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Are plateaus normal in weight loss?

So, you have been eating all of the right foods, exercising regularly, you were once smashing your weight loss goals and have been feeling more confident within yourself but all of a sudden despite all of your hard work- the scales won’t budge. Well then you might be experiencing a weight loss plateau.


What is a weight loss plateau?

A weight loss plateau can happen at any time on your weight loss journey- whether its 6 weeks in or 6 months in and as frustrating as this can be, don’t let it discourage or take away from all of your hard work. Weight loss plateaus are common, and it is actually normal for your weight loss to slow down or even plateau- it is just your body adjusting.



Why do wight loss plateaus occur?

So why do weight loss plateaus occur? When you first start losing weight, rapid weight loss is normal- this is because your body is releasing its stores of glycogen for energy- which is partly made of water. So, when glycogen is used for energy, it releases water which means you will lose ‘water weight’. This occurs at a rapid rate, and it’s exciting because you are seeing those numbers drop, but over time your weight loss begins to falter as you lose fat mass, and soon enough you reach the dreaded weight loss plateau.


Another reason why a plateau may occur is due to the science behind muscles and metabolism. When you lose weight, you lose fat and small amounts of muscle. Muscle plays a key role in keeping your metabolism going, which is basically the rate at which you burn calories. So, when you lose weight and muscle, it can reduce your metabolic rate and cause your weight loss to stall. This reduction in your metabolic rate causes you to burn less calories than you did at your heavier weight. Now your slower metabolism will slow your weight loss- this is because the calories you burn (through your metabolism) is lower and is likely to be matching the calories you are eating which will lead to a plateau.


How can you overcome a weight loss plateau?

The good news is a plateau isn’t the end to your weight loss journey and there are many ways to overcome a weight loss plateau, starting with your eating. As you lose weight your metabolism will drop because your body needs less energy to fuel the smaller version of you. So, you might need to revise your food intake, switch up your meals and find the perfect balance between your macronutrients- protein, fats, and carbohydrates.


Eating:

One way to go about this is to keep a journal of what you are eating. Have a look at the macronutrients you are consuming- this is to give a clear picture of what you are eating. This will help you to modify your diet or help you see where you need to make some dietary adjustments. Studies have found that people often underestimate the amount of food they are eating and the simple act of tracking your calorie and macronutrient intakes can help to find the areas you’ll need to address to begin losing weight again.


Another way to help you through a plateau is to increase your daily protein intake. Eating enough protein can help prevent muscle loss and the reduced metabolic rate that occurs during weight loss. Proteins themselves can boost metabolic rates through the process of digestion. This is because of the thermic effect of food which basically means more calories are burnt digesting proteins compared to fats and carbohydrates.


As women, we have all heard of the classic 1200 calorie diet, right? and for some reason that number is engrained in our brains to be the perfect ‘weight loss’ number. I am here to tell you that eating that little is not only dangerous, but it can actually stall your weight loss. If you have been restricting your calories to a low amount and have reached a plateau, before considering lowering your intake even further, consider the possibility that you actually need to eat more food- yes you read that right. In some cases, you might actually need to eat MORE food to lose weight. A lot of people think that eating less and less food is the secret to weight loss, and you are right, it will lead to weight loss at the start- but it doesn’t take long until undereating causes your body to panic- instead of losing weight your body will lower your metabolism to conserve energy to keep your organs alive. Your body will hold onto every calorie you consume, and this is when a weight loss plateau will occur. This is because your body is entering starvation mode and is your body’s natural response to long term calorie restriction. Getting your body out of starvation mode or a calorie restricted plateau isn’t difficult, but it will require some planning and patience. You will need to switch up your calorie intake, eat more food and fuel your body adequately to repair your metabolism. You might gain some weight back at first, but this is perfectly normal as your body is still learning to trust you wont starve it again- expect to be on track within 1-2 months.


Exercise:

Another way to break through a weight loss plateau is through exercise and physical activity. When you lose weight, your metabolic rate slows down which is a completely normal response to weight loss. One study found that for every 450g of weight loss, participants burnt on average 6.8 less calories- so let’s say you have lost roughly 5kg, this means that on average you are burning 70 calories less from each workout. So, although you still might be doing the same exercise regime you always have done your body is burning less calories compared to earlier in your weight loss journey. The good news is, switching up your exercise routine can help to jumpstart your metabolic rate and is one of the best ways to get you out of your weight loss plateau.


It might be time to look at how often, the length and the intensity of exercise you are doing – you might need to switch things up by upping the intensity or duration of exercise. This is because your muscles become familiarised to your workout routine. The more you do a particular exercise your body adapts and becomes more efficient at doing it meaning you will burn less calories. So, what can you do? If you usually walk, try switching it up for some jogging, cycling, or swimming. If you are jogging or cycling, try incorporating some High intensity interval training (HIIT). Other exercise ideas include joining a group/ social sport, join a gym class, getting a new bike, or simply switching up your training sessions throughout the week.


Resistance training is another way to help you push through this plateau, it does this by increasing your muscle strength and muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism will be and the more calories you will burn during exercise and at rest. Try to add 1-2 days of resistance training to your workouts or increase your exercise intensity to get those (muscle) gains.


If you are someone who works in an office or sits at a desk all day you are likely to be less active during the day. Try to set yourself a goal to be as active as possible during the day- try to increase your daily movement by getting up every couple of hours to walk around the office, or take a light walk around the building on your lunch break. Small increases in physical activity during your day can help to increase your energy expenditure to help you push through this plateau.


Stress and sleep:

We’ve heard it all before- managing stress levels and getting enough sleep is good for you for a number of reasons. But these areas are often tossed to the side as we feel like we have more important areas in life to prioritise. You might not think that stress and being tired could be the reason your weight loss has stalled, but you would be surprised just how much they can influence your weight.


We all know that stress can trigger food cravings, and for a lot of people this means comfort eating, but stress can also increase the production of cortisol. Cortisol is the “stress hormone”- it is natures built in alarm system. While it plays a role in helping our body cope with stressful situations, it can also increase our appetite which leads to cravings for sweet and high fat foods. Managing stress isn’t easy and sometimes we feel like we have very little control over the daily stressors of life but learning how to manage your stress has been shown to promote weight loss.

Not getting enough sleep could also be a contributing factor to a weight loss plateau. Research has shown that sleeping less than 7-9 hours each night can increase body fat and can also influence how easily you lose weight whilst eating healthy and exercising regularly. So, if you are stuck in a plateau or are just not seeing results ask your self are you getting enough sleep each night? And if not- make a goal to prioritise your sleep- you will thank yourself later for it.


Final note:

Weight loss plateaus can be frustrating, but they are a normal part of the weight loss journey, in fact they happen to almost everyone at one point during their weight loss journey. The key is to stop the health journey you have started. Consistency is the secret key. This is why I now work with clients in my 8 week online coaching program vs clients coming in for a casual consultation. I know there will be road bumps along the way; but together, I will help you get over the road bump and keep going.


Find Out more: Restore Program | Nicole Barber Dietet


Resources:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16353426/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19761507/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss-plateau/art-20044615

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18984030/

https://odomhealthandwellness.com/metabolic-damage-recover-gain-weight-back/

https://blog.myfitnesspal.com/10-tips-to-overcome-a-weight-loss-plateau/

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/weight-loss-plateau#TOC_TITLE_HDR_4

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326415#food-journal

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