Tackling plateaus is what clueless people on the internet do instead of tracking, reviewing, and deciding. Wrestling with plateaus is what people do instead of waiting.
You know that you need a caloric deficit to lose fat and you have done the math to work out your starting calories.
Fast forward a few weeks: You’ve been dieting hardcore and you’ve seen some losses… but now it looks like you’ve hit a plateau.
Well then, time to lower calories.
Wait a second! Is this really your best option?
It’s true: When fat loss plateaus, increasing the calories you burn or reducing the calories you eat will help you kickstart the process again.
However, opting to lower calories as soon as the weight on the scale stops moving might be overkill. So, in this article, I’m going to cover:
More often than not, these tweaks will help my clients see a change without touching their food.
So strap in and let’s get into it.
What is a plateau?
First things first, let’s talk about what a plateau is not.
A week with no change on the scale is not a plateau. There are way too many variables that can affect scale weight to worry about a handful of days.
Two weeks with no change on the scale is also not a plateau.
In people assigned female at birth, especially if they menstruate, different hormonal cycles throughout the month are likely to influence the degree to which the body retains water.
If you are holding onto a lot of water, you will be heavier on the scale. If you have lost fat since the last weigh-in, then you might be exactly the same weight.
Water retention isn’t only an issue for people who menstruate.
You can also hold a lot of water if you:
A period of time where the change on the scale is minimal, but is still happening, is not a plateau, either.
If you feel you aren’t making progress as fast as you want to, you might need to assess whether you have realistic expectations. I wrote this article outlining reasonable rates of weight loss and gain, so you can have a look to get a better idea of what you can reasonably aim for.
In case you aren’t quite reaching the minimums for fat loss described in that piece, but the scale is still moving in the right direction, you have two options:
Lastly, a period of time where there is no change on the scale, but you can see differences in your progress pictures, circumference measurements, or the way clothes fit, is not a plateau.
As the previous statement implies, you would be better off using more than a single tool to gauge progress.
Taken on its own, any method – scale weight, pictures, measurements, and clothes – can be somewhat inaccurate. For example, you could take pictures after a night out and look worse than when you started your journey; or you could change the site of your circumference measurements by a centimetre or two, throwing off the result; or you might be bloated from an unusually heavy meal and find that your clothes don’t fit so well.
However, when using at least two or three of these tools at the same time, you will be able to gather much more data to interpret your trend.
When in doubt, consider what the majority of the tools you are using suggests.
For instance, if your scale says something isn’t right, but your clothes and pictures are telling you a different story, you can trust that you have not plateaued, and that the lack of movement on the scale might be due to other factors than a progress stall.
What if you haven’t seen changes of any kind for three or four weeks?
Between two and four weeks without any kind changes in any of the measurement tools you use can be considered a plateau.
So what can you do before you tweak your nutrition plan?
1. Consider your stress levels.
Stress can have a major impact on bodyweight changes, especially during a fat loss phase.
High stress levels cause an increase in cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”, which in turn can produce water retention. If your body is holding more water than usual, your weight on the scale may go up even if you haven’t gained any fat.
During a fat loss phase, water retention can mask fat loss. For example, you might have lost half a pound of body fat, but you are retaining half a pound of water, so your weight on the scale does not change.
This can be really frustrating and lead you to believe that you have plateaued when you have not.
So, if you think your diet isn’t going the way it should, look into improving your stress management skills before you make any changes to your nutrition.
When you remove the primary source of stress or at least reduce the amount of stress you feel day by day, if that is the main reason preventing you from seeing progress, then you are likely to see a weight drop within a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, you can rely on pictures and how clothes fit to gauge progress instead of trusting the scale. These two tools will give you a more complete and potentially more accurate pictures of what’s going on.
2. Consider sleep quantity and quality.
Much like high stress levels, chronically bad sleep can throw a wrench in your muscle-building and fat loss endeavours.
For one, a lack of sleep will compromise your ability to recover from training, which in a fat loss phase is crucial to maintain – and, in some cases, to increase – muscle mass.
Another potential physical response to the inadequacy of your sleep and the excessive fatigue accumulated during training as a result of your less than ideal sleep quality is a spike in cortisol levels. As mentioned in the previous section, this can give inaccurate bodyweight readings on the scale.
The general recommendation for sleep for adults is seven to nine hours per night.
