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What to do when weight loss plateaus

By Kristian Gray

There is a popular expression used in the health and fitness industry that says ‘weight loss is a marathon and not a sprint’ and this is a phrase I find myself using on a regular basis to remind clients that change – real, lasting change – takes a long time and not a matter of weeks.

To extend the sporting analogy further, a marathon runner cannot maintain the same pace throughout a 26-mile race. There are moments of acceleration, times where their pace remains constant, and there will of course be a time when they slow down, this is only natural.

The exact same principles can be applied to weight loss. During a weight loss journey, at the start and in the vast majority of cases, the body reacts quickly to the change in eating habits. Many can lose half a stone in the first seven days, sometimes even more and they carry that momentum forward into weeks two, three, four and on many occasions, even further.

But at some point, that weight loss starts to slow and for many, it can even plateau. Marathon runners call this ‘hitting the wall’, that moment when they feel as though they can give no more, the pace stagnates and starts to slow.

A cheat meal can be the start of a slippery slope

This can be one of the most disheartening moments for people on a weight loss high. Seeing the number on the scales go down and the silhouette starting to change is such a rewarding experience and to see that stop can be difficult to deal with.

This leads to the inevitable question, ‘what am I doing wrong’? In my experience there are three very common reasons why weight loss starts to slow, and it may come as a surprise to learn that two of those have absolutely nothing to do with nutrition.

Two of the most common reasons that people see a plateau in their weight loss are lack of sleep and an increase in stress. Sleep is absolutely fundamental to health and wellbeing and without it, our body simply cannot function properly.

Sleep is proven beyond doubt to help with weight loss. Without getting scientific, your body needs to burn energy to help you lose weight. If it is simply too tired and rundown to do that, weight loss will not happen and even if it does, it will be at a much slower rate.

Linked to a lack of sleep is stress and it has become far more common in recent years. A 2018 study carried out in the UK showed that 74 per cent of people reported feeling so stressed over a 12-month period that they had been overwhelmed and ‘unable to cope’.

Delving deeper into that study, 46 per cent reported eating too much and making poor food choices, and a further 29 per cent even admitted to smoking.

Multiple studies have also revealed that the most common cause of stress are finances, and at a time when businesses are struggling as a result of Covid-19 it is no wonder that stress is not only stopping people from losing weight but is actually a cause of weight gain.

The final weight loss plateau I want to discuss (there are many more however) is the highly-popular ‘cheat meal’. Put simply, this is the one meal of the week when you can gorge on any food you wish and to hell with the calories.

This is possibly one of the greatest ideas ever for anyone looking to lose weight. Many weight loss programmes are restrictive and the foods you are told to eat can be bland and tasteless. A cheat meal is an incentive to stick to the plan, an opportunity to throw caution to the wind and indulge in the foods you have missed for weeks.

The problem here is obvious. The foods you miss are not those that you only eat once; they trigger hormone receptors in the brain that make you want to eat more. Quickly a cheat meal becomes a cheat day and that cheat day becomes a cheat weekend and so on.

If you are following a calorie counting plan, you are likely to be on a 2,500 deficit over the course of a week. That does not give you much wriggle room. A medium sized pizza can easily contain more calories than that, throw in a dessert and your deficit for the week is gone, as is your weight loss.

The good news however, is that these issues can be overcome by being aware of the pitfalls and trying to make changes to help. Sensible food choices, getting enough rest and finding something, no matter how simple, that can reduce your stress for any period of time will see you continue to lose weight.

And who knows, when you have reached your target weight, a real marathon may not be out of the question.


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