Home Did You Know The Math Behind Weight Loss Plateaus

The Math Behind Weight Loss Plateaus

by Erika Nicole Kendall

As we prepare to wrap up our calorie counting challenge, I imagine you may fall into one of four categories:

  1. You may have started off counting your calories, but became so disappointed and surprised that you gave up after a few days;
  2. You may have said you don’t want or need to know your average daily calorie count, and decided not to participate;
  3. You may have not only started your counting but kept up your counting and still are;
  4. Or, you may have started off counting and became so disappointed that you immediately started changing your daily diet to try to meet your daily calorie and weight loss needs.

credit: cogdogblog

As long are you don’t fall under number two, I don’t care where, exactly you fall. The reality is that those numbers you collect – be it from two days or twelve – play a monumental part in our ability to maintain and lose weight.

I’ve written about the hard numbers before, but I’d like to get into a little bit more detail about it, today. If you’ve never read my post about the basics of calorie counting, you might want to check it out.

The facts stand as follows:

  • Our bodies burn a set number of calories each day based on our height and weight.
  • A body carrying more weight than average is going to require more food than average to maintain that weight.
  • A body carrying more weight than average is going to require more food than average to gain weight on top of that weight.
  • A body carrying less weight than average will require less food than average to maintain that weight.

To put this into action, let’s use a 27 year old female who weighs 170 at 5’8″ with a sedentary lifestyle as an example.

If we plug those numbers into one of my favorite calculators, it says that she burns approximately 2,173 calories per day. What this means, is that in order for her body to manage all of the functions it needs to handle, it will burn 2,173 calories. The body will pull those calories either from the food she eats, or the fat stores in the body.

In order for her to not gain or lose any weight over a one week time frame, she’d have to eat approximately 2,200 calories. That’s what you call a maintenance count.

In order for her to gain a pound in a week, she’d have to eat an extra 3,500 calories worth of food. (Remember, 1lb = 3,500 calories.) Aside from the weight of the actual food still in her system (that is, if she doesn’t go number two regularly), if she eats, on average, 500 calories over her maintenance count each day, she’ll gain a pound.

In order for her to lose a pound in a week, she’d have to cut 500 calories from her maintenance count. So, if she made sure her average daily calorie count never exceeded approximately 1,700 calories, she would lose a pound of weight (not including the weight of the actual food still in her body, because she should be going number two regularly.)

Note: If she wants to burn two pounds a week, she can step it up in the activity department and burn approximately 500 extra calories a day – either through running or swimming or even walking – and knock out another 3,500 calories in a week. But we’re not talking about exercise just yet – that’s for next week. So for this example, she’s not working out.

So we’ve covered the obvious basics, but here’s where we go wrong.

Say she works her tail off, and gets down to 148, but decides she wants to drop down to 140. Okay, now we’ve got a goal. This is great. She keeps up her same routine – eat healthy every day, weigh herself on Saturday – because obviously it’s working for her.

Except… it stops working for her.

All of a sudden, the weight loss slows down. It’s almost two weeks before she even sees a pound fade away. She starts getting discouraged, and starts to feel like she’s ready to give up.

This is where we go wrong.

When we lose 22lbs like this, we HAVE to go back to start. What did I say at the start?

To put this into action, let’s use a 27 year old female who weighs 170 at 5’8″ with a sedentary lifestyle as an example.

If we plug those numbers into one of my favorite calculators, it says that she burns approximately 2,173 calories per day.

A 20lb weight loss alters how many calories our bodies burn in a given day by over100 calories! A woman who is 5’8″, weighing in at now 148 pounds, doesn’t burn 2,173 calories each day – she burns 2,025! If she’s counting to make sure she eats 1,600 calories each day,that’s only a 425 calorie deficit! That’s not enough to burn a pound every 7 days, it’s enough to burn a pound every 9 days. Meaning there may only be two Saturdays in the month where she sees any progress on the scale, depending upon where those nine-day markers fall.

After each successful stride in your journey, you must reassess your metabolic rate, be it for an athlete or a couch potato. You have to know what your body is doing, and you have to remember that as your size changes, your capabilities change. Remember, being conscious is a MAJOR part of not only losing weight, but keeping it off. My favorite line is “If you never eat it, you don’t have to worry about burning it off.” But you have to know what you’re eating in order to know whether or not you should be eating it, right? That’s why I calorie count!

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Carolyn July 1, 2010 - 11:05 AM

Thanks for inspiring me to get back on the wagon!

Erika July 1, 2010 - 2:24 PM

You can do it! 🙂

Lyrical1908 July 1, 2010 - 11:41 AM

This makes so much sense it’s scary.

