Weight loss plateaus are are both natural and commonplace. In this article we’ll look at three reasons weight loss plateaus occur and how you can stop them derailing your progress.
1) The Hunger Weight Loss Plateau
In my experience the single biggest cause of weight loss plateaus is calorie creep. This is the gradual and often unconscious increase in calorie consumption as a diet draws on.
While its tempting to blame this common occurrence on a lack of discipline the reality is that hunger is an entirely natural byproduct of weight loss. When you lose weight your body actively tries to defend it’s fat mass. Part of this defence is the up regulation of hunger by a part of your brain (the hypothalamus).
Although this mechanism has been understood for many years only recently has their been any attempt to quantify it. The results were pretty striking, estimating that for each kilogram lost a roughly 100 kcal/day increase in hunger ensues. Here’s a graphical representation of this phenomenon from the paper ‘How Strongly Does Appetite Counter Weight Loss? Quantification of the Feedback Control of Human Energy Intake‘.
Given that hunger is an entirely natural and predictable result of weight loss it pays to be prepared.
First and foremost it pays to recognise that you shouldn’t beat yourself up for occasional overeating. When you are physiologically hungry and living in a processed food environment it is understandable to have the odd slip up.
Next you want to use consider your tools. Eating more protein has been shown to limit hunger. Eating high volume foods full of water and fibre (vegetables) can also help. Adjusting your meal frequency is another option, as is reducing your intake of processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat. Finally it can help to remove as many food cues as possible from your immediate environment.
2) The Metabolism Weight Loss Plateau
A second major cause of weigh loss plateaus is a slowdown in energy expenditure. This is another natural adaptation to weight loss that is driven by the brain’s defence of fat mass.
Although it makes perfect sense for a smaller body to need less energy, when we lose weight our energy needs drop far more than can be explained purely by our decline in mass. This metabolic adaptation is driven by the brain’s attempt to defend fat mass.
To explain this phenomenon I’ve grabbed some data from a study that looked how people adapt to caloric restriction. I’ve used data from 12 people that were placed on a 25% caloric deficit for three months that lost an average of 13 lbs (6kg).
After three months on the diet the original 712 calorie deficit was reduced to just 258 calories. This 454 calorie drop came mostly from drops in activity. The adaptation was 371 calories greater than what was expected from the change in body mass alone. The process of losing weight results in the body getting more efficient in maintaining cells, organs and tissues, as well as reducing our subconscious activity in order to conserve energy.
Although this adaptation is inevitable to a degree you can do a lot to defend your metabolic rate. The obvious options are to lift weights, eat enough protein and take time off (diet breaks and refeeds). If you have been dieting for more than 10 weeks straight a short break at maintenance (a two week diet break) is a great idea. If you’re only a few weeks in a stalling its probably just a sign your calories are too high and your early losses we mostly water.
3) The False Weight Loss Plateau
By far the crueless weight loss plateau is the false one.
This is when despite continuing to lose body fat your scale decides to hold steady at a certain weight. The common cause of stalled scale weight despite progress is water retention or muscle gain. This might be caused by elevated stress hormones (cortisol), high salt intake, cyclical water retention, higher glycogen levels or a sharp rise in lifting volume.
This situation is more common in people who are pretty serious about their nutrition and have been dieting for quite a while. In this situation if your calorie intake is relatively high you can afford to make a small adjustment. But if you’re already down towards your BMR then the best advice is just tighten everything up and wait it out.
Rushing to lower and lower calorie levels is a race to the bottom that can trash your energy levels and performance. The fickle nature of scale weight means sometime your just need to stare the scale down and wait till it flinches.
This is particularly true when people have unrealistic expectations about what progress is achievable. Many serious coaches refuse to use the word plateau until your average scale weight has been dead flat for four weeks. Losing ‘only’ a pound a week is not a plateau. For many people that is simply superb progress.