The Dreaded Plateau (Feb. 22, ’14)

To read my February 22 article about weight-loss plateaus, The Dreaded Plateau, either click here or keep on reading!

 Last week, a friend of mine turned to Facebook to seek advice on a problem likely all too familiar to most of us: The Plateau.

No, I’m not sounding off on the trials and tribulations of living in the trendy Montreal neighbourhood (that’s an article for another day); I mean a weight loss plateau. For those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar with this phenomenon, a weight loss plateau is when, after losing a chunk of weight, you seem to be ‘stuck.’ Basically, you’re doing all of the same things, but aren’t losing any more weight. You’re flapping your wings, but you aren’t going anywhere.

The advice poured in for my friend: some good, some bad, and some downright batty. “Eat more!” “Eat less!” “Don’t eat at all!” “Drink cayenne pepper drinks!” “Work out three times a day!” “Only eat at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.!” And while some of the responses were cringe-worthy, they showed that, on this particular topic, there are as many answers as there are people asking questions.

Google turns up 2,240,000 results for the term ‘weight loss plateau.’ And much like the responses on Facebook, they range from good to bad to nutty. I’ll sort out ‘what’s what’ on the subject and help you get back to reaching your weight-loss goals. Spoiler alert: It’s a lot less complicated than you think.

Why it happens: To effectively tackle the problem, it’s useful to know why it happens. In short, weight loss happens in stages. If you suddenly transition from sitting on the couch and eating chips to jogging and snacking on kale, your body reacts. In the first few weeks, the number on the scale will drop because you’re losing fat, water weight and (inevitably) some muscle. But as that process continues, things change. Your now-smaller body requires fewer calories than it did before to do exactly the same thing. Take this example: at my weight, I burn roughly 336 calories during a 30-minute run. A 200-pound man, though, would burn about 612 calories during that same run.

As unfair as it seems, the more weight you lose, the harder losing weight becomes.

Another thorn in the side of the long-term dieter? Your body doesn’t actually like to lose weight. According to researchers at Princeton and Johns Hopkins University, after an initial burst of (primarily water weight) weight loss, the human body fights to stay balanced and adjust to the changes you’re making. This, in part, is why sustainable weight loss takes time. It’s also why people seem to get ‘stuck’ at around the 20-pound mark, and again at the 35-pound mark. To co-opt an investment term, these are known as points of resistance.

What works: Consistency. I know it seems basic, but so are the core principles of weight loss. If you keep your diet healthy, your caloric intake low and your workouts frequent, the weight will come off. The intake vs. output equation is a pretty darn simple one.

One of the most common side effects of a plateau is frustration, because the whole thing seems to fly in the face of basic logic. “If it worked before, why isn’t it working now?” This frustration can cause even the most dedicated dieter to swerve off-course. Don’t let this happen. A significant weight loss takes a significant amount of time. Allow yourself that. As the Brits said, “Keep calm and carry on” to get though these points of resistance.

The other key ingredient to success? Honesty. Don’t cheat yourself out of great results! If you ate four cookies, don’t tell yourself that they were small, so it’s really only like two. If you walked five kilometres, don’t find a way to conclude that you actually walked seven. You might trick your mind, but you won’t trick your body.

What doesn’t work: Anything too fancy. If it involves periods of fasting, single-food diets, waking up to eat, workouts that cause vomiting and/or hospitalization, or anything in the ‘pain’ category, don’t do it. You don’t have to.

Now, I’m not saying that the all-beets-all-the-time diet won’t make you lose weight, but I am saying that there are other options. There is a lot of hubbub over certain ideas to ‘jump-start’ your weight loss. Some of the most popular tricks are changing your meal times, either condensing meals or spreading them out, fasting, calorie and/or carbohydrate cycling, intense single-ingredient focus or taking on a so-called cleanse/detox diet.

And while there isn’t anything wrong with most of these ideas from a purely nutritional point of view, they simply aren’t needed. They’re noise. They complicate things. They shift your focus. The research on their effectiveness is, at best, undecided and inconclusive. And even worse? They’re hard. They’re really challenging and therefore really likely to end with you face-first in a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Another “don’t”? Do not tell yourself that you have plateaued because you aren’t eating enough.

Do not do it. There is an Internet epidemic of overweight people telling each other that they are overweight because they don’t eat enough. People take this self-congratulatory approach for two reasons. The first is pretty obvious — to make themselves feel better. The second, though, stems from a misunderstanding of a widely popular post-Second World War University of Minnesota study on the long-term effects of starvation. People are keen to believe this study tells us that, if we don’t eat enough, our metabolisms will slow, transition into ‘starvation mode’ and we’ll stop losing weight.

The study didn’t say that. In fact, that study has been so widely misunderstood and twisted, it deserves an article all to itself. And while I’ll tackle that topic next week, I’ll leave you with some parting thoughts on making the best of your plateau.

If you’re at a point of resistance, take the opportunity to reflect on your weight-loss plan and map out what’s worked and what’s flopped. Keep a weight loss diary – but don’t only record what you eat, when you work out and how much you weigh. Keep track of how you feel on the diet. Are you tired or getting headaches? Trouble sleeping? Irritable? How is your energy level during your workouts? Are you ravenous before each and every meal? Do you envision this as a lifestyle you could maintain, or is this just a means to an end? These questions will help you guage what is happening in your body and where you need to make adjustments.

The best plan is a sustainable plan.

Molly Daley is a nutritionist and runs the healthy eating, fitness, & wellness website Diary of a Formerly Fat Girl. Find her at www.DiaryofaFormerlyFatGirl.com or follow her on Twitter, @DOAFFG

 

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