It’s fairly common that most people on a weight loss journey will hit a plateau. We define weight loss plateaus as an extended period of time where people are “stuck” at a certain body weight.
This can be a frustrating period of time where the person using the program can become very vulnerable and potentially give up and eradicate lots of good work that has been already completed.
To keep things very simple according to nutrition professor Alan Aragon PhD, there are really only two possible explanations for this occurrence assuming the program is competent.
These two issues are ❌:
1. Lack of compliance
2. A new energy equilibrium (These calculations change as you change)
Lack of Compliance
This is always very challenging to address people with as often people will say that they have followed a specific plan rigorously and don’t wish to feel like they have any blame in their lack of results. For many people, this may well be the case however it needs to be made very clear that there are two types of noncompliance; conscious and unconscious.
We tend to think of compliance as a specific rebellion against the prescribed diet or exercise protocol but that’s not always the case. People more so tend to fail to comply without actually realising it. Unconscious and unintentional noncompliance is likely a far more common problem than conscious noncompliance!
Nutrition research is rife with noncompliance especially with people that “track their self-reported intake” and monitor their exercise output. An old yet excellent famous study back in 1992 by Professor Lichtman (1) clearly showed that subjects underreport their food intake by an average of 47%! This means that without realising it, the average participant was eating much more than they thought they were. Further to this they also over-reported physical activity by 51%! This is not suggesting that this is the case for everybody, but there can be no denying that when we really specifically measure these things, that many people eat a lot more than they realise and perhaps are less physically active also.
We must highlight this because as we will discuss further there are important metabolic variances to address. In a more recent study by Thomas et al in 2014 it showed that despite metabolic differences in individuals, by far the greatest factor with hitting plateaus was adherence to the nutrition and exercise plan. Adherence to the plan was by far the greatest predictor of results and this didn’t matter which plan (low carb, low fat etc) or exercise style (high intensity, weights, steady state) was being followed as long as there was a consistent caloric deficit.
The Thomas study also highlighted the problems with cheat meals, cheat days and alcohol. A cheat day for example on a weekend can easily erase a week’s worth of caloric deficit, regardless of whether compliance was perfect during the weekdays. Alcohol was shown to be a consistent factor that seemed to quickly have negative effects on helping to maintain a caloric deficit.
Breaking through a Plateau ✨
Hopefully it should be really clear by now that an honest, ideally objective and diligent assessment of compliance should be complete. Once this is confirmed then the real decision comes into play about addressing the areas that can break through a plateau:
Further decrease energy intake
Increase energy output
A combination of both
How much room is there for the individual to increase their intensity, duration and frequency of training? How much room is there for reducing caloric intake? How aggressive should these changes be, and how urgent or time sensitive is the goal?
The answers to these questions will be very individual for each specific person, thus universal prescriptions are doomed to fail which is why we must educate YOU to understand the process so you can individualise our guidelines to suit you.
Going back to our original comments on compliance, if you cannot answer these questions well and specifically to yourself and what you can realistically tolerate then the whole compliance issue will come up again and this will be a recipe for unconscious noncompliance.
If one is in a plateau then it’s a matter of trial and error. Tweaking the diet, tweaking the physical activity plan and seeing whether this is possible to maintain using your own individual results to tweak again until you are able to remain consistent and start to get the results you desire.
A key point to remember is that as your body changes and you lose weight, what originally may have produced results for you may no longer be the case. Your body has a hard-wired homeostatic drive which means that it is hard-wired to maintain the Status Quo. Your body is actually striving to prevent weight changes subconsciously by either reducing or increasing non-exercise activity (NEAT – This is like sub-conscious fidgeting, as you lose more weight you will be less fidgety!) and changing something called adaptive thermogenesis. An example of this would be shivering, or how much energy you utilise to break down food. In a nutshell, your body gets better at conserving energy as you begin to lose weight, thus almost fighting against your attempts to create a caloric deficit.
A final point is carefully considering what measures you are using to determine if you are actually in a plateau. Many women will measure their weight once a week, yet we know that monthly water weight fluctuations are clearly associated with the menstrual cycle. These fluctuations should be carefully considered when judging whether or not a plateau has actually been reached.
A better method would be to get 4-week duration’s from cycle to cycle or take regular measurements during a weekly period to take an average of the weight, as opposed to relying on a single measurement.
Key points to remember 🗝 :
1. Ensure you are being compliant to the program. Research is clear that we often underestimate how much we eat and overestimate our physical activity without realising. A tracking App like MyFitness Pal can be useful especially if you input your food in before you eat. Adherence to any program is the biggest predictor of success. 📊
2. Weight loss plateaus are completely normal and to be expected. This is a challenging time where maintenance may be the simple goal for a period of time. The reason this occurs is that there is no longer a discrepancy between how many calories your body burns and how much you are eating. This will require tweaking from time to time to ensure a safe deficit is created. 🍽
3. The total amount of calories your body will burn in a day is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR); the amount of energy required to keep you alive plus any physical activity you do. As you lose weight your body adjusts requirements relating to the BMR. When adaptive thermogenesis occurs this often means you are no longer losing weight at a given caloric intake as your body attempts to maintain a status quo. This means you will have to figure out how to eat fewer calories or burn more with exercise consistently. 💦
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