By: Calvin Huynh | Macros Inc. Coach
The Dreaded Plateau
The early stages of weight loss are great.
You’re excited, motivated, and it doesn’t take too long for a couple lbs to slip off. However, after weeks and months of dieting, the story can get seemingly grim.
Restricting calories, getting your steps in, and staying diligent becomes draining.
Eventually the scale stops cooperating.
What a jerk that thing can become right?
Anyways, the weight loss gets slower and the fluctuations become frequent and aggressive.
Then before you know it, the scale doesn’t budge. The plateau of a number refuses to drop down. Frustration ensues and you contemplate throwing your scale across the room.
Pretty relatable huh? Well, take a few deep breaths and let’s go over what you can do.
Make Sure You’re Actually Plateau’d
First things first. It’s easy to get emotional over a bigger than usual spike in weight, so many people hastily conclude a plateau without much thought.
Weight fluctuations, even big one, are normal and are not a true “plateau”. A true plateau is where your average weight refuses to drop after a few weeks, not a few days.
A day or even a single week is not a plateau. Fat loss can still be occurring, but other factors could be masking it like water retention, muscle growth, menstrual cycle, and more.
So if you’re seemingly plateaued for a few days or even a week, make sure you’re sticking to the usual activity levels and tracking your intake accurately. Not giving up and continuing the process for a few more days can easily be all you need to keep seeing continual weight loss.
Truly Stuck? Here is What You Can Do
However, as weight loss progresses, a true plateau can occur. If you’re ruthlessly adherent yet the scale has stalled for weeks, you’ve officially plateaued.
This occurs because you now have less mass. As such, you naturally burn less calories because you have less total tissue and your movements don’t require as much energy to fuel. In addition, studies show, as dieters lose weight to low body fat percentages, unfavorable adaptations can occur. You start unconsciously moving less with spontaneous movement, thus compromising your energy expenditure (1).
To reestablish a deficit for continual progress, you can either proactively move more and/or eat less. We all want to eat sufficient food for both pleasure and nutrients, so increasing your step count is generally the go to option especially if you’re already eating desperately low calories.
If you don’t mind dropping calories, be sure to drop carbs and/or fat and only by about 5-10%. Protein needs to remain high in order to prevent muscle loss while keeping satiety high.
If you are able to establish a new energy deficit within a few days or another few weeks, you should see the scale drop again.
For many people the second option may be better. In option 1, you’re essentially dieting harder which can be difficult if: you’re new to dieting, have a history of yoyo dieting, or have been drained from months of dieting.
If this is you, instead of dieting harder, you may need to take a diet break. A diet break is exactly what it sounds like. You’re bumping your calories up to maintenance and essentially taking a break from dieting for about 1 week. This will allow for more food, a bump in energy expenditure, and your muscle glycogen levels refilled. You’ll feel significantly better, allow your body to destress, and can perform more training volume.
When doing a diet break, you are literally not trying to diet, so you shouldn’t expect to lose weight. That being said, diet break benefits can translate to breaking the plateau.
How could this be?
For example, improved sleep quality, additional gym performance, and more spontaneous movement can get you passed a stall in the scale without even intending to. The reduction in stress can also dissipate any chronic water retention.
So at best, a diet break will help you overcome your plateau and at worst it allows you to mentally recuperate before another dieting phase later. The only downside to diet breaks is the time you have to take away from dieting.
This can be hard for perpetual dieters to accept, but it’s often what’s needed when your mental batteries are drained from dieting. Not taking a diet break can easily run you into the ground and cause unhealthy binging.
Crushing This Plateau
After a diet break, you can return to dieting at your previous deficit. If this doesn’t work, you’ll have to go to option 1 and establish a new deficit. All in all, remember that stalls in the scales whether short or long term doesn’t spell the end of the world.
You have options, whether it’s to simply be more patient, increase activity, or take a diet break. If pizza is all you can think about while reading this article, probably go with the diet break.