Thanks. I needed to read this.

Erika July 1, 2010 - 2:25 PM

It’s always the smallest of things that slip by us and get us caught up in the biggest ways, so I’m glad I could help a bit. 🙂

Ren July 1, 2010 - 11:51 AM

Thank you for this post. I have lost 70lbs but need to lose at least 15 more. I am doing the same things I have been doing but my weight won’t move as “easily” as it did when I was heavier. It sucks because I feel stuck. Now I have a new plan of attack!

Erika July 1, 2010 - 3:05 PM

Yep! Time to reshift and restart! Whenever something slows up for me, my first response is always to go back to start!

cynthia July 1, 2010 - 12:37 PM

Ok E, I didnt read futher into the series. now I found it so now I will work the math backwards to calulate how much I should intake, to lose as always thanks

Erika July 1, 2010 - 3:05 PM

Start with the link to that calculator, and you should do fine. 🙂

KAPSpecial July 1, 2010 - 2:18 PM

I’m glad you’re forgiving, because I started off dedicated tracking on SparkPeople – for two days. I went to Chicago and clearly didn’t want to log that I ate 8 of those chocolate pecan cookies from Grand Lux Cafe. 🙁 So I will reflect on those two days, check out that calculator and log today’s food and activity. FYI, I’m going to use this site for accountability. My goal is to not lie to you, Erica or to the other folks visiting this site. So let me go log onto Sparkpeople now! Good post. Thanks.

Erika July 1, 2010 - 4:12 PM

Well, are you indulging in all those chocolate cookies regularly? THAT might be something you need to track over an extended period of time, mama… you very well could be sabotaging your own efforts and don’t WANT to realize it.

I may be forgiving, but your body (and your health) are different…. so you’ve got to be vigilant, mama. 🙂

Rita July 2, 2010 - 1:27 PM

I just found myself saying “girl, please I’d be in the gym all night and that aint happening, I want to go home feeling good after my hour, thats why I calorie count”

This series is having more impact on me then I thought.

Erika, my body and my health thank you!

Tammie July 6, 2010 - 8:08 AM

I’m further convinced that I need to count calories. Thanks for the knowledge.

Sam M July 6, 2010 - 2:02 PM

Thank you so much for this. I don’t calorie count, I point count, but may need to use this b/c I lost 20 pounds & now I’m stuck! Back to the drawing board.

Noelani August 8, 2010 - 2:14 PM

Thank you for breaking this down in simplistic terms. So many times I’ve been told about calorie counting and it felt daunting but now I get the jist of it and it makes a heck of a lot more sense.

thelafemmenoir August 13, 2010 - 6:02 PM

I am soooo happy that I stumbled across your blog while being nosy(someone’s facebook status said that they “commented on your page” and being nosy I can over to take a look-see at your group/page and then saw the link for the blog).

I am posting because I had hit a bit of a wall in my weight loss and was wondering what I needed to do to get back on track. Never did I think that I needed to reassess my current weight/caloric intake/energy expenditure every time I lost weight. How foolish of me, really.

I am now planning weekly reassessments to ensure that I stay on track with my weight loss plan. Thank you for posting this “Weight Loss Calculations for Dummies” post and thank you for the link to the calculator.

Tj September 5, 2010 - 7:27 PM

I’m really confused with the calculator, it says I require 2265calories per day to maintain my weight (2159calories if I don’t workout that day), however I eat at most 1400 calories, averaging at 1000 calories per day, and for the past week I’ve not noticed any significant weight loss, can I attribute this to muscle development because before when I lost 4lbs in a week, I didn’t weight lift at all, I just did pure cardio and danced. Now I kick box and weight lift, and I do crunches, squats and lunges. After the week mentioned (4lbs) I only lost 1lb, and since that second week, I’ve been oscillating around the same weight despite working out with a greater intensity and with the weight lifting added on top.

Apart from letting the scale rule over me (because I can see my tummy toning), what could be the issue here (if there is one)?

Erika September 5, 2010 - 7:46 PM

Not only muscle development, but whether or not you’ve got enough fiber in your diet.

sharona November 27, 2010 - 9:24 AM

You are so right! I love calorie counting…it is easy and it follows the simple rule of intake and weight gain or loss.

Miesha April 16, 2011 - 3:51 PM

I don’t calorie count but I’m thinking about incorporating it into my routine to lose the last 15 pounds I’d like to drop. I’ve already lost 111. Keep up the great work!

milaxx June 12, 2011 - 5:16 PM

Best explanation ever!

