It's morning and time for your daily ritual of weighing yourself. You step on and off the scales. And on again. You take off your pyjamas. It doesn't change. You remove your rings and your watch. Still no change. You are staring at the same blinking number you have seen for weeks, and you want to give up.
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The truth is, during a weight-loss journey, at some point, everyone stalls and hits a plateau. Your body is not broken. It's doing exactly what your body is amazingly capable of – keeping up the status quo.
It's amazing how, without our permission or control, our bodies fight for balance at all costs. When we try and cut our energy sources low to lose weight, our body has mechanisms in place to make sure it's difficult for us to go too far.
You don't have to starve yourself to see this happen. Even with moderate calorie reductions, once you have lost some weight, your body will adjust how many calories it needs to run as usual. This automatic adjustment means that you may burn fewer calories throughout the day and thus require fewer calories to keep up your weight loss. If you think about it, it makes sense. If you started at 160 lbs and initially lost 1 lb per week - if your calorie reduction continued to work as it did in the beginning, in 3 years, you'd weigh nothing more than an amoeba.
When put in that way, it's evident that our bodies will need to down-regulate eventually. However, you may still want to lose weight, so hitting a plateau feels frustrating. But instead of looking at a plateau as a failure, let's look at a plateau as a message. It's your body providing you with valuable information to make your next step.
The first thing your plateau may be trying to tell you is that your diet has slipped somewhere along the way. Even the best-laid programs and the most dedicated dieter can subtly alter their program to fit real life. By bringing awareness back to what you consume or how much you exercise, you can find simple and easy ways to change your lifestyle. Some helpful tools you can employ to do just that: food diaries, macro, or calorie counter apps such as MyFitnessPal are just some examples. By bringing awareness back to nuances of your daily routine, you may also notice that a few food decisions made throughout the week are unnecessary. For example, having a second sugary soda when one would have sufficed, or two scoops of ice cream when one would have cut your cravings. By looking objectively at your eating habits, your can see where you may be able to trim off a few extras without dramatically impacting your overall diet.
The second thing a plateau may tell you is when your fitness plan needs to be revisited. People get very excited about their weight loss and start putting in endless hours a the gym, which can increase their cortisol levels (stress hormone) and encourage water retention. Sometimes, scaling back a workout plan to include adequate rest days will reduce the overall stress and demand on your body, allowing it to be in the optimal state to lose weight.
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On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may notice that you have become complacent in the gym. You have started spending more time talking or adjusting your Spotify list than actually breaking a sweat. Catching this trend may motivate you to refresh your vigour in the gym. It's an excellent opportunity to explore using a personal trainer who can keep you motivated and consistently moving towards your goal. Alternatively, you can try a new exercise class with high-energy music or great friends to make exercise fun.
And finally, your plateau may be trying to tell you that your lifestyle may not support the changes you need to make. I recommend doing a sleep and stress assessment and becoming aware of these two critical factors and how they play into your weight loss success. Even a single night of poor sleep can alter your metabolic burn the following day by up to 20% - which means you'll burn less although you're still eating more. Stress can also cause a night of disturbed sleep and alter your appetite. Suppose you're eating based on an intuitive eating diet where you eat based on hunger cues. In that case, your increased stress-based appetite may be flagging up the increased hunger signals, causing you to consume more and stunt your progress unconsciously.
I recommend only working on one of these messages at a time. If you choose to address your diet first, spend a few weeks making the changes that arise from your diet assessment. Watch and see if you notice any changes on the scale. Then address the fitness and sleep/stress. Once you have a handle on all of these new changes, wait about three weeks of consistently putting your new plan in place to see if there is a change on the scale. If there is no change, you may want to consider purposefully working with a nutrition coach or personal trainer to solve the reasons behind your flagging weight loss attempts.
Please remember that the weight loss journey is a journey. Sometimes, you need to stop, stretch your legs, and ask for directions. But you don't get off the road. Just because you aren't consistently seeing mind-boggling success doesn't mean you still aren't making progress in the right direction.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai- based weight loss coach