely beneficial to your body. For one, your gut bacteria balances and inflammation goes down and voila — weight loss becomes easier." She also says monitoring your sugar and carb intake and eating more protein will help with fat loss.
Switch Things Up
"Shorten your feeding window or switch to alternate day fasting," suggests Dr. Petre. "Don't be afraid to work with your body and not get stuck in a rut. Be open to change, and experiment with what works best for you." If you're used to skipping breakfast, maybe try skipping dinner instead. Edward Vasquez, who has an intermittent fasting YouTube channel called Fledge Fitness, recommends extending your fasting window a little bit longer (up to 12 hours). So if you're used to fasting from 8 p.m. until noon the next day, push your fasting window until two hours or longer. Once you see the scale budge, go back to your regular fasting window.
Change Up Your Exercise Routine
Whatever you're doing now, whether it's absolutely no exercise or running five days a week, find ways to change things up in your workouts. Weightlifting is always a good choice, as increasing your muscle mass will burn more calories throughout the day. If you're only weightlifting, make sure you're mixing up the exercises you're doing, increasing the weight you're lifting, and working all your muscle groups.
Also try adding some cardio into your week, and include HIIT workouts (high-intensity interval training) as that can burn more calories and target belly fat. If you work out once in the morning, then sit at a desk job for eight hours straight, try switching your workouts to noon, or take a walk in addition to your morning workout. You can also look at how many steps you take a day. If it's barely 2,000, aim to get 10,000.
Doing fasted workouts can also help, where you hit your workout at the end of your fasted window, then break your fast afterward. So if you usually fast from 8 p.m. till noon, exercise at 10 or 11 a.m., then eat lunch at your normal time.
Take Care of Yourself
Calories in vs. calories out, eating clean, and working out are just part of the weight-loss puzzle. Your stress levels can also affect weight loss, so take a look at your overall mood during the day. If you feel overworked, anxious, or worried, find ways to make your life feel calmer. You don't necessarily have to find ways to destress, but rather incorporate one thing each day that brings you happiness, and that will help lower your cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Getting enough sleep can also affect your weight-loss success. If you only get six hours of sleep each night because you go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake up for a 5 a.m. workout, then get to bed earlier or work out later in the morning.
If you have checked everything, tried all these tactics, and still the scale isn't budging, then give it time. Dr. Petre says, "No one ever wants to hear that, but the reality is you did not put your weight on overnight. Continue to be consistent in fasting, keep it clean, and always consume quality foods."
And remember that your weight isn't an indication of your health. If you're eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, feeling energetic, and sleeping well, then find joy in that! Remember that weight loss is just one benefit to intermittent fasting, but it's not the only one!