It can be frustrating on keto when you’re trying to do everything right and can’t seem to lose weight. In this post, I’ll talk about what a stall actually is, why it may not be a stall, and common causes of stalls on keto.
What is a stall?
Dr. Eric Westman, director of the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Duke University, defines a stall as where you have no weight loss or no change in your body shape or circumference over a period of a couple of months. A stall is much longer than a week or two. As long as there is some weight loss every week, or a decrease in measurements, then you aren’t in a stall. You might just be an extremely slow loser, but keep in mind that even a very slow loser is still losing, and that slow loss will add up to a huge loss. You didn’t get fat overnight, you won’t lose the weight overnight.
Why this may not actually be a stall
Our expectations for losing weight can be very unrealistic. We think we need to have a loss every single week, and that it has to be a certain amount, and when we go a few days or a couple of weeks without a loss, we think we’re in a stall.
Let’s take a step back and look at the process. Weight loss is never linear. Our bodies have fluctuations with hormones (especially for females!), retained water weight, the amount of muscle compared to fat, and many other things.
Muscle vs. fat volume – You may be gaining muscle even while you’re losing fat. Look at this picture to see the difference in size between 5 pounds of fat as compared to 5 pounds of muscle. That is a huge volume difference! This is why it’s important to measure yourself regularly and use that or how your clothes fit as a guide to your progress instead of the scale.
Fluctuations – These are normal, and are going to happen. Sometimes there will be gains. Weight loss never happens in a linear fashion, it will always fluctuate. This is why, if you are going to track your weight, you want to look at the overall trend. Is it going down? If so, it doesn’t matter how fast or slow the weight is coming off. You’re making progress and that’s all that counts. Weight loss isn’t a race with a deadline, it’s a process that involves learning and adjusting, as well as accepting and enjoying the journey. Remember, this is not temporary, it’s your new way of life and it’s important to enjoy it.
Unrealistic expectations – “I’m going to lose 3 pounds a week, and in 3 months I will have lost 36 pounds!” It would be wonderful if weight loss happened on a schedule, but it doesn’t. There are so many factors affecting weight loss that it’s impossible to take them all into consideration and adjust for them. The ketogenic way of eating is one that heals your body from the inside out, and sometimes your body is making adjustments that don’t show up on the scale.
Our culture has given us unrealistic expectations of what a healthy person looks like. We’re surrounded with media filled with people who are underweight, with all their imperfections photoshopped out, made to look thinner, more tanned, more toned. Chances are most of these people look nothing like that in real life. When you do see them on the big screen, on TV or in magazines, they’ve been helped to look that way by hairdressers, make-up artists, lighting, and camera angles, and most of all, by PHOTOSHOP!
You may be struggling with body dysmorphia. What is that? It’s when your mental image of yourself doesn’t match the reality of what you look like. We all have a mental image of ourselves and how we look, and it’s difficult to change that even when we’ve lost weight. This is why people who were overweight and have lost a significant amount of weight still see themselves as fat. With enough time, their mental image will adjust to the reality of where they are now.
So it’s important to let go of the unrealistic expectations of how much weight you’ll lose each week, how you think you should look, and instead focus on being healthy. The weight loss will follow!
You’re close to your goal weight – Yep, you’ve heard it before and it’s true. The less weight you have to lose, the harder it is to lose it. As you’re approaching a healthy weight, your body is reluctant to let go of the energy reserves that might be needed in case of a famine. This is entirely normal, so don’t get discouraged. Trust the process, continue to follow a ketogenic way of eating, and stay the course.
Your body is at its set-point – This one isn’t popular, and ties in to unrealistic expectations. Maybe your body is saying that this is the ideal weight for you. Take a step back and re-examine your weight loss goal. Be honest – is it realistic, or is it conforming to an unrealistic ideal? Are you healthy? It might be time to relax on this goal and enjoy where you are right now. Don’t get hung up on a number on the scale. A surprising benefit of this approach is that you may likely end up losing those last few pounds.
Age – Another truth that isn’t fun. As you get older, it’s more difficult to lose weight. Not impossible, but difficult. The solution to this is, once again, trusting the process and sticking with it. The health benefits of the ketogenic way of eating far outweigh giving up and dealing with a slow loss.
Benefits of a stall
Surprise! There are actually some wonderful benefits to a stall. Stalls in and of themselves aren’t a bad thing, they can be times when your body is healing and adjusting from years of a bad diet. It takes time for it to work on the healing process. Many people report stalls lasting months, but then one day the loss begins happening again.
Your body is going through a lot of changes with the weight you’ve already lost, and it may need time to adjust before the loss begins happening again. Our bodies weren’t designed for long periods of constant change, which can be very stressful.
Another benefit of a stall is that it’s teaching you patience and perseverance, which are traits you’ll need for success in every area of your life. This health journey that you’re on will also improve the rest of your life.
Dealing with this stall and pushing through it is also the key to success with your weight loss. Many people give up and never see the success that was just around the corner. Hang in there!
