If you thought parent-teacher meetings were bad, you never had a weight loss plateau. You do everything right — eating properly and exercising at least a few times a week — but the weight just won’t budge anymore. Losing weight becomes about as horrible as it’s possible to imagine.
So if you have been losing weight steadily but then plateaued for about four weeks or more, a recent study found the reason for it. And the explanation is pretty simple because there are only two possibilities:
- As soon as you start dieting (read: apply calorie deficit), your basal metabolic rate, thermic effect of food, thermic effect of exercise, and non-exercise activity thermogenesis all go down and you start burning fewer calories in total. It’s known as metabolic adaptation a.k.a your body adapts to weight loss and defends against additional loss of weight unless further decreases in calorie intake are applied.
- Your dietary adherence sucks mud. Consciously or unconsciously you start eating more than you realize and this erases the calorie deficit needed for weight loss to occur.
And so the study by Thomas et al aimed to find out which of those two plays a bigger role in reaching an early weight loss plateau:
They developed two mathematical models based on the first law of thermodynamics. If you want to feel your brain cells disappearing with little popping sounds, read through the study and try to understand how they did it. I didn’t bother.
One model was designed to determine the degree of metabolic adaptation required for the weight loss plateau to occur. Another model was designed to determine the degree of crappy adherence required to hit a plateau.
They concluded that the lack of adherence rather than metabolic adaptation was the main factor predicting weight loss plateaus:
For example, in “the Minnesota Starvation Experiment” study that they looked at, food was provided by the lab and so adherence was spot-on. Result? Weight was monotonically decreasing throughout the study. No plateau.
In another study, the adherence kept deteriorating as the study went on…
…and so the plateau was reached at week 24.
From my personal experience working with clients, it makes sense. I found that there are three main areas where food intake gets “forgotten” and thus, adherence suffers:
- People assume that cheat meals or even full cheat days don’t count
They do count and they erase your week’s worth of caloric deficit. Cheat meals and cheat days are also a special kind of stupid and you shouldn’t do them. Leave such a ridiculous amount of food for a party of lumberjacks.
- Binges often go unreported
People are usually able to stick to their diets for the better part of the week but when they go off track and binge, they don’t talk about it. That’s where claims like “I’m eating 1,200 kcal and not losing weight. WTF is happening, Egis? Am I diet-resistant or something?” stem from.
- An unconscious lack of adherence kicks in as the diet fatigue over time sets in
A handful of almonds or a glass of wine here and there get “forgotten” after grueling months of dieting. This is kinda normal because perfect adherence is unrealistic unless all food is provided and eaten under the supervision of the researchers. Which is one of the reasons why I recommend diet breaks for my clients.
So if your weight loss stalled for MORE than four weeks, you should take an honest look at your dietary adherence. Are you logging everything you eat and drink? This has been repeatedly demonstrated in the literature as being the key factor for weight loss plateaus.
If your adherence is spot-on, only then you can go ahead and adjust your calorie intake and/or expenditure to re-establish a calorie deficit. How? I wrote damn near an essay on that so go ahead and read it.
I tried to think of a joke to insert at the end, but I couldn’t. So, I’m gonna go. Good luck. Bye.
Originally published by me on Medium on December 28, 2022