How To Crush A Plateau

by Al Coon

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by Al

You started off with a bang! The pounds seemed to be falling off of their own weight. Each week the scale gave more good news as you made your way towards your goal. You could feel the word "success" written right on your forehead for all to see. You told yourself, "This weight loss stuff is easy!"

Then all at once your scale turns on you. Your weight does not change for a whole week. Then it's two weeks. The scale may even show a pound gain when you expected to see a loss. Disappointment stabs you in the heart, and fear of failure grips your throat. You haven't changed anything. You haven't done anything wrong. Why are you being punished this way?

When your body does not do what you expect, it may not be your body's fault. Perhaps it is not receiving the proper inputs. If you eat too many calories, or use up too few calories, your body will store the excess calories for later use. Where does it store those extra calories? In fat tissue.

It is critical that you know how much to eat, or else how can you plan your menus correctly? How do you know what is the right number of calories to consume? Coming up with a rough estimate is easy. If you are over 40, just multiply your weight in pounds by the number 10. (1)(2) This gives you a ballpark figure to work with. Not everyone is going to be right on that number. Some people have a faster metabolism, and will require more calories, to maintain their current weight. Some have a slower metabolism, and may require less. Someone who is running 5 miles a day may require 20 times his weight in calories to maintain where he is. (For those who are following Weight Watchers, they are given a range of point values that they should eat within to maintain their weight.)

Note: It is always best to work with your doctor in determining a correct nutritional choice when you are contemplating a major decrease in caloric intake.

Now you have a rough estimate on how many calories or points you should be eating, how do you fine tune it to find the exact value? If you have been eating a certain number of calories a day, and you have not changed your workout habits, and your weight has hit a plateau, your calories coming in, are probably too high. Or you could look at it that your calories going out are too low, meaning that your exercise regime is too light. Either way, your body feels that your calories in and your calories out are about balanced.

Let's take a moment and play with the numbers. Say you are 200 pounds today, and you are eating 1900 calories a day. Taking your current weight and multiplying by 10 you get 2000 calories. That means, if your metabolism is about average, that you are eating 100 calories a day less than you require to maintain your weight at 200 pounds. How fast will you lose a pound? A pound of fat holds 3500 calories. That means it will take 35 days at this rate to drop one pound. For a whole month it will look like you are sitting on a plateau. You will actually still be losing weight but very slowly.

Through the years I have watched Dotti struggle with her weight. She has gone through diets where her weight would start to fall and then she would hit a plateau. After a time, her weight began to fall again. Next thing you know another plateau would come along. Finally, she would hit a stubborn plateau and it would be too much for her. She would stagnate, and finally just give up. Her weight would climb back up to where it was originally and even beyond. Later on she would try it again, with no better results.

On other attempts she would hit the exercise really hard for a while. She used the New Jane Fonda Workout 4 or 5 times a week and her weight would come down. In 1986, when we were in Virginia Beach, she made it all the way down to 150 pounds doing that workout, but for one reason or another the process fizzled out, and back up went the weight. Up and down, hitting plateaus, and ultimately falling into failure was the standard routine. This happened over and over again. It was heartbreaking to watch. Nothing seemed to help permanently.

Later, when we lived in Massachusetts, Dotti started Weight Watchers and she dropped about 50 pounds, but then she ran into a plateau, and never went any farther down. She kept going to meetings but she just stopped losing weight. In fact her weight started going back up. There is nothing so frustrating in the world than to be completely dissatisfied with the way you look, trying as hard as you know how to lose weight, but it just won't go down. The scale stays the same or even goes up. You look up at the ceiling and say, "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?"

Remember, you didn't do anything to deserve this! But when you have conquered the mountain, you will deserve every bit of praise you receive for having overcome the challenge that was handed to you. When you were born, you did not know how to talk but you learned. You did not know how to walk. You learned. Now you are learning how to be thin, and it will be something that is going to go with you all the rest of your lighter and happier life! How can I be so sure? I watched it happen with Dotti. Dotti was a complete failure in her weight. She was miserable and unhappy with her weight. She hated to have her picture taken and nothing could put her into tears quicker than someone commenting on her weight. She struggled and failed, over and over. I am telling you that if Dotti could come through all of that, and then reach up and grasp the gold ring of successful weight loss and weight maintenance, you can too. Even if it seems unbelievable right now, just push the "I Believe Button" for now and get on with your new found success.