Stalls are also great times to practice life in maintenance mode. One day you’ll reach your goal and then it’s time to maintain. A huge plus of the ketogenic way of eating is that it’s a permanent lifestyle change, and as long as you stick with it you won’t experience dramatic weight gains. If you go back to your old way of eating, though, chances are you’ll gain everything back – and more.
So when those stalls happen – and they definitely WILL happen – relax and enjoy the journey. You are healthier now than when you started, and you’re experiencing the amazing health benefits you’ve already gained. These stalls are where you find out just how determined you really are, and how much you really want this.
Don’t let the pressure or stress of a stall cause you to give up. You have the tools you need to succeed, just trust the process! Be patient, the stall will come to an end.
Now that we’ve defined a stall and explored some of the benefits of one, let’s look at some potential causes of stalls and how to deal with them. When you begin evaluating what you’re eating, be honest with yourself. It might be hard, but it’s the most important way to succeed.
Causes of Stalls
Too many carbs, aka carb creep – As we settle in to our keto way of eating and get comfortable with it, carbs can start creeping in through snacking, sauces, restaurant food, sugar-free gum and mints, or many other places. It’s also important to keep an eye on the carbs in vegetables, dairy, and processed meats like sausages, canned meats and lunch meats. To make sure this isn’t happening, or to get it under control if it is, the best thing to do is start weighing and tracking your food with an app such as Fat Secret or My Fitness Pal. If you’re not already at this level, cutting back to 20 total grams of carbs a day is a great way to break a stall. Some people are more sensitive to carbs than others, you might be one of them.
Stress – This is one of the leading causes of stalls, because it has a major impact on our overall health. Stress produces cortisol, which causes your body to store fat in the abdominal area. This is visceral fat, the most difficult fat to lose. Constant high levels of stress keep your body in a constant fight or flight state, which also increase your hunger and cravings. It’s important to find ways to deal with the stress in your life. Things like meditation, prayer, deep breathing, a vacation by yourself, cutting back on the news and social media can help.
Too much processed food – An optimal ketogenic way of eating focuses on clean, unprocessed foods. Many of the low-carb products such as Atkins claim to fit in a low-carb, keto lifestyle but are full of carbs and artificial ingredients. These are major culprits in stalls and gains, and are basically keto junk food. Eliminate these to see if they are the cause of your stall. Stick with healthy, real foods instead.
Too many nuts – Nuts are amazing powerhouse of nutrition, and they pack a lot into a very small amount. Unfortunately, it’s easy to overeat nuts because we are able to eat them without feeling full. Nut butters are also an issue. If you’re going to eat nuts, portion them strictly and don’t eat them every day. Better yet, eliminate them for at least 30 days and see what happens.
Too much dairy – Even though dairy is an accepted part of a ketogenic way of eating, it can still cause problems. First, it’s important to be sure that you’re consuming only full-fat dairy. Avoid low- and fat-free dairy. With that in mind, be aware that all dairy is higher in protein, which can raise insulin levels. You may also have a sensitivity to dairy that is causing the stall. Eliminate the dairy (milk, cream, cheese) for 30 days to see if that ends the stall. Butter and ghee are generally ok even when you are dairy-free.
Too much fruit – the only fruits allowed on a ketogenic diet are berries, but they should only be an occasional treat. Other fruits contain too much sugar and will increase insulin.
Not enough sleep – Sufficient sleep is important for proper metabolism and weight loss. If you aren’t getting enough sleep it can increase your cortisol, leading to weight gain. You can be doing everything else right, but if you’re not getting enough sleep then you won’t see significant weight loss. There are many factors that contribute to a good night’s sleep: a cool room that’s as dark as possible. Cover the light from your digital clock, close the blinds and curtains. Put away your cell phone and other electronics at least an hour before you go to bed, and install a blue light blocker on them. Two that I recommend are f.lux and Twilight. Stop watching TV in your bedroom, make it a room that’s only for sleeping. Buy blue-light blocking glasses and wear them around the house after the sun goes down. It looks funny, but they work! For more help about getting a good night’s sleep, read “Sleep Smarter” by Shawn Stevenson.
Not exercising – Start exercising. While you can lose weight on a ketogenic diet without exercise, exercise can help you break through a stall. The exercise will increase your metabolism, and as long as you don’t overcompensate by eating more, this may help break the stall. The right type of exercise is important. Hours of long, slow cardio don’t work well; that causes stress to the body and raises cortisol, which leads to stalls and weight gains. The ideal exercise type is high intensity interval training and resistance training. Ketogenic Diet Resource describes this as:
“exercise which is brief, infrequent, and intense. It has different metabolic effects than low intensity exercise, like long walks or slow jogs, or an hour on the Stairmaster at a slow rate.”
Over exercising – Contrary to what we’ve learned, too much exercise isn’t beneficial or effective for weight loss, it can actually cause weight gain! Dr. Stephen Phinney did a study in 1988 that showed that when people exercised more than an hour a day, their resting metabolic rate dropped by as much as 15%. I’ve listed two articles (“The Evidence Continues to Mount Against Chronic Cardio” and “Why You May Need To Exercise Less”) in the resource section that cover the area of chronic cardio and too much exercise. It may help to cut back on your exercise, take more rest days and see if this if the stall breaks.
