If you are on a weight loss journey or you have tried to lose weight in the past, you will have faced the dreaded weight loss plateau.
It can be incredibly frustrating especially when you believe you are doing everything right but the scale is not moving in the right direction.
However, a weight loss plateau is a sign that you are moving in the right direction. You just need a little troubleshooting.
This ultimate beginners guide to weight loss plateaus and how to beat them will explain and help with the following.
A Little Background About Weight Loss.
When we look at the statistics for long term weight loss, they can be pretty grim reading.
Adherence to diets is Poor.
We have access to hundreds of diets, from low carb and low fat to fasting. Regardless of the type of diet we do, we know that adherence and sticking to a diet is difficult to do.
Weight loss is really hard and you should know that weight loss plateaus are a natural part of the weight loss journey.
Part of the goal of this article is to understand what weight loss plateaus are and why they are a natural part of the diet process and why your body fights weight loss so much.
Why Are Diets So Hard To Stick To?
We are creatures of habit. For millions of years we have been hardwired to survive and reproduce.
What does this have to do with weight loss plateaus John?
Are you going all anthropological on us?
No. But let me explain.
I bet you’ve heard of your metabolism.
Your metabolism is all the chemical reactions that happen inside your body to keep you alive.
Think about your breathing, the digestion of your food, the beating of your heart and your muscles contracting.
All of these things can happen with or without any thought on your part. Your body is responsible for millions of little chemical reactions every day without you even knowing. (Remember this for later - it’s kind of important).
In order to keep your metabolism running and keep you alive you need ENERGY (CALORIES).
This energy is taken from the food we eat and converted into energy to power your amazing body everyday.
The main thing we eat to get energy are our MACROS - Protein, Carbs and Fat.
Why Do We Require Calories?
When it comes to weight loss we are concerned with the Calories taken in and the Calories burned throughout the day.
For the calories out part we are concerned with your total daily energy expenditure (the total amount of calories that you burn every day through living and moving) and this is broken up into a few parts.
These are all ways that you burn calories everyday.
What Does The Human Body Do To Keep You Alive When There Is A Shortage Of Food?
Remember I mentioned earlier that we are hardwired to survive and reproduce.
Well, for millions of years we had to survive without a lot of food. But your body is clever. It has back ups.
You have fat and carbs that are stored away in your body and the primary energy source that we use when there is a shortage of energy in, is your FAT tissue.
When there is a calorie deficit (which we do in the modern era through trying to lose weight by eating less), the body starts to slow this weight loss and this is where we get into the meat of a weight loss plateau.
HERE ARE FIVE WAYS YOUR BODY FIGHTS WEIGHT LOSS AND CAUSES A WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAU.
1. Your BMR changes.
Remember, your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is the amount of calories we burn everyday just to stay alive. This BMR changes in direct relation to the amount of weight lost.
The more you weigh, the more calories you burn. The less you weigh, the less calories you burn. If you lose 5-10kg’s you are going to burn less calories to get you through your day.
There is also a greater decrease in BMR if you lose more muscle.
Your body will slow down many of the chemical processes in your body (remember our metabolism from earlier) because it wants to save energy and keep you alive. This results in less energy being burned on a daily basis by your body.
This decrease in BMR (the amount of calories you burn everyday to stay alive) is increased with severe and prolonged calorie deficits.
This is one of the reasons that we trainers promote slower weight loss, to offset this muscle loss.
2. Starvation Mode.
Starvation mode is a belief that by not eating enough, your metabolism STALLS and actually prevents weight loss.
Is this true?
Can you eat less than your body needs and not lose weight?
The best example to prove that this is not true was the Minnesota Experiment.
In November 1944, 36 men reported to the University of Minnesota as volunteers for a 13-month study under research scientist Ancel Keys. What became known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment has long been cited as perhaps the most important study on the mental, physical, and social effects of food restriction.
Without going into too much detail, a group of soldiers were put through a year long program broken into phases.
During this study the soldiers decreased their BMR (the amount of calories that their bodies burned throughout the day) and they lost a lot of muscle tissue but it did not stop the weight loss.
It slowed the weight loss and it slowed their metabolisms but it did not HALT THE WEIGHT LOSS or DAMAGE THEIR METABOLISMS.
99% of the time, you are not losing weight because you are not eating enough or you are starving.
You are not losing weight because you are not in a calorie deficit.
What is the take home point here?
Weight loss stalls because your calorie deficit no longer exists, not because you have a messed up metabolism, you are starving or you are “not eating enough”.
3. Hormonal Changes During Weight Loss.
Yes, when you lose weight your body will induce some hormonal changes to conserve energy and drive you to eat.
For example, your body increases the amount of your hunger hormone, GHRELIN, to signal you to eat more because it wants more energy.
