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How to conquer plateaus at any stage of your weight loss plans

  • January 2, 2011

Maura Brown was certainly pleased with the 30 pounds she'd lost over a period of six months. But the tofu salad lunches and treadmill runs didn't seem to be working anymore. She had hit a weight loss wall.

"It was frustrating," recalls Brown, 28, of San Jose. Brown's original weight was 296, and she had more to lose, she says. "I was stuck doing the same routine. But I knew what I had to do. I had to switch up my workout and my diet."

In the beginning of most fitness and weight loss regimens, it feels like the pounds practically melt off. And then you face a plateau, where results slow down or stop -- often along with motivation -- particularly when it comes to shedding those final pounds. Experts say multiple plateaus are common and make physiological and nutritional sense. But you can overcome them by accelerating your workouts and changing your diet.

From a research perspective, we know how to lose weight, says Sue Rodearmel, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Cal State East Bay. It's actually very simple.

"Your energy expenditure must be more than your caloric intake," says Rodearmel, an exercise physiologist. "Now, when you get down to a pretty healthy weight and you only have five pounds to lose, that becomes a larger percent of what's left of you."

In turn, those five pounds become harder to lose, Rodearmel explains, because the human body defends its weight fiercely. So, when and if you do plateau, the first step is to increase your exercise, she says.

Brown conquered her plateau when she joined Crossfit, a San Jose gym that offers group classes focused on constantly changing functional movements performed at high intensities. The trick, says owner and head trainer Jason Khalipa, is nutrition and lifting heavy objects.

"I have yet to have someone plateau at my gym and not be able to get them past it with those two things," he says. "We show them how to do more work in less time and improve from six months ago. Because as soon as your workout becomes routine, your body adapts."

Manuel Villacorta, a San Francisco registered dietitian, sees it all the time: Clients who don't understand why they plateau on daily workouts of boot camp and spinning. The problem is their disordered eating or poor eating habits, he says.

"Ninety percent of weight loss success is nutrition," says Villacorta, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "When you eat very little, or delay or skip meals, it spikes up hormones like cortisol, which slows metabolism. "Never mind the stress of daily life, which can keep you from losing weight, too."

In many cases, Villacorta tells these clients

to scale back the gym to three times a week and follow a meal plan. He puts a protein-rich breakfast back into their day. Protein boosts metabolism by 35 percent, he says. He makes sure they eat healthful snacks, such as fruits and nuts. And he explains the science and evolution behind weight loss.

"For instance, when women exercise, the hunger hormone ghrelin spikes. And that's to defend the fat so women can make babies," he says. A great way to control ghrelin is to eat proteins and carbohydrates together, Villacorta adds.

James Russell of Walnut Creek knows the value of nutrition. Over the past year, he has lost 25 pounds through Weight Watchers, a points system emphasizing fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. When he first started the diet, he lost five pounds. From there, combined with his daily walks, he lost a pound or two a week. Four months in, he hit a plateau.

"I started to get frustrated but I realized everyone hits it," says Russell, 74. "I had become complacent. I wasn't writing anything down (that I was eating) because I figured I'd just keep it in my head. But that didn't work."

Russell went back to tracking his points, lost weight, and hit another plateau two months later. That's when he decided to add more exercise, including a rowing machine and stair climber. He diligently tracked his points, weighed his portions, and lost 2.4 pounds that week. He was back in business.

"You get to feeling better about yourself because it's working," Russell says. "It's a combination of changing and learning. You get bored with the same cereal and it doesn't hold you over until lunch, so you find something else. I like change."

Russell believes a positive attitude makes a big difference in meeting his goals. He's got about eight pounds to go and is in no rush.

"Putting a deadline or time element on it is not for me," he says. "There's no reason to put that pressure on yourself."

Brown, of San Jose, agrees. She's lost 106 pounds, and has 25 left to reach her goal weight. She sees the whole experience as an "amazing journey."

"I think weight loss and getting healthy can be very frustrating when you don't see the results you want to see or as quickly as you want to see them," she says. "But it's not something you can do in the first two weeks of January. You have to realize it's a lifestyle."


Fitness and nutrition tips courtesy of San Francisco dietitian Manual Villacorta and San Jose personal trainer Jason Khalipa:

Eat a protein-rich diet. It boots metabolism by 35 percent.

Women should eat protein and carbohydrates together. This combats ghrelin, a hunger hormone that spikes when women exercise.

At every meal, make half of your plate fruits and vegetables. Choose nutrient-rich snacks, such as nuts or blueberries.

Increase the intensity of your workouts often. Try to compete against yourself. Record workout data and do more reps in less time.

Change the movements and types of exercises in your workout often. Functional movements such as squatting to lift a medicine ball off the ground and lifting it above your head are more efficient than isolated exercises, such as a bicep curl.

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