Mentally Moving Past “The Weight Loss Plateau”

Studio 5 Contributor Courtney Orton reports on the challenge of shaking those extra pounds, and Dr. Trish Henrie, a psychology instructor at the University of Utah, shares how to mentally move behind the weight loss plateau.

A Steady, Slow Uphill Battle

Many of us have been there. The dieting, the countless hours of exercise only to see the numbers on the scale staying exactly where they are. It’s hard. Weight loss can be slow, discouraging, and downright depressing.

“I’ve struggled with weight my whole life,” says Pam Hunt. Pam has tried almost everything to lose weight. From fad diets to going without meals to liquid diets, and working out. “It’s been an up and down process for me in my life, and I’ve really struggled with it,” she says.

She starts off strong. Those unwanted pounds start falling off. “It’s very motivating to all of a sudden just drop, and think oh wow look at this. I dropped five pounds, lets keep this up.”

But then the weight loss stops. “The next week you don’t lose any, and that can be discouraging.”

Discouraging, but certainly not uncommon says registered dietitian Brittany Macdonald. “They lose a lot of weight at the beginning then they start tapering off on their diet. They kind of start getting sick of some of the things that they’re having to do with the diet, and they go back to their old habits.”

Macdonald says that’s the number one reason people plateau. They look at their weight loss or their diet as being a short term solution. That or they get impatient that the weight isn’t coming off fast enough.

Pam has chosen a whole new approach to her weight loss, ditching diets in exchange for healthy eating.

“It’s not a sudden, drastic weight loss change but it’s coming very gradual and I feel good about it,” she says.

She’s also working out with a personal trainer who makes sure she’s always mixing it up.

“The minute you’re in a plateau, I tell them to change everything up,” says personal trainer Sheri Greene. “I say start changing your eating for a minute. I say we’re going to put you on whole new exercises. We’ve got to shake the body up so it gets shocked.”

Pam says she’s happier, more content with herself and her body, even if her weight loss is more gradual.

“I think I’m committed to the long term results instead of the instant results and the long term benefits that can come from being healthy and feeling good about yourself.”

If you’re trying to lose weight, shoot for 1/2 pound to a pound a week. That’s a healthy rate. It’s also important to be realistic about your goal weight.

Here’s how to determine your healthy range:

100 pounds for the first 5 feet.
5 pounds for every inch there after.
Plus or minus 10 percent.

Beating the Mind Game

Even though the US government is pushing a health initiative to lower obesity, studies show that the trend is becoming worse with estimates of between 32-44% of Americans severely overweight. To stem this negative tide most Americans would need to consume 500 fewer calories and exercise more each day. Permanent weight loss has to be a lifestyle change and not just a fad diet or exercise program. Many people tend to create weight loss goals and end up stuck, not reaching these goals. They go off of their diet and/or stop their exercise regimen. They don’t have enough of a desire to change. Change is a complex process and depends on an individual’s awareness of the need for change and one’s desire to make a change. Making and maintaining change is a critical part of reaching health and fitness goals. It is important to be aware of which stage of change you are in so that you can reach your goals in any area of your life.

Research has shown that weight loss, besides being about nutrition and exercise is also psychological. Studies indicate that a positive psychological state enhances one’s ability to lose weight and promotes a healthier lifestyle and overall well being. Most people focus on the negative, who they aren’t and their failings instead of looking at their strengths and the positive aspects about themselves. This applies to weight loss as well. Following are some suggestions on how to lose weight in a positive way.

1. Visualize yourself as healthy and at the weight you want to be. The brain can’t tell the difference between what you are visualizing and what you are actually doing. That’s why we practice in life. Practice losing weight. In addition, according to studies, if a person focuses on what they are doing instead of watching TV or listening to music while exercising, they lose weight 10% faster.

2. Work at building your confidence and belief in yourself. Motivation theory notes that people do not engage in behaviors they do not believe they will be able to do or maintain successfully. If you think you can, you can. Say “I will do this” instead of “I can do this”.

3. Evaluate what needs to happen to make it possible for you to make changes in your life. Do you need to get up earlier, stock your refrigerator with healthier foods, exercise with a workout buddy? Evaluate and then make goals. Do something about these goals in 48 hours and tell someone about your goals. If you don’t, you won’t make a change. And use baby steps. Don’t try to make too many changes or you’re apt to not do anything.

4. Accept yourself—and your body. Keep in mind that acceptance does not mean approval. Acceptance gives you control over yourself and the power to make the changes you want.

5. Work to correct “thinking errors”. Thinking errors are those thoughts that are not entirely accurate. These can stem from negative self-talk, poor self esteem and body image, over exaggeration of problems or flaws, perfectionism and other things.

6. Get help with psychological issues such as depression and anxiety which may be impeding your progress.

7. Aim for long-term lifestyle changes rather than short-term weight loss. Many people trying to lose weight will plateau or gain the weight back after a few weeks because they are tapering off of their “diet” and go back to old eating habits.

8. The people who are most successful in losing weight and keeping it off have 2 things that they do with regard to diet: they keep a food journal so they know exactly what they are eating and they watch portion sizes.

9. When setting weight loss goals, rather than focusing on a number of pounds to lose, try focusing on how your body feels. The best weight for your body is the one where you feel the healthiest.

Dr. Henrie has created an assessment tool to determine stage of change, psychological barriers to weight loss, and body image issues. Go to to take this assessment. Dr. Henrie will then contact you with the results.

Dr. Trish Henrie teaches Positive Psychology courses at the University of Utah and has a private practice specializing in pain management addictions, weight loss, depression and anxiety.

Trish Henrie, Ph.D
Riverwoods Behavioral Health
801 787 9855

Personal Trainer Sheri Green also contributed to this discussion:

Sheri Greene
Personal Trainer, NASM certified

5580 S.Van Winkle Expressway
Salt Lake City, UT 84124

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