Remember, your body wants to stay alive. It wants to reproduce. This has been hardwired into our brains over millions of years.
You can also see decreases in thyroid hormones to reduce your BMR to save energy and preserve your weight.
Hormonal changes definitely occur when you try to lose weight.
4. Energy Cost Of Activity.
Fewer calories are burned when weight is lost during most movement due to carrying around less weight.
Remember how hard it was when you first tried to lift a weight or run 1km. It was tough.
But your body adapts and makes it easier to do the same workouts. Therefore you burn less energy to do the same workout.
This means you will have to adjust your workouts as you lose weight.
5. NEAT - Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
There is a lot of research around this now.
Remember, this is all the movement and calories burned aside from planned exercise.
This can range from fidgeting, walking, gardening, standing upright at work etc.
People who are chair bound may burn very few calories per day. A construction worker or labourer will burn 1,000 - 2,000 calories per day. Your job can have a huge impact on the amount of calories you burn every day.
The difference can be huge.
NEAT can drop significantly when you weigh less or eat less. Sometimes up to 400 calories per day. It is often subconscious and you won’t even realise it.
You will move slower. You won’t bop your head to your favourite music. You may sit around more.
Some people don’t reduce NEAT but many people do.
Unlike your BMR (the amount of calories you need just to exist day to day) - which cannot be changed as it is directly in proportion to your weight, you can change your NEAT.
This presents a huge opportunity for you to burn many more calories without actually exercising. I know you are busy and have little time but NEAT can really impact your results.
Just by adding more steps you can burn significant calories every day.
Now that we know the 5 major ways that the body fights weight loss, let’s look at the best practices to prevent a weight loss plateau.
Here is one of my clients Rachel, who came to see me after being on a weight loss plateau for several months. She was getting confused and frustrated and believed that her metabolism had stopped.
To get out of this weight loss plateau we simply added in:
1. More daily steps. Rachel walked home from work every night to add 1 hour of extra activity to her day.
2. We added more protein to her meals.
3. Rachel started weight training a few times per week.
4. We did more self monitoring.
12 months later, Rachel was 25kg's down and was very happy with her results.
BEST PRACTICES TO PREVENT A WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAU.
1. Set an appropriate weight loss goal.
A recommended rate of weight loss is roughly 0.5% - 1.0% of body weight per week.
If you are a 100kg male it would be 0.5kg - 1.0kg per week.
If you were a 70kg female it would roughly be 0.35kg - 0.7kg per week. This can change depending on your starting point but it is a good range to start with.
If you do a drastic weight cut, it signals the body to conserve, conserve, conserve. It wants to survive so it will slow down your metabolism as it wants to survive.
It is better to try and lose weight on as many calories as you can to prevent this weight loss plateau occurring quicker.
Quicker weight loss can also lead to the loss of more muscle tissue which we don’t want.
This loss of muscle tissue can impact your total daily energy burning as muscle is metabolically active tissue and can help to burn extra calories throughout your daily life.
I recommend the numbers above as it will keep you losing weight on a suitable schedule without hitting that weight loss plateau quickly.
2. Preserve Lean Body Mass through protein and resistance training.
When you lose weight it is important to minimise muscle loss and we can do this with regular weight training and prioritising protein in your diet.
Protein can help you feel full between meals and it can increase the Thermic effect of eating (TEF) as it takes more calories to digest protein than carbs or fats.
Experts recommend 0.7 to 1.0 grams per pound of body weight per day.
To keep this simple for clients I always recommend 1-2 palm sized portions of protein per meal.
This will ensure that you get your recommended daily protein intake.
This can be chicken, beef, fish, beans, legumes, eggs or whatever protein you like. You can readily find lists of high quality protein online.
3. Manage Hunger, Sleep And Stress.
To manage your hunger between meals you can focus on protein and fibre.
Women need around 25gms per day and males around 35-38gms per day.
Fibre intake is usually low in many people because they don’t eat fruits or vegetables which are naturally filling foods help to fight the hunger signals sent out by the body during weight loss.
High Fibre foods include:
Sleep can have a huge impact on your appetite regulation. People who are sleep deprived produce more GHRELIN (the hunger hormone) which can make you want to eat more.
This makes it harder to turn down convenience foods and treats as you are too tired to say no and you are facing these powerful hunger hormones telling you to eat more.
Prioritising self care to manage stress and minimise emotional eating. This is huge area and much too detailed for this article but it is worth looking at things like massage, spending time in nature or with friends, going on holidays, meditating or just taking a relaxing bath.
Solutions For Weight Loss Plateaus.
Our automatic solution to push through a weight loss plateau is to add in more intense exercise, especially cardio.
This can be very tough if you are eating fewer calories, not sleeping well or life is busy and full of stress.
1. A better solution is to start by adding NEAT.
You can save time and burn more calories throughout the day.
