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Diet & Nutrition

Overcoming the weight loss plateau

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Here’s something you won’t read about all that often: weight loss is not a linear process. In other words, you’re unlikely to lose a predictable 1 or 2 kilograms per week until you get down to where you want to be.
Why don’t the TV shows talk about this? Because they don’t want you to think there might be something a little less than magical about the diet/food/treatment/drug program they’re trying to sell you.
The truth is, weight loss is a dynamic process. Change one thing, such as food or exercise, and the body changes other things, for instance, metabolism, the rate at which you burn energy.
If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. There’s a natural and evolutionary advantage in carrying extra body fat (Assess your Body Composition). It means that, come a famine, you will have enough stored energy to survive. So, the body defends this extra weight by changing things such as your level of hunger, the rate at which you burn energy and the rate at which your body converts food into fat.
If you try to lose weight, these changes come into play to act against you. It’s nature’s way of stopping you from starving. So we have the familiar “plateau”, when weight loss stops and what you’re doing no longer seems to be working. It can happen at the start, in the middle or at the end of a program (see charts). Yet one thing is for sure. If you lose enough weight over a long period, you’re bound to hit at least one plateau.
What do we know about plateaus? The question is what do we know about plateaus to help people through these difficult patches. The answer is not much. Out of all the obesity research currently being reported around the world, very little is being done to improve our knowledge in this area.
In this absence, what can we say about plateaus that makes sense in theory, if not in practice? Well, here’s some pearls of wisdom from Professor Garry Egger, an Australian expert on weight loss and healthy lifestyles.
  1. Everyone losing (or gaining) weight will hit a plateau(s) at some stage. Let’s imagine you’re stranded in the desert and have no food, but enough water to survive. Let’s also say you start this venture at 100kg. This means that walking 1km to find food may use up say, 100 kilocalories (kcal) of energy. Not finding any means that for the first few days and weeks, it’s likely that you’ll lose several kilograms, say down to 80kg. Now, walking that 1km only uses 80kcals (because you’re carrying less body weight and are fitter). Therefore, you now have to go 5kms to get the weight loss you used to get in 4kms. Your body’s metabolism will also drop by, say, 10 per cent, from burning 1kcal/min to 0.9kcal/min (or roughly 200kcals a day), putting the breaks on weight gain.The speed with which this happens is variable and depends on a number of factors. Yet it’s inevitable th0061t plateauing will occur at some stage.
  2. There are big individual differences in the timing and lengths of plateaus. Unfortunately, nobody can say when and for how long a plateau will occur for an individual. This is dependent on a number of factors not yet identified, but probably includes the time having been overweight, age, gender and the actions taken to lose weight. The length of a plateau is also influenced by what is done at this stage (see below).
  3. A plateau is natural and is a period of adaptation. One of the world’s foremost nutritionists, Jean Mayer, once said:“Like a wise man will reduce spending when his income is cut, the body reduces the amount of energy it expends when energy intake [food] is reduced.”The difference between the wise man and the body is that energy use drops below the rate of energy expenditure in order to reduce the imbalance even more. In other words, a drop of 10 per cent in energy intake may lead to a decrease of 12-15 per cent in energy expenditure, because, unlike the wise spender, the body can’t afford to go into debt.Plateaus occur as a result of the body’s adaptation to the rate of energy intake in relation to energy expenditure.
  4. Change is likely to be the best weapon against plateauing. Adaptation of the body comes about largely through routine, in other words, eating, drinking and exercising the same amount each day. So the best weapon against plateauing is likely to be a break or change in routine. Weight gain occurs gradually over time largely because of small changes in energy use (through declining metabolism and activity) in relation to food intake over time. Similarly, a change to the routine in the opposite direction is likely to cause a breakthrough in adaptation and overcoming a weight loss plateau. This can be brought about in a number of ways such as those shown in the table.
The speed with which this happens is variable and depends on a number of factors. Yet it’s inevitable th0061t plateauing will occur at some stage.
“Like a wise man will reduce spending when his income is cut, the body reduces the amount of energy it expends when energy intake [food] is reduced.”
The difference between the wise man and the body is that energy use drops below the rate of energy expenditure in order to reduce the imbalance even more. In other words, a drop of 10 per cent in energy intake may lead to a decrease of 12-15 per cent in energy expenditure, because, unlike the wise spender, the body can’t afford to go into debt.
Plateaus occur as a result of the body’s adaptation to the rate of energy intake in relation to energy expenditure.
Ways of breaking through a weight loss plateau through change:
General
Energy intake
  • Try new foods
  • Change your eating patterns
  • Try different drinks
  • Go low carb (for a while)
  • Change drinks
Energy expenditure
  • Try different exercises
  • Add weights to exercise
  • Increase speed
  • Walk a different route
  • Walk backwards
  • Stand for longer

Your say: Have you had a weight loss plateau? How did you work to overcome it? Share with us below.

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