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Homeostasis: The Reality of Weight Loss Plateaus

You have to admit that the human body is an amazing thing. After millions of years of evolution, it has built into itself the ability to constantly monitor itself and make changes accordingly to preserve its existence -- for better or worse. The very fat stores that we bemoan during our weight loss journeys are there to prevent us from easily perishing during famine. Our tendency to eat more during times of stress and distress is the body's way of preparing itself for a perceived threat. And yes, those dreadful plateaus that we hit along the way down to our ideal weight are part of the body's evolved response.

What is Homeostasis?

Homeostasis is the process by which a system regulates itself so that internal conditions remain stable, and the body uses this process to keep the body's functions operating relatively consistently. In short: the body establishes what the "norm" is and tries to maintain it.

When you decrease the overall caloric intake of the body for an extended period of time, while you may be seeing weight loss, the body is seeking out the "new norm." And once it discerns how to operate in a stable fashion with the decreased energy input, weight loss slows down significantly and eventually stops completely.

This is why I absolutely abhor when people say, "Weight loss is just a matter of calories in and calories out." By saying this, they're forgetting the fly in the ointment, the monkey wrench in the machine, or the X factor -- homeostasis. To simplify the weight-loss process down to two factors (calories-in and calories-out) is to set themselves and other people up for major frustration and failure.

The Body Has a Very Short Memory

If someone is on a very long weight-loss journey, like many of us are, they'll invariably hit a plateau, and the worst possible advice they can take is the "just keep doing what you're doing" line. If you keep doing what you're doing, it doesn't matter what kind of deficit you're operating in, you'll continue to see no results.

The body doesn't remember that you used to eat an entire pizza by yourself, along with a 2-liter Mountain Dew. It doesn't remember that All-You-Can-Eat buffets used to shutter in fear when you entered the restaurant. It doesn't remember that Christmas, when you snuck into the kitchen and ate an entire pan of seven-layer cookies. After a while, from a homeostatic standpoint, the you that you used to be is forgotten by the body.

The body remembers that you've been at the same caloric intake and you've burned the same number of calories for the past 4 weeks, and it has figured out a way to operate within those parameters -- for better or worse -- without losing any more of its precious energy stores (i.e. those love handles you can't seem to get rid of). This could be at the expense of your brainpower. Remember, your brain consumes the same power as a 40W lightbulb, so thinking does require energy. This power reduction could be at the expense of having enough energy to clean your house, wash your car, or do anything else outside of going to work, eating, and working out. The body will figure out how to use the available energy to power the most vital of functions and slowly dim the other functions to accommodate the deficit.

The Answer to Homeostatic Plateaus

So obviously, the answer to dealing with these plateaus isn't always further reducing calories, unless you have a nutritionist telling you differently. (If you've reduced your caloric intake from 3500 calories per day to 2400, you could probably reduce it further to 2000 or less.) But reduction may not work as well for people who are already in a high deficit.

If you find yourself in a homeostatic plateau despite eating in a deficit and burning hundreds of calories in the gym, it's time to switch up your routine. Here are some ideas:

Modify Your Macronutrients

At the beginning of the weight loss journey, it's likely that you'll be ramping up those proteins while reducing carbs and fats, and your macros may look like 50% protein, 20% carbs, and 30% fats. But as you lose fat and gain muscle, you'll need to modify those macros to accommodate the need to replenish the glycogen stores in your muscles, so your macros will look like 55% carbs, 25% proteins, and 20% fats. Maybe you'll eventually taper off and settle at a 40-30-30 ratio. But to figure out where you should be, please consult a trained professional.

Shake Up Your Workout

When I first started working out, I went to the gym 3 times per week and did the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes. It didn't take long for my body to adjust to this, so I boosted my workouts to 5 days per week. Then I added another 15 minutes. Later, I added 3 days of weight training using the circuit machines at the gym. And about a month later I added two more days of weight training with a combination of free weights, dumbbells and cable machines.

The point of this was to continually increase the caloric demands on my body while switching up the types of muscles I was using. (If all you use for weight training are circuit machines, you'll never use those core and stabilizer muscles.) Add weight training. If you're already doing weight training, switch to heavier weights and lower reps. Or switch to lower weights and more reps. Anything will help restart your weight loss effort, at least until you reach the next level of homeostasis.

Update Your Motivation

This is more of a note to me than to anyone else, because I know that I need to set new goals for myself and regain some of my earlier motivation.

Once you hit your goal weight, the quest for fitness shouldn't stop. In fact, I hope that by the time you reach your goal weight, your desire to continually improve your fitness levels has grown. Otherwise, you'll peter out and gain every bit of your weight back ... and then some.

If your motivation was to lose weight so you could look better in a pair of jeans, that motivation will only last so long. Many people become what is known as "skinny fat" due to superficial reasons for losing weight. They may look great with clothes on, but God forbid you see them in the nude. There's no muscle tone underlying all of that loose skin. And the reason is that they haven't fully embraced the healthy lifestyle of seeing food as fuel, of treating their bodies like well-oiled machines and maintaining them regularly, and of getting out and experiencing life, rather than sitting at home and watching life go by on their flat-screens.

