Oh No, plateau!
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?
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.