Getting into shape and eating healthier is difficult yet rewarding. At first you notice the weight sliding off, but then all of a sudden your weight plateaus -- no matter how much exercise and healthy eating you do.
First off, it's important to know that this experience is normal. In fact, you could argue that if our bodies didn't plateau at some point, they wouldn't be doing their job.
"Weight loss plateaus are perfectly normal," Alexandra Parker, accredited practising dietitian from The Biting Truth, told The Huffington Post Australia.
"A scenario we often see at our clinics is where a client will lose a significant amount of weight after making changes to their diet and exercise routine, which will cause them to feel motivated and elated.
"This is then followed by a period of no change (or in some cases, weight gain). The weight stops falling off and they experience what is known as a 'weight loss plateau'.
"While this can be very disheartening and even frustrating, it is important not to be put off by plateaus as they are actually normal, and there is a scientific rationale behind why this happens."
"Plateauing is a protective response from the body and is something that almost everyone will experience when they are trying to lose a large amount of weight," accredited practising dietitian from The Biting Truth Anna Debenham explained.
"While you may stop shredding the kilograms, from a health point of view we usually find that blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels continue to improve, which is great and shows that it is still making a difference."
According to dietitian Robbie Clark, weight loss plateaus can also be indicative of underlying health and lifestyle issues.
"As a practitioner, 'why can't I lose the last few kilos' and 'why aren't I losing weight' are questions I get all the time," Clark told HuffPost Australia.
"There are usually some underlying health and lifestyle problems that are the cause of this, and it's not until I do a full investigation and assessment of my client that we get to the bottom of it."
Here are eight reasons you may be plateauing, and what you can do about it.
1. You're stressed
"When we are chronically stressed, our body produces elevated levels of our stress hormone, cortisol," Clark explained.
"Continuously high levels of cortisol promotes weight gain via visceral fat cell growth and storage. Cortisol also stimulates the neurotransmitters that signal hunger and decreases the signals for satiety.
"Another connection is cortisol's effect on cravings for high calorie foods, which may explain the association between emotional stress and increased food intake."
Solution: stress management.
"If you suffer from stress or stress-related conditions, it is very important to implement some stress-reducing techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or progressive muscle relaxation," Clark said.
Don't punish yourself if you plateau or even take a step backwards. The important thing is that you are looking after your body and overall health.
2. You're not getting enough sleep
"When we get too little sleep, our metabolism slows down to conserve energy. As a response, our body triggers the release of the stress hormone, cortisol," Clark said.
"In a vicious cycle, sleep deprivation causes our bodies to release the hormone ghrelin (the hormone that signals hunger) and suppresses leptin (the hormone that tells your stomach that it's full).
"Another contributing factor to increased abdominal fat is that the body burns the most calories during REM sleep (deep sleep phase). Therefore, less sleep means less time in REM."
Solution: prioritise sleep and recover well from exercise.
"To optimise hormone balance, it's important to have good sleep hygiene. Implement a regular sleep routine where you go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time every morning," Clark said.
"Make sure your room is dark and quiet and at a cool temperature. Dim the lights and avoid electronic devices such as iPhones, iPads and computer screens before bed."
3. You're eating too little
It seems counter intuitive, but not eating enough (which is often the case when dieting) can actually hinder your ability to lose weight. Think of a car without fuel -- it's not going to go very far.
"One of the most common reasons people plateau is because their kilojoule intake is actually too low for too long," Parker said.
"While this might work initially, your body can only run on low fuel for a short amount of time. When your body is not receiving the energy it requires, it will respond by slowing down its metabolic rate in a concerted effort to conserve energy.
"This means the food you do eat is more likely to be stored so your body has a supply of fuel as it does not know when it will next receive energy. Sometimes eating a little more will help to increase your metabolic rate, making weight loss easier."
Of course, this goes the other way too. Eating more than your body is burning, even if it's healthy food, can result in weight gain.
"This relates back to that recipe for weight loss: calories in (from food and beverages) need to less than your calorie output (from exercise and basal metabolic rate)," Clark said.
"This might be obvious to many, but this also applies to healthy food. Some people may still overconsume healthy food thinking it is lower in calories."
Solution: calculate your daily energy needs and reassess your diet.
"Eat whole foods (predominantly vegetables), lean protein and healthy fats. Avoid processed foods, refined carbohydrates and added sugars that cause inflammation," Robbie said.
Debenham also recommends looking at your snacks, portion sizes and how much alcohol, soft drink and juice you are consuming.
"Small habits may be sabotaging your goals. What are you snacking on? Often snack foods that may be thought of as 'healthy' are actually laden with sugar and fat," Debenham said.
"Check back in and see if you need to cut them down. It can be useful to measure portions using cups or plate sizes."
4. You're not switching up your exercise enough
While you will get better at doing the same exercises over and over, it's important to keep switching up your routine so your muscles don't get used to the same movements.
"The other reason you might experience a plateau is because you are no longer pushing your body hard enough to see changes," Debenham said.