Remember NEAT from earlier. It is our daily movement that is not planned exercise.
Lots of research has been conducted on this subject by James Levine from the MAYO Clinic.
According to Dr. James Levine, the Mayo Clinic researcher who first described and continues to study this phenomenon, NEAT can vary between two people of similar size by up to 2,000 calories a day.
One study that measured NEAT in lean and obese people (all of whom were sedentary and had similar jobs) found that obese people sat an average of two-and-a-half hours more per day than lean people, while lean people stood or walked more than two hours longer each day than obese people.
Realistic NEAT strategies for you include:
Tracking daily steps and increasing incrementally.
Start by tracking your daily steps and if weight loss is not happening, increase your daily steps.
Higher step counts lead to greater weight loss.
The average daily step count is 3000-5000 steps per day. I try to get my online clients to get a minimum of 6000-10000 steps per day. On average, a person can burn roughly 80-100 calories per 2000-2500 steps. You can fit this in anywhere in your daily routine.
Take walking meetings. Walk during phone calls.
Choose active leisure activities. Instead of sitting on a digital device, cycle and walk while listening to your favourite podcast or audio book. Walk a dog. Be more active with friends and family.
2. Self Monitoring.
Most of you will think you are eating less but in a weight loss plateau you might be eating more than you think.
Self monitoring involves tracking food or tracking measurements. Dietician Kat Barefield states that Self Monitoring can cure “Calorie Amnesia”.
This can also be known as Mindless EATING.
Tracking your food intake for 3 days up to a week can ensure you are tracking everything that is going in and see where the potential extra calories are coming from.
Diet studies suggest that most of us underreport the calories we take in and this is not just normal people, it happens with professionally trained dieticians as well. We all do it. We don’t do it intentionally (well maybe sometimes) but it happens.
We naturally underestimate the calories in and overestimate the calories burned through exercise.
This makes self monitoring a very useful tool to see where the extra calories are coming from.
An important point to note here is that you shouldn’t judge yourself just because you had a bag of crisps or an extra glass of wine.
I tell my clients that it is just DATA, it is just a number. I am not there to judge them and won’t come down on them like a mean old judge when they slip up.
It is just a method of troubleshooting so that I can suggest approaches to beat the weight loss plateau.
Self Weighing is also very good to track and this is also associated with greater weight loss.
You can use the scales, tape measurements or even progress pictures and clothes to determine your success with this.
Here is another client of mine, Prasad. Prasad had a history of losing weight, stalling and then gaining it back again and he was sick of it.
Through self monitoring, accountability and regular support he managed to break his weight loss plateau and sustain his weight loss currently at over 2 years. This surpasses the grim diet figures we talked about earlier.
3. Swap Energy Dense Foods For Lower Calorie, Nutrient Dense Foods.
Jeez. That’s a mouthful Johnny boy. What does that mean?
Some scientists say that our human body isn’t really built to know the number of calories coming in but it is good at sensing the VOLUME of foods coming in.
We feel full with high volume foods rather than high energy dense foods.
It is much easier to eat 6 pieces of chocolate than a big salad with chicken.
Nutrient-dense foods have lots of nutrients, generally with fewer calories.
Energy-dense foods have more calories for the volume of food and generally fewer nutrients.
Nutrient Dense foods are usually the foods that do not need to be marketed all year long i.e. vegetables, fruit, meat, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils, healthy grains. Other nutrient-dense super foods include salmon, tuna, trout, full fat dairy products, oatmeal and dry beans.
On the other hand, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods include things that are high in sugar and fat such as refined white breads, pasta, pastries, processed lunch meats and cheeses, ice cream, candy, soda, potato chips and corn chips.
Where can you swap out Low Nutrient Dense High Calorie Foods for High Nutrient Dense Low Calorie foods?
These nutrient dense foods can help you feel full, fight hunger signals, lower calorie intake and decrease cravings.
4. Diet Breaks.
This term has popped up over the past few years. What does it mean?
You may have heard of it as cheat days or cheat meals.
Basically it means planning little diet breaks every once in a while. Periodically increase your calories for a few days or a week at a time.
Don’t over eat but keep the calories at roughly maintenance level.
The research suggests that it may reduce those metabolic adaptations that we talked about earlier that the body creates to close the calorie deficit.
Remember, it is tough to be eating fewer calories all of the time. It is not good physiologically or psychologically. It is good from a mental and physical standpoint to have these little diet breaks.
It may take longer to lose the weight but it will come off and it can help to keep your Basal Metabolic Rate up(the number of calories needed to stay alive each day).
All of these are ways to prevent or overcome weight loss plateaus.
To summarise briefly.
If you have made it to the end, congratulations.
This article was long but it needed to be to fully explain this topic.
Save the article and use it as a reference. Thanks for reading.