How Do I Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau?

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Weight Loss Plateau

It’s a familiar scenario. People tell me how great their workouts were going, how much weight (fat) they were losing, but then <BAM!!> a brick wall in the form of a weight loss plateau.  But what IS a weight loss plateau, what causes it, and how do you overcome it and get back on track towards your health and fitness goals?

What Is a Weight Loss Plateau?

A weight loss plateau is when, after a period of progressive weight loss, your body weight stabilizes and refuses to budge further.  It can be frustrating and leave you disillusioned.

What Causes a Weight Loss Plateau?

1) Sudden Lifestyle Change

If you’ve made a rather abrupt change in your lifestyle from washing cheeseburgers down with milkshakes one day to eating birdseed and tofu followed by pumping iron and a 10km run the next, then you can bet you’re going to see quick results up front.  But your body’s innate internal metabolism is much smarter than you and will eventually begin to counter your efforts.  Any drastic overnight change in either food intake or exercise habits is viewed as a threat to your internal balance (homeostasis).  Your metabolism’s sentinels come running back to central command screaming “FAMINE!”  Thus, your body will start to conserve energy and make weight loss a stubborn exercise in futility.

2) Stale Exercise Routine

If you’ve been a Steady Eddie and made small lifestyle changes over time, then your weight loss plateau might stem from a stale routine.  I used to see it all the time in my personal training days:  people going to the gym, week in and week out, doing the same old boring routine like programmed automatons.

In the exercise business, an exercise prescription is based upon the F.I.T.T. principle (Frequency, Intensity, Time (duration), and Type of exercise).  If you’ve been attending the gym the same number of days each week, doing the same intensities for the same duration, then you’re on a collision course with a weight loss plateau.

The objective of exercise is to stimulate your body above and beyond the level to which it is normally accustomed.  This is known as progressive overload.  If you keep on doing the same old stale exercises, then there is insufficient stimulus for your body to build valuable metabolism-stoking muscle.

3) Closet Compensator

One of the things I talk about in my seminars is something I call “closet compensation.”  Bear in mind your internal homeostasis is striving to maintain the status quo – stave off famine at all costs!  So while you may very well believe you’re eating less and moving more (i.e., exercise), it is possible you’re inadvertently sabotaging your efforts by eating imperceptibly larger portions or saving energy at other times of the day (i.e., sitting a tiny bit longer).  Thing is, these little changes are insidious.  They sneak up on you without your being cognitively aware.

4) Snacks and Sports Drinks

While you may be eating all the leafy greens the dietitians tell you to eat, it’s those little in-between snacks and sports drinks that can throw a monkey wrench in the proverbial machine.  You’ll see it in every gym.  People doing about 30 to 60 minute workouts while toting a sports drink and nibbling on an energy bar.  Thing is, they both have calories (or kilojoules) and while it might not seem like much in the moment, those calories add up down the road and can sabotage your dieting efforts.

5) Hypothyroidism

In a small percentage of cases, there are people who have low levels of thyroid hormone, a condition known as hypothyroidism.   Before you self-diagnose and assume you have hypothyroidism, talk to your doctor for a proper evaluation and treatment plan.

How Do I Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau?

In categorical response to the above points:

1) Sudden Lifestyle Change

Make small changes that are realistic and sustainable.  I see a lot of people try to make too many big changes virtually overnight.

By trying to do too much too soon, you overload the neural circuits in your brain which can deplete your willpower  and leave you feeling dejected.  More importantly, small changes will be viewed as less of a threat to your metabolism and will allow you to continue to lose weight.

In my experience with people who’ve just had a heart attack, angioplasty/stent, and open heart surgery, they get a health scare and then want to turn their worlds upside down and start doing Iron Man triathlons the day they’re released from the hospital.  I have to grab them by the scruff of the neck and pull them back down to planet Earth.

2) Stale Exercise Routine

If your exercise routine has gone stale, mix up the exercise prescription variables for added stimulus.  If you’re only attending the gym or doing your morning walks twice a week, increase the frequency to 3-4 days and see how you go.

If you’re already doing adequate frequency, then consider increasing your intensity or duration.  For example, if you’ve been working at 55% of your max heart rate then consider bumping it up to 65-70%.

If an increase in intensity is not feasible, then bump up your duration from, say, 25 minutes of walking to 35 minutes.  You can also have a tinker with your rest intervals. For example, you might reduce the amount of rest between sets in your weight routine.

Most importantly, you must be putting additional exercise stress on your body, but also getting adequate rest days in between to minimise the risk of overtraining.

Finally, consider mixing up the type of exercise you’re doing.  If you’ve only been doing 20 minute leisurely strolls on the treadmill, then perhaps you could consider a bike or the elliptical trainer.  If you’ve been doing exercise machines that move you through a fixed range of motion, then consider swapping out some exercises for freeweights.  This will force you to both balance AND lift the weight which will recruit more muscle fibers and enhance the training effect.

