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Weight Loss Plateaus: The Psychology Behind Them and How to Respond Accordingly

February 4, 2016

If you are involved in dieting and weight loss programs in any way, one term that you have probably heard mentioned is weight loss plateau.   In fact, it’s one of those terms that’s thrown around so much that it begins to lose some of its meaning.  Today, I’d like to break down exactly what a weight loss plateau is, discuss the psychology behind them, and suggest some ways to respond when they occur.

What is a weight loss plateau, and what causes them?

A weight loss plateau is simply stalling on the scale.  In other words, it’s a term to describe a situation where you have been losing weight at a fairly steady rate, and all of a sudden the pounds stop dropping off.  It’s actually a very common part of the weight loss journey, and there are many possible causes.

In many cases, weight loss plateaus happen because your body adjusts to the shock of the diet and exercise regime that you’re putting it through.  In other cases, they happen because you aren’t eating enough calories—in other words, your body is storing calories as fat because it is in starvation mode.  However, weight loss plateaus could occur for the exact opposite reason—i.e., you might be consuming more calories than you’re aware of due to mindless eating, throwing a little extra sauce on foods, etc.  That’s why it’s important to consult with your trainer or nutritionist if you encounter a weight loss plateau to determine what might be causing it. 

The psychology of weight loss plateaus

In my practice as Licensed Therapist I see many people thrown off track from their weight loss journey as a result of these plateaus. While they are physiological in nature, the emotional and mental impact these plateaus have on us is often what makes them dangerous. 

From a psychological perspective, the effect of a weight loss plateau is often experienced as increased anxiety, panic, fear, frustration and hopelessness.  Ironically, these feelings are many of the same feelings that we often develop a longstanding pattern of impulsively responding to by looking to food for comfort. So when these emotions reappear during a plateau it’s no surprise that many often respond to them in the old predictable ways. Of course re-engaging in the cycle of eating for comfort just converts the weight loss plateau into an episode of weight gain–further fueling the cocktail of anxiety, panic, fear, frustration and hopelessness. 

Stress also enters this vicious cycle. Physiologically, when we experience stress our bodies release a hormone called cortisol.  Cortisol sends our bodies into fight or flight, increases our hunger and makes it harder to lose weight. When we are caught in a vicious cycle of stressing about our stalled weight loss progress cortisol also manages to only extend a weight loss plateau. 

When people experience weight loss plateaus, they are most likely to respond in one of two ways, both of which, while well intended, seem to only make things worse.  One way people typically respond is by giving up.  They get discouraged by the fact that despite everything they are doing—all the dieting, workouts, eating healthy foods, etc.—they are not seeing progress.  As a result, they fall back into the cycle of comfort eating, being withdrawing and isolating while retreating to the mindset of hopelessness about their weight “If it’s not working anyway, what’s the point of doing it?”

Another way people respond to a weight loss plateau is by ramping up the rigidity of their program. This approach is basically like trying to fight anxiety by creating more anxiety, and it just doesn’t work. They double down on workouts, put even more drastic restrictions on calories, start obsessively weighing themselves multiple times a week, or even daily.  This creates a situation where the scale starts controlling their mood for the day as they ride this emotional rollercoaster based on the direction their weight is trending.  

The best response to weight loss plateaus

Now that I’ve reviewed how not to respond to weight loss plateaus, I’ll share what I tell my clients that helps them avoid those responses. 

The first thing you should do when encountering a weight loss plateau is keep in mind the fact that they are very common and are just a part of your weight loss journey.  In other words, keep the long-term mindset and resist short term tunnel vision. Keep your anchor (your why) in front of your face daily. Reflect on how far you’ve come. 

“Remember, it’s a journey. Not a destination.”  – Dr. Mondo

Are your clothes fitting better?  Do you feel healthier?  Are you achieving your workout goals?  There are many more ways to measure success than just a number on a scale, so focus on the things you’ve accomplished rather than only considering measuring success based strictly on your weight. Often times our weight loss may be stalling but we are getting stronger, leaner, and breaking through other plateaus outside of the scale. 

During plateaus it’s also vital to lean into your support system that speaks the language of weight loss rather than hiding from them. Your fit family gets it. They’ve been there and they can offer validation, support and encouragement, that will be vital to you weathering that season of a weight loss plateau. 

Finally, d0n’t be afraid to reach out to the experts for guidance.  That means going back to your trainer and your nutritionist and letting them know you’ve plateaued and asking what you can do to shake things up—or even whether you should do something (sometimes the solution is making subtle changes but staying the course).  If you are seeing a counselor or therapist, bring it up with them as well to help you develop new pathways of response to the emotions that are coming up during plateaus. Therapy is a vital aspect of this process because plateaus don’t just trigger emotions they trigger stories that we tell about ourselves and our weight loss journeys. Most often it’s the storylines of “not being good enough”, being a “failure,” or being destined to “never lose weight” resurface in the midst of plateaus. As I talk about in my Road Map to Weight Loss program, a physical transformation will only occur when you’ve made the decision to re-write these aspects of your personal story using weight loss as the springboard. 

Above all, just keep showing up. Regardless of what the scale says. If you keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep striving to treat your body and yourself with care and love the scale will ultimately settle in the range it’s suppose to. Stay on the journey. Avoid looking for the weight loss destination. Plateaus, like rough seasons, will eventually pass. They always do, so long as we keep journeying ahead.