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Oh No, plateau!

February 11, 2009

Oh, the dreaded plateau. I’m there. My weight and body fat percentage have become constants where they once were variables. This can start to feel like a bit of a betrayal. I am exercising. I eat well. I refrained from eating the entire pan of lemon bars I made the other night (seriously, is there anything better than a good lemon bar?) This stubborn refusal of my body to do its part in this whole ‘fat loss’ process is frustrating.

Luckily(?) this is not without precedent. My body it seems is fairly predictable when it comes to weight loss. The last time I lost weight – about 3 years ago now – I hit what felt like an endless plateau right after I hit the 30lb mark for my weight loss. Same thing’s happening now. I remember how frustrated I was. How hopeless I felt. In that case, I was so focused on those numbers and so full of self-hatred that I just kept trying to slash calories and increase excercise until, eventually, some sense returned and I started the journey that eventually led me back to FA and then to where I am today.

That doesn’t help me now though. I mean, I still want to lose weight. While some of my health issues have indeed gotten much better, my hormones and such are still out of whack. In terms of fitness and endurance, I’m still miles away from where I’d like to be.

So, to recap: still want to lose weight, am not losing weight, but am not willing to do anything unhealthy, punishing or both.

What to do?

First, it helps to know some of the ideas behind why people hit plateaus when it comes to weight loss. There are a ton of them, honestly, so I’m just going to focus on a few of the theories.

1) Plateaus are most likely due to deterioration of the habits that had you losing weight in the first place. You might have started to backslide into old habits or unconsciously started eating more.

Is this possible? Hell yeah. While everyone wishes to be the exception, every study I’ve ever seen suggests people are absolutely terrible at estimating both the calories they’re taking in and the calories they’re burning throughout the day.

What can be done? Keeping a food diary for a little bit can help you get an idea if you’re eating more than you thought.

2) Your body adjusts to caloric deficits eventually and can even slow down metabolism to match your intake level. Also, since your energy needs decrease as you lose weight, it could be that you’re eating at maintenance level for your current weight.

Is this possible? Yes, however, going back to the first possibility, I should say that I suspect people jump on this idea without seriously looking at what they’re eating. Depending on the study you look at, metabolic drop while restricting is anywhere from 1-10%…which might account for a plateau if someone is eating close to maintenance (which I am.) As for the second possibility, again, if you’re eating close to maintenance, you’re going to have to refigure your energy needs more often because your energy needs will decrease.

What can be done? First, the thing you don’t do is continue to drop calories. This is bad for many reasons (sanity definitely among them.) The suggestions I’ve seen include calorie cycling – if you’re aiming for 2000 per day, one day eat 1800 and the next eat 2200 for example. Mixing up your workout routine can also help in ‘jolting’ your metabolism according to some. It’s also good to grab a calculator and figure out your possible energy needs at your current weight.

3) You have reached the bottom of your setpoint and any further loss will be fought by your body.

Is it possible? Depending on whom you’re listening to, yes. I don’t tend to buy the setpoint theory as presented in a lot of fat acceptance spaces, but my differences with it are mainly on how to interpret the information we have. I think the changes in metabolism that occur during active dieting are real and are an adaptive trait that helps protect humans in times of famine (if your metabolism didn’t slow during lean times, you would burn through fat stores more quickly.) However, since metabolism seems to stabilize once people stop restricting and start eating enough to maintain their current weight*, I don’t think it follows to characterize the metabolic reaction to dieting as evidence of an almost unchangeable setpoint.

HOWEVER, let me say that I also don’t believe that everyone is meant to weigh the same or have the same kind of body. There are times when people who want to lose more weight have to decide if they want to live with a kind of constant restriction (my suggestion? no.) or if they want to accept that maybe their ‘fit’ body doesn’t look like a model’s ‘fit’ body.

What to do? Work to love yourself and your body without imposing all sorts of conditions on it. Be honest about the kind of life you want to live and what makes you happy (maybe you can have those abs if you workout 12 hours per week and never touch a carb again. Maybe you’d like to have a life beyond work and the gym or have some toast.) Do this regardless of whether you are interested in losing weight, gaining muscle or growing a unicorn horn.

So what am I doing about this plateau?

Nothing.

A big fat nothing.

I’ve been at this weight loss thing since July. I’ve lost 30lbs. My body fat percentage has dropped 8 points**. In addition, I have more energy, more endurance and am stronger than I’ve ever been in my life. Maybe it’s time to take a little vacation.

Plus, part of all of this isn’t just managing to lose weight, but also learning how to maintain that loss. Learning how to balance your eating even when you’re not focused on weight loss. So I’m going to eat at maintenance level calories for this new weight for a while. I’ll continue to work on getting stronger and more fit. Then, when I feel like it, I’ll design a new eating plan with the intent to lose more weight.

