Plateaus Mean Progress!

Diet Plateaus are Stairsteps

The human body has a truly amazing ability to survive.  It can adapt to a variety of extreme environments and conditions that other creatures are unable to endure.  It can survive through extreme heat and extreme cold, rainy seasons and dry seasons, times of plenty and times of famine.

With our body’s ability to adapt, it should come as no surprise that most diet and exercise regimens eventually lead to a plateau.  Our body is merely adapting itself to the stress and nutrition levels it encounters.

The scenario is a familiar one:  The excitement of switching to a new diet is heightened as we watch the initial pounds drop away.  Visions of our eventual “cut” physique begin to play through our minds, until one day we step on the scale and… nothing has changed.  In disbelief we step off and back on, still no change.  This drama unfolds weekly.  Once… twice… until, in frustration, we declare that we cannot lose the weight and return to our old routines, defeated.

Frustration sets in because people envision diet and exercise plans as a smooth transition to weight loss.  Upon closer inspection, however, the reality is that fat loss is effected by a series of small steps – changes – in nutrition and exercise as we progress.

The trick is to remember that plateaus are just a sign that changes need to be made.

“Plateaus are not peaks -
they are stairsteps to your goal!”

Common Plateaus

My own weight loss history, and the stories of others, often exemplify the series of changes mentioned above.  They pattern often looks something like the following:

  1. Reduce Calories (create deficit)
  2. Plateau
  3. Add Exercise
  4. Plateau
  5. Improve quality of calorie intake
  6. Plateau
  7. Increase exercise duration
  8. Plateau

This will continue until we reach our goal, whether it is weight, health, or appearance-based.

Factors of Weight Loss Plateaus

To understand these plateaus requires that we understand the factors involved.  I’m sure there are many, especially if we start breaking down the fine details – but today I will cover three:

Plateau Factor One:  Metabolism

Metabolism is the body process that burns fuel to provide us with energy.  Our BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) accounts for 60 – 70% of the calories we expend, and consists of the energy required for our body to function (it takes a lot of energy to run all of our organs and systems!).  Since our BMR is determined, in part, by our overall body mass – our BMR will decrease as we loose weight.  It sounds complicated, but it is simple:  As you loose weight, there is less of you left to burn calories.

Plateau Factor Two:  Exercise Efficiency

Another factor is the idea of exercise efficiency.  Exercise efficiency means that our bodies will adapt over time to perform a particular task in the most efficient way possible – to conserve as much energy as possible.  This means that a new exercise routine is performed with relative inefficiency by our bodies, and therefore burns more calories.  As our bodies become more practiced at the task – our movements become more coordinated and more economical – less calories are burnt as a result.  Consider long-distance runners as an example – their running form, as well as their body’s unconscious functioning, all have to function as efficient as possible to handle the stress of long runs.

Plateau Factor Three:  Work

Defined roughly in physics terms, Work = (Mass  x  Acceleration)  x  Distance.  More weight, faster acceleration or more distance equate to more work (more calories burned).  Conversely, if our exercise routine remains the same but our bodyweight decreases, this equates to less work done (less calories burned).  Jog up and down a flight of steps a few times while holding a 10 lb weight, then repeat without the weight and you’ll get the idea.

Breaking Through Plateaus

Everybody (and every body) is unique, so we will all encounter our own plateaus.  Despite that, here are some tips worth consideration if your own weight loss levels off:

  • Reassess your habits – Have you relaxed your diet or exercise routine?  Be honest!
  • Change your exercise routine – Add time, intensity or entirely new exercises
  • Add strength training – Gaining muscle will help burn fat by increasing your BMR
  • Be more active throughout day – walk more, play more, take stairs, etc
  • Recalculate your caloric intake * –  factor in your new bodyweight & activity level
  • Track (and plan!) your daily calorie and nutrient intake
  • Change your menu – less “junk”.  Perhaps you need more complex carbs or protein?
  • Be honest about food choices – sauces, dressings & snacks disguise calories.
  • Change meal size & timing – smaller meals more often?  earlier evening meal?
  • Be patient - you may be loosing weight, just more slowly than before
  • Be patient – you may be gaining muscle. Track appearance as well as weight.
  • Find & use new sources of inspiration – Is your motivation waning?
  • Visualize your goals – Envision yourself as healthy & vibrant.  Set goals to get there!
  • Manage stress - reduce cortisol levels. Ensure you get enough sleep and enough “downtime”

* If you severely restrict caloric intake, your metabolism can dip to what some call “starvation mode” where it burns as few calories as possible.  This is part of your body’s survival response, and something you want to avoid while dieting. Revisit your calorie calculator and aim for consistent, gradual weight loss – not starvation.

Your mileage will vary with each of these tips – certain techniques may not apply to you but others you might revisit more than once.  Obviously, more advanced fat loss (losing weight vs getting “ripped”) may require more advanced techniques than those discussed here, but that’s beyond the intent of this article.  Perhaps another day.  In addition, those of us with certain medical conditions or on medications may plateau for reasons beyond the scope of this article.

In the meantime, if diet frustration rears its ugly head – remember the following:  Plateaus are not peaks – they are a stairsteps to your goal!


Getting Past a Weight-Loss Plateau via Mayo Clinic
Definition of BMR via Wikipedia
BMR Calculator via Discovery Health

Image Credit:  Flickr user isawnyu

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