Bust that plateau

Janelle Baldwin
Capitol Reef National Park Utah

Have you been trying to lose weight but seem stuck on a plateau? 

This happens to everyone who tries to lose weight at some point.  You feel stuck, and despite doing everything right or just as you have been, the weight isn’t coming off - this can last for days or even weeks.

What causes a weight loss plateau?

When you start to lose weight, you often see a rapid and normal drop. That can be partly because you cut calories and your body is getting all the energy it needs from releasing its stores of glycogen. Glycogen is a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles and liver. It is partly made of water, so when glycogen is burned for energy, it releases water, resulting in weight loss that's mostly water. This effect is temporary and results in that plateauing effect.

As you lose weight, you lose some muscle along with fat. Muscle helps keep the rate at which you burn calories up. Because of this loss of muscle, your metabolism declines, causing you to burn fewer calories than you did at your heavier weight. This slower metabolism then results in a slower weight loss even if you are eating the same amount of calories. Your body now requires less calories to function, or a change basal metabolic rate (BMR). Wikipedia defines BMR as “the minimal rate of energy expenditure per unit time by endothermic animals at rest. It is reported in energy units per unit time ranging from watt (Joule/second) to ml O2/min or Joule per hour per kg body mass J/ (h.kg)).” Basically the calories your body needs to function at rest, without doing anything.  In other words...If you want to lose weight, be more active and don’t over eat.

So, to lose more weight, you need to either increase your physical activity or decrease the calories you eat to within a safe level for your current weight. If you aren’t looking to lose weight and just maintain, stick with that amount of calories to maintain it, as long as activity levels remain the same.

What if I want to lose more weight and bust that weight loss plateau?

If you're committed to losing more weight, here are a few tips to keep that needle moving downward.

  • Get your body fat and BMI checked. Having other objective numbers to go by can help you take some of the power away from the scale and reignite your program by looking at other dimensions of your well-being.
  • Recheck your food plan.If you stopped tracking your calories, make it a point to start keeping a record instead of guessing. Those extra or hidden calories can add up and sabotage your best efforts to lose.  Sometimes larger portions or an extra snack has crept into your food plan and those calories aren’t getting worked off causing that plateau.
  • Beef up your activity. Start documenting your activity again. Was it cardiovascular? If so, how long? Did you do something to get the heart pumping each day? Did you do resistance activity, such as lifting weights or body weight or use resistance bands or water? Keep activity records; make sure you are as active as you think you are. Increase the amount of time you exercise by 15 to 30 minutes and possibly the intensity of your exercise to burn more calories. Adding exercises, such as weightlifting, to increase your muscle mass will help you burn more calories.
  • Cut more calories.Reduce your daily calories by 200, provided this doesn't put you below 1,200 calories. Fewer than 1,200 calories a day may not be enough to keep you from constant hunger, which increases your risk of overeating and leads to boomerang weight loss.
  • Pack more activity into your day. Increase your activity level during your work day by taking the stairs, standing at meetings, taking the long way to the bathroom or using your car less. The summer and fall is a great time to do more yard work or vigorous cleaning of the garage or cooler basement.

If your efforts to get past a weight loss plateau aren't working, talk with your doctor or a dietitian about other tactics to try. If you can't further decrease the calories you eat or increase your physical activity, you may want to revisit your weight loss goal. Appreciate the weight you've lost. Maybe the number you're striving for is unrealistic for you. Because you've already improved your diet and increased your exercise, you've already improved your health. If you're overweight or obese, even modest weight loss improves chronic health conditions related to being overweight.

The key is not letting a plateau bust your efforts entirely! You should always focus on improving your health overall and using what I call a fitness pie to rate improvements - the scale is one slice in your pie…the rest of the pie should have subjective (how you feel) and objective or measurable pieces. Being a good steward of your body is important, so don't give up! Don’t revert back to bad eating habits or reducing your activity and exercise levels because of a plateau. Celebrate your success and continue your efforts to maintain your weight loss.

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