October 17, 2007

Six Month Plateau: It Ain't Just You

So a research review just came out that took a big bunch of previous weight loss studies (80 of 'em), threw them all together, and tried to figure out what worked to help people lose weight.

Quick answer: cutting calories.

Shocking, isn't it? But, wait, there's more.

Well, not that much more. The article appears in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, but you have to pay for it. Alas, Cranky Fitness has no budget for Scholarly Journal Subscriptions, nor does this blog have the dedication necessary to get off its ass and head to a University Library to retrieve further details. So let's just talk about the stuff they mention in the handy Reuter's summary and call it a day, shall we?

Anyway, the study found some things that seemed to make sense. Like:
  • Most people lost around 11 to 19 pounds over four years, but typically, participants gained a little bit of weight back over time.
  • Diet-focused approaches were most successful. Advice-only and exercise-only studies produced "minimal" weight loss.
  • Weight-loss medication seemed to help "somewhat" in keeping weight off over the longer-term.

But the study (or at least the summary) seemed to suggest that calorie cutting worked whether or not the subjects did any exercise. At least this was the wording: "Approaches that focused on trimming calories -- with or without exercise -- were most effective at keeping the pounds off over four years."

Huh? This makes no sense! How could the exercisers not do better than those who weren't exercising?

So screw science. Crabby doesn't like this part of the result so she'll just ignore it. Perhaps the people in the diet + exercise groups were lying about doing the exercise part. Not having the details from the actual study to refer to, Crabby is free to just make sh*t up.

But aside from the suspicious bit about calorie cutting by itself doing the job, there was another interesting thing they found. Check this out:

"In trials that used calorie-cutting alone and in those that added exercise, weight loss typically hit a plateau after six months. After that, participants gained a few pounds back, on average."

The researchers went on to suggest that "after six months, people should be prepared for their weight loss to taper off. Then the goal should be maintaining whatever success has been achieved."

Now many of you folks out there have managed to keep losing well past the first six months and 10-20 pounds. Hooray for you--you're exceptional! But for others of you who are finding yourself "stuck" after six months, losing the same five or ten pounds over and over--well, it turns out there's nothing wrong with you. Your results are quite typical.

Is this fact acknowledged very often? Let's repeat:

It's completly normal to get stuck and "plateau" after six months. It's really hard to lose additional weight after that.

Is this discouraging news? Or is it helpful to hear? Are any of you stuck? Or do you have any inspiring stories of how you got stuck once but broke through it?

All comments most welcome!


  1. AAAAAH!
    Did you write this post just for me?

    I think it's discouraging...and comforting.

  2. I always knew I was exceptional (based on generic findings, of course) :P

    but then again, I guess this means I will never be in the 120s as I've been in a "plateau" of sorts for a year *sob*

  3. Ah, the dreaded plateau. Been there so many times, I've lost count. Then you get discouraged, and stop denying yourself all those yummy things, then your portions get a little larger, and pretty soon, WTF, where did this roll of blubber come from?

  4. Age is certainly a factor too. Weight loss gets a lot harder as you get older and the regains, much easier. I plateau a lot sooner and stay there a lot longer. Good thing there's junk food to keep me company! ;)

    Sigh.. I'm still working at losing my post-pregnancy weight. Sadly, my youngest is seventeen... years, not months.

  5. I have nothing to add, Crabby. I'm still reeling from the revelation about cutting calories.

  6. This certainly reinforces my lifelong perception that prevention is easier than the cure.

  7. Cutting calories? Who knew?
    My focus now is to be healthy - if I lose weight in the process, that's wonderful, but it's not my main focus.
    I love "studies" - coffee is good for you, wait it is bad for you, no it's good for you....rinse, repeat.

  8. Is the point to lose weight? Or to lose fat rather than muscle?

    Yesterday I skimmed a book by "Three Fat Chicks" wherein they discuss L.A. WeightLoss centers. Apparently customers are discouraged from exercising (some customers, at least) because gaining muscle would detract from their goal of losing two pounds a week. Words fail me.

    Hate to sound like a heretic, but I'm not sure I believe that a plateau is inevitable. Your body adjusts to the amount of calories consumed and burned off. Surely then you can re-adjust your intake or exercise level to get off the plateau? (Sounds easy. In theory, anyway.)

  9. I seem to have escaped the six-month plateau of DOOOM -- I flatlined for a month in August and then again at the end of September after donating blood (must have been retaining fluids or something) but then I busted out the ol' FoodMover, switched to a lower-calorie card (1200, the lowest one) and I seem to be well on my way again.

    Except that now I'm on vacation for a couple of weeks with no scale. :/ I guess I'll just have to keep doing what I've been doing and see how it works out.

  10. I'm with Bunnygirl on this! It's easier to stay out than to get out!

    That said, yes cutting calories is key, but exercise has many benefits besides burning calories. Of course I don't know what they are but I'm sure by the time I run my next 15,000 miles, I'll discover them and I'll post it here immediately :-)

    Oh, yeah, lose some weight, stabilize for a month or two, repeat prn.


  11. I'm pretty sure my plateau is at 180 pounds; that's what I hovered around at my fitness and eating peak in Japan. Unfortunately according to health charts that's still 10 pounds above my ideal weight, so yeah, screw science! When it brings me my flying car we'll talk.

  12. You know, I don't trust these studies farther than i could throw them, but this one was personally interesting because I lost my weight in roughly 6-mo, 10-lb increments. I didn't quit because of plateaus, I'd just get worried that if i lost more i wouldn't maintain it. But i know LOTS of people who pushed past 6-months, and as for exercise, there are SO MANY REASONS to do it other than weight loss! Anyway, i did a whole post on this on my blog, thanks for finding the study crabby. :-)

  13. What a revelation! Who knew all we have to do is cut calories to lose weight? Sounds so simple, huh?

    I’ve been successful at losing weight many times and the plateaus never bothered me all that much. I was happy as long as the scale wasn’t going in the wrong direction. I’d take the plateaus any day over the slippery slope of regaining the weight that was so damn hard to lose.

