the dreaded weight loss plateau… and 10 things you can do about it

People talk a lot about “starvation mode” – and while it’s a very real thing – if you’ve been on reduced calories for 3 days THAT isn’t your problem ;)    You’d have to be on reduced calories for just a bit longer than that for any sort of adaptation to take place (probably more like 8-12 weeks!).

“Starvation mode” implies your body isn’t getting enough calories – that is not always the case. We should really call it “adaptation mode”… when you are consistently eating less than your body needs even by just 300-500 calories your body simply learns to function on that amount.  It adapts. (adaptive thermogenesis is the technical term if you wanna google it).   Very smart of your body – very frustrating for you…

There are 2 sorts of adaptations that your body might make when you are restricting calories:

  • if you are restricting your calories so much that your body doesn’t have enough food to perform basic functions (operate organs, etc) that is what we’ll call “starvation mode” – this is probably as bad as it sounds – you are starving your body!  Please don’t eat 800 calories a day hoping to lose 50 lbs in 2 months…
  • if you are restricting your calories at a healthy level (say 15-25% less than normal) it is more likely your body has simply adapted to it’s new “normal” so as to become as efficient as possible.  Probably not life threatening, but definitely detrimental to your efforts to lose the weight, and if your body is adapting it’s not burning fat!

10 things to try if you’ve hit a plateau (and are sure it’s just not that you strayed from your plan) here are a few things you can try (I’ve had luck with the ones I’ve tried):

  1. First and foremost – take stock of what you are *really* doing.  Are you logging everything you eat or are you sneaking handfuls of almonds?  Are you measuring your food or just eyeballing it?  Did you really use the right amount of salad dressing?  Little things sneak up on you and 50 calories here and there really do add up…
  2. Take one day a week for a cheat meal (not a cheat DAY, not a crazy day, ideally you’ll aim for about 400-500 calories (not 3500) above the other 6 days a week)
  3. Cycle calories – I still do that –  I’ve done a different amount every day (1200, 1500, 1300, 1800, etc) and I’ve done it on a schedule (3 low days, 1 high day, 2 low days, 1 high day)
  4. If you have been on reduced calories for longer than 12 weeks, take a week at maintenance calories.  This is not a week of donuts and snickers bars – you are just taking your calories (of good food!) up a level for a short time.
  5. If you’ve lost 10 pounds since the last time you calculated your target calories, time to look them up again… the smaller you get, the less calories your body needs.
  6. Eat natural food. Less refined, artificial foods like “stuff in a box”, artificial sweeteners (unfortunately this is the first thing we substitute when we start our diets to make all those tricky recipes taste ALMOST like real sweets like sugar free pudding, sugar free syrup, sugar free jelly).  I am guilty of this but I really do hardly buy anything in a box any more – if I need a starch I nuke a potato.
  7. Drink lots of water.
  8. Eat tons of veggies – especially the green kind!
  9. Switch up your exercise routine.  Your body adapts to that too and if you were huffing and puffing to run for 5 minutes and now effortlessly run 20 you probably are not burning the same amount of calories since the effort is easier.
  10. Be patient… I am guilty of this too… I am staring at the scale for 7 days, 10 days, 15 days and nothing.  Panick sets in and I think of just eating a box of twinkies since “nothing I do works anyway”… and then on day 16, 2 pounds gone!  Your body doesn’t process things in a straight line – I can’t tell you why, just that it’s true :)
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