Why Weight Loss Can Plateau
Weight plateau theory
Our bodies are permanently seeking to rebalance themselves. It’s a process called ‘homeostasis’.
So when we get too hot, the body perspires to cool us down and when we get cold we shiver to warm the body up. The same applies to food so if our energy reserves are depleted we release the hunger hormone ghrelin encouraging us to eat. When we’ve had enough our body signals the brain via a hormone called leptin.
Studies show that weight loss/weight gain is not a symmetrical process. In other words the body finds it easier to ‘accept’ a higher weight than it does to ‘accept’ a lower weight. This could be part of our survival mechanism, because the primal drive of the body is to survive and it implements all sorts of strategies to make sure it happens.
The theory states that we all have a weight that our body is ‘comfortable’ with.
Now imagine that there is a big wooden stake driven into the ground. There is a big elastic band looped around the stake with the other end looped around your body. Imagine now what happens when you try to walk away from the stake – the elastic band drags you back. The stake in the ground is your weight set point. The body gets uncomfortable when you try to stray too far away so it tries to restore the former balance.
When we are young our weight set point is fixed at our ‘normal’ weight. But as time goes by maybe we eat more, or eat the wrong things, or we exercise less, or all three. In this instance the body is ‘seduced’ into allowing the weight set point to move upwards. This generally happens over an extended period and so the body slowly moves from it’s healthy weight position to an overweight position.
Now lets imagine this person goes on a low calorie starvation diet. After a while the body will burn extra fat and calories to stay alive but it also goes into a state of panic and alarm. The body realises that in order to survive something has to ‘give’.
So for example it slows down the metabolism so that the rate of fat burn is reduced. In women it stops monthly periods because they are not needed for survival. They are a waste of energy. In addition to burning fat reserves it starts to burn muscle. It releases more of the hunger hormone ghrelin because it is desperate to take on energy so it can survive.
In parallel with this the person can become stressed and anxious possibly accompanied by frequent headaches.
Eventually the dieter gives up because they cannot stand the hunger any more. Calorie intake goes back to what it was before and the body starts to regain it’s original set point.
Except it doesn’t!
The human body remembers that it has been put into a state of crisis. So instead of just putting the fat stores back that it lost it now adds a contingency just in case the starvation situation ever occurs again. This is why yo-yo ‘dieting’ frequently means the more ‘diets’ you go on the heavier you get!
The actual effect of the yo-yo diets has been to move the weight set point upwards.
In the same way that the weight set point has been encouraged to increase over time, it can also be encouraged to move the other way – so long as it is done gradually. By setting up a (relatively) small calorie deficit the body can be ‘seduced’ into allowing the set point to be lowered. Along with the calorie reduction it is also important to exercise and add in some strength training to help build muscle. This can be done through weights, resistance training (eg resistance bands) and activities like pilates.
According to weight set point theory the body can accept an initial weight drop of up to 10% body weight. That’s how far you can stretch the elastic band.
When this point is reached the weight loss is likely to ‘plateau’ while the body starts to accept the new weight set point before resuming the weight loss further until the healthy weight is achieved.
The problem with the weight loss plateau is that it can be tempting to think ‘it isn’t working’.
This in turn can lead to feelings of failure and in some cases people will abandon their weight loss journey altogether. This can lead to feelings of guilt as you succumb to your treats in abundance!
The reality is that the plateau is the time to ‘keep on keeping on’ until your weight loss journey restarts.