Your body is an adaptation machine. When you first begin exercising, cutting back your calorie consumption, and eating a cleaner diet, the pounds seem to melt away – but don’t get too comfortable – things will likely change after a number of months, around 6 months based on one study, when the weight loss slows. If you expected the weight loss to continue at break-neck speed, you’re in for a disappointment. Your body doesn’t like rapid fat loss and will bring about hormonal changes that make it harder to lose body fat.
When you draw closer to your weight loss goal, that’s when the going gets tougher. As your weight gets lower, you don’t require as many calories, so continuing to eat the same way leads to little or no weight loss. Of course, if you’re developing muscle at the same time, you’re building more metabolically active tissue to aid in fat burning.
Not All Weight Loss is Fat Loss
At the beginning of a weight loss program, weight loss is rapid partially because you’re losing water and stored glycogen, particularly if you’re reduced your carb consumption. When you look at the scale, you might assume you’re losing body fat, but that’s not necessarily the case. If you aren’t resistance training you may also be losing muscle and that’s not what you want. In people who try to lose weight without resistance training, up to 25% of the weight loss reflected on the scale can be muscle loss.
Research also shows people often compensate for the calories they burn working out by eating more and by moving less. This often happens at an unconscious level. You may think you’re doing everything right, but you’re actually eating a little more because you did a workout and doing fewer extraneous movements throughout the day – like fidgeting. Believe it or not, those fidgeting movements can add up to major calorie burn over an entire day.
As you can see, there are a variety of reasons why weight loss slows. The question is: Have you TRULY plateaued or are you letting down your guard a bit now that you’ve been at it for a while? Most people are highly motivated and enthusiastic when they first start to eat a better diet or begin an exercise program. Over time, some of that enthusiasm can dwindle and you don’t track yourself as closely. You may get sloppy with what you’re eating and how much and begin missing workouts and putting less enthusiasm into the ones you’re doing. It’s not easy to maintain the same momentum you had in the beginning!
According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, weight loss plateaus are most commonly due to intermittent dietary indiscretions, cheating too much here and there, rather than metabolic adaptations. Not that metabolic adaptation doesn’t occur, but you need to make sure you’re not eating a few too many cheat meals or not monitoring how much you eat closely enough.
When the weight loss slows, it would be helpful to have a pop-up message telling you why, but, unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Before taking measures to break a so-called plateau, make sure you’ve actually reached one. Saying you’ve arrived at a plateau assumes you’re continuing to do what you did when you first started out – eating cleanly, watching your portion sizes, and working out consistently.
Start tracking EVERYTHING you eat for a week. This will force you to confront how much you’re eating and will rekindle some of the discipline you had in the beginning and may have lost along the way. Next, keep a workout journal. It’s a good idea to do that anyway. A workout journal will give you a written record of how hard you’re working. Rate the intensity of your workouts on a scale of one to five. You need to push for a five every time you work out, but you should be hitting four or five several times a week. Remember, your body becomes more efficient at doing certain movements over time. If you’re no longer feeling the burn or getting a little winded, it’s time to ramp up the intensity on some days.
Finally, take a look at your other lifestyle habits. Are you getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night? Sleep is part of the equation and one that’s often overlooked. Research shows skimping on sleep boosts ghrelin, an appetite hormone that causes you to crave foods high in carbs. It also decreases the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin.
If You’ve Truly Reached a Plateau
After you’ve tracked your eating habits and exercise for a few weeks, you’ll have a better idea whether you’ve reached a plateau or have just become too liberal with your calorie intake and too slack with exercise. If you have, what can you do about it?
Once you’ve tracked how much you’re eating for a few weeks, make sure you’re not keeping your calorie intake too high or too low. A sustained low-calorie intake can work against you too. Try cycling your calories a bit. If you’ve been consuming 1800 calories a day to lose weight, bump it up to 2000 calories one day and 1600 the next. By supplying your body with more calories on some days, your body is less likely to sense a low energy state and try to maintain homeostasis by holding on to body fat. Yet, you’ll still be consuming the target number of calories on average.
If necessary, revamp your exercise routine. Your body adapts to doing the same movements over and over. Focus less on cardio and more on high-intensity resistance training. It may sound counterintuitive since cardio burns more calories, but you’re making a longer term investment in lean body mass, which is more metabolically favorable. Shorten your cardio sessions and increase the intensity by doing high-intensity interval training. Shake things up so you’re not doing the “same old, same old” that your body is already accustomed to.
Finally, be patient and don’t let a slowdown in weight loss get you down. Fat loss rarely occurs in a linear fashion. Focus less on the number on the scale and more on how you’re feeling. If you’re eating cleanly and training regularly, you should feel better than before – and you’re healthier too. That’s a victory in and of itself.
Am J Clin Nutr September 2014. vol. 100 no. 3 787-795.
Science Daily. “Interval Training Burns More Fat, Increases Fitness, Study Finds”
American Council on Exercise. “Weight Loss Plateaus and Pitfalls”