The paleo diet is famous for being a great way to lose weight. The internet is full of miraculous success stories and inspiring Before and After photos.
But what happens when you go paleo and… nothing happens?
Or you lose weight for a little while… and then you stop?
After doing research and working with clients for several years, I have discovered so much about the science of weight loss. Here is a list of the most common (and some quite unknown) reasons your weight loss might plateau on a paleo diet:
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Undereating
People are not wrong when they say that you need to be in a calorie deficit in order to lose weight.
This is one of the reasons paleo can be so great for weight loss: it spontaneously helps you eat less, by being more simple and satisfying than processed foods.
But there is such a thing as over-doing it.
If you undereat, and especially if you do so for an extended period of time, your thyroid gland will slow down. The body starts to burn body fat more slowly because it detects an energy decrease.
Depending on how restrictive you are, your body might even stop burning fat altogether, or will gain it. This is especially common for women. The female body is so much more sensitive to body fat levels (which you can read more about at my post here) than the male body is.
This is a weight loss plateau. The solution? Eat when you’re hungry! If you need more specific advice than that, do not eat below 1800 calories a day, and if physically active, then at least 21 or 2200.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Not enough carbs
One common mistake people make on the paleo diet is giving up carbohydrates. Now, don’t get me wrong – a low carbohydrate diet can be helpful for a lot of people!
But for others – again, particularly for women – a low carbohydrate diet can cause complications.
I talk about this issue more at length in this post and at great length in my program for weight loss for women (here), but the basic problem with low carb diets is that reducing carbohydrates causes the body to reduce thyroid hormone levels.
Low thyroid hormone levels reduce and even reverse weight loss. The solution to this is to re-introduce carbohydrates to the diet. I recommend adding a little bit of fruit or starchy vegetables to at least two meals a day gradually until you are eating at least 100 grams of carbs a day. This should be 150 or 200 if you are an athlete.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Overeating
Sometimes when people eat paleo they think they can go ahead and EAT ALL THE THINGS, because paleo food is healthy.
This is somewhat true! Paleo food is healthy. It is nourishing. It does help with healing the body, which helps with weight loss.
But just because the food is healthy does not mean it has no calories in it. Fat in particular is very calorie dense. If you started eating paleo and added a lot of fat to your diet, this could be a part of it.
The solution? Scale back your fat intake (nuts, bacon, and paleo baked goods are all common paleo fat bombs) and see what happens.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Over-training
There are a number of problems that happen when you over-train.
One is that you cause your body to be in a state of energy-deficit for a long time, which mimicks the starvation- like problems and weight loss problems associated with undereating I mentioned above. It reduces thyroid hormone levels. It causes fatigue and weight gain.
Another is that you cause metabolic and anabolic stress, which causes stress hormone levels to rise. High levels of stress hormone actively prevent the body from burning fat.
Signs of over-training include low-libido, acne, chronic fatigue, muscle soreness, irritability, dysfunctional sleep, and sugar cravings. The amount of training that is too much varies for every person. Ideally you should not have more than a few intense workouts a week.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Detox
This is a unique secret to paleo and weight loss plateaus. Not many people talk about it. But it is extremely important, especially for women.
The body stores many of its toxins in fat cells.
As the body burns fat, these toxins are released into the blood stream.
Heavy metal toxins can cause low-grade inflammation and a stress response, both of which inhibit weight loss.
Excess hormones like estrogen are also a part of this toxic dump. Increased estrogen levels can cause the body to store fat, particularly in the thighs, hips and breasts. (Other signs of this phenomenon happening are an increase in menstrual flow and PMS symptoms.)
Toxins from fat cells in the bloodstream can cause a weight loss plateau on paleo. The solution to this one is to eat as nourishingly as possible with plentiful vegetables, eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, and have patience (!).
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Sea salt
Sea salt might seem like a funny thing to put on this list. Sea salt… really? What does that have anything to do with weight loss?
Sea salt is natural salt farmed from the sea and adjacent lands. Sometimes people also buy fancy salt from salt lands in the Himalayas (like this tasty one).