Maybe the plateau-every-30-pounds phenomenon is just my body’s way of telling me to chill for a bit. Which is probably really good advice for just about any endeavor.

*This article provides an interesting summary of some of these issues.

** According to my little body fat analyzer.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. anonforthis permalink
    February 11, 2009 7:16 am

    You don’t agree with set point theory but you’re unable to lose more than 30#? Hello? Could it be that your natural weight range is…….30 pounds!?

    • February 11, 2009 8:03 am

      I probably just wasn’t clear in my post, but my current weight loss is on top of the 30lbs I lost three years ago. So 60lbs total. I suppose it’s possible that my ‘natural’ setpoint range is 60lbs, but that seems like quite a range.

  2. February 12, 2009 9:26 am

    I realized the other night that I, too, have hit a plateau. Given my crappy ancient scale, I can’t tell really unless it’s said the same for weeks and weeks, which it has. Thinking about it, I realize that I’ve been in maintenance mode, not weight loss mode. Which doesn’t really mean much, it just means that when the squeeze wants ice cream for dessert, I push for fruit. Not that I have a problem with ice cream on a hot sunny day, but this was a 40F night. It means that if I eat crab again this year, I will find a different dipping sauce than butter. The potato chips and other junky stuff that used to sit around the lunch room all day are gone, so that’s probably another 100 or maybe even 200 calories a day I’m not mindlessly eating.

    I don’t understand metabolism enough to know whether mixing up calorie intake works, but I do it anyway. I still don’t count anything, but maybe one day I’ll have a big lunch, salad for dinner. Or I’ll eat a bunch of tiny meals spread across the day. If I had the option, I’d take a break from the gym and go for a 8 mile hike. Actually, I’m getting a car next week, that’s the first thing I’ll do with it.

    I also wonder about biochemical changes our bodies go through when we change them. I mean more than the “muscle weighs more than fat”. I know I had to do this weight losing thing for 3 months before I even lost as much as 3 pounds, maybe something needs to rearrange, or get primed. I think nothing is the best thing to do, unless you want to try to shake up your exercise or eating schedule for a day or two, which may or may not help. Definitely don’t eat less, unless you find yourself eating a lot of crap.

  3. February 12, 2009 11:42 am

    I had been in a plateau mode for a while before I got to the weight I wanted to be, and it may have been exercise related–somebody told me that would happen. She, however, said it would be six months before my body started showing a weight loss again. It happened sooner, though.

  4. February 15, 2009 4:54 am

    I too have been stuck…I’ve lost 45 lbs. and then keep gaining and losing the same five, but never managing to get past a certain weight. And this has been going on for three months. I’m eating adequately, exercising daily, hydrating properly, sleeping well. And I have no idea where to go from here, which is why I Googled “stubborn plateau” and found you!

    I just turned 48. Peri-menopause is a bit**!

  5. February 16, 2009 2:55 am

    Julie,

    I know absolute zip about biochemistry, but I have noticed that my body has a definitely pattern to how it loses weight which I’ve just attributed to my particular hormone cocktail. While my loss averages out to a little over a pound per week, my actual pattern pretty much always goes like this:

    week 1: lose two pounds
    week 2: lose nothing
    week 3: gain
    week 4: weight is down about 4lbs from beginning of month

    So who knows, maybe a plateau is just a long period of biochemical readjustment and in a while, my body will go back to losing.

  6. February 16, 2009 3:01 am

    Linda,

    Everyone I’ve known to lose a significant amount of weight in a healthy way has hit at least one plateau so it definitely gives me hope that it’s so common. I figure that it’s good in a way because it forces me to evaluate my lifestyle as a permanent thing instead of being in ‘weight-loss’ mode. Do I have the motivation and desire to be at the gym as often as I am even when I’m no longer losing weight? Can I maintain good eating habits just for their own sake?

    Other times when I’ve engaged in unhealthy behaviors to lose weight, the answer was always ‘no’ because everything I was doing was about moving that number on the scale. These days, I can’t imagine giving up my workouts or going back to the super high sugar way of eating I was doing before regardless of what the scale does.

  7. February 16, 2009 3:08 am

    Georgia,

    Hormones in general are a pain. I have some hormonal wonkiness due at least partially to being fat but these same issues make weight loss hard so I just try to be super zen about all of it. It doesn’t always work, of course.

    One possibility is that while people’s metabolisms slow down during restriction, some studies suggest that when people start eating at maintenance levels, their metabolism will go back up to the level appropriate for their weight (and age/gender, of course.) So spending a month or so eating to maintain weight might allow someone to speed up their metabolism.

    Or, as Linda said, it might just be something that takes time to get through.

