One of the biggest obstacles to long-term weight loss is the dreaded plateau. Let’s face it, losing weight can be a battle, especially when we get to those last 10-20 pounds of stubborn fat!
With that said, plateaus can occur at any point in your weight loss journey (not just the last 10-20) and there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to when weight loss resistance will rear its ugly head…
I’ve seen clients plateau after the first week of weight loss and others lose 40 pounds with no sign of plateau anywhere in sight. How do we know when we’re actually in a plateau? More importantly, what do we do when we hit a plateau?
What is a Weight Loss Plateau?
Admittedly, there’s no accepted definition of a weight loss plateau. In the absence of such a definition, most people claim to be at a plateau after they’ve not seen the scale move for just one week. This is a grave mistake, in fact, this mentality is responsible for more people abandoning good lifestyle programs than any other obstacle.
To be clear, the problem isn’t the stagnant scale, it is the paradigm that we have about what a stalling scale number means to us. In our minds, when the scale doesn’t move, or worse, when it goes up a pound or two, our brain starts screaming “failure!”
For our purposes, a plateau will be described as, “When our consistent and measured effort is not rewarded with measurable results for a period of 2 weeks or more.”
The Dreaded Plateau Defined
Let’s dive into this definition a bit more to make sure that we fully understand what a plateau is really about.
What do I mean by “Consistent and measured effort”? This means that we are being true to our word by sticking to the program to the letter and measuring that effort by keeping track of the actions we take via a checklist or diary.
You see, what most people say is a weight loss plateau is really just a lack of attention to detail. For example, we may start a program in a state of total motivation. During this time, we stick to the program to the letter; but as the program continues, we start to get relaxed with the program and begin to allow the “calorie-creep” to occur…
Calorie-Creep refers to the phenomenon that occurs in the course of weight loss, where our subconscious mind begins to commandeer the ship and sneak in a few calories here and a few calories there. It may come in the form of a heaping tablespoon of peanut butter instead of your normal level tablespoon, it may be a bit more dressing, a little more ketchup, an extra handful of nuts…it never ceases to amaze me how the body finds ways to creep your calorie intake up. How do you defend against “The Creep”?
Solid record keeping! Use checklists! Use a diary! Use your iPhone! Choose one and stick to it. One thing is for sure, you can not tell me that you have “plateaued” unless you can present the documentation that you have stuck to your system.
Why 2 Weeks?
This is a great question…The answer? Because one week is too short of a time to gauge a result and three weeks is too long a time to go without positive result or a change in approach. I wish I could site research that proves 2-weeks to be the proven plateau, but the fact is, no such research exists…it is based entirely on my experience with people.
Most people can stomach through a week without weight loss, but after 2 weeks, their brain starts to protest against the continued effort without receipt of payoff. The brain either needs to see results or it needs to feel satisfied that there’s a new plan in place that has a high likelihood of leading to progress.
What Do I Mean By Measurable Result?
Many weight loss experts suggest that the scale is not a good tool to use for assessing body changes. Some suggest that you toss the scale out the window…I happen to disagree with them.
The brain needs feedback, the scale, when used properly, can provide the needed feedback.
Some experts suggest testing your body fat or using measurements in place of the scale. Unfortunately, if we lose 1-2 pounds of fat over a two-week period, this will probably not change the body fat percentage, nor will it change the measurements significantly. I hate to admit it, but the reality is…
The scale is probably the best way to measure week to week changes, while body fat and measurements are likely better tools for monitoring change over a month or more.
The experts suggest that if you workout, eat well, and don’t notice a change on the scale then it could mean that you lost a pound of fat and gained a pound of muscle. Again, this is unlikely. It is quite possible to lose a pound of fat in a week, but it is highly unlikely that you will gain a pound of muscle within that same time period; especially if you are cutting calories.
If you gain muscle during the course of the program, you may see it over a month or two but not within a one-two week measurement.
Reasons for stagnant scale over a 1 week period are:
- You didn’t lose any fat
- You lost fat but retained water for whatever reason (hormones, excess sodium, medications, etc.)
- You consumed more carbohydrates recently (which leads to glycogen and water retention)
- You had a large meal prior to weighing in
- You are constipated (not a joke)
When you are dealing with changes of 1-2 pounds, there are many factors that can hide real fat loss results. This is why one week isn’t very useful as a measure of success.
Using the Scale Properly
The scale can be a good friend or your worse enemy. You MUST be able to weigh yourself with a sophisticated mindset.
What do I mean by a “sophisticated mindset”? It means view the scale as a source of information and nothing more. It should not be a source of emotion, good or bad!
I realize that it is difficult to control the emotion of the weigh in, but you have to look at the scale as information, not as a critic.
If the scale goes stagnant, say to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting” and then, like a scientist, try to find reason for the result. You might ask, “Did I get enough sleep this week?” “Did I eat too many carbs?” “Did I fall victim to the calorie creep?” etc.
The Real Weight Loss Plateau
A true plateau occurs for one of two reasons:
- The body has adapted to the routine we are following
- The body is resisting fat loss for good reason
Adaptation is a good thing, it means our body is getting better at whatever activity we are partaking in. If we are running, our body, sensing that we are burning fat, becomes more efficient at burning that fat. This means that eventually we will learn to burn less fat while doing the same activity. The solution is to tweak your routine to account for this type of resistance.
Fat resistance is the other reason for plateaus, this occurs because the body perceives that preventing fat loss is some how advantageous to our survival or health. There are numerous reasons why the body may protect the fat, we will cover this topic in future posts. Some of these reasons include:
- To prevent fatty toxins from entering the blood stream
- Fat produces hormones such as estrogen, if the body needs estrogen (as in menopause) it will stick around to act as a secondary manufacturing plant of estrogen
- Stress exposure.
- Excess inflammation
- Chronic infection
- Starvation response
The purpose of this post is to help you figure out whether you are actually plateauing or if there is some other cause to the scale stagnation. In depth suggestions for getting through a plateau will follow in the form of future blog posts and podcasts, in the mean time, here are some general recommendations for making sure that you are actually in a plateau…
What to Do If You Feel That You Are In A Plateau
- Weigh yourself the following day at the same time and under similar circumstances. If still no change…
- Ask yourself, “Has it been 2 full weeks?”
- Check your diary. You can not claim “plateau” unless you have documentation to prove to yourself that you have stayed the course. If you have not kept a good diary or used checklists, do so for another week and start again at step 1. If it has been two weeks and your personal documentation is perfect, go on to the next step…
- Tweak one component of your weight loss program. For example, if you have almost completed the 30/30 plan, as described in our podcast, and haven’t lost any fat in two weeks, you might tweak your dinner by avoiding all starchy carbs at dinner time. Then wait two weeks to gauge a response. Or you might try switching the 30 minute walk to 30 minutes of interval training. The podcast and blog is full of golden nuggets that you can apply to your lifestyle…the key here is to apply one nugget at a time, test after two weeks, and tweak again and always be sure that you have followed the plan BEFORE you assume that you are in a weight loss plateau!