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Weight Loss Plateaus: What They Are, Why They Happen, and What to Do About Them
Posted by skymedicus STAFF on 10/28/2017 2:58 PM | Last Modified: September 22, 2019
Dieting sucks. It’s hard work. It requires you to deny certain deep and powerful urges. It makes you unhappy. It makes you feel like you want to HULK SMASH!
But, if you want to control your weight, well, you’re going to have to diet. And, you’re going to have to exercise. That’s just the way it works.
We all know this, right?
But knowing it doesn’t make it any easier to do. Let’s talk about some things that will make it easier.
Plateaus are going to happen. The key to getting through them (and you’ll always get through them after reading this article) is to understand why they happen, and learn to accept them for what they are.
What they are is something we call a ‘set point’ that your body will hit after two to six weeks of caloric deficit. It’s one of the many ways your body fights back against what it perceives as a dangerous situation with food supply. We’re built to survive in times of food crisis and most of our bodies are really good at doing it. Set points are one of the ways the body protects itself from starvation.
When you hit a set point, the scale will suddenly seem like your worst nightmare. Your weight will bounce around the set point for a week, two weeks, or even longer sometimes. This, despite the fact that you’re eating exactly the same calories and burning the same amount in exercise as you were when you were dropping two pounds a week steadily.
There are studies that indicate that a 10% loss of body mass is all you can expect before your body starts to fight back. It’s not that you can’t lose more than 10%, it’s that you won’t be able to stay at that new, lower weight for very long if you’ve got a set point above it.
The good news is that you can reset these set points. More good news: it’s actually pretty easy to do. The key is to recognize when your body has decided that you have lost enough weight and that it’s time for it to fight back. Again, pretty easy to do—it’s when that scale stops moving.
Here’s how to beat your plateaus:
First, recognize them for what they are. They’re a survival mechanism that are built into all of us. It’s a complex interaction between a tiny structure deep within the brain, nerves that run between the brain and stomach, your sympathetic nervous system, and the hormones that control it.
Second, recognize that you have to deal with it. Your body is really just an incredibly well-engineered machine, and if you neglect the way it works, it ain’t gon’ work so good.
Finally, and this is where we’re going to help you out today, learn how to work around this cruel trick nature has played on us (actually, nature is perfect, it’s our shitty food system that’s playing the tricks on us).
Here’s the solution. It’s called the 10% Method. It’s not something we made up. It’s real science and it works.
When you hit a plateau/set point, STOP DIETING! If you keep forcing your body to lose weight through intake deficits, you’re going to create a lot more trouble than you’re going to fix. You’ll have problems like a lower metabolism, which will require you to eat even less food to continue losing weight. You’re going to strip off critical lean muscle, organ, and connective tissue that is not only critical to your metabolism but also to your overall health and the integrity of your organ and joint systems. And, the ultimate slap in the face, you’re going to add back that extra weight you just lost, and then some, since you don’t have the metabolism you had when you forced your body to drop it.
Note that there is a difference between continuing to lose weight through caloric deficits created by dieting and deficits created by exercising. You can continue to lose weight through a set point by using exercise to burn more calories than you eat, without violating the 10% principle. As long as you’re eating above your metabolic baseline, you can continue to burn fat and not trigger a metabolic civil war.
So how long do you need to wait before you start dieting again? It’s a good question, Jeffery, and thorough. I’m glad you asked.
This is where the art of weight loss takes over from the science. That’s because it varies from person to person. A good guideline is six months. That’s an awful long time to wait, though, for most of us.
Instead, you can experiment a little and see whether you can shorten that up a bit. Try a one-month recovery cycle after each 10% loss, and see if your weight begins to drop immediately when you begin to cut calories again. After a week of, say, a 500-calorie-per-day deficit, you should see a loss of about a pound. It may take a couple of weeks before you see weight loss at anything under 500 calories a day, so make sure you give it enough time to register on the scale.
The heavier you are, or the further away you are from your ‘ideal weight’, the less time you’ll probably have to wait between each cycle before your body refuses to reset. If you’re clinically obese (with a BMI of 30 or above), for instance, you can probably get away with cycles of just a week of full refeeds (eating full calories, not over-eating – the goal is to maintain, not regain!). After that, if you really want to let your body adapt to each 10% loss, the longer you wait before starting the next diet phase, the better.
When the weight loss slows, it could be an indication that you’ve run up against your base line—and that’s okay! Maintain your diet plan, don’t get discouraged, and eventually your base line will move, again. Once it does, you’ll lose another three to ten pounds and you’ll lower the base line again.
Tucker Blair is a coach, certified athletic trainer, and sports nutritionist. He's also a nationally published writer and editor, specializing in sports nutrition, body composition management, and weight loss.
Tucker has coached thousands of weight loss clients, from professional athletes to stay-at-home moms, and everything in between. He specializes in teaching and writing about the science and art of using food and exercise to change the body from a "sugar burner" to a "fat burner."
In 2016 Tucker joined SkyMedicus to manage patients going through bariatric surgery, and build our bariatric surgery after-care programs. He's helped hundreds of people overcome their struggles with obesity and overweight issues.