The Plateau of Latent Potential in Weight Loss

feel to scale depicting plateau of latent potential

Kim Yawitz, RD

Most people starting out on a weight loss journey want results, like, yesterday. The reality is, weight loss takes time, even when you do everything right! One of the biggest challenges when you’re getting started is pushing through those first days and weeks, when you’re consistently eating well but still not seeing results. If you’re nodding your head as you read this, then you’ve probably been through what’s called the plateau of latent potential (aka, the valley of disappointment).

Originally described by Atomic Habits author James Clear, the plateau of latent potential is the lag time between doing what we need to do and seeing the results we want to see.

And boy, is that lag time frustrating.

But here’s the thing. If you can put your head down and keep trudging across this plateau, you’re much more likely to succeed in your goals.

Today, I’m going to give you a couple of tips for doing that so you can stay on track when you’re ready to veer off the plateau and into the nearest Chili’s.

Set Realistic Expectations

Are you one of those people who starts lifting up your shirt and peeking in the mirror for signs of abs after two days on a meal plan?  

If only abs showed up after a day or two of effort, amiright?!

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to see that sort of change in such a short period of time.

To lose weight, you need to consistently eat fewer calories than you burn. The exact point at which you lose a pound is somewhat debatable, but the general thinking is that you need to create a deficit of about 3500 calories per pound.

Your exact calorie needs will depend on your current eating patterns, your age, your sex, and activity levels. However, a good rule of thumb Is to aim for a calorie deficit of 250-500 calories per day.

Doing this consistently should result in weight loss of 0.5-1 pound per week. You might see weight loss of up to 2 pounds per week, especially if you have a fair amount to lose, but anything more than that is going to be more difficult to sustain.

See why those abs aren’t popping just yet?

Be patient and hang in there. The weight loss will come as long as you keep putting in the work.

Celebrate NSVs

It’s natural to focus on the scale when you’re trying to lose weight, but that number shouldn’t be your only focus!

There are SO many reasons to start eating better, ranging from more energy to better performance in the gym to better digestion. You’ll be much happier throughout this process (and therefore, more likely to stick with it) if you can celebrate some of these non-scale victories (NSVs, for short).

Your NSVs are completely up to you, but here a few of my favorites:

  • Ate my veggies every single day this week.
  • Feeling more energized.
  • Took a pause when I was having a craving, realized I wasn’t actually hungry, and didn’t give in to it.
  • Planned all of my dinners for this week.
  • Made it to the gym for all of my scheduled workouts.
  • Made some time for self-care every day this week.

See, they can be just about anything!

Taking a minute to reflect on what you hope to gain from losing weight ASIDE from a lower number on the scale will help you to stay positive when the going gets tough.

Take Progress Pictures

It’s important to celebrate NSVs, but it’s also completely okay to want to see changes in your body. Heck, that’s why you started a weight loss plan, right?

Taking regular progress photos can be super motivational when you’re stuck on the plateau of latent potential.

It’s really, really difficult to see changes in your body when you look at it in the mirror multiple times per day. But that doesn’t mean change isn’t happening under the hood.

James Clear compares this phenomenon to an ice cube melting:

“Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when you heated it from 25 to 31 degrees. All the action happens at 32 degrees.”

If you’re just getting started with a weight loss plan, you’ve basically just taken the ice cube out of the freezer. The work you put in over the coming days and weeks will bring the temperature up, but the cube won’t start to melt until it hits 32 degrees.

Do you give up and put the cube back in the freezer? Shit, no! At least, I hope you don’t! You trust that it’ll happen if you leave it on the counter!

So, you focus your attention on something else (more on that in a sec). Then, the next time you look at it, it’s visibly smaller!

Progress photos are like leaving the room while waiting for ice to melt, and then coming back in. You might not see much change from day to day as you look in the mirror, but what about when you compare today’s photos from your photos one month ago?

If you do the work, I can promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Take a front view, a side view, and a rearview photo every week. You’ll want to take them at roughly the same time of day, wearing very similar clothing (shorts and a sports bra for ladies, shorts only for guys), and in the same lighting.

Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome

Hopefully by now, you’re feeling a little more inspired to stay on track as you navigate the plateau of latent potential. But even if you’re not, I’ve got great news—I’ve saved my best tip for last.

The BEST way to keep going when you feel like giving up is to focus more on processes than outcomes.

Obviously, you’re here because you want to lose weight. That’s your outcome goal. But here’s the problem. You can do EVERYTHING right and still see that number you want on the scale.

And, you might be one of those people who accounts for every sip and morsel that crosses your lips and STILL never see abs, because you just aren’t built like that (I feel your pain if that’s the case—I’ve never had a six pack, even at my leanest!).

You can only control the outcome of your weight loss journey so much. I have clients who’ve done everything I’ve asked of them, lost two pants sizes, received compliments left and right about how great they look…and seen the scale go up! These clients lost significant fat but put on muscle in the process, which is a win if you’re down with those NSVs (and y’know, want to look good). But it’ll feel like failure if you’re only focused on that scale number.

And how motivating is “failure,” really?

So what SHOULD you focus on, rather than the number on the scale?

Your processes—the daily habits that support your weight loss goals.

There are TONS of different processes that you can focus on that will help you to lose weight. I recommend picking one (maybe two) to start, and then really mastering it.

What are you doing now that needs to improve, and how exactly are you going to improve upon it? How can you track your progress (I recommend a habit tracker—I use a customized app with my nutrition clients, or a paper tracker for those who prefer it!)? How long of a streak can you build with your new habit?

Once you feel really confident (say, 8/10) that you’ve got that process down, add another. Go crazy—completely geek out on it.

You might be surprised by how satisfying (and motivating!) it is to take the pressure on the scale and just enjoy the journey.

Stuck on the Plateau of Latent Potential?

Still hanging out on the dreaded plateau of latent potential?

Have you considered nutrition coaching?

That’s a big reason why coaches exist—to support you through the tough times and help you stay on track!

I’ve helped lots clients who’ve struggled in the past with losing motivation when the scale doesn’t reflect the effort, and I’d love to help you too!

Click here to schedule a free 15-minute exploratory call to see if coaching is a good fit for you!

Disclaimer: This post contains an affiliate link, which means that we receive a small commission for sales of this product at no additional cost to you. We only recommend products we know and love.

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