    There certainly are ways to jump off the plateau and get losing again though. Most people get stuck in a weight loss rut - eat the same things, do the same exercises and get frustrated when they don’t lose weight as rapidly as they did or stall at that dreaded plateau. The body adjusts and you just have to mix it up to keep the body on its toes and ready to lose more.

    It is so frustrating to do the right things and not be rewarded with a weight loss. I’m not giving up though. I’m taking your good advice … yah me, I had my oatmeal and fruit for breakfast instead of the huge bagel with cream cheese or fattening pastry that is in the office; yah me, I went for a walk at lunch instead of sitting around reading my book; yah me, I’m making healthier choices and still doing battle in the fat fight. Thanks Crabby!

  14. I DID plateau at 6 months! I wasn’t so discouraged because I had managed to be within healthy BMI status by then. This news IS comforting. Thank you. But I also believe that further weight loss is possible. I’ve known bloggers whom been at it for three years and their weight is still dropping, however slowly. I think it’s a matter of keeping at it and trying new things.

    PS Welcome back! Although it felt like you were hardly gone, since you were still blogging.

  15. I did hit a plateau and stayed on it for over a year. Then I changed my lifestyle a bit more and lo and behold, I started losing weight again. It's all about choices and what you're willing to do.

    I'd also like to mention that exercise does not necessarily lead to weightloss. Exercise, especially resistance training, leads to muscle gain, which can lead to weight gain since muscles weigh more than fat. This is a good thing since muscle is good for you and looks a lot better than fat.

    People need to get away from this idea of losing weight = getting healthier. It's not that simple.


  16. discouraging, yes. but that means I still have 3 months or so before it all ends, so YAY!

  17. Well, of course. If you keep doing the same stuff, the body eventually adapts and no further progress is made. Let's say you make the same dance moves, or play the same chess game, over and over. After a while, you get good at the activity, and you no longer learn anything new, you don't get any better. To get past the plateau, you have to switch things up and get the body on a new learning curve.

    Besides, if you do the same stuff constantly, you'll get bored witless and become yet another diet/exercise dropout.

  18. I don't know about the plateau because I'm only 3 weeks into my 15 to 20 pound weight loss plan. Hopefully, 6 months from now I will like to be plateauing and staying there, not going up or down.

    I like your attitude Crabby. If we don't like the results, screw 'em. That's what I do. :-)

  19. I think this study really needs a hard look at it. What were their criteria for weight loss, was it simply pounds, bmi??? I am a little skeptical about the journal it was published in too. If this was ground breaking stuff, it would be in JAMA or New England Journal of Med. I think we should all focus a good healthy lifestyle, not just pounds.

  20. katieo, it's you and me both! While it's comforting to have it explained, it's bringing up the thing I hate most about "studies". They offer no solutions. Just tell you what's going on and say deal. I need to hear the next study when they search for a "cure".
    I think scone has something with the doing the same thing idea.

  21. Lots of great points and awesome comments!

    To paraphrase Missicat & Bunnygirl: sounds like it's best to keep the focus on health, not weight; and it's better to not let things get out of hand in the first place! (If you're still in a position to do that).

    And Mary, I can't believe people are actually being coached to AVOID exercise because of the muscle gain--what a stupid ass thing to tell people!

    I think what surprised me was just how modest the weight loss was over four years and how easy it was for "average" folks to get stuck after 6 months--those of you who have kept at it and made lots of further progress should be proud of yourselves, because it's the exception, not the rule!

    Love hearing what everyone's experience with this is, thanks, all, for contributing.

  22. I did notice the 1st time I did WW's I lost soley (??sp??) by cutting calories. But I wasn't as pleased with the results until the toning that was achieved by kick butt exercise! So yes, cutting calories works...especially if you haven't been crash dieting before you start cutting... but exercise it the key to feeling your best (IMHO) (:

  23. Statistics can be manipulated until they say what you want them to. I am trying for a healthier lifestyle, if I lose some fat, so much the better.
    (Although, I think that cushion helped with the chemo.)

  24. Hi Crabby !!!

    It is crazy but true: over the last 2 years I tried 2 different approachs to lose 10 lbs

    1) Run 4 times a week, plus weights 2 times a week, eat healthy

    2) Give up sweets and junk food for Lent

    Lost 6 pounds in 2 months on #2. Nada #1

    I didn't think I ate that many sweets, but apparently I was wrong.

    This year I am going to give up sweets and junk food AND melty cheese. Whoa. Lets go shopping for size zero in April.

  25. I've lost and kept off just over 60 pounds. I exercise moderately, but mostly just to feel good and keep my sanity. I lost that weight in spurts, and typically when I lost it I wasn't getting any formal exercise at all, for one reason or another. I didn't do any kind of formal diet (whenever I tried, my weight loss stopped and I would then regain a bit). But I did become more conscious of portion sizes, whether or not I really needed a snack between meals or before bed, that sort of thing. I do think plateaus happen, no matter what you do. For me personally, I found it worked better to just be patient and let my body sort itself out, instead of trying to force more weight loss (always, always backfired in the long run). The best thing I ever did for myself was to stop getting on the scale.

  26. wow, some more really inspiring and interesting observations.

    It's so funny that I can't abandon the idea that exercise is essential, even though many of you did fine without much.

    I always love to hear about people keeping at it despite feeling stuck and getting a great perspective on it all.


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