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How to break a weight loss plateau

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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“I just can't seem to budge this weight!” It's a common cry from clients and indicates they have reached a fat loss plateau. Why do plateaus occur and what you can do to break through them?

A fat loss plateau is a normal part of losing weight and has a good scientific explanation. A plateau occurs when you are in energy balance. At this time the calories you consume from food and drink equal the calories you expend as part of your resting metabolic rate and during physical activity.

Many people who are overweight are at a plateau. They will say, “I've been 10 kilograms overweight for years.” Starting a fitness programme where they eat less and exercise more causes an energy imbalance (less calories in than calories out) and breaks their initial plateau. They start and will keep losing weight while there is a negative energy balance.

But at some stage the energy balance equation balances again and causes another plateau. When you are, for example 10 kilograms lighter the energy cost of moving your body during daily tasks and during exercise sessions is much less. Contrary to common believe, your total daily metabolic rate can drop, even when you are exercising regularly. When it falls to match your lower energy intake level, another plateau occurs.

The same principle applies to weight gain. You eat more carbohydrate and protein to gain lean muscle mass, but the extra weight increases your metabolic rate making it harder to achieve continuing weight gains unless you eat even more.

How to predict a plateau

It's useful to assess clients for their potential to plateau at the initial consultation or programming stage, so you can choose an appropriate weight loss target and timeline.

Clients who will plateau sooner:

  • Carry more body fat all over in an ovoid fat pattern, which indicates a stronger genetic influence on body weight.
  • Have always been overweight with little weight fluctuation.
  • Have tried many diets without significant weight loss.
Clients who will plateau later:
  • Have a muscular or mesomorphic body shape.
  • Have recently gained weight as a result of becoming more sedentary or have had a relatively brief period of higher calorie intake.
  • Have lost weight relatively easily in the past.
Some clients may reach their weight loss goal and find success before they reach a plateau. Others may experience several plateaus before they achieve their long term target. For a client who may plateau sooner, set smaller weight loss goals to reduce the potential for frustration when larger targets are not met.

How to break a plateau

To break through a fat loss plateau you will need to consume less calories or increasing daily physical activity. Here are some tips.

Increase duration or intensity of exercise - As fitness increases you can increase the pace or extend training sessions. A client who has initially committed to two training sessions a week may need to consider adding another session to their routine.

Increase out-of-session activity - Even though your client works out hard with you, they may not move enough during the rest of their day. A pedometer or step counter can be used to assess daily activity. Aim for a minium of 8,000 steps, with a goal of 10,000 or more as required. Around 15,000 steps is a very active day.

Eat less sugar - A client may have cut back on fat, but still be consuming too much sugar. Low-fat sweet snacks such as breakfast bars and fruit twists may seem a perfectly healthy option, but they are often are high in sugar. Swapping to fruit can offer calorie savings. Low-fat milkshakes, smoothies and fruit juices also have a healthy image, but are where calories can add up.

Drink less alcohol - Alcoholic drinks may be difficult to cut back on or give up, but may be necessary when you hit a plateau. A reality check on volume is important as alcohol is often under-reported. When a client says they have a couple of glasses of wine at dinner each night, do they mean two small (125mL) glasses of wine providing a total of 160 calories or four large (175mL) glasses giving around 450 calories.

Eat smaller portions - Check to see if your client is eating too much of healthy foods like bread, potatoes or pasta. They may need to downsize their dinner plate or reduce second helpings.

Keeping an eating diary for a short time, say three days to identify opportunities for calorie savings is one of the best ways to be accountable for food intake. An eating diary can also reveal “calorie creep” which is the situation where previously eliminated high calories snacks have made their way back into the diet. It may be just these small things that are causing the sticking point.

It's also important to recognise that some clients may have a challenge with emotional eating and may not feel comfortable revealing their true food intake. Sensitivity and support cannot be underestimated in these situations.

Motivation at plateaus

Explaining the process of weight loss and plateaus to clients before they reach one can help reduce the anxiety that comes with weight that doesn't seem to want to budge. One analogy is to liken weight loss to climbing a tall mountain. You don't do it in one go, but take it in stages, resting at certain times to catch your breath, recharge your energy and take off again.

A plateau can last for a few weeks to several months, and it's important to have other reasons to stick at exercise and healthy eating at this time. An extended plateau may even signal that the need to help a client feel more comfortable with their current weight than keep pushing for their original target. Remind clients of other positive changes they have experienced, for example, increased fitness, better sleep, less fatigue. These are sometimes lost when the number on the scales dictates success.



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