One thing that amazes people who look at Dotti's weight loss chart is that there are no plateaus on it. Hmmm. That seems strange. Every time she had attempted to lose weight in the past, those plateaus were there. As her weight was dropping this time, she and I commented several times on the "fact" that a plateau was just around the corner. But it never materialized. Why was that? What was different this time? She had exercised before, and she had even done Weight Watchers before. What happened differently this time?

Looking back over the events that led to Dotti's success, this time the changes in diet were ingrained deeply into her habits. She just ate differently than she ever did before. She removed "red light" foods from the house. She always counted everything religiously. She mastered the points system, and when I tested her, she could tell me the point value of almost any food item I held up for her inspection. She ordered everything "on the side" when we went to restaurants. (E.g. she never got a salad with the salad dressing already on it. The dressing came in a little cup on the side and she would dip her fork tongs into it and then would take some salad on the fork. When she was finished with the salad, nearly all of the dressing was still in the cup.) She only used a small portion of anything high in calories. She started leaving food on her plate when she finished eating. At home she set up plastic baggies with 1 or 2 point snacks that she could grab at any time if she needed something to eat. She was never caught flatfooted, where she was dying for something to eat, with no good options for something safe to grab. There were no holes in her eating plan. Everything that went into her mouth was in the program and within her points. She had an ice cream cone if she wanted it, but she then cut out other things to keep the points in line. If she blew it one day, she made up for it the next few days. While some days were blown, there were no weeks where her overall points were outside of her target range.

Being fully organized and in control of what she ate gave Dotti an edge that she had never had before. She had journaled before, but somehow things sneaked by the inventory. Somehow she ate things that were not properly counted. Your mind will deceive you and play you dirty if you let it. Everything counts! Everything has an impact on your scale. On any given day, you may fail, but do not ever cheat. By that I mean you may have days where you eat over your points limit, but never ever fool yourself about it. If you ate 30 points, don't write down 29. Always be honest with yourself, and that means making sure you know what you are doing. Ignorance is no excuse with the traffic cop who pulls you over, and it is no excuse when you climb on the scale. What you eat, will surely tell its tale, but the only way you are in control of the results, is if you know what that tale is beforehand. Closing your eyes, or rationalization will only kill your weight loss success. Yes, that one bite may be very important. Count it.

Here is another "secret" which worked for Dotti: she chose to eat in the range of points assigned for her goal weight, not for her current weight. Her reasoning for this was: She was going to have to eat in that range of points for the rest of her life to maintain her desired weight, and so it would be good to get used to it as soon as possible. Also, her body would grow accustomed to a regular intake of calories, and that process would let her body know that it should set up for the proper weight for that number of calories. She started eating in that range in January 1998 and has been eating there ever since. It was like a quarterback throwing a pass to a fast receiver by sending the ball out to where that receiver would be when the ball arrived, rather than where he is right now. Dotti just "led" her body into the proper weight range.

Is this the right choice for everyone? I am not a doctor and so I cannot answer that question. See what your doctor says, it may be right for you, or it may not. All I can say for sure is that it worked very well for Dotti.

Author's Note (October 2006):

Since writing this article in 2001, I have received some negative comments from this point, and I would like to point out that Dotti ate 25 points per day throughout her weight loss in 1998, and while that was within the point range for her goal weight, it was ONLY ONE POINT below the lower limit of her assigned point range. It WAS NOT a case of eating far less than she would have been eating if she ate in her assigned range. During my own weight loss journey, I focused upon eating within my target range every day, and that worked well for me. Today, I would recommend eating in your range, and not being in a hurry. Patience is perhaps the greatest virtue in the matter of weight loss.

Another thing that was different for Dotti this time around was that she got up at 4:30 in the morning 3 times a week religiously and went to the gym. On some weeks she even went 4 times. At the gym she did an exceptionally vigorous workout. It was a full hour of heavy aerobic exercise, on the cross-trainer and the treadmill. She worked her way up to the most strenuous settings on whichever machine she was on and then went at it hard for the full hour. I was usually just getting up when she returned home, and I always noted that she was soaked in sweat, her cheeks were flushed, and she was invigorated for the entire day.

As time went by, I was amazed to see that I had my old Dotti back from our younger days. She was no longer lethargic, and sleeping her free time away. She had a spring in her step, and she was filled with energy. She literally acted and felt years younger. And there were no plateaus. We both were amazed!

