Keto Diet Plateaus & How to Bust Through Them
So you’ve been on a ketogenic diet for a while now, probably long enough to notice some amazing changes in your body, but now your progress has stalled. Weight management often seems simple and effortless in the beginning stages of a ketogenic diet, but it’s not uncommon to reach a plateau. While this can be frustrating, it is certainly something you can overcome!
Don’t mistake water loss for fat loss
The primary reason you see dramatic weight loss when you initially adopt a ketogenic diet, and specifically restrict carbohydrate intake, is due to elimination of water weight.1 When you restrict dietary carbohydrates and transition into ketosis, you first burn through your glycogen stores (storage form of glucose) for energy. Glycogen holds on to water, so when you utilize (or lose) glycogen, you lose water too.2 This initial weight loss should not be confused with fat loss but stick it out a bit longer because fat loss comes next!
Give it some time
After you lose water weight due to depleting glycogen storage, weight loss will likely slow down. This is because you are now transitioning into burning fat.3 This will involve some patience and perseverance to see results, so don’t be discouraged. Losing weight slowly actually has its benefits, especially in regards to keeping your metabolism up and preventing weight regain.4 However, if you’ve given it some time and have reached a point where you are no longer losing body fat, you may need to take a step back and reassess what you are currently doing.
Are you eating too many carbohydrates?
The ketogenic diet is often described in simplistic terms as a high-fat diet; however, the very low-carbohydrate component of the diet is arguably more important. The level of carbohydrate restriction required for ketosis to take place can be very difficult, especially if you are not entirely familiar with where carbs might be hidden in your diet. In order to know just how many carbs you are eating, you must track what you eat. The easiest way to do this is to use a macronutrient tracking app and enter in everything you consume. It is commonly recommended to stay under ~20-50g/day total carbohydrates, primarily sourced from low-glycemic fibrous vegetables.1 Once you start tracking, you might realize you are eating more carbs than you think and may need to do some readjusting to your diet to get into that fat-burning state of ketosis.
Experiment with fasting
Depending on your goal weight, fasting can be an incredible tool that aids in creating the calorie deficit needed to lose weight. Intermittent fasting, such as narrowing your eating window down to 8-10 hours a day, is a very simple strategy to avoid overeating. All this requires is either making lunch your first meal of the day or pushing dinner a little earlier, allowing for a 14-16-hour period when you are not eating. Fasting also helps remove the attachment to mealtimes and might have you rethinking whether you are eating because you are hungry or are eating simply because it is “time to eat.” This strategy alone may be the extra push you need to break past your keto plateau in addition to promoting ketosis by abstaining from food for longer periods of time.
Are you eating too much fat?
Although fat is your primary source of calories on a ketogenic diet, it is easy to overdo it and consume too many calories for your weight loss goals. It’s easy to get wrapped up in macronutrients and lose track of eating intuitively, which can lead to eating fat in excess in order to hit certain targets, even if you’re not necessarily hungry. Fat contains roughly 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram in protein and carbohydrates, so the calories can add up quickly.5 When you are eating more calories than you are burning, you are likely not going to lose weight. Keto-friendly desserts and adding butter to every meal make adhering to the diet much easier due to enhanced palatability, but before you reach for that second (or third) fat bomb, ask yourself if you really need it or if you’re just feeding your (nonglycemic) sweet tooth. If moderation is just too difficult to manage, try cutting out keto-friendly sweets all together and see if your palate, and cravings, change.
Moving your body and engaging in some form of resistance training is not only going to help you reach your weight loss goals, but exercise also comes with many other benefits! Exercise helps build lean muscle mass,6 sleep better,7 and may even boost your mood7—all things that can lead to a healthier you. Whether it’s going for a walk, jogging, weight lifting, or partaking in a high-intensity training session, moving your body however you can is a great idea. Exercise also helps enter and maintain ketosis by depleting the body’s glucose stores (glycogen) allowing you to tap into your alternative fuel source—fat.
Manage your appetite with protein and whole foods
Sometimes our appetite gets the best of us, even on a ketogenic diet. If you’ve reached a plateau and find yourself constantly wanting to snack or graze throughout the day, consider adding more protein and focusing on whole foods for your meals. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, and by keeping you fuller, longer, prevents the urge to snack between meals. Although by definition the ketogenic diet is a moderate protein diet (1-1.8 g/kg lean body mass), additional protein should not be something you fear or avoid consuming. A moderate amount of added protein is enough to keep your appetite in check while also allowing you to stay in ketosis, especially if you are eating in a calorie deficit. Eating a whole-foods diet, in contrast to relying on packaged “health” foods, generally promotes the feeling of fullness, and whole foods tend to be more difficult to overconsume. Eating this way can be a strategy to cut out unnecessary calories from snack foods and keto-friendly treats, which could just be the factor preventing you from getting past your plateau.
At the end of the day, your health journey is exactly that, a journey. It is so important to be kind to yourself along the way, even if you do encounter a detour or two. Don’t forget to discuss any dietary changes with your healthcare practitioner first!
- Masood W et al. Ketogenic Diet. [Updated 2019 Mar 21].StatPearls . Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing; 2019.
- Tinsley GM et al. Fat-free mass changes during ketogenic diets and the potential role of resistance training. IJSNEM. 2016;26:78-92.
- Dwyer JT et al. Dietary Treatment of Obesity. [Updated 2015 Feb 28]. In Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Boyce A, et al., editors. Endotext . South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000.
- Johannsen DL et al. Metabolic slowing with massive weight loss despite preservation of fat-free mass [published correction appears in J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2016 May;101(5):2266]. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012;97(7):2489–2496.
- US Department of Agriculture. How many calories are in one gram of fat, carbohydrate, or protein? https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/how-many-calories-are-one-gram-fat-carbohydrate-or-protein. Accessed May 24, 2019.
- Schiaffino et al. Mechanisms regulating skeletal muscle growth and strophy. FEBS Journal. 2013;280:4294-4314.
- Chennaoui et al. Sleep and exercise: a reciprocal issue? Sleep Med Rev. 2015;20:59-72.
- Mikkelsen et al. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. 2017;160:48-56.
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