Unless you go on a fairly brief diet, at some point in the journey, you will almost certainly hit a plateau, a period, during which you stop losing weight, despite still sticking to your diet. This is a very common topic that I get asked about all the time and I wasn’t satisfied with most of the articles I could find on the subject, so the following is an overview of why and how plateaus occur and what we can do to persevere.
What causes a weight loss plateau?
Not surprisingly, running into a weight-loss roadblock can be frustrating and demotivating for most people but the fact is, diets rarely cause consistent, predictable losses beyond the first few weeks.
A plateau is caused by a number of factors that are the body’s natural responses to having inadequate energy for a prolonged time. These responses include changes in thyroid hormones, leptin, ghrelin and other hormones resulting in a reduced metabolic rate, more efficient use of calories and increased appetite. The body also not only becomes more efficient at using calories even when you are moving around or exercising, but actually makes you less active, without you even knowing it. When researchers track the various movements of people on a low-calorie diet, they find that they move significantly less. Even small movements, when we’re sitting or lying down (like fidgeting) are restricted.
All of this is well known and there is a whole body of research, looking at REE (resting energy expenditure, also known as your BMR – basal metabolic rate), EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis) and NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) – ‘thermogenesis’ just means the burning of calories to make heat. Add these up and that’s how many calories you burn in a day and when you diet, each of these measures is reduced. This reduced energy (calorie) use by the body is one reason you hit a plateau but (despite what you may have read) this effect is quite small and can’t fully explain the pause in weight loss.
So, what are the other factors that cause plateaus?
One other factor that contributes to plateaus is how you store carbohydrates/sugar. These nutrients are stored as glycogen, made up of chains of sugar, found mostly in the muscles. Well, glycogen is stored along with three to four times its weight in water. When calorie and carbohydrate intake is inadequate, glycogen gets depleted and therefore the weight of the glycogen and the water is lost, and this is responsible for the greater amount of weight lost in the first week or two of a new diet (no, it’s not the ‘whoosh effect’ - fat cells hold very little water). As great as this effect is when you first start a diet, unfortunately, the body eventually gets wise and finds other ways to replenish glycogen (and therefore water) to its former levels and this can contribute to a plateau.
The other factor, which science is just beginning to illuminate, is your gut bacteria (the ‘microbiome’). We know that the tiny bugs in our digestive system can produce nutrients that we can absorb. Research indicates that this can provide between five to 15% of our calories and it turns out that having more or less of one or another seems to impact the success of diets and cause plateaus.
What can we do about it?
In the case of glycogen, extra weight is going back into the muscles and there’s no reason to believe that fat loss is not continuing. In many cases, once the glycogen levels have found an equilibrium, weight loss resumes. So, all we need is a little consistency and faith to prevail.
In the case of the microbiome, there are foods that certain bacteria like and can turn into nutrients that add to our calorie intake. The problem is, the ‘trigger foods’ will be different for different people. Experimenting with removing different foods from your diet can be useful here. Going on a low-FODMAP diet (Google it) or an elimination diet can work also and even many healthy foods may not be right for you as an individual. This can be a difficult process, requiring a detailed diet plan, persistence and discipline but can have dramatic beneficial effects in some people.
So, there are multiple ways that Mother Nature can throw a spanner into your weight loss success. At The 1:1 Diet, we’ve formulated our meal replacement foods and the way the Plan is structured to avoid plateaus as much as possible and to overcome them when they occur. Also, your weight-loss Consultant has been trained and might also have personal experience in dealing with plateaus, so above and beyond the information and advice above, you’re in good hands if you’re using The 1:1 Diet.
Interested in starting your weight loss journey? Find a Consultant for a no obligation chat today!