TLS July 29, 2011 - 10:49 PM

I am doing weight watchers and although it s not calorie counting by numbers, you are counting points to stay accountable with your food intake. And you hit it exactly, being conscious of what you are taking in is the biggest part of the journey to be successful. I was stalling, lsing little bits here and there. Had to get back to basics with tracking everything I ate and cleaner eating, which worked well with ww because they encourage the power foods. Dropped 5 lbs last week as a result. Now I know if things stall, that is an signal to refocus. Great post, as usual.

Dominique July 31, 2011 - 4:02 PM

Hm. I never thought of it that way.
Calorie counting is great, though sometimes I question whether I’m doing it correctly. I’ve been on the verge of being obsessed with counting every little thing that goes into my body, but just like the weight loss challenge, it leaves me with something else to work through.

I think this will help me not worry so much and enjoy the calorie reduction rather than sit by miserably mentally dissecting food and avoiding all the stuff I love.

Thanks so much for this article! I just know it’s going to help!

Faby A. August 21, 2011 - 6:35 PM

Thank you so much for writing this the other day i was wondering why after losing 30lbs in 2 months why my weight loss started to slow down. I hit the gym hard core but my calorie count was not up to par. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom with me. Much appreciated 🙂

Ije1978 October 30, 2011 - 8:42 AM

Wow this article was so timely for me. I just lost 22 lbs (like our example above) and my weight loss has gone from an average 4lbs a week over the last 6 weeks to 0.5-0.8 lbs a week. I knew I needed to ramp things up but of course I looked to my exercise regimen instead of my diet because who wants to pull back on more calories (not me!). But this has motivated me to adjust my caloric intake goals again. Thanks!

Patty January 1, 2012 - 6:27 PM

WOW! I so needed to read this, this is a great way to start the new year!

Naomi January 21, 2012 - 2:14 AM

I totally just had an aha moment. I’ve hit a wall the last month and it’s killing me. I have been using what I used 40lbs ago, so I guess it’s time to reassess.

LBrooke February 16, 2012 - 7:17 PM

Thank you so much for this, Erika!! I love your blog so much– even though I’m slowly working up to living a healthier life style in order to lose weight (and it’s taking a little longer than I’d like), your blog is filling my head full of good information. This is by far one of my favorites because it makes all of the sense that no one else makes when it comes to this. Everyone always says that when you plateau it’s because your body is at it’s set point and you have to work extra hard to break it out of that- but obviously we need to go back and re-check. It’s amazing how something that, on paper, is so easy- yet it’s so hard.

Katie December 8, 2012 - 7:09 PM

I just read this in my search to understand the link between exercise and calorie counting. I was under the impression I had to work off the full 1800 calories with exercise each day and it all seemed too hard, so I’d quit before starting. Now after giving birth to my son 8 weeks ago, I’m finally healed and ready to start trying again (to exercise not have a baby!) and get down to my goal weight in a year.

This post helped me realise all is not lost and I can actually handle this shit. I got this.

Kelly January 17, 2013 - 11:18 AM

Hello Erick,

I think I’m at a plateau. I’ve lost 72 bls. And I’m 225 now but I can’t seem to get below that. I calorie count and I workout hard. I’ve been this weight for about 2 months now. I burn 1000 plus calories a work out and I’ve been below my calorie count on some days. I eat a lot so I’m not starving myself and I don’t feel hungry.I pay close attention to the amount of fat I’m eating. I have no idea what going on.I don’t have any medical problems at all. I’ve put on muscle but there’s no way I should still be this weight. I’m getting so frustrated.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 23, 2013 - 8:56 AM

Well, hmmm…are you upping the intensity of your workouts? Are you working out too much? Are you SURE you’re building muscle during these 1,000 calorie burning workouts? If not, it’s very possible that, while doing your 75lb-losing exercise routine, you’ve lost so much mass that your metabolism has changed and you now need to eat even less in order to see the same results.

It’s also possible that you were doing too much in your workouts and not eating enough to actually successfully fuel the activity, and may need to consider eating more.

Udeme January 30, 2013 - 8:35 PM

Yes! Back in 2004, I lost 60 lbs. It was a difficult process, but I honestly think that losing the last 15-20 has been harder (I’m still at it). I was able to maintain this weight loss because I completely changed the way I ate. I didn’t do much calorie counting, BUT I realized that I had to in order to break through the plateau. I use the iPhone Lose It app to keep myself on track. Based on my height and weight, it says how many calories I should consume, and when I lose weight, I’m sure to update my profile so the calories shift. It helps! Many lose weight, but many don’t keep it off. Calorie counting and conscious eating is key. Great post and great blog!

