How to Cope with a Plateau

By Dr Louisa Hoey

So, you have worked really hard at losing weight and have enjoyed getting on the scales and seeing that number slowly but surely go down. How rewarding is that?!?! But now, you notice the loss has slowed right down and it seems that it won’t budge any further. This is a normal and common phenomenon in weight loss that dieticians and psychologists call a plateau.  If you interpret this as a negative experience and you have a tendency to eat for non-hungry reasons like frustration, hopelessness or anxiety; it can lead to an increase in weight.

Why do Plateaus happen?

Plateaus are a very normal part of weight loss. Temporary plateaus for a week or two may be due to changes in fluid retention, hormones, eating a little extra one week or exercising a little less. Longer lasting plateaus are a sign that your energy intake is balanced with your output. In other words, you are no longer working at a kilojoule deficit (intake is less than output) but instead you have reached a balance.

How to manage it

  • Remember that the way you think influences how you feel and what you do (or eat). If unhealthy thinking about a plateau leaves you feeling deflated, defeated and depressed you will be at risk of comfort eating and in turn weight gain. Be aware of your sabotaging thinking and challenge yourself.

If you are saying things like “this is so unfair, I will never be able to be slim”, or “this shouldn’t happen I should lose weight every week” you will likely trigger uncomfortable feelings like disappointment and frustration. Try saying instead “plateaus are a very normal part of weight loss” or “I have done so well to lose the weight I have so far, I feel better (insert: lighter, more energetic, brighter…) than I used to feel and this is my body adjusting itself, I will be patient”.

  • 2. Take a long-term perspective and use this as an opportunity to practice weight maintenance. Weight maintenance is a crucial skill and in my opinion is harder than weight loss as you don't have the lovely positive reinforcement of the scales decreasing weekly. After you have had a few months of maintenance you might have renewed energy and motivation and are able to lose another few kilograms. This longer term approach will increase the likelihood that your weight will stay off permanently.
  • 3. Consider how realistic your weight loss goal is and whether in fact your plateau weight is where your body is meant to be. The set point theory says that the body has a natural weight range that it will always tend towards - it is different for different people and in my opinion it is difficult to work out what your set point range is until you have a generally healthy relationship with food: like you eat mainly when you are hungry, you can sense what sort of foods your body needs, and you don't do much non-hungry eating. It is possible that your dream goal weight is different to your body's set point range.
  • 4. Reducing kilojoules a little or increase exercise a little and see what happens. I would recommend that you talk this through with your weight loss psychologist, dietician or GP first.

About the Author

Dr Louisa Hoey is a health psychologist.  She is the Director of the Health Psychology Centre. Louisa specialises in the psychological aspects of food, the emotional relationships around food and the development of strategies to a happier more fuller life.

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