The Fat Loss Plateau ‘Double Whammy’

I’m writing this post to you from the lounge at Billy Bishop airport in downtown Toronto. My wife and I are waiting to board a plane to Mont Tremblant for a short snowboard trip. If you’re ever flying out of Toronto and can use this airport, do it – it’s so convenient to downtown and the lounge rules.

In the lounge, the airline Porter hooks you up with free cappuccinos, nuts and other tasty snacks. Naturally, I like to come early to take advantage of the freebies. You can take the man out of China, but you can’t take the Chinese out of the man…

It’s about 15 degrees Celsius here in Toronto, but our destination is hovering around zero, so hopefully the snow doesn’t all melt. Either way, it’s a trip, which is always a good mental break from the daily grind.

I’ve been working closely with a female boxer prepping for a provincial championship tournament, which is a qualifying tournament to fight for the chance to represent Canada.

She’s a highly skilled athlete, tough as nails and can push herself as hard as anyone I’ve trained.

The biggest thing we’ve got to work on right now is cutting weight. Like most elite fighters I’ve worked with, when she puts her mind to it, she can achieve amazing things. And what makes her put her mind to it is an impending competition.

But the world is Yin and Yang. While she has the tenacity to do this, the mental focus, energy and sheer willpower it takes to train and diet like an animal for months on end leading into a tournament is draining and can lead to losing control when the big bout is over. In fact, that’s what’s happened before, which has lead us to entering this vicious cycle again.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience, too?

You set your mind to a goal that is achievable but requires you to really be on point, you achieve it, then you say to yourself, “Man, that was great. I achieve my goal. Now, I just want to relax. I deserve it”

And then, the old habits that forced you to summon the powerful focus to achieve your goal come back with a vengeance and quickly, you find yourself back at square one (or worse).

This, my friends, is a stressful way to live, both mentally and physiologically. The more you do this, the harder it becomes to do it again in the future.

So this is what I’ve been planning for, this time. Breaking out of this cycle.

My boxer is a young athlete and has a long career ahead of her. All she needs to do is stay healthy and stay on point and she’ll be able to build and build until she’s untouchable, as opposed to having to fight her way to get back to her previous peak.

This is the concept – stop fighting yourself. Stop fighting just to get back to what you’ve already achieved.

Be more patient.

Get there in flow and you will be able to stay there and build.

Now, here are some ‘insiders’ tips for you to put into practice or just contemplate to help you to achieve your goal AND remove yourself from this draining cycle so that when you do achieve your goal, you can redirect your focus and energy to keeping it and building upon it.

Tip #1 – Don’t Try to Be ‘Perfect’

If you try to stick to a diet 100%, you’re only restricting yourself and setting yourself up to rebound and binge like a starving wolf unleashed at a Chinese buffet.

I’ve found the most successful people with diets don’t eat perfectly. The ones that do eat perfectly (for a period of time, say prepping for a fight or competition) ALWAYS go bonkers after the fight.

My wife has been doing a lot of research on this in the scientific literature and it’s not just my opinion – it’s scientific fact that restrictive dieting leads to binge eating.

And in university, my room mate was a competitive mountain biker and he was pretty tight with his diet. But sometimes, when I felt like it, I’d buy some ice cream. It’d be in the freezer for a while as I don’t eat a lot or very often. Until…

When he saw it, he’d destroy the whole 2 liters or whatever was left because he just couldn’t control himself. Being so restrictive caused him to binge. [I’d get pissed at him, but it was kinda funny at the same time]

Allow ‘cheat’ meals into your schedule. You can do this by following the 90% rule – if you’re eating 5 meals a day for example, that’s 35 meals per week (5 meals x 7 days), so allow yourself to eat foods that aren’t on your plan 3 or 4 times. You can plan them in, like if you’ve got a party to go to, or you can just let them happen and keep track.

That could be one breakfast of Captain Crunch, a burger and fries for lunch and a big serving of spaghetti and meatballs for dinner and maybe a dessert thrown in there somewhere.

Or you can do a cheat day, which you just dedicate one day a week to eating whatever.

Either route you choose, because you know you’re eating this and planning for it, you can better control your portions, vs. when your willpower breaks and you just go nuts.

Or if you’re a pro athlete, you might want to do what I’ve done with my boxer and specifically plan macronutrients to strategically up-regulate fat burning hormones such as leptin and replenish glycogen stores for better training.

For example, the liver holds anywhere from 50-100 grams of glycogen, so on a low carb diet, replenishing this would take around 2-3 servings of fruit for the fructose that goes straight to the liver.

The rest of your body can hold anywhere from 200-400 grams of glycogen so we can get some good starchy carbs and glucose that will help to replenish this, say a cup of oats, a cup of rice and a sweet potato, should do the trick, depending on your size of course.

