Breaking Through a Weight Loss Plateau

So you’ve been working hard, doing your research, waking up early to make it to the gym or make a decent breakfast for months now and you’re not seeing the changes you want to see in your body. You feel defeated, but also think about where to place the blame, whether it is yourself or something outside of your control. This plateau is bogus!

What is a plateau?

A stall in fat loss or body composition changes. When someone takes on the challenge of altering their body composition through diet and exercise, we are bound to encounter struggles. It is important to note that it is very normal to experience plateaus. Just like any goal we want to reach, it is not typically a linear course. There will be up and down trends on your journey! It is vital to know when to make changes, push through, reevaluate your goal, or stop all together.

Understanding energy balance

This may be controversial. At the end of the day (biologically speaking), what determines fat loss is simply if we are in a calorie deficit or not. Is your calorie intake less than what you expend? If you are not losing fat, you are not in a deficit, if you are not gaining weight/muscle you are not in a surplus. This is important because people are often told to blame their stalled progress on hormones, or a slow metabolism. This is likely not the case. Although the concept to lose fat is simple, the effort and individual factors that come into play in this journey is not. To further understand the facts and science about metabolic rate, click here.

What causes a plateau?

  • You are stressed or you are not sleeping. Mental health and sleep are much more significant than we assume it be for overall health, and especially body composition changes.
  • You are undereating during the day, or during the week, which is causing you to overeat at night, or splurge more on the weekends. This cycle creates the illusion that we are doing well! Most of the time… but those spurts of higher intake are not creating calorie deficit.
  • While dieting for prolonged periods of time, our body will try to preserve our energy by simply slowing us down, as well as increase our cravings so that we eat. As we know, lower activity and an increased intake + cravings is not a recipe for fat loss. Our body is primed to survive, not to wither away!
  • Also, with prolonged dieting and a decrease in weight, our metabolism will adapt to a lower rate. You will require less energy to sustain your weight day to day. In turn, the deficit you started with is no longer a deficit for your body at your new weight. Aggressive dieting can set you up for a roadblock in results.
  • If you are one who tracks your calories manually or with an app, you may be under reporting. It is common for packages to be off, app data to be off, and for our measuring skills to be off as well. This means that we are typically not accurate on our reporting by 20%. Don’t fret, you have to accept this to a point. But, we can try to measure more precisely with a scale, rely on foods we can track more effectively and double check our work. Tracking is not required for body composition changes, but it can be a helpful tool depending on your goals.

How to break through a plateau

  • Make vegetables your new best friend. If you haven’t done this already, get to it! A plant-filled diet is, most importantly, good for your overall health. Additionally, veggies are nutrient dense, low calorie, and packed with fiber to help us feel fuller longer on fewer calories. Add more to your diet to decrease calories by default, dull hunger, and manage weight.
  • Strength Train! Building up lean body mass will do wonders for your metabolism. The more lean body mass we have, the more energy we burn consistently, not just when we exercise.
  • Even out your calorie intake. If you are struggling to stay in a calorie deficit, increase your calories to keep an even keel intake throughout week instead of having undereating and overeating cycles.
  • Get precise. Purchase a food scale, double check packages and foods you log. Pinpoint where you may be unconsciously snacking, and having larger portions. Weekend calories still count.
  • Increase day-to-day activity. Take the stairs, stand up while talking on the phone, get up and move every hour! This can burn another 100-200 calories a day.
  • Consider a diet break. If you have been dieting aggressively or for more than six months, you may benefit from taking a small break for a few weeks or even months. If you are feeling burnt out and stuck, give your body a break and come back to the drawing board later. This doesn’t mean a free for all, but simply going back to maintenance calories.
  • Focus on non-scale victories. Scale changes are not all they are cracked up to be. Focus on your other victories, such as cooking more at home, your increased strength, more energy, sleeping better, increased productivity etc. Our weight does not tell us how awesome we have been!

Liz Satterthwaite, RDN, LDN, is a ProMedica dietitian. 

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