Natalie February 11, 2013 - 10:06 PM

I love that you posted the calorie counter! but my friend ran across another calorie counter on another blog. http://www.barbellsandbeakers.com/2012/07/04/the-math-behind-weight-loss-caloric-deficit-explained/

this one seems to estimate my calories needed to lose weight to be much lower than the calculator you posted, and it’s kind of confusing. if you go to the link click on the calculator link under calculate your BMR or TDEE. it’s an excel sheet so download it (I promise no malware! lol) then you plug in your age, weight, activity level, etc. I put myself at a 1 for activity level because I’m a student and my job is a desk job, so I’m pretty sedentary, but I go to the gym right now 3 times a week, and I’m currently trying to increase this amount.

So I was curious which calculator you think I should follow? this is where I run into trouble when it comes to weight loss. I have trouble deciding on how many calories to eat, it seems like there are so many different estimates out there.

I’d really appreciate your help :D.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 12, 2013 - 9:56 AM

Honestly, I’d say take an average of ALL the numbers you compile, and test that out for a few weeks. If you don’t experience progress, then I’d encourage you to start cutting from there (or upping your exercise burn, whichever is appropriate.)

Natalie February 12, 2013 - 11:30 AM

Thanks for your advice! also, I’ve heard that you are supposed to calculate your calories burned while you are exercising. So for example, if I needed to drop down to 1500 calories to lose weight, and I burned 200 calories at the gym today, I could eat 200 calories more from my normal 1500 if I became hungry? Do I have to eat the extra 200 calories? Do you know if there is a calculator online somewhere that accurately (or reasonably) estimates how many calories you burned at the gym? I know the gym machines tend to over estimate calorie burn from what I heard, depending on your weight (i think the machines base your calories burned on a weight of 150?)

one last question. the calculators estimate that at some point I will have to drop below 1500 calories in order to continue losing weight (unless I wanted to up my time at the gym, which would be difficult because I’m a student and I work so my free time is minimal) so if I were to drop below 1500 to lose the weight, then got to my goal weight, could I go back to eating 1500-1550 calories a day while exercising like 3 times a week (minimum) if 1500-1550 were considered my maintenance calories at my new weight? or would I gain the weight back? because honestly I don’t think I could go on for the rest of my life eating less than 1500 calories a day, I love food and it would feel like an eternal punishment LOL! :D.

Sorry for bombarding you with all my questions, but when I came across your site I became so excited! your weight loss journey really inspires me to get healthy :D.

Thanks again for your advice! 🙂 It’s really appreciated!

Erika Nicole Kendall February 12, 2013 - 5:07 PM

You essentially could eat 200 more calories. You probably SHOULD eat the extra 200, because you don’t want to mess up your lean body mass by eating too few calories.

You would need to invest in a heart rate monitor to accurately assess your caloric burn. Machines nowadays ask you for your weight, so that’s not what makes them inaccurate; but they aren’t entirely reliable.

As for the rest, you can read up about that here.

Biolobri February 23, 2013 - 6:24 PM

I really don’t want this to discourage or depress anyone, but there is another phenomenon at work as well. It’s called set point.

Basically, energy expenditure (EE) decreases as you lose weight (Erika addresses this – you need less energy to keep your body fueled as you have less body to maintain) – the problem is, and this has been well established to occur in humans and rodent models, with weight loss, EE decreases more than can be accounted for in the change in lean/fat mass alone.

In animals models (both mice and rats) that start off in the same weight/metabolic/energy expenditure/brown fat/etc. state (these are matched to make sure individual variabilities are accounted for), 1/2 are fed high fat diet and become diet-induced obese (DIO), are subsequently put on a diet of restricted chow (regular food pellets) to lose weight, and return to the same weight as their ad lib chow cohort – once the previously DIO animals are allowed ad lib chow (unlimited – they control their own intake, but this is pretty bland “healthy” stuff that they don’t tend to gorge on) – the previously DIO animals will eat more and exhibit lowered energy expenditure than their counterparts, causing them to regain previously lost weight. This lowered EE & increased appetite tends to persist until the weight is mostly or fully regained.

This may contribute to much of the inability to keep off lost weight, in addition to all the other factors. I can refer you to some peer-reviewed research, should you be interested.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 24, 2013 - 8:13 PM

The book “The End of Overeating” actually discusses this; set point, as we understand it, is actually a myth. I know that it’s bandied about a LOT in different circles on the Internet, but I now believe it to be fool’s gold.