NOTE: your glycogen stores don’t totally empty out on a low carb diet, as your body converts protein to glycogen when carb intake is low.

Of course, what I’ve just shared is getting a little more scientific and technical than most of you will need, so for those of you, just stick to the 90% rule or Cheat Day and you’ll be good to go and you won’t need to stress out about what you’re eating.

Tip #2 – Don’t Expect Linear Results

In the ideal world, our results would perfectly match our efforts and would be 100% predictable.

But I hate to break it to ya – we don’t live in an ideal world and expecting to lose exactly 1 pound of fat per week when taking in 1800 calories per day and burning exactly 2300 calories per day is a pipe dream, at best.

I’ve always been wary of calorie counting as food and preparation methods are so variable.

And calculating calorie expenditure is another dubious notion, as it’s impossible to factor in all of the variables that go into how much energy one burns (lean muscle mass, resting metabolism, hours of sleep, exercise intensity, % of muscle mass used during any particular exercise, etc).

Make a plan, stick to it, and as long as you’re moving in the right direction, be happy. Sure you may not hit your goal by your target date, but if you’re on the way, that’s an indication your actions are good, so just keep them up.

If you’re not going in the right direction after 2 weeks of sticking to your plan (that includes the 10% of not being an anal-retentive diet nazi), try something different and assess your progress again after 2 weeks.

But whatever you do, don’t do this:

Tip #3 – Avoid the Fat Loss Plateau ‘Double Whammy’

The fat loss plateau double whammy is something that so many people do to break through fat loss plateaus that makes logical sense, but screws up your body and is actually counterproductive to you achieving lasting results.

The fat loss plateau double whammy is when you hit a plateau, you decide to simultaneously cut calorie (and/or carb) intake and exercise more and/or harder.

If you’re already following a low-ish calorie/carb plan (which is generally what works best for fat loss), cutting calories or carbs further will not help. It will only go to further screw up your hormonal profile, keeping the fat burning hormone leptin low, while increasing the hormone cortisol, which leads to fat storage (and other problems, such as getting sick).

And, on top of this, if you’re of the ‘more is better’ mentality and you try to exercise more and/or harder, you’re going to further increase cortisol, while increasing recovery demands, which will NOT be met, since you’re not taking in the calories needed to support those demands.

So avoid the fat loss plateau double whammy, and instead, try one of these ideas to successfully kickstart stalled progress:

  • Have a higher carb/calorie day, which is also relatively lower in fat. So replace some fat calories with carbs and add some more. Keep protein more or less the same, or even a bit more.
  • Follow this with a lower carb/calorie day and some good training. You're carbed up and now -it’s a good time to fast, either until lunch (eating after your workout would be best) or dinner (train in the morning when you’ve got more energy and take some BCAA’s before and after to avoid muscle breakdown).
  • Decrease volume of exercise for a week while maintaining or increasing intensity. If you know you need more recovery, decrease volume while maintaining, otherwise, decrease volume while increasing intensity, which could lead to a surge in the anabolic hormones that support fat loss.

These are just a few tips that you can try that are far superior to the fat loss double whammy.

OK, my flight is about to board and I don’t want to miss it.

I hope this has been an insightful and useful article for you and I hope it helps you achieve and KEEP your goals.

Wish me luck on the slopes. I’m gonna be a bit rusty.


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8 years ago

Good article, makes perfect sense..
Just a question.. being fast absorbable protein, mostly BCAA’s, now known to raise insulin even higher than most simple carbs, do you think that they wont minimize fatloss while training fasted ?
I use them and love the results in preventing catabolism and soreness but all the later studies point them out as being insulin triggers, and working out fasted should be abut no insulin, right ?

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex

Although BCAA’s do raise insulin levels, this isn’t such a bad thing, especially when fasted, because the insulin helps to shuttle nutrients into the muscle. And lo and behold, the BCAA’s are the only nutrients around, so they get shuttled into muscle to prevent muscle catabolism. And it’s not like a huge amount of insulin that stays in your bloodstream for hours – it’s an amount produced by your body needed to absorb the BCAA’s.

Santiago Sanchez
Santiago Sanchez
7 years ago
Reply to  Eric

Darn im trying to carb cycle right now but theres one problem for me..I love peanut butter jelly sandwiches and when i make them i put a lot of peanut butter but the problem is i cant have them on low carb days because of the bread and cant have them on high carb days because of the peanut butter! what do i do?

8 years ago

Hey it been 33 degrees here 85% humidity, you sweat just by breathing, hope you guys freeze over there. Snow might be sloppy at around zero but it will still be cold. Enjoy