"flat, depressing, and temporary"

the plateau

Notice that one never has to explain the concept of plateau to anyone who has endeavored to lose weight. I suspect that the experience of a plateau is nearly a universal phenomenon among those who have endeavored to lose weight, regardless of what method one is using to bring that about.

However, if you, the reader, have never lost a substantial amount of weight, the term plateau refers to a period of time during which weight-loss slows or stops while one is persisting in the behaviors that have heretofore been inducing weight loss. It is every dieter's Waterloo, or it seems that way, and it is very important to keep in mind that every failure of every weight-loss project anyone has ever attempted began with a plateau. No one gives up on a diet while they are successfully losing weight.

For myself, I think this is why plateaus are so hard to live through. Even when I am "on" one, as I am at this writing, in the midst of the rapid weight-loss period following bariatric surgery, which is at this writing the only known "cure" for obesity, I feel the fear to the very core of my being. What if this is it? What if this is all the weight I am going to lose, some 115 lbs short of my goal? What am I doing wrong? How have I failed myself here?

Objectively, I can look at all of the evidence and easily convince myself of a reliably certain, if mysterious truth--this just seems to be the way the human body sheds weight. For whatever reasons, my weight-loss curves have never been smooth and linear. They have all, always been stair-steps, and if you peruse such resources as the Physics Diet's public profiles you can easily see that everyone experiences the same phenomenon.

Let me break that into it's own paragraph: Everyone experiences the same phenomenon.


So, why do I get so concerned every time this happens? Why do I doubt myself, what I'm doing, and even drift into anger and frustration when something happens to me when I'm losing weight that happens regularly to everyone who has ever lost weight?

picture of a man riding an elephant, from Thailand

Let me introduce the metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant, introduced to me in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. by Chip and Dan Heath. "The Rider" refers to the human perched on the back of a domesticated elephant being used to get somewhere, and the "The Elephant" refers the elephant being ridden by the rider.

The Rider metaphorically represents the rational and analytical aspects of (an individual or) a system, the locus of decision-making and strategic planning. The rider's strengths are analysis and problem solving, the rider's weakness is that it lacks the power to actually get anywhere. It needs to ride an elephant.

The Elephant metaphorically represents the emotional and motivational aspects of a system, the locus of energy, persistence and power. The elephant's strength is power and perseverance, it's weaknesses are stubbornness and myopic single-mindedness. It needs a rider to keep it on the right path.

The basic assertion of the book is that in order to manage change in a system one has to attend to both the rider and the elephant. Efforts that attend to only one or the other fail because of the lack of attention to the ignored element. Change efforts that simply attend to the rider lack the emotional oomph to get things done, change efforts that simply attend to the elephant quickly get off track and end up lost and wandering.

So, I hope you understand me now when I assert that my problem with plateaus is both an rider and an elephant problem. Rationally, I know that a plateau is a normal part of losing weight. This is how it happens, but I can't explain it rationally. I don't have the tools to directly measure my loss of adipose (fat) tissue. Since my caloric deficits are probably fairly constant from day-to-day, it is equally likely that my loss of excess adipose tissue is fairly constant.

The First Law of Thermodynamics applies here. A pound of fat can supply about 3,500 kcals of energy. If my caloric deficit is about 1,000 kcals per day, as it seems to be by analysis over the long-term, then I should end up with about 5 ounces less of fat tissue every 24 hours. However, without the direct measure of the weight of my fat tissue alone, I am without a way to satisfy my rider that we are moving in the right direction.

There are a number of things that make up one's weight from day to day--body composition, solid waste, fluid retention--fluctuations in any of these can obscure weight loss from burning fat tissue. Because of that, I am asking the rider to accept the assumption that the fat burning is happening anyway, on Faith. Riders hate that.

However, I have a bigger problem with the elephant.

The elephant gets the motivation to make the effort for another day by having Faith in the notion that we are moving towards something it wants. The elephant will keep doing the hard things as long as it believes it is worth the sacrifice. That number going down on the scale is seen too often as the carrot at the end of that stick. When it doesn't go down, the elephant doesn't care about the data, it cares about not wasting it's energy for a futile effort.

It's not the rider that gives up when a weight-loss effort is abandoned. The rider knows losing weight is the right thing to do, there's no rational argument for the preservation of obesity. However, no amount of encouragement from the rider can motivate an elephant who has lost faith in the effort. If the elephant isn't moving, things stop. Period. The rider is without a way to convince the elephant because the elephant doesn't respond to rational argument, it responds to feeling, emotional argument--do this because it will make you feel good, because it is right, because you'll be happier.

So, how does one deal with the plateau? For me, as with most things like this, the solution is seeing clearly. I have to see the data, the history, other people's experiences, my own doubt, and I have to both see the rider and the elephant.

I tell my rider that the very notion that I am on something called a "plateau" is a result of the fact that body mass, the number that my scale displays, is a confounded and unknown sum of conflicting factors--the amount of fluid in my body (my body weight is about 60% water after all), the weight of the solid waste currently transiting my intestines, and the relative composition of my fat and lean body mass.

