DEALING WITH A WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAU
When it comes to losing weight it can get pretty tough. We start off full of motivation and raring to go. We stick to the rules, watching every morsel that passes our lips with an almost obsessive vigilance. We weigh, we measure and we record our food with such amazing diligence. And more often than not the rewards are fab. We see the weight coming off on the scales, the clothes feeling a little looser and the confidence start to rise.
Then suddenly, for no apparent reason whatsoever, NOTHING! Zilch! Two maybe three weeks have gone by and not an inch or an ounce has shifted.
You may go through the following thoughts:
“Well, here’s another diet that doesn’t work for me”
“I’m obviously built differently”
“This must be where my body wants to be so there’s no point in me trying to lose more”
“I don’t understand, I’m not doing anything different so why am I not losing weight?”
So what really is happening?
Well, to be honest there are many reasons why your weight may not change or you may feel you’ve reached a plateau. Let’s consider some of them.
First off, maybe you just need to take a good, long, honest look at what you’ve been eating. Ask yourself (and be truthful as it’s only you you’re kidding!) have you REALLY tracked everything you’ve eaten? Are you still being as diligent in weighing, measuring and recording your food intake as you were in the beginning? Have a few extra snacks crept in here and there or has that level tablespoon of peanut butter actually doubled in size. Has that handful of mixed nuts become more like a shovel-ful? It may not seem like much but an additional 40 or 50 calories here and there can easily add up to a few hundred calories over the course of a day and suddenly that comfortable calorie deficit has gone and you’re now in a surplus without even realising it.
It doesn’t matter how proficient you think you are at tracking your calories, if you don’t stop and have a regular reality check calorie creep will develop. It’s been found that people (even those accustomed to tracking) regularly underestimate their calorie intake anywhere from 20-50% on average. That’s a massive amount. Imagine if your daily calorie needs in order to be in a deficit were 2000 and you miscalculate your intake by even the lower end of the estimate; that’s 400 calories extra. Most people will steadily lose weight on a 10% deficit so eating just 20% too many not only takes you back to your maintenance levels but actually puts you in a 10% surplus!
Things to check to make sure that you’re not allowing calorie creep is to make sure you read food labels to check calorie content. If you’re using My Fitness Pal or a similar calorie tracking app, remember that some items are entered by individuals and may not be fully accurate. Cooked and raw foods will have different calorie values by weight. Go back to weighing and measuring everything you eat and get mindful of the food you put in your mouth. Basically, go back to basics.
The second thing to consider is whether you really are in a plateau or whether what you’re assuming is a lack of weight loss is actually due to body composition changes. If you’ve incorporated resistance training into your routine, you may find that the weight stays the same on the scales but your lean muscle mass has increased. Remember muscle has a greater mass than fat so as you increase lean tissue your weight on the scales may not move. Various other factors can affect your weight – hormonal changes, sleep patterns, salt and water intake as well as time of day. Try not weighing for a few weeks and see if there’s a net reduction in your body weight. Alternatively spend two weeks weighing yourself every day and noting down the weight. If by the end of the two weeks (assuming you’ve considered all the above factors with regard to what you’re actually eating) there is still no change in your net weight it may be that your body really has hit a plateau.
If this is the case then it may be time to adjust your calorie balance. Energy balance is simply the difference between what goes in and what goes out in terms of calorie usage. You therefore have two options for shifting that balance – eat fewer calories or expend a greater number of calories.
If you are absolutely certain that your nutrition tracking is as accurate as it possibly can be, then reducing calories by as little as 50-100 per day should start the fat loss process again. There is no need for massive calorie cuts which will inevitably cause metabolic slowing as well as potentially leading to low compliance – let’s face it no one likes feeling hungry!
The other option is to increase your activity levels. NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is one of the easiest ways to increase calorie usage. Simply move more! What tends to happen as we reduce our calorie intake is that we move less. Consciously making an effort to move can make a huge difference. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you once an hour to get up and move around. Take the stairs. Park further away from the door. Fidget! Walk around when you brush your teeth. Dance while you wait for the kettle to boil. Try having your computer on a standing desk (it’ll be better for your posture too!). Consider a fitness tracker to monitor your NEAT – setting a step goal or a calories used goal will help give you a tangible target to work towards.
Incorporating some steady state cardio into your week may help too. Even just adding in an extra couple of miles walk each day will increase calorie usage possibly enough to offset the energy balance. But be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that because you’ve been for a walk/jog/swim/cycle or whatever, there’s no need to move so much, or rewarding yourself with additional calories!
Finally, you could simply give yourself a week off. Stop tracking for a week, stop worrying about the scales and let the body relax. If you’ve been strict about your diet for weeks, possibly months, having a break might be just what the doctor ordered to get your body back on track. I’m not suggesting you throw all caution to the wind and go on a week-long binge-fest, but letting yourself off the dieting hook for a short period may give your metabolism a chance to pick up again (metabolic rate does slow down when you’re in a calorie deficit for any length of time).
In addition to all of the above, have a look at your sleep patterns and stress levels. If your sleep is poor consider ways of getting better quality sleep. If sleep loss is related to increased stress, try to consider what your stressors are and find strategies to reduce or eliminate them, or at least ways to manage them. Meditation, relaxation, a holiday if need be, can all help. But stress management is a whole other subject for another day.