Honestly, I think “set point” is manifesting itself in a different way, with a different understanding. While there IS another thing at play, here, it’s definitely not “your body just wants to be this size.” If ANYTHING, it’s the depletion of muscle that often comes with being a) a cardio warrior who refuses to lift a weight dring their weight loss journey, and b) the kind of dieting that results in the depletion of protein and general starvation. If muscle burns anywhere from 2-3* times as many calories per pound per hour as fat, and excessive cardio/starvation depletes muscle, and you can (rough guesstimate) wind up losing 1-2lbs per month of sheer muscle, then that’s an estimated 5-6,000 calories each month that your body can’t burn because you lost the valuable muscle that is more metabolically valuable.

Really, the third part of “Weight of the Nation” discusses this, and I want to discuss it myself but I need to find whatever study the doctor was referencing. He talked about how someone who was once 200lbs but loses weight to drop down to 165 would still have to eat far less than someone who’s been 165 their entire life in order to actually REMAIN 165. My theory about this – and I’d need to see the study in order to actually be sure – is the fact that many people who lose weight via dieting instead of through a structured fitness plan are lacking the MUSCLE that someone who has been 165 all their life might actually have. I’d like to see if body fat percentages were accounted for in that study.

It’d make DOUBLE sense, particularly, since women are often thoroughly encouraged to NOT gain muscle or lift weights in weight training programs, so my personal expectation is that there would be a difference in the amount and kind of muscle we’re dealing with here.

And, honestly, I’m curious at this point as to whether many or ANY weight-based studies account for muscle and body fat percentage. Modern science’s disdain for body fat percentage, and favor for/of BMI, genuinely does it a disservice when it comes to stuff like this.

Increased appetite, IMHO, may have more to do with habituation than the body clamoring for weight to come back. I’d still love to see the research, though, but i think modern science is too shortsighted on this stuff right now.

Biolobri February 24, 2013 - 10:52 PM

Actually, I agree with many of your points and I *don’t* believe it in the way that your body “wants” to be a heavier weight. I loved “The End of Overeating” so I know what you’re referring to (I’m not familiar with Weight of the Nation though – I’ll be interested to see that).

I think it’s more a more of a homeostatic resistance to lose weight in order to survive and I imagine it’s compounded by the rate of weight loss (over-restriction of calories). I don’t think it means energy expenditure will remain reduced forever and ever (it has been shown to persist for at least 16 weeks in rodent models), but I think it can contribute to certain struggles. – Research is still ongoing as to when this point is established (some kind of change occurs at some point) and when/how it can be reversed.

I agree that it’s likely due in part to body composition, though, as mentioned, that doesn’t seem to account for all of it. I give the concept some credence since it has been repeatedly evidenced in animal models who have been matched for every type of energy expenditure, body composition and genetic variable known thus far. I definitely agree, however, that the human studies are extremely poorly done and that weight/BMI are underwhelming measures.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 25, 2013 - 10:54 AM

I think that “homeostatic resistance to weight loss” that you refer to all depends on how it’s done, though. Remember – just like TEOE mentions the “turning the dials on the variables” to get the sugar/fat/salt right, you also need to “turn the dials” on things like exercise level, caloric reduction (how much? how little? how many days a week?), macronutrient levels (high carb? low carb? high protein? high fat?), exercise type, body type at the start of a plan, etc. If you do it wrong – which many people do, and result in triggering things like “starvation mode” and its fraternal twin “binge eating” – then you very well might trigger that resistance, but I think its far more complicated than this.

And, to be honest, it’s been hard for me to think about this so critically and has only been since I actually started taking clients that I’ve realized that it’s infinitely more complex and those variables DO need to be manipulated in order to trigger safe results. If modern science can’t even acknowledge and include these variables, then I have little hope for the studies to be reflective of the reality that people actually live in.

Biolobri February 28, 2013 - 12:23 AM

I agree with those things, but what I’m saying is that the animal models *have* accounted for all that and this phenomenon is *still* seen. Modern science does account for those variables as often as they can, though I admit they’re poorly done in human studies bc they’re so damn hard and full of variables. Also, it’s WELL-DOCUMENTED that people are not accurate (not even CLOSE) with their food reporting, so add that to the mix.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 28, 2013 - 8:45 AM

Modern science accounted for body fat percentage? I’ve yet to see that.

Jessica June 17, 2014 - 12:24 PM

So this means that I have to get on the scale every week! Scary. Because if I’ve lost weight or gained (hopefully muscle due to weight lifting), then my calorie needs will change. I threw my scale away months ago because it was making me very angry, LOL. I am going to buy a new one, I am inspired.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 17, 2014 - 5:34 PM

Not every week, really maybe more like every couple of weeks or even every month, depending upon the speed of the weight loss.

If you’re going to get a scale, get one that also measures your body fat percentage. Makes a WORLD of difference in tracking the mass on your body and what’s going where.

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