3) Closet Compensator

If you’re a “closet compensator,” you may need to pay special attention to your portion sizes and/or how much time you’re spending sitting or lying down.  Portion out your meals so you know precisely how many calories you’re consuming.  A journal may help you to document your habits and shed some light in these areas.  Alternatively, it may be wise to have an exercise buddy keep you on track (i.e., friend, spouse, etc).

4) Snacks and Sports Drinks

Cut out the energy bars and sports drinks.  Unless you’re engaged in endurance events lasting several hours or more, you don’t need them.   For most people undertaking recreational exercise, a bottle of water will suffice for hydration and your post-exercise meal will replace what you used.  You are highly unlikely to become dehydrated or hypoglycemic during a standard gym routine.

5) Hypothyroidism

As I mentioned above, it is highly unlikely you’ve got hypothyroidism (sorry Charlie), but if you suspect it, then you should visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis. For more information, check out this link on PubMed Health.

Weight Loss Plateau: The Bottom Line

There are a number of reasons which might explain a weight loss plateau.  While the above discussion is far from comprehensive, it will likely hit the nail on the head for most people.   

In the grand scheme of things, forget “weight loss” and look more to losing stored body fat – and keeping it off.  Anyone can lose weight on a crash diet, but this is not sustainable and will only leave you worse off in the long-run.  

Remember that a side-effect of exercise is an increase in muscle mass which might translate to a slight increase in scale weight.  But fear not, this is a good thing because muscle is more compact (takes up less space) and stokes your metabolism to burn more calories.  Bottom line: Instead of fixating on your scale weight, focus instead on how your clothes fit.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. One thing to mention is that every 3to5lbs of body fat loss creates a cell wall that is mis-shapen and triggers a chemical that tells the hypothalamus ‘we’re dieing!’. The hypothalamus’ job is to then trigger a chemical to make the stomache writhe with desire to eat to replenish the cells with energy (fat). If we know this, we can simply say ‘no’ to that desire so that the cell wall can shrink around the new volume and be satisified (takes a couple days). During this process, the cell wall attracts water which is heavier than fat creating a faux sense of gaining or plateauing. Give it a couple of days, you’ll urinate or sweat it out and find a new bottom line (and bottom =) ). Happy lifestyle changing!

  2. I am getting desperate for help. I went to a dietician last May who gave me a low carb, high protein diet and I lost 30 pounds in six months. Since November, I have not been able to get lower than 148 pounds. I want to lose 20 more pounds. My insurance will not cover any more visits to the dietician and I simply cannot afford paying for it. I am in good health and have had recent lab and heart tests. Severe osteoarthritis in my knees will not permit too much exercise. Should I cut out a daily nutrition bar? Is there anything you can advise for me to do? I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Dear Cathleen,
      Thank you for your message. Congratulations on losing the 30 pounds over the past six months. I can certainly understand your frustration with the situation but there are a few things you might consider. Looking at your comment, it appears your target weight is around 128 pounds. Have you been 128 pounds before? I’m also curious to know what your height is. The reason I ask is people sometimes fixate on an absolute number without giving any consideration to that weight relative to their height (i.e., is it healthy) or body composition (how much muscle and fat do you actually have). In other words, you might be healthy at 148 and perhaps gaunt and frail at 128 (if you’re starving yourself). In the case of the latter, you may be losing valuable muscle which, in the long term, might actually backfire and sabotage your efforts by giving you less metabolism firepower.

      On a very simple level, without actually knowing any specific details about your medical, dieting, and exercise history, if you’re just playing the calorie numbers game, then yes, things like cutting out a nutrition bar could plausibly result in further weight loss. But again, from a health perspective, you might want to drop to 128 lbs but your body may have other ideas. How many calories were you eating per day? If you’re drastically cutting calories, then you may find your body is digging in its heels and refusing to budge another pound. Furthermore, not all the weight you lose on a higher protein diet is going to be body fat. Please have a look at my article on high protein diets and weight loss. It may also answer some of your questions: http://www.drbillsukala.com.au/nutrition/high-protein-diets-for-weight-loss

      Bottom line: I would suggest focusing more on your overall health rather than a finite number on a scale. The scale does not give you a full indication of your entire health picture. Even if you only lost, say, 5-10 more pounds but you did so by eating good wholesome fruits, veggies, and quality carbohydrate and protein, then you may find that you feel and look better than a gaunt, crawling-across-the-finish-line 128 pounds.

      Feel free to write with any other questions.
      Kind regards,
      Bill

      • Dr. Bill,

        Thank you for your response. I am in almost excellent health (except for hypertension) and my height is only 5’3″. I was not really meant to be fat. When I was in my 20’s, I weighed only about 110 pounds. I started to really gain over the age of 50. Last year I went to a dietician and she put me on a low carb, high protein, no sugar diet. My typical meals were:

        Breakfast: 1 orange; 2 hard boiled eggs; 2 cups almond milk.
        Lunch: 1 apple; 4 tablespoons peanut butter.
        Dinner: Salad with olive oil; hamburger patty.