The thing about sea salt is that while it may have important trace minerals in it (which is one of the reasons I like to use sea salt or Himalayan salt), it is also not fortified with iodine, like most table salts in the Western world are today.
Table salt is fortified with iodine because iodine is crucial for thyroid health (without it people develop goiter and hypothyroidism). Iodine used to be bountiful in the soil but is not anymore due to modern farming practices.
So if you go paleo and do not consume iodized salt, then your iodine levels may fall, resulting in lowered thyroid and therefore fat burning activity.
You could try balancing between both iodized salt and sea salt (like I said this is my favorite). But manufactured, iodized salt has been hypothesized to maybe cause inflammation, so another option might be to use sea salt and to also simply be sure to eat seaweed a few times a week (here’s a great seaweed snack) or take a low dose kelp and selenium supplement.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Underlying Health Issues
From Celiac disease to diabetes to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis to SIBO and IBS, there are literally hundreds of underlying health issues you may have that stall your weight loss.
How do you know if and which ones you have?
The best way to investigate underlying health issues is to index your symptoms. What problems do you have? Gut problems? Skin problems? Joint problems? Take stock of your body and all of the problems you experience. Then take that list to Google. Take it to your doctor. Get some tests done.
The most important thing you can do for both health and weight loss is figure out if there is anything wrong in your body… then get started fixing it.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Hormone re-balance
Having healthy and balanced hormones is crucial for weight loss, particularly for women.
The female body is highly sensitive to disruptions. Changing your diet, changing your fat mass, changing your exercise…. these all have a big impact on hormone regulation systems.
One example of this is the estrogen released by fat cells. Another is the positive effect reducing inflammation has on hormone production and appetite regulation.
Sometimes you may hit a paleo weight loss plateau but it isn’t a bad thing – it is simply a sign that your body is going through some changes.
The female hormone system takes time to adjust. The best way to lose weight consisently on paleo as a woman is to be consistently nourishing, to never over-do it, and to have patience when you experience a hormonal hiccup.
You can read more about the specifics of how to lose weight on paleo in my weight loss program here – but in addition to all of those tricks and tips, one super important component of getting through a weight loss plateau is having patience you need for your body to heal.
Some ways you make sure to take extra care of your body’s hormone production by eating at least 30 grams of fat a day, 100 grams of carbohydrate, eating at least three meals a day, sleeping well, and reducing stress.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Birth Control
Speaking of hormones…
Hormonal birth control methods like The Pill are perhaps the most over-looked cause of paleo weight loss plateaus.
Your weight is highly dependent upon hormone levels. Progesterone can cause water retention and over all body fat storage. Estrogen can cause you to store fat in your thighs, hips, and butt.
Hormonal birth control always has progesterone in it, and usually also has estrogen in it.
Sometimes if you are on the pill you will continue to pack on pounds no matter how little you eat.
One solution to this is to try another pill. Some are better for weight loss than others (you can find all this data in that weight loss program for women I’ve mentioned).
Another solution is to go off the pill, and find a natural birth control method that works for you. That might not be the easiest project in the world for you to tackle… but perhaps an important one.
In fact, before moving on it’s important to note that lots of medications have weight gain as a side effect. One particularly important one (that millions of people are on!) is anti-depressants. Check with Google or with your doctor if any of your medications might be hindering your weight loss.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus: Self-sabotage
I would be re-miss to write a blog about paleo and weight loss plateaus without mentioned the most important aspect of weight loss: your mind.
Psychology is the number one factor in weight loss. People who have healthy relationships with food lose weight, and keep it off, with a fair bit of ease (usually, though of course not always).
Those of us who have somewhat unhealthy relationships with food do not get off the hook so easy.
Self-sabotage often happens when you realize you are making progress. Then you start to pay attention. You track numbers more obsessively. You pinch your hips while looking in the mirror. You look at the scale. You scrutinize.
All of these things cause self-sabotage. I cannot tell you how often I did this to myself, or have helped other women through this.
