Pushing Past Fitness Plateaus

Column by John Parrillo from Parrillo Performance.

Question: I’ve been dieting to lose body fat for 12 weeks now, and I seem to have reached a plateau. What should I do?

It sounds like you’ve been in a caloric-deficient state for too long. Your body has adjusted to that caloric level, and as a result, it stops burning body fat. When denied enough food, the body begins to feed on the protein in the muscles. Because muscle is the body’s most metabolically active tissue, depleting it interferes with your ability to burn calories. Plus, staying in a caloric-deficient state lowers your metabolic rate, making it harder for your body to burn fat. To break your plateau, move into a caloric-surplus state. This will help recharge your metabolism.

For a period of two to four weeks, gradually increase your calories – even to the point of gaining weight at the rate of a pound per week per 100 pounds of body weight. That way, you can increase your muscle, which in turn boosts your metabolism so you can burn fat much faster. Look at it this way: If you gain a pound a week for four weeks and lose a pound a week for four weeks, you’ll gain more mass and be much leaner than if you tried to lose first and gain later. So try to put on weight for several weeks. You will be amazed at how much bigger – and leaner – you will get. Depending on your sex, size, activity level, and present metabolic state, you should eat enough calories a day to gain at the desired rate.

Additionally, make sure you are increasing calories with the proper foods – foods that will help you construct new muscle and stay lean. Not all foods do this. The same number of calories from different foods has different effects on your body weight. This is very easy to prove. Just try replacing 1,000 calories of potatoes and brown rice with 1,000 calories of candy and ice cream in your diet, and see what happens to your body fat levels. Conventional dietary fat and food containing it (including fatty cuts of meat) tend to be easily stored as body fat. The reason is the chemical composition of dietary fat is similar to that of body fat, so very little energy is needed to turn dietary fat into body fat. By contrast, protein and carbohydrate must be chemically converted to fat before they can be stored as fat. This conversion process uses up a portion of the calories contained in the protein and carbohydrate food, and this expenditure reduces the tendency of these foods to be converted to body fat. Simple sugars are easily converted to body fat too, although to a lesser extent than conventional fat. When simple sugars are released into the bloodstream faster than the body can use them to replenish glycogen stores or meet energy requirements, an over-production of the hormone insulin occurs. This insulin response causes fat cells to take up the excess sugar and turn it into body fat. Insulin is important in the process of protein synthesis for muscle growth; yet, paradoxically, too much stimulates fat production.

John Parrillo
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