Of course no one should jump into a vigorous exercise program without first getting the okay from his doctor. When you are very overweight, your heart is already working very hard, and it is dangerous to push it. If you have been very sedentary, your heart, lungs, circulatory system, as well as your muscles are not ready for maximum overdrive. They must be brought up to it slowly. There may even be a latent problem that is hidden because you have not been pushing your heart very much. However, it may just jump up and bite you, if you start exercising too much at first. So, get a check up and a doctor's okay, and then start out slowly. It did not happen overnight that you got out of shape, there is no reason to rush getting into shape. Your whole life is stretching out before you. Take it easy and remember the story of the tortoise and the hare. Being fast may not win the race. What matters is crossing the finish line!

No two people are exactly alike. Also, as Dotti showed in her weight loss attempts, even the same person may have a completely different journey at different times. There is a concept in electronics called resonance. It is what allows a radio to select one single radio station out of the myriad of frequencies hitting it at the same time. Resonance is the quality a particular type of circuit has where one single frequency and only that one frequency will set it ringing. It will respond correctly only to that one frequency. You can see the same type of thing where a singer can shatter a crystal glass by hitting a particular note. That note is at the resonant frequency of the glass and the entire glass will vibrate especially strong for that one note. Each person has a resonance. Each person is unique and he must find his own combination of eating, exercise, motivation, and lifestyle where resonance is achieved: where the special event of being thin, healthy and happy is produced. Dotti's "resonant frequency" may not be yours. That is just fine. In order to find your own frequency, you must experiment and try things.

If you hit a plateau, then it is clear that you have something that is slightly out of resonance. Your body thinks that you are right where you should be as far as weight is concerned. It has balanced the calories in and out, and is happy. Naturally you do not share your body's contentment. In fact, you are frustrated and angry. You wanted to lose another pound.

Now, it may be that you just lost 4 or 5 pounds last week and this week you expected to do the same. That is not a plateau. If you come in at the same weight as last week, after you just had a large loss, it is nothing but a correction. It is not possible to safely lose 4 or 5 pounds every week, and you should not even want to do that. Health is so precious, you do not want to throw it away by unsafe weight loss. Anytime you have an abnormally large weight loss one week, it is normal to have a smaller one the week after. Your body is adjusting itself. It is trying to reach a stable situation. Perhaps last week you dropped a large amount of water weight, only to have it creep back this week. Again, that is not a problem and should be ignored.

If on the other hand you have been struggling for weeks without any loss at all, you are definitely on a plateau. It is hard to remember that the reason you are at a plateau is because you are doing something right. Remember where you were before you started your journey? Perhaps you weighed 20 pounds more than today. Maybe it was 50 or more pounds ago that you started out. Today you are feeling down because you did not lose, but before anything else, take a moment and think back to where you started out. What would you have given then to be where you are now? Thank yourself for all of the effort you have already put in to get to this plateau. Pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.

Once you have things in perspective, then it is time to reevaluate your situation. Your basic equation is balanced today. Your calories in and your calories out are equal. Your body says that your current weight is the correct weight for your current lifestyle as it exists today.

You may be saying at this time, "I am not eating more than my program allows!" While you honestly feel that is the case, it still may not be true. Let us look at the possibilities:

*** You may be eating more than you realize. Perhaps there is something that you are regularly eating that is not being properly counted. Are you sampling from the stove as you cook? Maybe that restaurant you visited has used a high calorie ingredient that you missed, or that serving size you assumed was 1 serving is actually 1.5 or 2 servings. Dotti recently went through just such a situation with cotton candy. The bag said it had a certain number of ounces in it but when Dotti actually weighed it, there were 3 times as many ounces as the bag claimed! Something like that in your diet will cripple your weight loss attempts.

NOTE: Keep in mind that it does not take much of an error in your counting to produce unhappy results. If you eat 100 calories a day more than you need, which are provided by something as small as 10 potato chips, you will gain 10 pounds over a year's time. That is why accuracy in measuring is so critical.

A solution to this is: do not estimate, but measure. If there is any estimating going on, estimate high, not low. When on a plateau, focus very closely on measuring exactly what you are eating.

*** Your metabolism may be slow. You just may need less calories to run your machinery than most other people do. That is why Weight Watchers gives you a range of values for the amount you can eat. Some people need to be on the low end of that range. If that is you, and you are eating on the high end, or maybe even the middle of the range, you will not lose weight. You might even gain weight!

