How to Deal with Diet Setbacks & Weight Loss Plateaus
You finally found a diet that works for you. But then something happens and you’re back to square one. Setbacks can feel really bad, they put your healthy eating habits in danger. And the worst thing is that they are almost guaranteed to happen. That’s why it’s really important to know how to prevent them and what to do when they happen.
The 4 most common reasons that diet setbacks happen
It helps to understand why setbacks happen. There are several reasons that make people go off their diets. If you prepare for them you can completely eliminate a large portion of potential setbacks. Let’s go over the most common ones and describe what you can do to prevent them.
#1 Your diet is too restrictive
This is probably the number one reason why people experience diet setbacks. Almost any diet you can find restricts what you can eat. This can easily get out of hand. If you cut out all the fun out of your diet you will start missing it sooner or later. And when you do, you go off rails with foods you didn’t plan on eating.
Choose your way of eating carefully
You can prevent this type of setback by choosing your diet carefully. Consider if you can imagine eating like this long term. If the answer is no then it’s probably not a diet for you. You should always have a plan for transitioning to a more sustainable diet at some point if you want to avoid this type of setback reoccurring.
Make room for joy
Sometimes it all seems good at first but once you are following a new diet for a few days or weeks you realize you’re missing something. In this scenario it’s important to make a smart adjustment. Are you craving a pizza? Maybe it’s time to find one that fits into your diet. Make room for joy in your diet, it’s essential for long term success.
Involve your friends and family
One thing that makes any diet feel less restrictive is when people close to you are doing it too. Try involving your friends and family or colleagues. If you can’t get everyone on board then ask them to at least support you. You will have someone to be accountable to. And hearing a kind word can be a source of much needed motivation on days when morale is low.
#2 You are too hungry
Another common reason is simply hunger. Diets that create a big caloric deficit might bring you big results at first. The problem is that hunger will catch up with you if you overdo it. And you better have a plan for how to deal with it. If you don’t you will break down one evening and eat the whole fridge.
Calculate your energy needs
Studies show that a calorie deficit of around 500 kcal is effective for weight loss and is unlikely to significantly affect your hunger (1). You need to calculate your body’s energy needs first to understand how to create a 500-kcal deficit. You can do that using a calorie calculator. All you need to know is your age, gender, weight, and height.
For example, a 35-year-old woman that is 170 cm tall, weighs 70 kg, and exercises 1-3 times per week needs 1961 kcal every day. After deducting the 500 kcal for weight loss this leaves her with an intake of 1461 kcal. It’s a good starting point to know how many calories you should be eating. Unfortunately, the human body is not a machine and this math doesn’t always work perfectly. If you want to explore more ways to stop hunger, check out our previous article.
#3 You don’t sleep well
Sleep is connected to diet through appetite regulation. After a bad night of sleep your body starts producing more ghrelin, a hormone that causes you to feel hungry, and it also produces less leptin, a hormone that causes you to feel satiated (2). Studies confirm that this has a real-world effect. Restricted sleep increases hunger and appetite by up to 24% (3). It’s not a coincidence that a lot of poor food choices and diet setbacks happen when people are under-slept.
Challenge yourself to sleep better
If you’re sleeping less than 8 hours a night or waking up feeling groggy it’s worth trying to go to bed a bit earlier to improve your sleep. You can try our HappyNewYou challenge if you want to build better sleep habits.
#4 You hit a plateau
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on muscle, plateaus are very common. They can feel really demotivating because you feel like you’ve been doing everything right and all of a sudden it just stopped working. It helps to realize that plateaus are completely natural. Most people reach one after about 6 months of weight loss. It’s a result of your body adapting to your new lifestyle. If you want more progress you need to change things up again so that your body has a new reason to keep changing.
Take inventory of your lifestyle
If you feel ok with the progress you made so far then maintaining your current weight and lifestyle is the best reaction to a plateau. It’s your body telling you it feels comfortable here at this weight. As long as you’re healthy and enjoying your lifestyle, there’s no need to hit an arbitrary number on a scale.
On the other hand, if you still haven’t reached your goals, it’s likely that you will have to change up your diet or exercise habits to keep seeing results. Here are a few tips.
- Eat less carbs. Reducing carbs has been proven as an effective tool for weight loss.
- Track what you eat for a week. this will help you discover any hidden calories you might be overlooking.
- Boost your protein and fibre intake. Both protein and fibre have been shown to help keep hunger in check.
- Increase your non-exercise activity. Try walking instead of using a car or public transport, take the stairs instead of the elevator, answer calls while walking, get a standing desk for your work, cook more of your meals yourself.
What to do when the setback happens?
Unfortunately, you can’t really prevent all setbacks even if you follow all the advice above. That’s why it’s so important to be ready when a setback comes. It can be distilled down into three basic steps. First you have to stop digging, then you reflect, and finally you move forward.
When you get tempted into eating a few too many sugary cookies, creamy chocolates, crunchy chips or anything that doesn’t fit into your diet, it can quickly make you feel like the whole day is lost. And going from a day of bad eating to a whole weekend is just a step away. And then it gets harder and harder to stop. Some people are prone to keep digging themselves in a hole after making just one small mistake. Step one is always to stop digging, no matter the reason for your setback. If this tends to happen to you then consider putting the following sentence on your fridge as a reminder.
You’re always just one meal away from being back on track.
Think about the reason why it happened
The next step is important because it helps you prevent the same setback from repeating. Get in the habit of reflecting on why it happened. Think about what actions or behaviour led you to a situation where the setback happened. Feel free to talk about it with people who support you on your new diet.
The finals step is about moving on. Forgive yourself if you feel like it was your fault and stay positive. Dwelling on your setback won’t make things better. It will only stall your progress and make you feel bad. Simply make a plan for your next meal and stick to that with even more determination.
Make a habit of returning to your diet. Don’t take setbacks lightly but build this reaction into your muscle memory. It will be easier to flip the negative emotions that come with a setback into positive ones. It’s an opportunity to come back to your reasons for going on a healthy diet and recommit to them.