So you’ve started a keto diet, and you’ve done everything right: your fats are up, your protein intake is controlled, your carb intake is down, and you’ve lost a good amount of weight, but not all of it, and now…you seem to be stalled. It sounds like you’ve hit a weight-loss plateau, and it can be an incredibly frustrating predicament. This article details the possible underlying causes for a keto plateau, and what you can do to overcome it.
The keto diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet that retrains your body to burn fat for energy instead of using sugar from carbs. This involves your body switching from glucose (sugar) to ketones for energy, which are derived from fats, a state known as ketosis.
Once you deny your body high levels of carbs, your glucose stores are depleted in a couple of days, and your body makes the switch to accessing your fat stores instead. You may experience “keto flu” symptoms at first, but the benefits of the ketogenic diet are worth it: fat loss, improved blood sugar and insulin levels, and better metabolic rates.
Hitting a plateau on keto diets is a real let-down. With such a drastic change to the keto lifestyle and cutting carbs almost completely out of your diet, how could it go wrong? Following a ketogenic diet can be so great at first, with fast results in weight loss right when you want to see it working. However, sometimes the weight loss stalls, and you’re at a loss as to what happened and how you can fix it.
First of all, there’s a difference between fat loss and weight loss. They seem synonymous but they’re not exactly, because while weight loss can come from a decrease in body mass, it might not be the result of fat loss. Water weight can fluctuate the numbers on your scale, just like lean muscle mass can increase your weight even as your figure gets slimmer.
Fat loss is the decrease of body fat, the adipose tissue deposited on your body in spots like your hips, thighs, and belly. The goal of keto is to lose body fat without losing any lean body mass (your muscles), redistributing your body composition so that you become a fat-burning machine. Your weight may not go down as much in this scenario because muscle weighs more than fat, but your waistline will, and that’s how you’ll know you’re doing it right.
If you’ve hit a plateau on keto, you may be at the turning point in your diet where muscle is building up in preparation of burning off the rest of your fat, which is great. On the other hand, you might have missed something in your diet that is allowing the fat to hang on, which is not so great. If it’s the latter situation, you can start with the following tips to find the crack in your foundation, and discover how to get over keto plateau.
“Plateau” is a French word that refers to a high area of level ground, like the mesas in Arizona or table-top mountains all over the world. It refers to the act of climbing—while you were once climbing up and up, now you’re on a flat surface again, and you’re moving laterally instead of vertically.
When you’re on keto and losing body weight, you’re on the ascent, and when suddenly the weight loss stops, you’re at the plateau. Even on a low-carb diet, your body may have metabolically adjusted to the fewer calories you’re feeding it (what’s known as adaptive thermogenesis). If that’s the case, how do you get over it? Make it adapt again!
Keto-friendly foods can be tricky to find when first starting out. There are carbs in so many foods, especially prepackaged foods. Keto meals are at their best when you’re using natural, whole foods to meal plan, but it’s a practice that takes some getting used to, and you may still be relying on old staples in your cabinets.
Hidden carbs can be found by carefully reading nutrition labels, and replacing those items in your pantry. The same goes for fruits and vegetables—they’re not all low-carb! Investigate what you’ve been eating to see if any of your food items are sneaking carbs into your body without permission.
“Fat bombs” made with coconut or MCT oils are keto treats that can help people up their fat macros each day. However, consuming them too often and getting too much fat can lead to a plateau or weight gain as much as too many net carbs can.
Fat bombs don’t have the nutrient profile of full meals. They’re cheats that are good in a pinch but shouldn’t be a staple of your keto diet if you want it to be sustainable, reliable, and long-lasting. Save fat bombs for cheat days and use a keto calculator to make sure you’re sticking within the optimal macronutrient ratios.
Vegans and vegetarians obviously won’t be jumping at this advice, but for those omnivores on keto, this might be a contributing issue: too much protein in your diet might not be the high-quality, lean protein you need. Salmon and other fish, chicken, and eggs are excellent protein staples that bring you nutrients like essential fatty acids and all nine essential amino acids needed for new muscle growth. Animal proteins can also help with feelings of fullness and satiety to support intermittent fasting practices.
A sedentary lifestyle is bad for your health, full stop. Even beyond the impact it has on your weight, sitting for too long in (for example) an office setting all day every day, then coming home to sit in front of your phone, TV, or video game platform all night can negatively impact your health and subvert your keto diet efforts.
On keto you’re teaching your body to burn fat for energy, but if you’re leading a sedentary lifestyle, how much energy do you use? Maybe not enough, especially once your metabolism gets used to your new way of eating and lapses back into its old habits.
Consider stretching at your desk each day, taking up yoga, doing some high-intensity interval training (HIIT), strength training, or stair climbing exercises. Even walking each evening or doing physical activities like gardening can contribute to your overall health—try using a fitness app for inspiration and accountability.
We can’t always control our stress levels, because if we could, we’d never be stressed at all. However, stress has a profound effect on your health. If you can lower your stress on keto, you can benefit not only your diet, but also your general well-being.
The stress hormone cortisol can lead to bodily inflammation, mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and disrupted sleep patterns, all of which hinder your fitness progress. When cortisol is chronically high, it even promotes the storage of belly fat, damages your metabolic health, and can jack up your adrenaline and blood glucose levels in response to a perceived threat.
Much like stress, while poor sleep doesn’t directly cause a keto plateau, it can be a contributing factor. Poor sleep is a stressor, and when we don’t get enough sleep it increases our stress, just as stress levels lead to poorer sleep: it’s a vicious cycle.
Sleep deprivation increases levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” and decreases the “fullness hormone” leptin, meaning you might be feeling hungry for reasons that don’t have anything to do with your diet. For tips on how to improve your sleep, make sure you have regular pre-bed rituals, sleep in a cool, dark environment, and take up exercise, because studies have shown that regular exercise helps to improve sleep.
Use these tips for how to break keto plateau, and don’t think of it as a failure or a hold-up so much as a landing platform on the stairway to improved health. A plateau is an opportunity to re-tune your diet: roust out hidden carbs, regulate your fat intake, improve your protein profile, and reduce your stress with exercise, proper sleep, and more.