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Low-Carb Diet Plateau

author image Paula Martinac
Paula Martinac holds a Master of Science in health and nutrition education from Hawthorn University, with an emphasis on healthy aging, cancer prevention, weight control and stress management. She is Board Certified in holistic nutrition and a Certified Food and Spirit Practitioner. Martinac runs a holistic health counseling practice and has written extensively on nutrition for various websites.
Low-Carb Diet Plateau
A bathroom scale isn't the only way to measure weight-loss progress. Photo Credit ToddKuhns/iStock/Getty Images

The standard American diet relies heavily on sugar and white flour – processed carbs that fuel weight gain in many individuals. When you first embark on a low-carb plan to shed pounds, the extra weight may start to slip off effortlessly. At some point, though, you may hit a plateau and have to re-examine your regimen.

Phases of Low-Carb Diets

Several of the most popular low-carb diets, including Atkins and South Beach, take a phasing approach to dieting. You begin by drastically limiting grams of carbs, then slowly start to add them back as you get nearer to your weight-loss goal. The initial phase of each of these diets, which lasts approximately two weeks, is the most restrictive; it’s also the time when you drop weight the fastest. Those first lost pounds are water weight, but then your body shifts into burning fat for fuel after about four days.

During later phases of both diets, when more carbs are added, some people appear to hit a plateau in which the number on the scale just doesn’t move. Nutritionist John Fitt advises against relying on a scale alone to monitor your progress; if you’re losing inches, a scale may not accurately reflect your progress. Have your body fat measured periodically by a professional, or take photos of yourself without clothes every couple of weeks for comparison purposes. You may also be able to judge if you’re really at a plateau by the way your clothes fit -- if they’re looser, you are making progress.

Possible Reasons for a Plateau

If you determine your weight loss really has reached a standstill, there could be several reasons. Initial weight-loss success could make you less vigilant when you hit Phase 2, according to the South Beach diet website, and you may simply be eating too much. You may need to examine your food choices and portions to see if you’re really sticking with your plan.

Specific foods may cause you to backslide. Nuts and nut butters, in particular, are easy to overeat; you grab a handful and then another without even realizing how much you’re eating. Overdoing it on dairy foods -- such as milk and cheese -- can be problematic on a low-carb diet because they raise blood sugar quickly, even though they're high in protein. If you’re consuming too many artificial, no-calorie sweeteners, your progress may also come to a halt. These sweeteners can sometimes make you overeat and derail your diet.

The grocery shelves are filled with processed “low-carb” foods, but these aren’t the best choices for your low-carb diet. They may have sugars and other hidden carbs that impede your progress. Your weight loss could also stall if you aren’t exercising enough, aren't getting adequate sleep or your life is filled with stress.

Getting Beyond a Plateau

Make modifications to your diet and daily regimen to see what may be causing your impasse. If you’re in a later phase of a low-carb plan like Atkins or South Beach, you may need to trim your carb intake. Atkins suggests cutting your daily carbs by 5 to 10 grams to see if that does the trick. Authority Nutrition advises cutting back to fewer than 50 grams of carbs a day to determine if that will take you over the hump.

Make sure you’re eating whole, nutritious foods like meat, poultry, fish and vegetables and that most of your carbs are coming from nonstarchy vegetables. Atkins suggests looking at your recent higher-carb choices and eliminating them for a week to see if that helps.

If you’re undergoing stress, techniques like yoga, deep breathing, listening to music and increasing your physical movement may help you manage or reduce your stress levels and help you sleep better. Make sure your exercise plan includes resistance training -- using weights and machines to help you build muscle as you burn fat.

Medical Considerations

Stalled weight loss can indicate hidden medical problems, too. If you’ve tried adjusting your diet and exercise but still find yourself stuck, it’s time to consult a medical doctor. According to Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt on DietDoctor.com, prescription medications may be holding you back, or you may have a hormone imbalance such as hypothyroidism.

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