The Dreaded Weight Plateau: Why It Happens

How many of you have attempted to lose weight in the past? How many of you ever hit a “plateau” when you were actively attempting to lose weight? As if losing weight weren’t hard enough, hitting a plateau is another hassle to deal with.

What is a Weight-Loss Plateau?
It happens to just about everyone who is in the midst of a weight-loss program. A weight-loss plateau is when you stop losing weight despite continuing to follow your diet and/or physical activity plan. Everything seems to be going along just fine, thank you… You’ve shed some pounds, your clothes are fitting you better, you’re eating healthfully, you’re walking more, you feel great. But for some mysterious reason, there comes a day or week when the scale stubbornly refuses to budge. It’s not moving. Nothing’s changed, you say. The scale must be broken, you rationalize. Or someone has snuck some calories into your food. You rack your brain trying to figure it out. What’s going on?

Why Plateaus Happen
If you think about it for a minute, it almost makes sense as to why plateaus occur. Let’s say you weigh 180 pounds and you (or your dietitian) have determined that you currently eat about 2400 calories each day. You want to lose 20 pounds; therefore, you have to shave off calories somewhere and/or start burning some up through exercise. Think back to your physiology: a pound of fat is roughly equivalent to 3500 calories. In order to lose one pound, you need to knock out 3500 calories from your food choices.


Of course, you want to be smart about it and lose weight in a way such that it’s healthful and that you’ll keep the weight off (which means no fad diets!). Guidelines for smart weight loss tell us that if you trim 500 calories from your daily food intake, you’ll lose approximately one pound per week. Trim 1000 calories and you’ll likely lose two pounds per week (this is called safe, gradual weight loss). You may lose more, you may lose less.

Blame It on Your BMR
Back to our example. Whether you cut back by 500 calories or 1000 calories per day, you’ll likely notice that you lose more weight at the beginning of your weight loss program because your body is burning glycogen, a storage form of energy. Glycogen is stored in your muscles and liver, along with water. When you burn glycogen for fuel, you also lose water weight, so that’s why you see those nice results at the start of your weight-loss program. For some people, it’s almost like the weight is practically melting off! Everyone loses weight at a different rate, however, so it could take you anywhere from 5 to 20 weeks (plus or minus) to lose those 20 pounds.

But lo and behold, there’s a high probability that your weight loss can (and will) taper off at some point, even if it’s a temporary taper. Why? What many people don’t realize is that the more a person weighs, the higher his basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the rate at which one burns calories for energy to fuel all the processes that occur in the body, including breathing and digestion. As you drop weight, you also drop your BMR. It makes sense, in a way, because there’s less of you to move around. It doesn’t require as much energy to keep your body going.

Something else happens, too, when you lose weight: As you lose weight, you not only lose fat and water, you lose muscle mass, too. Muscle is a “metabolically active” tissue; it burns more calories than any other type of tissue in the body, such as fat. In fact, muscle burns calories even when you’re lounging on your couch with the remote in one hand or curled up in bed sleeping. So, muscle is a keeper. But the reality is that you do lose some muscle when you lose weight. And if you aren’t exercising as you’re losing weight, you’ll lose more muscle and less fat (this is a hard lesson to learn, for some).

Now What?
So, you’ve cut back on your calories, you’ve stepped up the activity, you’ve lost some weight, but now you’re stuck. The weight loss has stopped! The reason: Your BMR has dropped because a) you’ve lost muscle mass and b) there’s less of you. You’re burning fewer calories even though you’re working hard at watching your food intake and being more active. Oh, the injustice of it all! Plateaus are no fun. But all is not lost. Tune in next week. And feel free to share your secrets to breaking the weight loss plateau.

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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