Weight Loss: What is happening when one hits a plateau?

While this thread does spring from my own frustration, I am looking for a factual answer about physiology.

If I understand correctly from reading the Dope, the body needs ten calories per pound to stay alive, before any additional activity. (Please correct me if needed.) So if I am 300 pounds, I need 3000 calories to exist. If I don’t take in 3000 calories, the body will use up stored energy and weight will come off?

So if I am consistently consuming only 1000 calories a day, why does the body hit a plateau? What else is going on?

There’s a few possible options. Admittedly, I haven’t heard the “ten Kcal/pound” metric before, so that may be off, but assuming you’re eating below maintenance there are a few possibilities.

  1. Water weight fluctuations. If you’ve consumed a large amount of salt recently, your body will retain more water so as to keep balance. This increase in water could mask genuine loss of body fat, but it would be unlikely to last for more than a few days.

  2. You’re eating more than you think you are. If you don’t track your calories it is very difficult to accurately estimate how much you are eating. This is the most likely cause of your weight-loss plateau.

  3. You are somehow expending less than 1000 Kcal a day. I’m not really sure how plausible this is, but it could be a contributory factor, where you are underestimating your caloric expenditure.

I don’t see how a plateau could be possible unless you are taking in an equal amount to what you are using. Look at the holocaust victims, they never hit a plateau. I would suspect we might hit a weight equal to the minimum amount of calories we are willing to take in.

Your small intestine is smart. It’s lined with the same type of cells that make up your brain. I have no cite but have found with experience that if I plateau during weight loss, it’s because I’ve been eating the same thing over and over each day, and I suspect my clever gut has become more efficient at extracting calories out of what I’m giving it.

Change up your diet. Swap out some foods. Take a day off you diet and eat a few more calories so your body knows it’s not really starving.

The 10Kcal/lb thing is just a vague estimate, obviously different tissues use different amounts of energy. Your brain, for example, uses 20-25% of your total energy use, and since it hopefully is staying the same size as you diet, its presumably consuming an ever larger faction of your calories as the rest of you lose weight. So the KCal/lbs ratio will increase as you diet.

Also, if you’re really 100lbs, stop dieting and go eat a cheese burger.

Let’s assume this hypothetical is correct, although the exact numbers vary from person to person and activity level. As you lose weight, the number of calories needed “to exist” will decrease. You cite 3000 calories for a 300 pound person. That same person at 200 lbs would be burning only 2000 calories per day. Which means if you were eating a diet of, say 2200 calories per day, you would loose weight at 300 lbs, and plateau at 220 lbs. this is oversimplifying it, but basically the less you weigh, the fewer calories per day your burning.

There are certainly several reasons why this can happen. The currently popular notion that it’s a straight line equation between calories and weight is not accurate.

For one thing, our evolutionary bodies get concerned when reduced calories become common, and respond by slowing our metabolism. This is most likely the cause of plateaus. So, move more, or vary your calorie intake some. Or just wait it out. You will start losing again.

Be sure you’re drinking plenty of water (dehydrated bodies convert more calories to fat), building muscle (lost muscle slows metabolism), and be sure to get enough protein. Or work out more (maybe add interval training) to get that metabolism up again.

… it’s the first time I hear a dermis called a bunch of neurones.

Another thing you can try is to take a day off your diet. The typical result of a plateau is to try harder, and the body also tried harder, and the person finds it does not work. Try the opposite. Also getting very sick at this time can break the plateau and bring you quite a bit lower but even know it works I do not recommend it.

I am literally what is in the OP – I am 300 lbs and I am eating 1000 calories a day. I’ve seen more than once on these boards that if calories in is less than calories burned, you will lose weight. So I will have to be more patient given the other info in this thread.

If someone is 100 pounds and consuming 1000 calories a day, wouldn’t they just be maintaining their weight?

Oh, you happen to have records of daily weights while victims starved and the exact tempo of how they lost weight? Who knew?

Plateaus definitely happen.

  1. That 10 calories per pound bit is a fiction. The body is an adaptive machine and functions to attempt to maintain a set point for weight and fat mass. If it has been living with a weight as its normal it will adapt in the face of weight loss to reverse it. Metabolic rate decreases by significantly more than what would be predicted by the fewer pounds alone; the amount one moves around when not exercising, named “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” or NEAT, decreases dramatically … resulting in significantly fewer calories expended per pound until such time that the body (well the brain actually is in charge here) becomes convinced that that old set point no longer applies. Then a period of more rapid loss sometimes occurs. Mind you even without those adaptations what was a major calorie deficit at 300 is not as major after a 40 pound loss. Less weight needs less calories.

  2. The are stress hormones at play (cortisol) in response to high degrees of restirction that increase the tendency to both fat gain and more so water retention. Likely that is part of why some paradoxically break through a plateau by relaxing on their diet and exercise plan some.

But how does the body have the “luxury” to gain fat if it is getting minimal calories?

Your metabolism is continually changing for lots of reasons. It has slowed to require fewer calories now. Sounds strange, but eat more, move more, hydrate more, and it will kickstart your metabolism again.

This is one reason many people gain weight back after quick weight loss diets or diet pills. It artificially raises your metabolism. Think of your starting metabolism (rate you burn calories) as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. If you do pills or diet, your effective met is artificially propped up to a 9 making you lose weight. Progress! But, during this time, your body’s natural way of controlling your met gets lazy and sinks to a 2. You don’t notice until you stop the pills or diet and suddenly your body is burning at only a 2 and now you’re gaining weight even faster than before the pills or diet, even if you’re eating and moving the same… 2 vs. 5. It will recover to normal but it happens slowly. So that’s why you always hear advice to lose it slowly. Give your body time to adjust on the way down and you’re more likely to stay down.

I feel your pain. After a 50 lb loss last year, I’ve been stuck for over 6 months. Gotta change something.


In that context persistently elevated cortisol’s tendency plays out more as a resistance to losing fat and in particular to preserving central fat often at the expense of lean muscle mass. That said the bigger impact of chronic stress induced cortisol elevation on weight is the increased sodium retention with the water that comes with it.

My gut is that the bigger deal is the set point and the body’s (mal)adaptive responses responding to what it experiences as a perturbation from its normal. Not mentioned is the increase in appetite and drive to eat as the op states a constant calorie intake, but that happens too. Exercise may help the body trigger into a lowered set point.