There is nothing more frustrating than being stuck in a weight loss plateau. You’re doing all the right things, you’re eating the right foods, you’ve rocked your workouts, and the scale still hasn’t budged.
It doesn’t make sense. Just weeks ago with the same nutrition and fitness plan the fat was just melting off. What is happening? The program must be faulty!
Not necessarily so. There could be a number of culprits.
1. A ‘weight loss’ plateau doesn’t necessarily mean a fat loss plateau:
Just because the numbers on the scale have stopped changing, doesn’t mean that all progress has ceased. It is important to capture more than one source of progress. At Encompass Fitness, we take weight, circumference measurements, and progress photo’s. Each tell a different, yet very important story.
Ideally, you would capture all three of these measurements. A plateau would be in effect if you have seen no change in any of these numbers for at least three weeks. Weight loss can be a slow process, which is actually a good thing – typically slower weight loss means long term weight loss.
What Could Be Happening?
1. Inaccurate Tracking
Unfortunately, I am always amazed at the number of people who tell me they ‘can’t lose weight’ or ‘never see any progress’, and when I sit down with them and ask to see their food journals, exercise activity, and documentation of their physical progress… they don’t have any. This generates two culprits – the first, being that without documentation, most people tend to underestimate what they eat (BLT’s – bites, licks, and tastes add up quickly), and overestimate the calories burnt while exercising. In addition, those who don’t track their food and begin exercising tend to give themselves mental permission to overindulge, because they think they have earned it.
You can’t track what you don’t measure.
2. Water Retention
‘Water weight’ can be the result of a high-carb day, a high sodium meal, or hormone fluctuations in women. A high carb day will increase the amount of muscle glycogen (sugars from the carbohydrates) in the muscles. For each gram of muscle glycogen, the body can store 3-4 grams of water. This may not seem like a lot, but after a high carb day this could result in 2.5-3.5 pounds of water retention. Similarly, sodium intake can also influence water retention. Increased sodium causes the body to temporarily retain water until the body can process and normalize fluid balance and sodium concentration.
Hormones can also cause water retention as increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and estrogen (PMS weight gain anyone?) cause the body to retain sodium, resulting in water retention as well.
This doesn’t mean you should stop eating carbs and limit all sodium. However, it allows you to see that a fluctuation on the scale does not necessarily mean a weight loss plateau. It can simply mean your body is holding onto water, waste, or that you’re experiencing a higher than normal level of stress. If you know that you’ve eaten a high carb or a salty meal, are experiencing hormonal fluctuations, or are under a great deal of stress, stay off of the scale for the week, or take the number with a grain of salt (literally). Your fluid levels should restore within 1-4 days. Don’t let it bother you, but simply continue to concentrate on your healthy habits, rather than the outcome of the scale.
Measure All Progress:
Don’t forget to include all areas of progress. If you solely rely on changes in appearance over your health and fitness journey you are going to find yourself at a plateau one day or another, and are going to find yourself lacking motivation to persist with health and fitness for the remainder of your life. When it comes to progress, ensure you are considering more than just a number on the scale, size of your jeans, or the size of your biceps. Are you able to train harder in the gym? Are you lifting more? Able to run further? Often we get so fixated on appearances that we forget about the transformations in our athletic abilities, health, and overall character.
When You Have Hit a True Plateau:
There are a number of reasons for a true plateau, and most people will hit at least one plateau on the journey to achieving their goals. Our bodies are efficient, or ‘lazy’ and will try to function at a certain level comfortably without having to lose weight. There are a few ways we can overcome these plateau’s (I do not recommend giving up as one of them).
1. Mix it up:
While the body thrives off of consistency in terms of macronutrients and fitness programming, a shock to the system in terms of a cheat meal or high carbohydrate day will help to replenish glycogen stores to increase training intensity, increase insulin to help preserve muscle tissue, and increase hormones that help increase metabolism.
2. Stop Weighing yourself daily:
Seriously. This is not doing you any good. Your weight can fluctuate by 3-5 pounds per day due to changes in water retention. An increase in carbohydrates, sodium, and low water intake will cause you to retain weight. Whereas a moderate carbohydrate and low sodium with plenty of water will help you maintain a consistent weight, or even cause your weight to decrease significantly following a sweat induced workout. Therefore, the unpredictable fluctuations in weight should not be taken at face value as many individuals frequently become fixated on these numbers, often hampering their confidence and their progress.
3. Talk to your coach:
You coach can help you to work through a plateau by reassessing where you started from and where you are at. As you lose body weight, your caloric needs will change. With large losses in weight, your daily caloric needs will decrease, and with additional lean muscle mass, your increased metabolism may cause you to increase your daily calories. Body composition is a science, and a trusted and knowledgeable nutrition coach can help you overcome plateau’s and help you reach your goals.
While this article was meant to shed light on why the number on the scale will fluctuate, our greatest goal is that you would not become fixated by the number on the scale, but would use the number on the scale as an occasional feedback mechanism, in addition to measurements and photographs to ensure that you are progressing in the right direction. The scale was designed to be a tool to help you measure progress, not to define your progress, or your worth.