If your goal was to be able to shop for clothes at any place other than Casual Male XL, Rochester Big and Tall, Lane Bryant, or King Size Direct, that's all well and good. But now make your goal lowering your cholesterol or getting your blood pressure down to 100/60 after you get there. Aim for a lower resting heart rate. Bring those blood glucose levels down. Strive to run farther and faster. Enable greater flexibility. Use bodyfat percentage as your next measure of success. Etc.

Consider Reverse Dieting

At some point after you've reached your goal weight, you're going to have to stop eating in deficit. While recent studies have shown that some level of calorie restriction can lead to longer lifespans, including preventing breast cancer, maintaining a diet that is 1000 calories in deficit for the rest of your life isn't practical nor will it help you reach optimal health.

Your nutritionist should be able to tell you when you can slowly start increasing your caloric intake. Since I've gotten closer and closer to my goal weight, I've increased my caloric intake from 1600 calories to 1800 calories and so on, until I'm currently consuming around 2200-2400 calories per day. I'm still very concerned about the type of calories I'm consuming, but I also have more energy in the gym, and I've been able to pack on about 10 pounds of muscle since my lowest weight.

Conclusion

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for losing weight and getting in shape. In fact, there is no one-size-fits-one solution that you can use perpetually and see consistent gains or losses. Homeostasis is that X-factor that will keep you on your toes throughout your weight loss (or muscle-gain) journey. Remember, there is nothing natural about trying to lose weight. There is nothing in our evolutionary history that was developed to kick in when we got too fat, because our ancestors weren't nearly as sedentary as we are, nor did they eat nearly as many refined fats and sugars. What our bodies have evolved to be are stable systems that can survive cold winters, food shortages, dehydration, and external dangers.

You're not fat because God is angry at you. Satan isn't taunting you with bigger leptons. Nor does your body hate you and therefore punishing you by making you appear bloated. Getting fat is an evolutionary response to having excess caloric energy in the body than is required. It's as simple as that. This is not personal.

In order to fight your body's tendency to store as much energy as it can horde, you have to simulate the very dangers for which it is preparing your body. You have to simulate the famine that it's preparing you for by imposing a caloric deficit. You have to simulate battling saber tooth tigers and Vikings (or other stressors that our ancestors might have encountered) by working out. Shake up these factors regularly so that your body's natural tendency toward homeostasis is disrupted. Then you can get a little closer to your goal.

Good luck!

By Keith Goode -

Created by MyFitnessPal - Free Calorie Counter

2 votes + -

9 comments:

carolstartingover wrote 60 months ago:
Great information. I am a carb queen. So, I may have to eat some protein to get off my plateau. I will give it a good try.
keithgoode wrote 60 months ago:
Yes. Depending on what kinds of carbs you're taking in, switching up your macros might help. However, the more refined the carb, the more likely it is to convert to stored fat than glycogen. (At least that's what I've always heart.) So maybe also look at hardier carb replacements as well (sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, teff, gluten-free noodles, etc.). Good luck to ya, carolstartingover!
Anonymous wrote 41 months ago:
Do you have resources or work cited from where you got the info in this article?
fitmom4lifemfp wrote 24 months ago:
This blog is complete nonsense.
annalizy wrote 16 months ago:
I am a 53 year old woman that essentially did the same thing that keithgoode is recommending, and I lost 37 pounds in one year, getting down to my high school weight. I don't think that this is complete nonsense. Wishing you all the best in health and happiness!
annalizy wrote 16 months ago:
I basically followed the recommendatiions of Tom Venuto in "Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle" and Mark Sisson in "The Primal BluePrint," but with extra emphasis on tracking my calories.
Anonymous wrote 13 months ago:
Yes. Depending on what kinds of carbs you're taking in, switching up your macros might help. However, the more refined the carb, the more likely it is to convert to stored fat than glycogen. (At least that's what I've always heart.) So maybe also look at hardier carb replacements as well (sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, teff, gluten-free noodles, etc.). Good luck to ya, carolstartingover!I basically followed the recommendatiions of Tom Venuto in "Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle" If you interested to know more information please visit our

site http://onedaytop.com/loyalty-puts-6-million-savers-on-the-dangerous-way-to-retirement/
Anonymous wrote 10 months ago:
I really appreciate that you wrote this article and shared some really good information on this specific topic. I basically followed the recommendatiions of Tom Venuto in "Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle" and Mark Sisson in "The Primal BluePrint," but with extra emphasis on tracking my calories. http://onedaytop.com/justin-bieber-and-hailey-baldwin-again-join-together/
Anonymous wrote 10 months ago:
Whilst this is good information I wouldn’t agree that
its totally correct. We do have inbuilt mechanisms that help us to regulate our weight which is due to the release of Leptin
however with most people consuming high amounts of carbs
and sugars coupled with eating 6+ times a day our body is not getting the breaks it needs and insulin is constantly being needed
when we eat, hence why people become insulin resistant which then leads to leptin resistance then type 2 diabetes. Learn about the Ketogenic diet as this can help with decreasing the above mentioned issues.

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