For example, I know I am putting on lean body mass because I can lift more weight at the gym this week than I did last week. That strength doesn't just come from nowhere, my muscles are bigger, and bigger muscles weigh more, not less. So, when my body mass remains constant in the face of strength increases, I know right there that I am almost certainly replacing fat mass with muscle mass.

Further, the food I eat and the fluids I drink weigh something. When I finish a nice bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee in the morning, I weigh more than I did before I ate breakfast. The food is not burned directly, there's not a fire in my gut, I have to absorb the energy stored in the food and convert it back into fuel in my body. Until I do that, the mass of that stored energy has to be carried around.

Even further, the food that I don't absorb goes on the slithery ride through my intestines until I eliminate it. It also weighs something. If you get on a relatively sensitive scale before and after defecation your rider can see this directly. Solid waste weighs something.

Finally, and probably most importantly, my body is about 60% water by weight, and water is moving in and out of my body at all times (some have calculated that in the average person 13 pounds of food, air and water is exchanged with the environment daily). Water is absorbed and excreted directly through my skin, in my breath, via urination, perspiration, drinking, and via various other more minor methods in a constant, somewhat chaotic process of exchange with my environment.

On humid days I have one experience of this exchange with my environment, on dry days I have another. I have another when I bathe, go swimming, or dip in the ocean. Eating salt will cause my body to conserve water weight, swimming in the ocean will cause me to shed it. Pounding a bunch of water in to rehydrate myself will cause me to increase my body mass, an extra-hard workout or a hot, humid day spent outside will cause me to decrease my body mass.

Is it any wonder, when I am interested in tracking, at best, what is happening with 40% of my body mass, that this chaos in the other 60% is confounding my efforts at understanding what is going on? No, but try to convince the elephant of that.

The elephant wants to know that it is doing the right things, that it is the kind of animal that it wants to be, and it is going to get what it wants. My elephant won't respond to a lecture, it wants a hug.

I hug my elephant by reminding it that these plateaus are hard and discouraging. I remind myself that every success immediately follows the period when the desire to give up is greatest, and that the most important day to go to the gym is the day you don't want to go. These sayings and maxims are what my elephant responds to. I might ask a friend to encourage me, I might treat myself to something as a way to encourage just one more day of plodding forward out of my elephant--that's all I ever need, one more day.

The elephant will get it's reward eventually. Another feature of plateaus is that they always end (unless you stop trying). There will come a day when the scale moves and elephant is carrying the load, moving forward a rider that might be endlessly caught in analysis and dithering about decision-making, or simply bored with trying to solve a resistant problem. The elephant just needs to believe it is doing the right thing, that it is the kind of animal it wants to be, and that it will get what it wants. It will carry a distracted or disinterested rider along with it.

One simple way to hug the elephant is to weigh only weekly. This will filter out much of the noise, losses in fat mass will reliably show up in weekly weights. The method I use is attending to a moving average of my daily weight rather than the daily number on the scale (cf. the tools to calculate such are available at PhysicsDiet.com or The Hacker's Diet). If my number on the scale is below my moving average, my elephant can keep moving for another day.

As an experienced dieter, I've failed more diets than most people have tried, what bothers me most about plateaus is the fuss made about them. Both people who are trying to lose weight and those "experts" that are trying to help them get far too freaked-out about this phenomenon. I had to stop reading the online obesity support groups because of all of the doom and gloom about plateaus contained within. People try all sort of desperate and counter-productive tricks to "break" the plateau.


Unfortunately, the most frequently tried plateau-busting tricks are deprivation of calories and/or sudden increases in activity. Suddenly depriving the body of a large number of calories causes it to preserve fat tissue, which is precisely counter-productive, and sudden increases in activity can elicit injuries and exercise program burn-out, both of which confound efforts to lose excess weight in the long term.

Even more alarming is the fact that it is often the so-called "experts" that recommend these counter-productive interventions. It is as if one was told to wear green socks in order to make the rain stop, and then because the rain eventually stopped on a day you were wearing green socks convincing one's self that this strategy works. The "experts" should know better, but they continue to act as if a plateau is something other than a normal variation in the downward trend of someone successfully losing weight. There's actually no more to be "done" about a plateau than one should "do" about the weather--just cope with it.

Do you want to know what really works to break a plateau? Waiting it out, holding steady with the behaviors that elicited preceding period of weight loss (please note that one can't have a plateau without a preceeding period of weight loss), and keeping the faith. The body is doing something, or more correctly, something is happening in the body, that we don't understand well. What we do know is that it is noise, it's not important to the long-term goal of losing weight.

Permanently losing fat mass is a long-term project that requires a long-term perspective. Plateaus are not long-term phenomena, they don't belong on the radar. It's just something that happens, we don't know why. However, don't confuse my rider's certainly with my elephant's equanimity. I still hate them, particularly the one I'm on now...

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