One thing anyone who has ever tried to lose weight hates and fears is the plateau, also known as a stall. A weight loss stall is defined as an extended period of time, usually more than a few weeks, with nothing lost. At some point, everyone will experience a stall in their keto journey, sometimes fairly short, sometimes pretty extended.
Initially I wanted to write a piece about the science behind the plateau, but after trying about seven different formulations in the Google search bar and coming up with nothing but page after page after page of articles full of tips, tricks, and "this one miracle ingredient" that will supposedly help you bust, rip, and shred through a stall, I decided that maybe a little psychology was in order.
Weight loss plateaus can be very upsetting, especially if you're already coming from a place of obesity and food addiction. When we're grossly overweight and addicted to carbs and sugar, we can spend a lot of time feeling lost and out of control. When we finally decide to make the necessary lifestyle changes, it can be liberating and give us a sense of control and direction that we didn't have before. So when a stall comes along, it can smash through all those new, confident, and controlled feelings.
What am I doing wrong? Can it be dairy? Maybe I eat too many nuts. I think I should cut my calories. How about doing a water/egg/fat fast? WHY WON'T THESE DARNED POUNDS MOVE?!?!?!
I've gone through all of these same thoughts, and struggled with the intense frustration that goes with it. You can drive yourself to distraction trying to figure out what exactly it is you need to tweak when you hit a stall. As counterintuitive as it may seem, over time I've learned to appreciate times of plateau, and you should, too.
Your Body Is Getting Healthy
We live in an era of instant gratification, and it's a world-wide phenomenon. Everyone is looking for the magic pill that will get them what they want, and do it NOW. Weight loss is probably the number one area in which this is true, and you can see it in all the marketing for various diets, pills and supplements, shake mixes and bars, and exercise programs. Everything comes with a fantastic promise of almost instantaneous results. The reality is that no one who is obese or overweight is going to be thin overnight.
That includes us. I know keto can seem like a borderline miracle, especially in the beginning when, for a lot of folks, the pounds and inches just seem to melt off, but it isn't. Unfortunately, our bodies aren't equipped to operate, long-term, in an environment with the kind of constant flux that comes with rapid weight loss.
Our bodies don't just like sameness, we actually NEED it. The technical term for that is homeostasis. All that means is our body is either in a stable state or is looking to establish one. What it means for weight loss is that at some point your body is going to stand at the end of the bridge and shout in a big, booming, Gandalf voice, "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!" This is a good thing.
As frustrating as it may be when we stall, our bodies need times of plateau to adjust to the new situation. Stalls can help your internal system adjust so that you can function at your best under the new dietary circumstances. Think of it as your body taking a time-out, or a vacation, so it can rest a bit and recharge. Just as we need breaks from work, our body occasionally needs a break from the hard work of burning off body fat and the re-composition that follows. This is all completely natural and you will be much healthier in the long-run if you chill, be patient, and wait it out. Let your body have its break and continue to keto on, knowing you're doing what's best for your health.
Your Mind Is Getting Stronger
Just as we encourage you to exercise in order to build muscle and attain physical fitness, we also constantly stress the need to be mentally fit as well. Weight loss is a battle on its own. Throwing in the elimination of entire food groups and the social pressure and stigma that can come with keto eating makes it even harder.
Then add in a stall.
I'm going to tell you a not-so-secret: plateaus can make or break you. Being able to survive and push through a plateau can be the difference between long-term success and lifetime maintenance of the keto lifestyle, and jumping off the wagon to go on the yo-yo again. I will admit to being awfully tempted to throw up my hands in disgust and dive off, face-first, into a vat of cake.
Mentally, stalls are very tough. We've gone from being out of control pre-keto, to gaining control and what feels like complete freedom once you get the hang of things and the scale is moving, back to confusion and being out of control again when we plateau. It's very tempting to flail around, looking for the solution that will keep the scale moving and help us regain our feelings of control. If it goes on long enough, and you're frustrated enough, you may even decide it's not worth the effort. We've probably all been there at one point or another.
The difference between the long-term success stories and those who have some temporary success before diving back into the old lifestyle and piling on the pounds once again is all mental. As tough as it is, everyone needs to be mentally prepared for the fact that a stall (or stalls, plural) will happen. They will. It's completely natural and does not necessarily have anything at all to do both what you're doing or not doing. You have to be mentally prepared to deal with that, and resolved to press on even when it's tough, even when you feel like it's all for nought. Keep on keto-ing on and the stall will break. It may be a while. It may be a long while. But it will happen.
