Taken from the ALMA – Australian Lifestyle Medicine Association
Here’s something you won’t read about in the women’s magazines: Weight loss is not a linear process.
In other words, you’re unlikely to lose a steady 1 or 2 kilograms per week until you get down to where you want to be.
Why don’t the women’s magazines talk about this? Because they don’t want you/her to think there might be something a little less than magical about the diet/food/treatment/drug program they’re trying to sell to you.
The truth is, weight loss is a dynamic process. Change one thing (eg. food or exercise), and the body changes other things (eg. metabolism, the rate at which you burn energy) to make sure that you don’t disappear.
If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. There’s a natural and evolutionary advantage in carrying extra body fat. It means that, come a famine, you will have enough stored energy to survive. Hence, the body defends this extra weight by changing things like your level of hunger, the rate at which you burn energy, your metabolism and the rate at which your body converts food into fat.
If you try to lose, these changes come into play to act against you. It’s nature’s way of stopping you from disappearing. Hence we have the familiar ‘plateau’. This is a time 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). But one thing is for sure. If you lose enough weight over a long enough period, you’re bound to hit at least one plateau.
What do we know about plateaus?
Given that plateaus are so obvious, the question is what do we know about them 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 (with the exception of a notable few friends of the professor) is being done to improve our knowledge in this area.
In this glaring absence, what can we say about plateaus that makes sense in theory, if not in practice. Well here’s a couple of pearlers from Professor Garry Egger; world 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, 100kcals of energy. But not finding any, this 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 eg. 80 kcals (because you’re carrying less body weight and are fitter). Hence you now have to go for 5kms to get the weight loss you use to get with 4kms. Your body’s metabolism will also drop by eg. 10% from burning 1kcal/min to 0.9kcals per minute (or roughly 200kcals a day), and thus further putting the breaks on weight gain.
The speed with which this happens is variable and depends on a number of factors. But it’s inevitable that plateauing will occur at some stage. Hence the drop in weight loss you’ll experience is unlikely to be that shown by a straight line.
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 dependant on a number of factors not yet identified, but probably including 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
The great Harvard Nutritionist 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 (particularly metabolism) is dropped below that of energy expenditure in order to reduce the imbalance even more. In other words, a decrease of 10% in energy intake may lead to a decrease of 12-15% 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 the plateau
Adaptation of the body comes about largely through routine ie. eating, drinking and exercising the same amount each day. So it’s no surprise that the best weapon against plateauing is likely to be a break in routine ie. change. 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 a drop off a weight loss plateau. This can be brought about in a number of ways such as those shown in the table.
Ways of breaking through a weight loss plateau through change
Take a holiday
Go to bed earlier
Get up later
Try different sex
Try new foods
Change eating patterns
Try different drinks
Eat different foods
Go low carb (for a while)
Try different exercises
Add weights to exercise
Walk a different route
Stand for longer