When we have a goal to lose weight, we often ramp up our exercise routine and hone in on our food consumption, so it’s great when we start to see the scale go down. But at one point or another, we’re bound to hit a weight loss plateau.
Let’s first explain what a plateau is.
The human body is great at adapting to the conditions it’s handed. Its main goal is to maintain homeostasis within the body. So for instance, if we eat too much, it will speed up our metabolism to burn extra calories, and when we eat too little, it will slow it down. However, when the body is in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time, you will notice you initially lose weight, but eventually the body adapts to fewer calories and metabolically adjusts — this is why we see a stall, which in technical terms is called adaptive thermogenesis. In order to move past this stall, you must expose your body to new conditions to which is must adapt.
While we know it can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing to put in all this effort and see no progress on the scale, there may be a few not-so-obvious things that are preventing you from getting past this..
1. You’re stressed
Whether it’s financial, work related, health, relationships, or even hidden stressors, too much stress can put a halt on weight loss. Why? Hormones. While hormones are far from simple, too much stress causes a major jump in our stress hormones, namely cortisol, DHEA, and adrenaline. Increased stress puts pressure on the adrenal glands to produce either excess or insufficient amounts of these hormones.
Cortisol, in particular, is one of the main factors in hormone-related weight fluctuations. Too high or too low cortisol levels can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels and thyroid function, which causes fluctuations in weight and symptoms associated with a lowered metabolic rate. A 2015 study found that stressed women had higher insulin levels, which plays a role in fat storage, as well as lower rates of fat oxidation.
When cortisol levels rise, the body goes into what’s called “fight or flight” mode; it puts the body on high alert causing your pupils to dilate, your heart rate to speed up, blood to be shunted to crucial areas of the body (i.e. muscles) to help get away from the danger, and certain body systems to shut down (digestion, reproductive, etc.).
But the one thing people don’t often tell you is that cortisol also causes you to store fat. Cortisol largely affects fat distribution, which causes fat to be stored centrally — around your organs. This in and of itself causes another issue commonly known as ‘skinny fat’. Skinny fat is a condition whereby you’re metabolically obese but appear as though you are skinny; the health consequences of this are also quite significant.
2. You’re eating too much
If you’re not tracking your macros or food consumption to any extent, you may be eating more than you think. Serving sizes can be slightly confusing, especially with certain foods that don’t have nutritional labels. For example, nuts, which are high-fat, have relatively small portion sizes. If you’re grabbing a handful of nuts, you could be eating upwards of two or three servings in one sitting. Always be sure to check the serving size when you’re eating foods to ensure you’re sticking to a single portion.
Mindless eating is another key issue to address. If you’re eating because you’re bored, stress, or upset, they’re calories you probably don’t need to be consuming and will likely put you over your daily intake. In this case, practice mindful eating. Determine whether you’re truly hungry or whether you’re going to food to address an emotional issue or boredom. Drink some water, wait half an hour, and see if you’re still hungry.
3. Or you’re eating too little
On the other hand, eating too little can also put the body in a state of stress and cause weight gain. While it might seem counter-intuitive since you’d think eating too little will cause weight loss, it eventually does the opposite.
Initially, you may lose some weight if your caloric intake is less than you energy output, but eventually the body adapts to fewer calories. Many studies have concluded that severe caloric restriction
decreases resting metabolic rate (RMR), which likely contributes to the weight gain that’s frequently observed during extreme dieting. In fact, people who are hypo-caloric, that is, consuming less than the body needs to maintain, experience a 10-25% drop in resting metabolic rate. A slower metabolic rate is the body’s way of protecting you from losing too much stored fat. While RMR doesn’t always remain lowered when calories are restricted, we see a decline more often than not, which translates to fewer calories being burned.
4. You’re overtraining
Often times, people associated a high energy expenditure from exercise with weight loss. While this is sometimes the case, overtraining puts the body under large amounts of stress. Overtraining is a condition associated with decreased performance and fatigue, which is triggered by metabolic, immune, hormonal, and other dysfunctions and results from an imbalance between training stress and proper recovery.
Heavy resistance training has been shown to stimulate an acute cortisol response, and chronically high cortisol, as we discussed, can wreak havoc on a number of body functions, one of which includes weight control.
5. Your sleep sucks
Many studies have made a link between poor sleep and weight gain and obesity. There’s no question that the rates of obesity have jumped significantly in the last several decades, but this trend has been paralleled by a trend in reduced sleep duration. There is increasing evidence that points to short sleep duration and poor sleep quality as new risk factors for the development of obesity.
Sleep is incredibly important to modulate neuroendocrine function and glucose metabolism and decreased sleep duration has been shown to alter metabolic and endocrine function, including glucose tolerance and appetite regulating hormone.
Being chronically tired also means you probably don’t have the energy to exercise, which means even fewer calories are being burned.
The Take Home
The takeaway message here is that everyone is bound to hit a weight plateau at some point. If you aren’t sure why it’s happening to you, take a look at your lifestyle and see if any of the above five factors are going on. While it may not always be an easy fix — maybe you have a young child that keeps you up at night, or maybe you’re under a lot of pressure at work — adding in small things like portion control, meditation, yoga, and naps can help you to get back on track and break through your plateau.
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