Have your weight-loss efforts hit a stand still? Here’s why, and what you can do to move past it.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably quite conscious of your health and personal fitness. You’ve experienced the rushing endorphins of high intensity exercise, and you’ve felt the benefits of a clean, wholesome diet. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a high likelihood that you have been through some kind of scenario where you’ve been frustrated with your results. The scale isn’t moving, and the centimeters are stagnant.
The typical sequence of events:
Week one: the scale drops a couple kilos and you are thrilled about a number you haven’t seen in months. Week two: your pants are a little looser and the scale takes another plunge. Week three: the drop slows down but it’s still on a steady decline. Week four: Nothing. You drop the calories, and increase the exercise. Week 5: Nothing. Drop calories again, increase exercise again. Week 6: Still nothing. Starved, frustrated and stressed, your mind and body finally collapse. You binge on anything and everything in sight. Once the shame and guilt wear off, that same 6-week cycle likely happens all over again. Sound familiar?
Why do we plateau?
A plateau, otherwise known as metabolic adaptation, is your body’s way of protecting itself. Think of it this way; if you’re eating 1200 calories a day, you’re not just going to keep losing weight at that 1200 calories, forever and ever until you are zero kg’s. Your metabolism is eventually going to adapt and adjust to that new set point so that you don’t starve and die. The human body is an extraordinary machine that is always looking to maintain homeostasis (balance). As you lose weight, your metabolism naturally slows down. The science behind this is quite simple – you have less body mass to expend energy, therefore the metabolic rate can safely slow itself down to get to it’s new set point.
What else is going on?
On top of the metabolic adaptation, several other processes are occurring in the body while you are in a caloric deficit. Your sympathetic nervous system declines in activity, slowing the heart rate. Hormones are drastically affected, on so many different levels, including a decrease in thyroid output. Cortisol, also known as the stress/fat storage hormone, is significantly increased. NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis – a.k.a incidental activity or random daily activities like walking, fidgeting, cleaning etc.) is decreased without you even knowing it, and you end up burning less calories simply due to not having enough fuel. On top of all this, your body resorts to burning the most metabolically active tissue in the body: the muscles. The muscle you’ve been trying so hard to build and maintain!
Does this mean we need to eat less and work out harder?
When you hit a plateau on your respective diet program, the LAST thing you should do is increase your caloric deficit by eating less and working out more. You will drive your body into starvation mode, throw your hormones way out of whack and burn even more precious muscle tissue. Psychologically, restricting yourself can create destructive eating patterns and yo-yo cycles.
So how do we break through the plateau? Here a few helpful tips.
1. Make sure you don’t start your diet at an extreme calorie deficit. Keep it moderate and lose the weight slowly. Include healthy versions of your favorite foods in your diet and allow yourself to have the occasional treat. Crash diets don’t work; it’s been proven time and time again. A steady, moderate weight loss pace will minimize the loss of muscle tissue and keep your metabolic rate from dropping too rapidly. Weight loss should always be a lifestyle change, not a race to some sort of finish line. There is no quick fix.
2. Don’t drop your carbohydrate intake too low. Carbohydrate consumption is essential for optimal thyroid output. Thyroid inactivity can be very dangerous and create permanent metabolic damage. A low carbohydrate diet also decreases testosterone, impairs mood and cognitive function, and suppresses the immune system. It also catabolizes muscle, meaning your muscle building hormones become non-existent.
3. Give yourself diet breaks. No, that doesn’t mean McDonalds and Tim Tams for a week straight. Remember, this is a lifestyle change. A diet break means taking a few days off your structured meal plan or calorie tracking. Try a healthy version of your favorite dessert one night. Have a nice dinner out with your partner and enjoy a nice glass of wine together. Plan a homemade picnic with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. But, don’t go overboard! Creating a healthy, balanced relationship with food is an incredibly important part of reaching your goals. Stress around food will create stress in your mind and body. That’s when cortisol rises (yes, that bloody stress hormone again) and the fat stays put to protect the body from the stress you’ve created! The psychological aspect of weight loss is just as important as nutrition and diet.
4. Resistance training. This is especially for the women; lift heavy weights! Ladies, we promise you’re not going to turn into the hulk anytime soon. As mentioned earlier, muscle tissue is very metabolically active. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn.
5. Watch for “creepy” calories. A lot of the time we convince ourselves we are in a plateau, when really, we aren’t holding ourselves completely accountable. You would be surprised how a latte, a handful of chips, a small cookie and glass of wine can easily add an extra 400-500 calories to your day. Keeping a food diary can help you stop the mindless snacking.
Is there anything else we can do?
Relax. Enjoy the process. Be gentle to yourself. A great way to look at a plateau is to think of it as “maintenance practice”. Most people have a certain weight or size they want to be before they can finally call it quits on the caloric deficit. The plateau is a great time to practice your maintenance habits as your body adjusts to its new set point. You will have to sit through the slower drops on the scale, be patient and embrace it. When you think about it, it’s pretty fascinating how well the human body adjusts to protect itself. Be thankful that your body is healthy, and that you’re only getting better each day!
At the end of the day, patience, resilience and consistency are going to have to get you through the lousy, uncomfortable bits of weight loss. You’re on the right path, and you must trust the process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour! Hang in there!