How to Break a Weight Loss Stall on a Low-Carb Diet

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It happens to almost everyone -- your weight loss slows down, or seems to grind to a halt. Sometimes you may even start regaining some of the weight, and there aren't many things more demoralizing than that! Here are some tips to help you in this situation. Not all of them work for everyone, but they are all good things to try to get you back into weight loss mode.

Many of these suggestions came from a conversation I had with Dr. Eric Westman. Dr. Westman is an associate professor of medicine at Duke University and the director of the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic where he has been treating obesity and diabetes, using a low-carb dietary approach, for many years. He has many published research papers to his credit and is the co-author of The New Atkins for a New You, among other books.

Remember, Weight Fluctuates

Even when we're taking in the same amount of calories as we're expending, weight fluctuates. The amounts of fluids, fiber, etc, in your body, changes from day to day, and the scale, of course, reflects this. It's actually best not to weigh each day during the weight loss period -- once per week is plenty. Even then, there may be weeks when you don't show a weight loss, even though you may be losing fat. You may be gaining muscle, for example.

So don't get too fixated on the scale.

On the other hand, if a month has gone by with no weight loss, you may be in a stall. In that case, here are some things to try.

1. Watch Out for Carb Creep

This the most important point, and a VERY common problem. It happens to almost everyone, where we let carbs back into our diets in a haphazard way, often without even realizing it.

Most of the low-carb diet studies which track what people eat over time find this to be true.

Low-carb approaches such as the Atkins Diet do encourage increasing carbohydrate after the initial very low-carb phase. It's important to carefully follow the guidelines as to how fast to do this and when to stop adding carbs. This is helpful because it encourages very conscious awareness of the carbohydrate you are eating and how it is affecting you.

Tips to Combat Carb Creep

Keep a record of everything you eat in a typical day and don't leave anything out! Measure your food as much as possible to be as accurate as you can. Then use a carb counter book, app, or Web site to enter in all the food and find out how many carbohydrates you're consuming. Some persistent souls are able to keep ongoing food journals which is ideal (mobile apps can be very helpful with this), but on a practical basis, doing a day every now and then can work well for most of the rest of us.

Watch your portions! It's easy to get carried away with foods that have "just a little carbohydrate". For example, nuts, cheese, and cream all have small amounts of carb, and if you eat too much, it adds up!

Start over! If, for example, you have been following the Atkins Diet, go back to the Induction phase and start again, being careful to follow the plan exactly.

2. Eat According to Your Hunger

One of the very best things about a low-carb diet is that your hunger should adjust so that you are taking in fewer calories. If you are eating the right amount of carbohydrate for your body, the food cravings you may have been experiencing should calm down. (People often talk about "feeling normal around food" and what a wondrous experience that is.) If you're still feeling urges to eat when you aren't hungry, you may be still eating too much carbohydrate.

That said, it is perfectly possible to override your actual hunger signals. Don't do that! If you aren't hungry don't eat!

Also, don't stuff yourself -- just eat until you are no longer hungry.

3. Nix the Alcohol

Dr. Westman tells me that some people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than others vis a vis weight loss. Some can drink moderately, while others can't. So if your weight loss is stalled, it's worth trying to cut out any alcohol you've been consuming. In any case, be sure you count the carbs in those drinks!

4. Exercise!

Dr. Atkins called exercise "non-negotiable" for a reason. One thing that happens when we lose weight is that our metabolism slows down. Although there is evidence that this happens less on low-carb diets than on calorie-restricted ones, it still does happen. One way to combat this is with regular exercise. It works best if the routine includes some strength training.

It has been shown that, while exercise is not vital for weight loss, it may be essential for maintaining a substantial weight loss. In particular, vigorous exercises (even in short bursts) can improve the functioning of the energy-producing organelles in our cells called the mitochondria. People with insulin resistance (the people most likely to respond to a low-carb diet) are more likely to have difficulty with optimal mitochondrial function, so exercise may be even more beneficial for them.

5. Try Varying Your Meal Patterns

People sometimes find that they can shake things up by trying a different eating pattern. For example, try eating a larger breakfast and a smaller dinner. Don't eat in the three hours before bedtime. Or try a technique called intermittent fasting where part of each day is spent without food.

6. Strive for Ketosis

When our bodies are primarily using fat for energy, we are said to be in ketosis. A low-carb diet may or may not be a ketogenic diet for any particular person. Some people are in nutritional ketosis eating 100 grams of carbohydrate per day, whereas others need to be at Atkins Induction levels to achieve nutritional ketosis. We can tell by testing the ketones in the urine or blood (some are experimenting with measuring ketones in the breath as well).

7. Try the Atkins Fat Fast

Many a low-carber has found that the Atkins Fat Fast is a great way to break a stall, and Dr. Westman says he recommends it to some of his patients in this situation. What is a fat fast? It is a 3-5 day "diet" of 1000 calories per day, where 80-90% of the calories come from fat. It works by jump-starting the body into ketosis. Atkins recommends foods like macadamia nuts, avocados, and cream cheese.  It's important not to do this for longer than Dr. Atkins recommended.

If you're interested in the Fat Fast, author Dana Carpender wrote about it on the Carbsmart site, including menu suggestions. She has a Fat Fast Cookbook as well.

8. Try the "Old Atkins" Diet

The diet that Dr. Atkins used for many years was a little different than his later versions. The main difference is that originally he used total carbs instead of net carbs. This means that the fiber is not subtracted from the total daily carbohydrate allotment. Dr. Westman finds that this can be yet another way for people to break a stall.

9. Daily Weighing - and Body Fat Percentage

During weight loss, I do not recommend daily weighing, as it tends to drive people crazy tracking the ups and downs of their bodily fluids. However, when weight loss stops, it has been shown to be a good thing. You can make sure your weight is staying within a "safe range" and if it starts to go up, it can motivate you to take some of the other measures, perhaps increasing the intensity of your exercise program.

Additionally, Dr. Westman recommends considering getting a scale that tracks body fat, not just weight. Even though the number you get may not be strictly accurate, it will tell you if you are going in the right direction. Sometimes your weight may not change, but you may be adding muscle and losing fat.

10. Medication

Dr. Westman tells me that about 5% of his patients benefit from adding medication to their lifestyle changes. If all else fails, this might be something to discuss with your physician.

Be Patient With Yourself

Everyone loses weight at different rates. Dr. Westman says that in his experience, diabetics lose more slowly, and post-menopausal women certainly lose more slowly (and may need hormonal adjustments). I know one woman who stalled for quite a few years until she made it through menopause and then lost more weight! When weight loss isn't happening as fast as you'd like, or you're waiting out a stall, focus on all the great health benefits you are getting from your low-carb way of eating. You deserve congratulations for making the changes you have to improve your health.