    I’m so glad you found the blog, btw.

  8. Mary permalink
    February 17, 2009 4:39 am

    Attrice, you have to know, first of all, exactly how much you’re eating before you start dieting. The only way to determine how many calories you should be eating to reach your desired weight is to do a two-day average of your usual daily calorie intake. I mean, if you weigh 200 pounds and you’re eating only 500 calories/day — before you start dieting — what do you suppose will happen if you start eating 1200 calories/day or more? (Besides, it would be just as difficult to go directly from 500/day to 1200/day as to do the opposite.)

    The biggest problem people face when dieting is that they do it every day. This is a guarantee of failure because the body is programmed to fight the daily diet. You will be dieting forever, because even if you reach your desired weight, you will ever after be on a maintenance program. That’s just the way the body works.

    And every few years, the body shifts to a higher (more efficient) metabolic level, whether or not you diet. We automatically eat less as we age. If you weighed 200 lbs at age 25, and still weighed 200 lbs at age 65, you would be eating much less at age 65.

    But here’s the kicker: you might be 25 years old yet have the metabolic level of someone 65 years old.

    Also, it’s how much you eat — not what — that’s important. 2000 calories is 2000 calories, any way you slice it. And weight loss does indeed follow a pattern: water loss, plateau, continuous weight loss. But no plateau lasts more than 4 weeks; what you’re experiencing is a Support Level, which can be corrected.

  9. February 18, 2009 3:33 am

    Loved this post–such a sensible approach to a difficult issue. And I think your conclusion makes total sense!

    I don’t know the biochemistry of it, but I’ve seen so many people drive themselves crazy and do counterproductive things when the hit plateaus. Handling the psychological battle seems almost more important than the physical one.

  10. February 18, 2009 8:35 am

    I had a breakthrough with my plateau today, dropped 2lbs. below my last low. Not holding my breath about it, but I am pleased. Staying on track today, with the food, water, exercise and sleep.

    I think I’m seeing a trend, now that I’m wearing my analytical hat again. I do switch up the caloric intake during the week, ranging between 1600 calories (no more than once a week) and 2000 calories. My BMR is 2100 calories. On “high holy days” when I indulge and pop over that caloric intake, I definitely gain weight. When I stay on the low side, below 1750, I’m losing. If I drop down below 1600 for a day, then no matter how much I go over that, for a couple of days, I’m gaining.

    I’d love to rev my metabolism back up a little higher so those low days don’t mess me up. I’d love to not have to track my calories! The idea that my “setpoint” is fighting to keep me at this weight, where I am obese, is something I have to mentally reject for now, or find out how to drop it way down to where it’s supposed to be.

  11. February 27, 2009 1:50 am

    Depending on whom you’re listening to, yes. I don’t tend to buy the setpoint theory as presented in a lot of fat acceptance spaces, but my differences with it are mainly on how to interpret the information we have.

    Have to say for what it’s worth, that I agree with you here, I don’t believe in set point theory either.

    It starts off from a truthful and factual observation- that the body is programmed to return more or less to where it started, after weight loss.

    And then extrapolates to this means that you are meant to be that starting weight.

    Like you, I disagree with that extrapolation, on the grounds that where you start from is itself subject to potentially unlimited adjustments.

    I think the changes in metabolism that occur during active dieting are real and are an adaptive trait that helps protect humans in times of famine

    I think this is a generalised adaptation, yes it may help when food is scarce, it also can come into play at other times when a large amount of growth is required in a short time such as puberty and pregnancy.

    I also think that it comes into play during dieting to thwart your weight loss, by dieting to protect you from developing anorexia. How could you know your on a diet in your mind and keep it a secret from your body?

    • February 27, 2009 12:40 pm

      I think we basically agree. The only quibble I would have is semantic. I think the reaction one’s body has to dieting is to protect fat stores and to stave off the cannibalizing of muscle for as long as possible. This is, I would guess, a great adaptation suited for living in a world where food scarcity was a real issue (and protecting fat stores for things like growing and pregnancy, you’re right) – but not an adaptation to protect us from a mental illness that causes people to want to lose unhealthy amounts of weight.

      • wriggles permalink
        February 28, 2009 2:42 am

        but not an adaptation to protect us from a mental illness that causes people to want to lose unhealthy amounts of weight .

        You’ve answered your own doubt, attrice!

        • February 28, 2009 2:52 am

          I don’t understand. I’m not sure if we’re talking past each other or if I’m not quite getting your point.

          I don’t think the evolution of the body’s reaction to modern dieting has anything to do with dieting or with anorexia. People wanting or needing to lose large amounts of body fat is, in the history of our species, a fairly recent thing. It’s more likely the response evolved due to the uncertain nature of food sources.