The important thing to remember here is that the perseverance you need to ride out a stall is the exact same perseverance you will need once you reach your goal and go into maintenance. Keep in mind that almost every single diet out there is a failure long-term because once people reach goal OR plateau they stop following the diet. You have to decide, right now, that this is for life and you will keep on no matter what. That's the only way you will not only reach goal but maintain it for the rest of your life.
Your Expectation Might Be Unrealistic
I'm going to tell you another secret: many times, what's culturally considered "healthy" and "fit" is a pile of bunk. We tend to have this ideal in our heads as to what looks healthy. For some of us it's how we looked "back in the day," for others it's a model or actor/actress. Since we tend to accept what is consistently presented to us as healthy and happy, it's not really a surprise that the majority of us picture our "healthy" selves being the same size as this or that famous person.
The reality is that the majority of the people we see in media are not all that healthy. A good number of them are underweight, and a number of those are severely underweight. Almost every picture in a magazine or online journal is photoshopped to remove cellulite and blemishes, and even to make people look thinner or more shapely than they are naturally. Chances are the supermodel you think has the perfect body doesn't look a whole lot like they are presented when the camera isn't flashing.
This goes for men, too. When we see the man in the movies or on the cover of the magazine that's shirtless and ripped we need to realize he doesn't really look like that, and the chances are he's done something crazy- and profoundly unhealthy- to get that look for the hour or so they're shooting.
Take body builders, for example. The stuff many pros (and some dedicated amateurs) have to do to get ready for shows and photo shoots are a bit extreme, to say the least. For somewhere around three months before a show a typical body builder would increase their calories by thousands a day, primarily consuming carbohydrates, and then try to "shock" their body into burning fat by decreasing carbs and replacing it with protein for a one-to-two month period. In the last week before a show they drastically cut their water intake and in the last forty-eight hours prior to the show they go sit in a sauna, all of which is done to reduce the subcutaneous water in their bodies. In other words, they intentionally dehydrate so their muscles are more visually pronounced. In the hours right before a show or shoot they spend their time lifting so as to give their muscles the "pumped" look.
All of this is common to modeling and acting as well. Go watch the 300 movie documentary and you will see the actors doing push ups, pull ups, and crunches right before shooting a scene so their muscles "pop." This is not to knock body builders and similar physical competitors. That is their sport. But let's be honest: no one is going to be able to do this on a daily basis, and NONE of these people are maintaining this regiment for extended period of time.
So what you see on TV and in the magazines in definitively not what these folks really look like. Are they muscular? Of course. But no one naturally looks like what is presented to us in the media. All of this is to illustrate that what is presented to us as ideal is not real. When we're setting our goals we need to align them with reality. When we plateau, it's a good opportunity to reassess your goals and to realign your mental idea of normal.
Your View of Yourself Might Be Unrealiable
Having an recurrent unrealistic view of our bodies is very common amongst anyone who has been overweight or obese. Personally, when I was at my highest weight, I knew I was big but I never actually realized just how big I had been until I began losing weight. Being able to put my new pants side-by-side with the old ones and see the difference helps to put things into perspective. Now that I've lost a significant amount of weight and am close to my goal I'm having a similar problem but in reverse. I still picture myself as the big girl. I spent so long being very overweight that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that I'm not obese. When I look in the mirror I still see a fat person. I take tons of pictures and paste them side-by-side so I can see the difference.
This is what's known as body dysmorphia. My mental image of myself does not correspond the reality of my body. This is a very hard thing to get over, but I look at my stall periods as an opportunity to do so. It's essentially a time that I can take to get comfortable in my own skin again and reacquaint myself with body parts (I have hip bones!!!) that I haven't seen in over a decade. I would urge everyone else to look at their stalls in the same way. It's a chance for you to get to know and be ok with the new you.
The Bottom Line
As we've covered, stalls are not just good things for your body, they can be incredibly good for your mental health, too. It's all a matter of being ready to deal with our issues and come to grips with our new normal. When you hit your next plateau, don't freak out, or run in mental circles trying to bust through the other side. Just as your body takes some time to heal when you begin keto, you need to take some time to heal your mind. Embrace your plateau as a way to get your mind right and keep it that way. Then keto on.