No Mo’ Plateaus!

25 May

My most recent article on self – control (the second in a two-part series found in the Diet Doc May newsletter generated a request for a blog on plateaus. Hmmm…that’s a very open-ended, broad topic. To the “Do you have anything on plateaus?” inquiry, I asked “Mental or physical?” I could hear the chuckle through the words of my follower, but she got it. Any phenomenon like this cannot be examined without considering it from multiple perspectives. So let’s dive into the diverse aspects of plateaus in the context of weight loss.

“My weight’s not moving!! I’ve hit a plateau!” I’m  betting these words have traveled over your lips with frustration, confusion, and discouragement. Especially if you have enjoyed consistent downward movement on the scale in the initial phases of your weight loss efforts, a “stall” can seem disheartening. Plateaus come in all shapes and sizes though– like all the different bodies in the world. You’ve got short, long, lean, lanky, round, rotund, portly, athletic. I’ve had clients email me freaking out that they’re doing something wrong when their weight remains the same for ONE DAY.  “Is this what they call a plateau!?!” Um…no.

Imagine you’re hiking, and you’ve just summitted a small mountain peak. You can feel your heart beating quickly, your respiration rate is high, and you feel like stopping for a little bit to catch your breath. You really want to get to the next mile marker though, so you tell yourself to keep going. As you keep walking, you see you don’t need to stop and rest- the trail levels out and for half a mile or so you’re taking a leisurely stroll through a pretty valley. You don’t feel particularly challenged by this area of the trail and you welcome the respite. The terrain gives you a chance to enjoy the scenery. You feel the sun on your face where it’s peaking through the trees. You imagine the softness of the prairie grass as it ripples in soft waves from the breeze. You realize you’ve not taken the time to appreciate what’s around you and where your panting and huffing and puffing actually got you until now! As you scan the trail in front of you, you notice some rather large boulders and  steps carved into the land as the grade steepens.  Twinging with both exhilaration and trepidation, you adjust your pack and think, “Okay, here we go!”, readying yourself for the upcoming challenge. One step at a time, with a mountain goat-like sure-footedness, you move forward. The trail continues to increase in elevation, and you find yourself leaning forward to increase your momentum. Your backpack feels uncomfortably heavy now but you trek onward albeit a bit slower and with more caution. “I’ll climb to that big tree and then rest” you say to yourself. “Climb”, “climb”, “climb” you chant. The tree seems to be further away than you anticipated! But you’ve been here before and as difficult as this feels, you push through it.

Plateaus, like the trek of a backpacker, come amidst peaks and valleys, rugged and smooth terrain, slow rises in elevation and steep declines. They must be valued in the full context of the journey, with an understanding of what is, in weight loss terms, physiologically normal. Our bodies are not linear and your weight loss won’t be either. Our bodies are dynamic, always changing in regards to fluid balance, intestinal mass and GI function, hormonal balance, etc. Even when you do not see a change on the scale, this is not an indication that nothing is happening in your body. The number on the scale is not always reflective of fat loss. It may take a day, three, or a week or two for it to register losses. I’ve had clients who I call “hangeronners” because they lose a couple pounds, the scale remains the same for a couple weeks, then they have a big drop, and the cycle repeats itself.  In essence, a plateau is what you define it to be, and your definition can change based on how you see your body responds.

If you hear yourself saying “I’ve hit a plateau,” perhaps this needs to be your signal to do the following:

1. Assess what you have been doing up to this point. What have you achieved, specifically? What have the behaviors been that have led to your success so far? Get very specific. Take your time with this. These are the areas you will want to continue and not let fall away.

2. Assess the areas you have struggled with. Honestly appraise the behaviors that could use a fine-tuning. For example, if you can admit to eating the leftovers off your child’s dinner plate a few nights each week, hold yourself accountable with this.  Pretending gets you nowhere. Admit, acknowledge, and then act.  Act= evaluate what you can do differently.

3. Rather than getting discouraged and automatically going to “I must be doing something wrong”, which is a value-laden, emotional response, stay objective. You could be doing everything you know to do–eating the appropriate amounts of food, staying consistent with eating balanced meals, structuring your meals effectively, and getting a good amount of exercise in. Maybe a small tweak is just necessary. Perhaps changing one of your longer cardio sessions to a higher intensity session is in order. After assessing the foods you’ve been eating you recognize that you are consuming quite a bit of artificially sweetened beverages and know that this can get in the way of fat loss, as well as prompt sugar cravings, so you reduce the amount you’re eating.

4. Whatever you define a plateau to be, use it to get real with yourself. Take stock, assess, appreciate how far you’ve come, identify what has gotten you there, and pay attention to the process for a bit versus being fixated on the end result. Of course the goal is important, but don’t discount what you’re learning as you put one foot in front of the other. With each challenge you are harnessing willpower, self-control, self-esteem, self-trust, self-wisdom, confidence, growth, and practicing viewing the difficulties not as setbacks but as opportunities to learn.

Plateaus are as much about your mindset as they are your body. We all have a metabolic set point at which getting underneath to achieve the lean physiques we desire requires a bit more digging, perseverance, and patience. Imagine plateaus as a barometer for changing your mental set point too!

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