When you think about it, it’s simple: eat fewer calories than your body burns and you’ll lose weight.
Except it’s not always that simple.
When I got home from the hospital after my gastric sleeve surgery, I began weighing myself every day. It was tremendously satisfying to watch the weight fall away, to see the number on the scale drop with reassuring regularity – sometimes as much as two-plus pounds a day – and watch the data curve head south as I tracked the results.
About two months in, though, the weight loss stalled. And stayed stalled, for nearly a week.
I’d hit a plateau.
Now, bariatric surgery isn’t my first weight-loss rodeo, and this was certainly not my first plateau. Throughout the course of my life, I’ve lost a hundred pounds or so three times, and that roller coaster is a big part of what led me to bariatric surgery in the first place. I hit plenty of plateaus.
But this one was different. The others were inconvenient. Annoying.
This one was soul-crushing. Utterly debilitating.
This wasn’t some grapefruit-centric, caveman-style fad diet. I’d just had major surgery, ferchrissake. Plateaus weren’t supposed to be part of the bariatric deal. No one mentioned them in bariatric class, and they certainly weren’t discussed in the reams of pre-op literature I waded through before the big day.
And yet, here it was, happening again. Talk about depressing.
But as I thought – alright, dwelt – on it, I tried to put it in context, and it struck me that I was guilty of a bariatric mortal sin: buying into the notion that surgery was some sort of magic bullet that would solve all my weight-loss problems.
Of course, it isn’t. It’s a tool – a powerful one, indeed – but a tool, nonetheless. The fact is, plateaus happen, bariatric surgery or no bariatric surgery.
Bariatric patients see dramatic weight loss after surgery, with most of the progress coming in the first six months to a year after the procedure. Not all of that decrease is fat. Some of it’s muscle, and losing muscle, unfortunately, decreases the rate at which you burn energy, in turn slowing fat loss.
And, as you lose weight, your body requires less energy to sustain itself. Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is going to be a lot different at 250 pounds than it was at 300 or 350. That means slower weight loss, too.
Additionally, your body’s weight naturally fluctuates dramatically during the course of a day, as much as five pounds. Most of that increment is water, but your basic scale doesn’t know that. It only measures weight; it doesn’t analyze its components.
The bottom line is, even if you’re doing everything right – making good food choices, exercising regularly and getting enough fluids – you’ll almost certainly hit a plateau at some point during your weight loss, and it could last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
The question, then, is how to get through it.
First, make sure you are, in fact, dealing with a plateau. The scale provides only one metric for measuring progress. Even if the scale’s not moving, you may well be losing inches as you shed fat. If you haven’t been tracking your measurements – waist, chest, hips, biceps, and thighs – then now might be a good time to start.
If you really have hit a plateau, there are a few things you can do to help it on its way:
- Re-commit to tracking your food. Maybe you’re not measuring your portions as often as you used to because you’re getting pretty good at eyeballing two ounces. Maybe you’re not writing down everything you eat or drink because, hey, it was only one bite. Here’s the thing, though: if you’re not writing it down, you have no way of knowing if you’ve hit a plateau because your body’s metabolism is changing, or your habits are backsliding. And without that knowledge, meaningful change is difficult, if not impossible. We recommend the Baritastic app for tracking you daily food and weight loss.
- Change up your exercise routine. If you’ve been exercising regularly, you’re almost certainly in better shape than you were a few weeks or months ago. If you’re walking a certain route, try changing it to add some hills. Or, add some strength training. Try swimming or cycling. Go nuts and check out a Zumba class. Add some High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which sounds way more scary than it really is, and you’ll be able to burn more energy without increasing the time you spend working out.
- Change up your diet. Cut back on the carbs a bit and add more lean protein. Our bodies have a way of adjusting over time, and it may well be that your body has adjusted to your new bariatric diet. Maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit.
- Get enough sleep. The importance of sleep in weight loss cannot be understated. If you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s harder for your body to burn calories and you’re much more likely to feel food cravings. There’s a reason why people who are diagnosed with sleep apnea often lose weight when they start treatment. The same principle is in play here. Eight hours, people. Don’t shortchange yourself. There’s no upside.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up over it. Plateaus are normal and natural, and they happen to everyone, and you don’t have to struggle with this tremendous psychological burden on your own. There’s plenty of support out there, both in person and online. All you have to do is reach out. A lot of times, just talking about it helps.
And remember: this, too, shall pass.