The actual amount of sleep that’s best for you is very individual, but seven to nine hours is a good range to aim for.
Developing a good sleep routine can contribute to longer and better sleep.
These are some of the weapons you can include in your sleep routine arsenal:
If you think that your sleep may be the culprit of your plateau, make an effort to get it under control before you modify your nutrition. It can make a positive difference in a matter of weeks.
3. Consider your food-tracking accuracy.
Whenever it looks like my clients have hit a plateau, but their sleep and stress levels are in check, my first question is: “How accurate are you when you’re tracking food?”
Whether you are tracking your portions or your calories, it’s easy to think you are being as accurate as you can be… but you are not.
This is a non-exhaustive list of mistakes I and my clients have all experienced with tracking accuracy:
This is usually the primary reason why you might think you’re eating 1500 calories, but you’re actually eating 2000.
This is similar to the first point, but it’s worth mentioning as a separate issue.
All the foods given in the example can be a nuisance to weigh, but they are also high in calories (600 to 900 per 100gr serving).
Moreover, a “tablespoon” of peanut butter is a non-heaped tablespoon… And whoever actually eats a non-heaped tablespoon of peanut butter?
Unfortunately, a non-heaped tablespoon is about 100 calories, but a heaped tablespoon is twice that or more.
As another example, you can pour your oil straight into the pan and assume that’s a tablespoon (about 150 calories), but, in my experience, we tend to vastly underestimate the size of our portions, particularly with liquids, and so it becomes very easy for that “tablespoon” to contain upwards of 200 or 300 calories.
One way to make weighing these foods easier is to put your pan, plate, or even your slice of bread – if you’re using butter – on the scale and check its weight. Then add your nut butter, oil, or butter, and check the weight again. The difference will be the amount you need to log.
For instance, if your salad bowl is 500gr without oil and 505gr with oil, you can record 5gr of oil.
An alternative is to place the container of the food you need to weigh on the scale, remove the amount of food that you want to use, and check the weight difference.
For example, your jar of peanut butter weighs 500gr before you take a spoonful and 480gr afterwards, so you know that 500 – 480 = 20gr of peanut butter for you to record on MyFitnessPal.
Much easier than trying to weigh a tablespoon!
Many packaged foods will suggest a portion size and report its nutritional values. For example, you may get bread rolls and find “One roll (60gr): 259 calories” written on the packaging.
However, these estimated portion sizes can be wildly inaccurate.
For example, your bread roll could be 70gr (302 calories instead of 259) or 50gr (216 calories).
To avoid this issue and limit the number of times you weigh something, you can weigh the entire package, then divide the total weight by the number of items in the package and work out the calories of each portion for that specific package.
Using the bread roll example, if you get a pack of four and the whole pack weighs 200gr, then each roll is 50gr (200 : 4 = 50). You can then work out the calories that each 50gr serving contains, and use that entry in your food log until you run out of bread rolls.
You might stop logging vegetables and fruit because you think they’re low in calories. Although this is true, all calories matter.
Furthermore, especially in the later stages of a fat loss phase, after you have lost a good amount of weight, you may get hungrier and hungrier as you get leaner. As a result, your portion of fruit and vegetables can go from half a plate to a couple of bowls and, before you notice, you’re consuming twice the amount of calories.
When you are already on a relatively low-calorie diet, this could reduce the size of your caloric deficit, which could force you to diet for longer.
In addition, some vegetables and fruit contain a relatively high amount of calories. For example, an average banana contains around 120 calories, whereas an average peach will have around 50.
So, even if you choose to continue not tracking your vegetables and fruit, ensure your portions stay consistent.
Except for water, all drinks have a certain amount of calories, including alcoholic drinks.
If you are going out with your friends, it’s a good idea to log the drinks you are going to have ahead of time, so you get an idea of the calories you will be consuming and can plan for this accordingly.
I don’t recommend trying to do this on the fly, as you may feel self-conscious, or the day after, as you may be too hungover to remember!
There are plenty of factors to consider before you change your nutritional targets during a fat loss phase. When you believe you have hit a plateau, look into these factors, apply some of the behaviours suggested in this article for at least two weeks, then consider tweaking your nutrition only if you’re still not getting results.
How have you dealt with your own plateaus? Share your experience in a comment.
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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