  12. February 27, 2009 1:54 am

    Sorry, the end of that last paragraph might make more sense if I write it this way.

    I also think that it comes into play during a diet, to thwart weight loss through dieting. To stop it running on into anorexia. etc,

  13. March 1, 2009 1:52 am

    but not an adaptation to protect us from a mental illness that causes people to want to lose unhealthy amounts of weight.

    Why wouldn’t the body want to protect us from a mental illness that attacks a process we cannot live without, eating?

    I don’t think the evolution of the body’s reaction to modern dieting has anything to do with dieting or with anorexia.

    Dieting is simply deciding to eat less, why would that be modern?
    You know about the Willendorf Venus, fatness goes back as far as life itself.

    Solutions to it have been found by non Western dwellers. I remember reading in a book- I think it might have been Fat and Thin about a tribe in the Amazon that had a plant that made the, body get rid of fat. A visting American anthropolgist begged them to tell her what, but they refused as is quite usual.

    I’ve also heard of a tribe indegenious to what is now South Africa, I think it was either Hottentot or similar who also have something that causes the body to shed weight as their principle method of covering long distance was by long runs and this was supposed to help them.

    This is something you should recognise as you say your weight is reducing your physical freedom.

    So, as I keep saying to people, dieting is not the whole of weight loss, it is not even the whole of calorie manipulation. The problem is not with weight loss per se, it’s with calorie manipulation. It meets the issue in the wrong place.

    I’ve already agreed with you, that the first point of metabolic variation is to conserve energy for purposes already mentioned.

    As I know you know, the body tends to use things for as many purposes as possible, nature in general does.

    • March 1, 2009 6:29 am

      I just don’t agree. I’ve never seen any evidence that widespread desire to lose weight has been around for that long relative to human existence. While I can’t say it definitively, my basic understanding (from my freshman anthropology classes and reading since then) is that malnutrition and lack of calories are much much more common in pre-industrial societies which is why many societies prized fatness – it wasn’t easy to come by. This doesn’t mean that the metabolic conservation doesn’t also kick in during dieting just that I don’t believe dieting behavior was the catalyst for humans developing these responses. Honestly, it’s a small disagreement in the scope of things.

      I can’t speak to your specific examples, but the African plant might be Hoodia which some tribes in Namibia use to suppress hunger – not in order to lose weight, but so they can go on extended hunts or during times when food is scarce.

  14. wriggles permalink
    March 2, 2009 4:29 am

    ‘is that malnutrition and lack of calories are much much more common in pre-industrial societies ‘

    That is an assumption based on the belief that the present, Western model is the acme of progress, it’s simply wrong.

    History is cyclical, as well as (if so) linear. There have been times in the past when we’ve had surpluses of food, all over the world.

    It was industrial society that caused a lot of the kind of poverty that still exists in the third world, who are the process of Western style industrialisation and that societies in the West have only recently partially escaped.

    ‘I don’t believe dieting behavior was the catalyst for humans developing these responses’

    I never said they were, the confusion may have come about because I understood adaptation to mean another use of a primary function as opposed to a product of evolution.

    The famine response as you called it, can be used to keep the threat of anorexia at bay without being specifically designed for it. If you think about it, anorexia is a famine of sorts.

    • March 2, 2009 10:28 am

      Stating that technology has helped, at least in industrialized countries, alleviate much of the food scarcity that hunter-gatherer societies tend to face is not holding up ‘western civilization’ as superior in any way. I understood a similar effect occurred when some ancient peoples switched from hunting and gathering to farming. Population increased because the technology allowed for greater food intake which could support more people. If I’m wrong and the current evidence says that food was plentiful throughout most of human history, then I would certainly be willing to look at that. But implying that my belief that technology has helped make food more plentiful or that for much of human history, food scarcity was a serious problem – that somehow that translates into a view of western culture being superior just doesn’t make any sense to me.

      My understanding, admittedly I’m not an expert, is that the accepted theory is that the repeated food shortages our ancestors faced were an environmental pressure that probably helped people who stored fat more easily and whose bodies’ reacted more to fat loss gain an advantage in terms of surviving food shortages. Again, if this view has shifted, as science tends to do, that’s fine and I’m happy to read about it, but I’m not having any luck googling it.

  15. wriggles permalink
    March 2, 2009 11:46 pm

    I didn’t imply you were a Western supremacist:

    That is an assumption based on the belief that the present Western model is the acme of progress, it’s simply wrong.

    I think that clearly states that your reference point of ultimate progress is in the Western, yes, present, as opposed to say, the Western past.

    For example:

    Again, if this view has shifted, as science tends to do, that’s fine and I’m happy to read about it, but I’m not having any luck googling it.

    I’m as progressive as anyone, but the past holds many truths that have been forgotten.

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