Hitting the Diet "Wall"Diet Plateau

Carolyn Classick-Kohn,MS,RD

You've followed your diet and exercise plan and you've lost weight. Suddenly, your weight loss is slowing, even stopping, or maybe you actually gained a few pounds over a week's time. What's happening? In this week's message, I want to address hitting "plateaus" and what you can do to get back on track.

The First Few Weeks

On any weight loss diet, no matter what type of food you eat, if the calories are less than you need to maintain your current weight, you will lose weight. In the first couple days, your body's glycogen stores are mobilized to make up for the reduction in calories, and along with the glycogen, the water associated with it is mobilized as well. This is to provide glucose for the brain and nerves. So, initially in the first couple days, a lot of the weight lost is water, not fat. After that, weight loss slows to a more gradual loss.

What can you do? Well, it's a mistake to try to lose more water just because it is quicker than losing fat. It's dangerous to lose weight too quickly, and the goal is to lose the extra fat, not water. So, in this case, following a moderate, balanced, healthy eating plan will get you to your goal and help keep you there. Be patient with yourself!

As you lose weight….

The second reason weight loss slows is because as you lose weight, you need fewer calories to maintain your body weight. In other words, the diet plan you are on is now closer to the actual amount of calories you need to maintain your desired weight. For example, let's say you began a diet of 1400 Calories and your starting weight was 200 pounds. You lost 20 pounds, and you're still following a 1400 Calorie diet. In the beginning, the reduced calorie plan would have caused a weight loss of almost 2 pounds a week. Now, because you weigh less, (180 pounds) that same diet will cause a weight loss of about 1.5 pounds a week instead.

What can you do? I do not recommend lowering your calorie intake further. A reduction in calories means less food, less energy, and the chance that your diet may be too low in valuable vitamins and minerals. Plus, a lower calorie diet makes people feel tired and less likely to exercise! The best thing to do to keep your weight loss steady is to add some physical activity to burn a few calories. The amount you add is very individual and depends upon your fitness and health level, but very simply, moving around more is going to help make up the small difference in your caloric needs, and can help keep your momentum going.

Another reason not to decrease your calorie intake further is that the body adapts to new energy requirements, and this reduces your body's response to fewer calories. So, you are probably not going to get much additional benefit from lowering your calories further, but you will get hungrier, tired and less satisfied!

Get back on track
Aside from the body's natural changes in metabolism, hitting a weight loss plateau can happen just because you had a change in energy balance.

Let's say you had a week where you had an interruption in your typical eating and exercise plans, which caused you to gain a few pounds, causing you to be discouraged. All that work!

What can you do?

Limit your fluctuations - try to have a smaller "yo-yo" effect. Realize first, that everyone has an interruption in their goals now and then. The human body is not a robot and we don't live in a perfectly controlled environment - things happen. The key to not letting this get you too far away from your habit changes is to take action quickly. Instead of letting ten pounds of weight gain to occur before you do something, when you notice a weight change of 3-5 pounds, evaluate your situation before it gets out of hand.

Secondly, notice the trend instead of just one isolated event of weight gain. The best way to do this is to keep a graph of your weight over time. Is the trend up or down? When the changes in weight occur, do you respond and make changes to change the trend more quickly, or do you allow a long period of weight gain before something is done? Instead of focusing on a brief change in body weight, up or down, look at the results of your efforts over time - that's what really counts. Consider your weight and health goals like an investment in the stock market - don't freak out about the day to day changes, look at the trends and make adjustments based upon the long haul - be a smart investor in your body, and it will pay off with big dividends!

Make Some Changes

If you find yourself in a weight loss slump, now is the time to get moving. Here are some things you can do to get back to your goals:

  • Eat simply. It's much easier to eat the right amount of food when the food is simple and you know what's in it. Sometimes the little things in your diet add up to extra calories over time. For just a little while, get back to basics and it can help you track your food intake a little easier.

  • If you've never done it before, now is the time to keep a written food record of what you eat. Just the simple act of recording everything you've eaten has been shown to cause weight loss. This can help you get over a slump, and is a real eye-opener.

  • Take a walk.
    Maybe it's not the best time to control your food intake, and getting some regular physical activity may be easier than adjusting your food habits. Plus, exercise can really help lift your spirits and give you the energy you need to feel positive.

  • Get some sleep.
    Sometimes, weight gain occurs because of a life stressor - job problems, family issues, changes in the environment. Be sure to get a good amount of sleep each night to help give you the extra energy you need to face the day. You may find it easier to stick to your eating and exercise plan when you get a good night's sleep.

Be aware that changes in body weight don't necessarily follow a straight line. Our body's energy balance changes with hormonal changes in addition to the day to day variations in energy needs. Keep track of your trends over time, and work through the slumps with some simple changes. Making a few mistakes does not need to spell the end of a good solid plan. You'll get to your goal by making good decisions over time.

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