What About those Weight Loss Plateaus?

What About those Weight Loss Plateaus?

As anyone who has tried repeatedly to lose weight and keep it off can tell you, it often feels like the odds are against it.  In fact, they are.  Statistically speaking, only a small percentage (maybe 20%, being generous) of people who take weight off actually keep it off.  Often it is considered a success if the person keeps off 10% of what they initially lost.  These are discouraging numbers, to say the least. 

Why does it seem like our bodies keep us at a certain higher weight than we would like?  Even with maximal effort of diet and exercise, how come there are discouraging plateaus?  Should we just give up?  Or, can we carry on and finally get the results we want? 

Set Point Theory. 

Set point theory says that our bodies, unfortunately, like to conserve energy.  When we lose weight, something happens that causes our whole being to fight it.  Science suggests that our bodies are designed this way because of what was going on in the old days, when we had to work hard to keep ourselves from starving.  Back then, if our bodies detected a lack of food, it would lower the number of calories needed to survive so that we would not end up wasting away.

When we lose weight, we no longer burn calories as abundantly.  Our Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), or the energy it takes to keep our systems going at rest, diminishes.  So does the energy it takes to do things other than rest.  Thus, it takes fewer calories to maintain a new, lower weight.  This is something that does not go away, and may stall our efforts.

There is a different, but related issue.  When you weigh less, you don’t need as many calories to maintain that weight. This is actually fairly intuitive.  Smaller bodies need fewer calories.   

These things conspire to create a set point, which is when a body settles in to a certain weight. It appears as a dreaded plateau.  

The questions are:  How can you blow past a plateau?  Can you reset your set point? 

Yes, you can.  But, it takes diligence, patience, and understanding.  Unfortunately, you need to know what you are up against, accept it, and carry on.  And, you may never get down to fighting weight.  But you can still get results, including all the health benefits that come with losing some weight and keeping it off. 

Metabolism and other things.

Let’s take a look at some other parts of the picture.  There is our metabolism.  The bottom line is that just about everything affects it and/or is affected by it. 

That’s because metabolism is what describes the work that goes on in each and every cell of our body, all the time. As mentioned above, when we take weight off, our metabolism (RMR) responds by slowing down, which in turn affects how our metabolism uses the energy (food) that we take in.

But that’s not all.  How we use the food we eat is affected by our genetics.  Scientists have discovered more than one gene that can affect how we use the energy we get from food, and how we store fat in our bodies. 

Then, in the “believe it or not” category, scientists have discovered a virus that can cause fat accumulation in our bodies. Discovery of the virus started with scientists finding it in rats, mice, chickens, and marmosets.  Then they started looking for it in humans.  Since then lots of studies have been done, with various results, but almost all of them point to the virus causing an increase in body fat.  Here is an uncontrollable wild card that can complicate things even further.   

What else?    

Eating less and exercising more are still the go-to methods for weight loss.  This will be more difficult for some than for others.

For example, there are some psychological traps. Set points are defended by appetite and hunger cues.  After being on calorie restriction, your body kicks in to make you feel hungry.  So, just when you need to carry on with fewer calories to maintain what you have lost, your brain tells you that you need to eat more to make up for weight lost.  Not fair! 

On top of that, many of us love our eating habits.  After restricting or changing what we eat, we naturally flow back to what we have been doing before.  There is an actual term for it.  It’s called “behavioral drift.” 

All of these perfectly human tendencies are there to confound our efforts.  

What to do.

It can really help to know what you are up against and adjust your expectations.  A quick weight loss is more likely to end badly, triggering a more dramatic metabolic response and more hunger. .Instead, research tells us again and again that taking the slow and steady approach is much better.

Change the way you eat, slowly, over time.  Have a long-term mentality.  Make the switch to something you can maintain.  Then, be on the lookout for your body and brain telling you to go back to “normal.” 

Here’s what that can look like.  You are in a social situation, and everyone is having dessert, possibly even waxing on about how good it is.  You could go with: “Well, I guess I can have that just this once.  I get to blow my diet sometimes, right?”  Instead, the long-term switch becomes an identity.  Here, it would look like: “Oh, never mind.  I just don’t like to eat desserts much anymore.”

Can you sense the difference?  One implies being let out of prison for a cheating session, and the other is a more integrated, all-in approach that can stay with you forever. 

One more thing.  According to renowned scientists, there are some classic behaviors that stack the deck against losing weight or keeping it off.  Ready? 

  1. Eating high-calorie foods like potato chips, French fries, butter, sweets and desserts, and things made from white flour like donuts and cakes.
  2. Consuming sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sweetened coffee and tea beverages, and juices with added sugar.
  3. Getting too little sleep.  Being tired makes you hungry!  No doubt about it.
  4. Watching too much TV.  Enough said.
  5. Consuming a lot of alcohol.  Mixed drinks are an especially a big calorie hit. 
  6. Being inactive.  Preferring to settle in rather than look for opportunities to move. 

You have probably seen this type of list before. The point here is that all of these items may be involved in “behavioral drift.”  Sadly, our environment is a veritable minefield that can promote all of the above behaviors, making it easy, even convenient, to backpedal.   

Can we overcome?  Yes.
Is it a difficult, long process? Yes. 
Unfortunately, that is the truth. 

Hang in there, 

© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Vaselena | iStock

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