The solution for this problem is to do some testing. Try dropping the maximum amount that you are eating per day by a point (50 calories) or so. Try it for a week. If that doesn't help, take it down another notch. Keep doing that until your weight starts to drop, or you hit the bottom of your eating range. Since one of the benefits you are trying to receive by losing weight is to increase your health, it would be very unwise to drop your calories too low. If you reach the bottom of your range, and still are not losing weight, go see your doctor and see if he can suggest a correct calorie level that you should be eating at. For most people, if they are correctly counting their points or calories, they will not be able to eat at the bottom of their range and still hold on to their current weight. Most folks will see the scale start to drop well before they run into the bottom of their range.

Another fix for this problem is to increase the amount of exercise that you do. If you are walking one mile a day in 20 or 25 minutes, see if you can increase your pace slightly and add some additional distance. Work your way up to 2 miles or even 3. A good goal for most people is a good one hour workout, at least 3 times a week. Again, always clear any exercise program with your doctor first.

And keep in mind that even if you were not focused on weight loss, a certain amount of exercise is necessary for good health. A 20 minute walk in the cool of the evening can add years to your life.

The human body is a complex machine. It struggles to maintain equilibrium. It seems to want to avoid change. A plateau is nothing but a stable point and that seems like a good thing to your body. To let it know that the plateau is not going to be your final stopping point, you must send it a message. That means you must either send it less calories to work with, or make it work harder and burn up the calories it has. If you do that, it will have to listen.

The one thing that will never work, is giving up. No one ever reached their goal by quitting. It is a cliché but it is true. Nothing destroys success like discouragement. It pushes people onto the slippery slope of sadness, self-pity, frustration, fear of failure, desperation and finally surrender to what is perceived as unavoidable failure. Giving up leads to putting back on all the weight that was lost, plus a few more, or maybe many more, pounds. When you feel yourself approaching that slide, it is time then and there to tell your inner voice, "Don't even think of going there!" You have a much better solution than that nasty, unhappy slide into failure. You CAN choose success.

At times like these a great skill to develop is to be able to take a step back from the emotions. Think about how it is in a crisis. Say, a large fire in the building you are in. Who do you want fighting the fire? Someone who is running around with their hands in the air yelling, "We are all doomed!" Or would you rather have someone with a cool head who is logically thinking about the options and taking positive steps? It is the very same thing with a weight loss plateau, or any other crisis in your life. If you keep a cool head, think logically about it, and take positive steps to solve the problem, you will succeed. If you give up, you fail. It is all up to you.

A plateau looks like it is formidable. It looks like it is bigger and tougher than you are. But it is not. It is bound, hand and foot by the laws of physics. If you do not give that plateau enough calories to sustain itself, it will collapse!

Doesn't that make you feel stronger? You hold the life of that plateau completely in your own hands. You just have to think of it logically. Test and observe. Take calories away, and add exercise until the aggravating plateau is gone and you are back moving along nicely on your path to the top of the mountain, whistling a merry tune.

1. This is a rough estimate of Calories required to maintain your weight. The actual number will vary from person to person. According to Dr. Cooper of Aerobics fame, the values are as follows:

For your basic needs:
        Multiply your Weight times 12 up to the age of 40.
        Multiply your Weight times 10 after the age of 40.

For maximum energy if you are sedentary:
        Multiply your Weight times 15 up to the age of 40.
        Multiply your Weight times 13 after the age of 40.

If you run over 3 miles per day:
        Multiply your Weight times 20 regardless of age.

According to my high school health book, for adults under the age of 40 the following table would hold true:

Activity Sedentary Moderate Strenuous
Sleeping 8 hours * 0.45 =  3.6 8 hours * 0.45 =  3.6 8 hours * 0.45 =  3.6
Awake at rest
(Reading, watching tv)
14 hours * 0.65 = 9.1 4 hours*0.65 =  2.6 2 hours*0.65 =  1.3
Light Activity
2 hours * 1.10 = 2.2 8 hours*1.10 =  8.8 2 hours*1.10 =  2.2
Moderate activity
  3 hours*1.85 =  5.55 10 hours*1.85 =  18.5
Strenuous activity
(Spading, or playing an active game like tennis)
   1 hours*2.90 =  2.9 2 hours*2.90 =  5.8
Total calories used
per day per lb
        14.9 calories         23.45 calories         31.4 calories
Total calories used
per day for a 200 lbs person
        2980 calories         4690 calories         6280 calories

The health book also stated that the average adult under 40 requires 18 calories per pound per day. 

2. You would multiply your weight in kilograms by 22 and your weight in Stones by 140.

By Al, My Wonderful, Supportive Husband

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