One of the best things you can do to stop sabotaging yourself is stop scrutinizing. Throw away your scale. Stop staring at the mirror. Stop measuring your waist. Just trust yourself. Trust your healthy diet. Keep doing what you’ve been doing, and embrace change.
Don’t resist the change – let it happen.
Paleo and Weight Loss Plateaus – In Sum
While I haven’t covered every single possibility for why people experience weight loss plateaus on paleo, this is still a comprehensive list. The vast majority of plateaus I have seen come from one of these problems. It isn’t that people do paleo wrong, per se. It’s just that sometimes we get a bit off, and that’s okay.
First and foremost, attack any underlying problems. Second, be sure you are always being nourishing. Don’t deliberately undereat, and don’t go wild overeating fatty paleo snacks, either. Listen to your body and give it the good stuff, and practice the art of p a t i e n c e.
(Get what I did there? 🙂 )
Read more about what I do for my own healthy weight management and how I help my clients lose weight (both phsyical and psychological tips!!), you can do so at this link.
That program that I’ve mentioned a few times has done really well for women all over the world, too. It’s risk free – which means you can try it on for size, and if you don’t like it, you’ll get a full refund, no questions asked.
What do you think?! What has been your experience with paleo and weight loss plateaus?
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Diet is actually what matters most if you want to lose real weight, a lot of people swear by running and what not but if you want to see huge change fast you would have to make a lot of effort and a spare a lot of time for exercising while keeping not right eating habbit, its not effective….
i started doing this http://hop-reviews.com/vfd its awesome diet, not so hard and it goes faster than i thought it could, i started exercising in a gym recently just to form my body to a better shape..
thing that motivates me most are compliments i get from people around 🙂
Thanks for this article.
I am interested in what you say about progesterone causing water retention and overall fat storage- in several places I have read the opposite; that “estrogen dominance” perpetuates water retention and fat gain, and that progesterone balances this effect. Or did you mean that progesterone “overdose” (like with the bc pill) can cause this? I’ve been dealing with water retention and a bit of weight gain (may be water, or may not). It’s hard to know what to believe! Can you point me to the reference you used for that? I’ve been searching around PubMed and haven’t quite found anything definitive yet.
Great post! Though I’ve been Paleo for a while, grain free for several years before that, gluten free for 10 years, etc. I always had an issue with under-eating and in recent years over training and not eating a lot of carbs. I am just now introducing carbs back into my diet, slowly and I feel better and lost an inch since I started a couple of weeks ago. I live with chronic illnesses (Lyme, MS and PCOS) and I am always looking for that balance.
I went super low carb because that was recommended for PCOS, at least it was recommended to me and it was great in the beginning when I started in 2006 – I lost a lot of weight but I think I took it too far.
Reducing carbohydrates causes the body to reduce thyroid hormone levels didn’t know that. Some ways you make sure to take extra care of your body’s hormone production by eating at least 30 grams of fat a day, 100 grams of carbohydrate, eating at least three meals a day, sleeping well, and reducing stress. Think this is normally an experience for women going through menopause.
Thanks for the article. I have been on a LCHF way of eating for around three years and am at my goal weight ( I decided to aim for a normal BMI ) I have lost 20kg – not a huge amount but significant for me. I have found I have lost painfully slowly, plateaus were much longer than the loosing phases however I found by sticking to LCHF I didn’t regain lost weight during the plateau and after a while I would tweak my diet and I would loose agin for a while. I was very insulin resistant that has changed, I used to be VERY hungry a couple of hours after eating but by pushing back to time between meals and eating LCHF I eventually lost that intense feeling and now I get normal hunger signals. I don’t eat a very low carb diet because I eat a lot of veg but I do find that eliminating dairy and alcohol helps weight loss. I am post menopause perhaps that made my journey a bit harder, however I am really confident that I will never go back to eating a HCLF diet.
I love this article, very balanced and holistic – thanks xxxxx
Great info! It’s very cool to understand what may cause weight loss plateaux…
And to think that “Salt would kill us”…
Thank you for the great article!