"Achieving a significant amount of weight loss requires you to continue to push your body via both exercise and diet."
Solution: change up your training.
"Generally, the way to stop a weight loss plateau is to mix things up. Your body needs to be challenged to continue to lose weight," Parker said. "Mix up your training -- try and use different groups of muscles and train for different lengths of time. We recommend enjoying a mixture of interval, strength and cardio training."
"If you're not currently doing any resistance or strength training, add it into your program. Lean muscle mass is important in boosting your metabolism," Clark added.
5. You're over-training
On the other side of the spectrum, if you're excessively exercising (without enough rest or food) you may be putting too much stress on your body and increasing cortisol, Clark explained.
"Excess exercise can cause health problems, especially if the diet is lacking in proper nutrition," Clark said. "Over-training can signal the body to start burning muscle for fuel and store more fat, resulting in some weight gain.
"Over-training with the addition of poor recovery can cause the body to produce excessive amounts of cortisol, which can lead to weight gain or stubborn fat loss."
Solution: make sure you have rest days and eat enough food.
6. You have a hormone imbalance
A hormone imbalance can affect everything from skin to weight, so it's worth checking in with a medical professional to rule out any underlying issues.
"Your hormones play a pivotal part in every aspect of fat loss, including your metabolism, where you store your fat, your appetite and even your cravings," Clark told HuffPost Australia.
"Despite following a healthy diet and fitness program, any form of hormonal imbalance will sabotage your fat loss efforts."
According to Clark, excess abdominal fat can indicate one or more of the following hormonal imbalances:
High insulin (insulin resistance) -- When insulin resistance develops, the insulin response is impaired and glucose levels are no longer efficiently controlled. As a result, blood levels become elevated, causing the insulin-resistant individual to store stubborn abdominal fat and increase their risk of other chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
High oestrogen -- Men who have higher levels of abdominal fat are more likely to experience an increase in the conversion of testosterone into oestrogen. As oestrogen levels rise, so does the tendency to accumulate more abdominal fat. Similarly, women who are pre-menopausal and have high levels of oestrogen (also known as oestrogen dominance) are more likely have heightened PMS, too much body fat around the hips and struggle to lose fat.
Low testosterone -- Testosterone levels decline with ageing, obesity and stress. Men who have elevated fat mass experience lower testosterone because of the conversion to oestrogen.
High cortisol -- While stress is an important adaptation essential for survival, long-term stress can be damaging. Chronic stress can lead to persistently elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is detrimental to your health as well as to your body composition.
Low DHEA -- DHEA is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It is a precursor to the female and male sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone, and helps to counteract the negative effects of cortisol. DHEA declines with age and may lead to an increase in fat mass, reduction in lean body mass or central fat redistribution. This decline occurs equally in both men and women.
Low thyroid activity -- The thyroid is the central regulator of your metabolism. it secretes thyroid hormone (thyroxine) to influence metabolism in a number of tissues. Thyroid dysfunction can affect body weight and composition, body temperature, and energy expenditure.
Solution: check in with your GP.
"First, it's important to rule out any medical condition that might be contributing to your plateau. A doctor or health professional can assist you with the investigation and provide a full health assessment," Clark said.
7. You have an undiagnosed medical condition
"There are some medical conditions that can lead to weight gain or make it much harder to lose weight," Clark said.
"These include hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and sleep apnoea. Certain medications can also make weight loss harder, or even cause weight gain."
Solution: check in with your GP.
8. Your body is happy at this weight
This may not be the answer you want, but one reason you're plateauing might be because this is your body's ideal weight, despite what message social media and models portray.
"Generally, the reason an individual might experience a weight loss plateau is because their body likes to be stable. Instinctively, the body will try and maintain the same weight (it does not like losing weight)," Debenham said.
"While we know that once you have lost the weight your body is much better off, to our bodies, weight loss is perceived as a threat and it will do what it takes to prevent this."
"The important thing is not to get too focused on the numbers on the scales," Parker said.
"Rapid weight loss is not necessarily a good thing, as it often means you are losing fluid and muscle rather than fat. Healthy weight loss should involve losing weight as opposed to fluids or muscle.
"In fact, because muscle is more effective at burning energy than fat, we want to try and build muscle. Therefore aiming for slow and steady weight loss, while it might not be so satisfying, is more favourable."
Here are some indicators that you may be at a healthy weight:
- Your hunger levels and weight have stabilised (i.e. your weight loss has slowed down)
- You feel energised and healthy
- Your other health signs are in order (e.g. blood pressure, blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels)
Solution: be kind to yourself.
Avoid comparing your fitness, body or weight loss goals to anyone else's. Every body is different, and there's no one image of 'healthy'.
"Don't punish yourself if you plateau or even take a step backwards. The important thing is that you are looking after your body and overall health," Parker said.
"If you find you're needing to go to extreme lengths to lose those last few kilos, it might be worthwhile revisiting your weight loss goal and seeing if it is realistic," Debenham said. "The ideal weight for you is one that you can maintain with regular exercise and a healthy, balanced diet."
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