The other day, I received a call from a past class participant of my group coaching class, "Mastering the Inner Game of Weight Loss." Pleased with maintaining her current weight throughout the holiday season, Rhonda was now panic stricken that it was February and the scale wasn't moving. Although she hadn't gained back any of the 25 pounds she had lost, she was anxious to lose the next 10 pounds that would bring her to her maintenance goal.
Rhonda had returned to her regular exercise regime and eating plan early in the year, but her weight remained the same. She had reached a plateau, and it seemed no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't break through. She moaned, "Does this mean I need to cut back my calories even more to reach goal, or do I have to accept that losing the last ten pounds just isn't feasible?"
"Absolutely not!" I emphatically stated. Periods of hitting a plateau are necessary during weight loss, and should be seen as a welcome event. When the body plateaus, it means it is readjusting and settling in. It takes time to create a new equilibrium where the caloric intake and metabolic rate are working in sync to maintain this new lower body weight.
However, after several weeks of a plateau, if there truly is additional body fat to be lost, it's time to shake things up and break through. But first, it's important to take a long and hard look at what's going on. Total self-honesty is imperative. Here is the process I went through with Rhonda.
I asked her to remember the last time the scale was moving in a downward path on a consistent basis. What exactly was she doing, and not doing at that time? Is her exercise truly as consistent and intense as it had been? Was she diligently following the food plan she had created for herself? Had anything changed in her environment?
After careful thought, Rhonda realized that she had let sugary desserts slide back into her days a little more frequently. Having allowed herself some slack at a few holiday parties, the craving for "just a little treat" after dinner had been stronger than in the past. Also, with all of the snow, cold and ice of the winter months, Rhonda was taking the subway much more than in the fall, when she had been walking home from work most nights of the week.
Having analyzed the situation, Rhonda actually started feeling pretty good about the fact that she hadn't gained weight despite these small differences. Motivated to get back on track and become a bit more diligent, we then went on to discuss the many ways to break through a plateau and get the scale moving once again. Here are those tips so you too can break your weight loss plateau.
1. Keep a food diary for one week. This is the best way to stay honest with yourself and to assure that excess calories aren't sneaking back into your daily input. Record everything you eat and be diligent about portion size. Don't forget to count the calories from beverages, including alcoholic ones.
2. Shake up your exercise routine. With improved fitness capacity, the body becomes more efficient at meeting the exercise demand and no longer needs to work as hard. The result is you burn fewer calories for the same amount of work. There are several ways to change your routine, such as increasing duration, frequency, or intensity, changing the mode of exercise, or incorporating interval training. However, if you are not doing so already, adding strength training to your exercise regime is the number one way to bust through a weight loss plateau.
3. Increase physical activity outside of the gym. Climb the stairs, walk to work, park further away from the store; all great ways to increase movement. Try wearing a pedometer and measuring the number of steps you take per day, aiming to accumulate more from your current average.
4. Change the composition and/or timing of your foods. Dieters tend to get very regimented around the foods they eat. Consider lowering your carbohydrate intake and upping your protein and healthy fats. If you are used to eating three meals a day, shift to five or six mini meals. Don't change the overall amount you eat, just your patterns and food choices, staying within the healthy guidelines that have worked for you so far.
5. Weight gain or plateau can often be due to water retention. Restrict salt intake, increase water intake, and reduce carbohydrates. These subtle changes just may trigger weight loss again.
6. You may need to eat more to get the scale moving downward again. If your daily intake has been slipping below 1200 calories (for women) or 1500 calories (for men), you may have triggered a starvation response in your body, which has caused your metabolism to slow. Try adding in a 100-150 additional healthy calories a day.
7. Take the emphasis off the scale and check for body composition changes. Since muscle weighs more than fat, if you've been strength training, you might not see a loss of pounds, but one in inches. Even if you didn't take body composition and measurements before you began you weight loss journey, you should be able to tell by the way your clothing is fitting, and the way you look in the mirror.
Consider a weight loss plateau practice for maintenance. After all, anyone who has reached goal will tell you that maintenance is much harder than weight loss. Be patient, keep up your new beneficial habits, and eventually your body will settle in to its healthy, happy weight.