        Since November, the scale has not budged from 148 pounds. I really feel much better than I did at 178 pounds. I am now over 60 and I feel that this is my last chance to once again be attractive. I have an emotional reason for this, as I had to stand by for years and listen to other women receive compliments on their figures. Also, at 148 pounds I feel that I am only a few candy bars away from slipping over the 150 pound mark. I can’t do much exercise, as I have osteoarthritis in my knees.

        I do now eat at least one (maybe two) nutrition bars a day and wonder if that may be the problem. This diet really worked for me for six months and I just can’t understand why it stopped. A few people actually suggested that I go back to eating carbs and sugar. I don’t think that is the answer.

        I would love to see the dietician again, but the insurance plan will not cover it and her fee is more than I can afford. Do you have any suggestion(s) for me?

        I look forward to hearing from you. I just feel so bad about this.

        Cathleen

        • Dear Cathleen,
          Thank you for your follow up comment. Taking a step back and looking at everything as a whole, you seem to be very fixated on scale weight. In many ways, society (spurred on by marketing) judges our worth based on a single number, or dress size, or whatever, but this is entirely unfair and potentially unhealthy.

          I am not in any way discounting the importance of receiving a confidence-boosting compliment, but this may be working against you in that scale weight alone is not always an accurate measure of your internal health. Whether you are 148 pounds or 150 pounds, the 2 pound difference may be more academic than anything clinically meaningful. For example, you simply might have retained an extra couple pounds of water on the day you weighed yourself when, in fact, there was no change at all in your body fat percentage. The next day, you’d be right back to where you were.

          Also remember that our bodies go through changes as we get older which includes changes in hormones, particularly after menopause. This will have an impact on where you store fat (hips vs. belly) and the amount of muscle you carry (which is also impacted by level of exercise). I hear you when you say that osteoarthritis keeps you from exercising, but it may be in your best interest to look for activities like swimming, rowing, or bicycling that do not place any heavy downward load on your knees. It may be uncomfortable at first, so you would need to start off slow and build up your tolerance within your pain threshold. This will help you hold onto valuable muscle which will significantly improve your body composition (MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN SCALE WEIGHT). See if you can find an exercise physiologist in your geographic region that would be willing to have a quick talk with you for free (if you explain your situation).

          Regarding your diet, remember that higher protein intakes tend to cause absolute weight loss on the scale but not all of this will be fat. You’ll be losing a bit of fluid, stored muscle carbohydrate (called glycogen), and likely a bit of muscle if you’re not doing any exercise. The end result is that you come out worse in the long-run because with less muscle, you have less fat burning “fire power.” Think of muscle as your metabolic engine. If you have a smaller engine, then you burn less fuel. So yes, you might be “skinnier” and “lighter” on the scale, but your body composition is now working against you. Moreover, diets only tend to “work” up to a certain point, at which time your body digs its heels into the ground and says, “ok, party’s over. I don’t want to play anymore.” Thing is, you may have your own ideas about what you want, but your body will always reign supreme and do what it needs to maintain survival (yes, even if this means holding onto fat).

          Doing a rough calculation on the diet you provided, you appear to be eating around 1300 to 1400 calories per day. This is not necessarily too low or high and I could imagine it would have helped you shed some weight for a while. You could experiment by cutting out the two nutrition bars, but I really want to keep going back to the issue of body composition and reframing how you’re looking at all this.

          Also note that “sugar” is carbohydrate. It’s just a case of refined simple sugars (candy bars) versus good quality complex carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa, etc. There is nothing wrong with eating the good stuff and, in fact, you might even feel a bit better with some quality carbs back in your diet. Cutting out all the refined stuff is, in general, good advice.

          Taking a step back and looking at everything, I would suggest:

          • Find ways you can get out and do exercise your body will tolerate as per my comments above. I know discomfort due to osteoarthritis is a concern, but in all my years as an exercise physiologist, there is always an option out there for you.
          • Focus more on body composition and building muscle/holding onto the muscle you have
          • Focus on health and how you’re feeling on the inside. The scale betrays you and gives no accurate indication of what’s happening on the inside.
          • Try to find a local exercise physiologist and/or dietitian that will be willing to see you for an impromptu talk on the concerns you bring to the table.

          I know you might be searching for the magic bullet but I believe the key is in making healthy lifestyle changes and not being so focused on absolute scale weight. It’s not sexy advice, but it is probably the safest path. Trying to starve yourself down a few extra pounds will likely have more devastating long-term effects on your body composition and your ability to keep your weight down.

          Warm regards,
          Bill

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