The brain’s role in weight loss is rarely discussed. I’m not talking about the mindset (which is critical); I’m referring to the actual, physical, hormone-related mechanics of how the brain acts when you lose a lot of weight. If you’ve ever experienced a true plateau, or if you’re planning on losing a lot of weight, this is something you need to understand so you can avoid discouragement you’ll be faced with down the road.
The adaptation superstar
The brain is excellent at adapting. Think about the last time you moved to a new area: the temperature might have been different, the social norms and culture might have varied, and the ebb and flow of your daily & weekly life might have faced some serious adjustments. Over a relatively short period, your brain is able to adapt for all of these things, and the stuff that seemed foreign soon becomes the new “normal.”
Unless there’s a severe thyroid issue, it’s uncommon for anyone to gain weight rapidly. Typically, we arrive at the larger version of ourselves as a reflection of our habits over many years, and occasionally decades of poor eating and exercise habits. The brain has plenty of time to adjust to this, and when you start a significant weight loss journey, it isn’t quite sure what’s going on.
Sure, the first few months might be phenomenal: you’re losing 5-15 pounds a month, you’ve changed your eating habits, you’re exercising again, and life is great. Then, all of a sudden—boom. Everything stops. You didn’t change anything: you’re still doing all the things that were allowing you to lose weight in the first place. What happened?
Finding a new “normal” for your body
First, there are a few things you should check to make sure you haven’t allowed bad habits to creep in unnoticed. Stick to the basics. If you review everything and you’re still on track, and you’ve kept up with adjusting your macros to reflect your weight loss, something else is going on—and there is most likely nothing wrong.
Think about it from your brain’s perspective: it’s been used to you at a certain weight for quite a while, and that’s drastically changed over the last few months. It was fine with it at first, but now it’s getting scared on your behalf. Remember, we didn’t always have well-stocked grocery stores a mile down the road; for most of history, humans existed in a subsistence capacity. The brain was constantly mindful of keeping you alive, and significant decreases in weight were almost always bad.
Your brain is programmed to see massive drops in fat over relatively short periods as a sign that you’re starving. Even if it knows you’ve got months of fat left, it’s trying to save your life. When this happens, your thyroid hormone production will decrease, and your basal metabolic rate will slow down. Leptin is a hormone produced by your fat cells and is responsible for sending a signal to the brain, saying: “Hey, we’ve got enough! You can stop eating!” During an actual plateau, leptin production drops: your hunger increases and the rate at which fat is burned slows down.
How do you combat this? A common approach is to reduce your caloric intake even further, but to the brain, that just confirms what it suspected—you’re starving. It will take that as a signal to slow down your metabolic rate even more, resulting in a vicious cycle where you’ll likely start experiencing dizziness, lightheadedness, and nausea. Cutting your calories is the worst thing you can do in this situation.
Doing something by doing nothing
Instead, you need to do something much, much more difficult: nothing. You’ve already reviewed all of the major factors and know you’re on track. You’re sticking to the basics, and your body is getting everything it needs. Eventually, your brain will get the signal: “Oh, he isn’t dead yet and seems to be doing ok. I guess this was on purpose?” At that point, your thyroid will become active again, your hormone levels will return to normal, and weight loss will pick back up where it left off.
Doing nothing and staying the course when the scale isn’t moving can be incredibly discouraging. We’re hardwired to want to take action and fix things, and after six to nine months of consistent weight loss, we’re addicted to that feeling of success (and there’s nothing wrong with that). The last thing on earth we want to do is nothing, but that’s what you need to do.
Weight loss isn’t linear, and if you’ve been on this journey for any amount of time, you’ve seen the scale stay still for a week or two before. A genuine plateau, however, can take one to three months to break through. It’s much easier said than done, but don’t get discouraged.
The best thing you can do is hide your scale during this time. Quit checking your weight until you notice your clothes starting to get loose again. If you look at the numbers every day or even every week, it can be a continual source of discouragement. Use this time to experiment with a new workout or try new low-carb recipes: distract yourself by taking actions which keep you in alignment with the excellent nutritional practices that got you this far.
It’ll pick back up, and when it does, you’ll be happy that you stuck with it.
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