If you’ve ever tried dieting in the past, you know how difficult it is to continue losing weight and keep it off over the long term.
Many of us see a big initial drop, then progress stall before we hit a plateau. Finally we get angry and we stop.
Yet the storage area, or the ‘plateau’, is apparently very important; the scales don’t move because our bodies are adapting to change.
Here, Tamara Willner, a British nutritionist at NHS-backed healthy eating plan Second Nature, reveals why you shouldn’t give up when you hit a plateau – and how to boost your weight loss again.
If you’ve ever experienced a weight loss plateau, you know how daunting it can be. Most take eight to 12 weeks for progress to restart
Weight loss is not a linear process, those trying to lose weight will face disappointment when the scale goes up instead of down
Expectations versus reality
Above, we can see a graph showing our ‘expectations’ versus the ‘reality’ of a typical weight loss trajectory. In the graph on the right, we see periodic periods of weight loss and weight plateaus.
It’s worth noting that our weight is still going down overall, but we’re experiencing swings and plateaus along the way.
The science behind our weight plateaus
The weight loss plateaus are important to give our body time to ‘reset’ before we can lose weight again. This is explained by the ‘setpoint theory’.
Everyone has a natural ‘set point’, the range of weight that our bodies float towards when we eat healthy. Our setpoint is determined by our DNA and our environment.
Tamara Willner, nutritionist at NHS-backed Second Nature healthy eating plan
Slow, gradual weight gain over many years can cause our body to resettle to a new, higher weight.
However, getting below our setpoint range can be a daunting challenge. Our body will do everything to maintain it.
Everyone is unique, so some of us will naturally have a higher weight set point, and some of us will have a lower set point.
Why a weight loss plateau is important
A weight loss platform doesn’t mean our healthy lifestyle changes aren’t working. If they are the result of reaching our set weight, it is essential to allow our body’s metabolism and hormone signaling to adjust to the ‘new normal’.
Research shows that two-thirds of people regain all weight they have lost and some are on a strict diet, so we have to keep in mind that maintaining the weight we’ve already lost is a big achievement.
How long does a weight loss plateau last?
If we lose weight slowly and gradually, our set point can adjust and our body will stop fighting us.
Once you’ve reached your set point, your body will need time to adjust to a new weight. After this you have set a different set point and your body will respond as the ‘new normal’, meaning you can start losing weight again if you want or need it.
A plateau can last anywhere from eight to 12 weeks, but it also varies on an individual level. After this, it is much easier for us to start a weight loss period again.
Sustainable weight loss is not a sprint. Most of the time, significant life-altering weight loss occurs over one to two years.
Identifying the cause of your plateau
If you’re experiencing a plateau, there are ways to help your body kickstart (stock image)
There is a big difference between:
a) a weight loss plateau as your body has to adjust to a new set point weight,
b) Difficulty losing weight for other reasons.
Here are some signs you may be suffering from a) a setpoint plateau:
If you think you’re experiencing a setpoint plateau, it’s important to focus on maintaining healthy habits and keeping it on weight for a period of time.
If you feel like you’re struggling to lose weight for other reasons, you can try some of the strategies below to boost your weight loss.
Strategies for triggering weight loss
Try to compose balanced meals with a serving of protein, healthy fats and lots of non-starchy vegetables. If you add some carbohydrates, choose complex carbohydrates (eg oats, rye bread or brown pasta) instead of refined carbohydrates (eg white bread, white rice or sugary grains).
There is some evidence that the best diet for weight loss is a low-carb approach. Reducing our intake of refined carbohydrates can help us lose weight.
Our body often sees thirst signals for hunger. Consider setting a reminder on your phone every hour to drink a glass of water or a glass of water before every meal.
A low-carbohydrate diet can help the body lose weight. Limiting the hours of the day you eat can also help promote weight loss
Early research suggests that time-limited diet (TRF) – keeping our eating window at ten hours or less, such as from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. or 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. – could promote weight loss. Larger, well-controlled studies are needed to reach solid conclusions, but it can help some of us feel better and kick-start our weight loss.
To get the benefits of exercise, we don’t necessarily have to train ‘harder’. Instead, it’s about looking at the type and frequency of our training.
Changing the exercise we do is a great way to build different types of muscle in our body and optimize the amount of fat we burn. Consider trying some new exercises at home or fit in small bursts of exercise into your daily routine.
When we’re determined to lose weight, keep it off in the long run, and improve our overall health, managing our stress and sleep is vital.
Poor sleep and a lot of stress can, directly and indirectly, affect our weight and health. Consider taking a deep breath or meditating for two minutes every day.
Improving our bedtime routine can improve the quality of our sleep; for example, reducing screen time before bed, keeping our bedrooms dark and cool, and avoiding alcohol at night.
Second Nature is an NHS-backed healthy eating plan that also aims to ‘reverse’ type 2 diabetes. www.secondnature.io For more information.