I loathe the frustration of being stuck on a plateau. I dislike frustration in general, but when it involves my weight loss journey, it escalates to the point that I want to throw myself on the floor and scream like an irate toddler.
How do I handle it? Research to educate myself and to figure out how to fix it. Because I’m a natural born fixer of all things broken.
When I first started losing weight, it came off fast. Lightning fast, as in 4-6 pounds a week. I lost the first thirty pounds in about three months. Then the weight loss slowed down. I was still losing, but at a slower pace. Then next twenty pounds came off over the next year or so. Then…it stopped. Some of the stalling is due to injury (broken ankle!) and bad luck (stroke!). I gained some weight back, lost it again and hit a brick wall. I was keeping to my points, exercising like a demon and not losing a single ounce, week after week. The weeks have stretched into months and I’m getting pretty desperate. Those brick walls in weight loss? Experts call them ”plateaus”.
When you first start losing weight, rapid loss is normal. When you reduce your calorie intake, the body gets the energy it needs by releasing its stores of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles and liver. Glycogen is bonded to water, so when glycogen is burned for energy, it releases that water—about 4 grams of water for every gram of glycogen—resulting in substantial weight loss that’s, well, mostly water.
Once your body uses up its glycogen stores, it starts to burn fat for energy. Fat isn’t bonded to water the way glycogen is, and it gives off twice as much energy as glycogen when it’s burned by your body. The result is that weight loss slows down a lot when you start to burn fat.
After the slowdown comes a complete stop in weight loss – you’re on a plateau. A plateau is inevitable, and they last several weeks for some, several months for others. So what happens when you get to a plateau? Experts aren’t completely sure why they happen, but they have a few working theories.
One area of current research involves a possible link to reduced levels of leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells that is involved in the regulation of appetite. Research has shown that weight loss causes a marked decrease in serum leptin levels, which may, in turn, increase appetite. Yes!! This is exactly what happened to me. When I was on a plateau, I felt like I was starving all the time, no matter how much I ate. As I said, those experts aren’t completely sure about this leptin theory, and they need to do some more research on leptin’s role in human weight regulation.
Another thought on the how and why of plateaus happen concerns metabolism. Losing weight can lower metabolism since a smaller body carries less lean muscle mass and burns fewer calories to move it around. Additionally, lower calorie consumption means it takes fewer calories to digest and absorb food. Taken together, a state of energy equilibrium could result, with weight remaining steady for a period of time
Then there’s what I.T. folks like to call the ‘User Error’ theory to explain plateaus. We get familiar with a weight-loss plan, we get relaxed in sticking to the plan, not paying attention to what – or how much – is going into our mouths. We also get a little bit lazy with our exercise regimens. Of course a plateau is going to happen!
There you have it…leptin, metabolism and good old user error…three contributors to a weight loss plateau. It’s hard to say exactly which one makes a plateau happen in any given body.
I’m betting it’s a combination of all three.
I have a little more reading to do and ‘professionals’ to talk to. Stay tuned for PSA#4 – Plateaus and How to Beat Them