Martina from KetoDietApp.com shares this story:
In my own experience, too much exercise is counteractive. Recently, I’ve been trying to lose 4 pounds (below is my progress over the last few months). As you can see, my calorie intake has risen dramatically. Reason? Because my weight loss was stalling, I decided to do more exercise (HIIT, weight training and some cardio 6-7 times a week!). Result: I was hungry and started eating more. Fortunately, I didn’t put on any weight, but it hasn’t helped me lose body fat either. About 2 months ago, I had an injury and couldn’t do any exercise other than 30 minutes of daily walks. My calorie intake dropped, I was eating less and most importantly, I lost the last 4 pounds! Now, I don’t exercise more than 3 times a week and walk about 30 minutes every day.
Too many sweeteners – These can drive an insulin response that can’t be seen in blood glucose readings. This can trigger weight gain and cravings for sweets. Even as little as one or two servings a day can cause a stall. To see if this might be the case, go without sweeteners for at least 30 days and see what happens.
Eating too frequently – Stop eating on a schedule, by a clock or because others think you should eat. When you eat frequent meals, your insulin level is at a higher level for a longer time, which means that your body is storing and not burning fat. High insulin can also lead to feeling hungry, causing you to eat more often (Linked here). Learn to eat only when you’re hungry. You don’t need to eat breakfast in the morning. Breakfast is your first meal of the day (breaking a fast) and can happen at any time.
Cheating – Consistency with the ketogenic way of eating is key. Even a single cheat day can set you back for at least a week, causing weight gains and knocking you out of ketosis. If you make cheats a regular part of your way of eating, you may never get into ketosis. The solution to this is simple: stop cheating!
Eating too much, not eating enough – Both of these can cause stalls. If you’re eating too much, then you’re eating past satiety and your body will store the excess as fat, even if all you’re eating are keto foods. Not eating enough leads to your body slowing down your metabolism in order to conserve energy because it thinks you’re starving. A study (linked here) showed that over a 6 month period of a 24% calorie deficit, your metabolic rate drops about 6%. A lower metabolism burns fewer calories. This can also lead to cravings and eating non-keto foods as your body tries to compensate for possible starvation by motivating you to eat as much as you can, especially carbs. Try an intermittent fasting schedule, such as 16:8, 20:4, or eating only one meal a day. This allows your blood sugar to return to baseline levels before your next meal, which results in lower insulin levels and encourages ketosis. Again, start tracking and measuring your food to see if this helps.
Too much protein – Eating too much protein can lead to a process known as gluconeogenesis, in which the protein not used by your body is converted to glucose by the liver so it can be stored for future use. This excess protein gets stored as fat. If you think this may be an issue, cut back on your protein, but don’t go lower than the low end of the recommended ranges shared above.
Too little protein – Women should be having 50-75 grams of protein a day, for men it should be100-150 grams. This range is ideal for most people, but it’s up to you to find your sweet spot and stick with that. If you are exercise consistently, go higher. For sedentary to moderate, start on the low end. If you’re not eating enough protein, your body will start using your muscles to generate the protein it needs and will make your muscle mass go down.
Not enough fat – This one sounds totally weird, but it’s true. When you don’t eat enough healthy fats, your body won’t burn fat. Why? If you’re not eating enough fat you’re likely eating too much protein and/or carbs, which stimulates insulin and fat storage. it’s important to let go of your fear of fat. It also helps keep your appetite in control and stop the snacking urge.
Not enough water – Maintaining hydration is important. While you don’t need to drink water all day, it’s important to be sure you’re drinking enough water.
Coffee – Ok, I hate this one, too. I love my keto coffee! Caffeine is a stimulant which increases adrenaline, and stimulates the liver to release glucose. Higher levels of glucose in your blood cause the release of insulin, which means your body will stop burning fat and will instead store it. If you suspect this is the culprit, try decaf coffee and see if that ends the stall.
Too many keto treats – These quite often contain a lot of sweeteners and nut flours. Cut back or eliminate these to see if these are the problem.
Metabolic adaptation – Your body is a wonderful organism, and adapts quite well to changes. This can also lead to a stall. Your body is always in search of equilibrium and because of that, you’ll need to periodically change things up. The amount of food and macros you needed when you weighed 300 pounds will be very different from what you need when you weigh 170 pounds.
How to break a stall
This is where you’ll need to experiment to find what works for you. Change things up! Don’t be afraid to experiment to see if something new will help you past the stall. Go through the list and see if any of these potential causes resonate with you. If so, make some adjustments with that item for 2 to 4 weeks and see what happens.
Whatever you decide to try, it’s important to make that change and maintain it for a MINIMUM of 30 days to see if it works. No change will show effective results in just a few days or a week or two. You need to give your body time to adjust to the new change. With persistence and time, you’ll find what works best for you where you are now.
Hang in there, you’ve got this! Stay keto strong, my friends!