A common problem people face on the weight loss journey is the plateau or a stagnation period. During this stalling period weight remains the same, you notice you’re not losing any and it can be incredibly frustrating. When this happens it’s easy to think it’s impossible to lose more weight which can be difficult if you planned to slim down to a specific number of pounds. As discouraging as it may be, the weight loss plateau isn’t the end of your weight loss journey. In this post, you’re going to see different ways to continue losing weight even after you’ve reached a plateau.
What Causes Weight Loss Plateau?
Weight loss plateau is a common occurrence, but most of us aren’t sure why it happens. People usually believe this stall happens because they’re doing something wrong or the body has reached its weight loss limit. Before we list practical strategies to overcome this problem it’s useful to address why it happens. The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be to conquer this obstacle successfully.
So, what causes weight loss plateau in the first place?
When you reach a weight loss plateau you no longer lose weight despite following the same diet and fitness plan. Evidence shows that weight loss plateau usually happens after approximately six months of following a low-calorie diet (1). However, even high and unrealistic levels of metabolic adaptation don’t affect the timing of weight plateau. The weight loss-related stall has a lot to do with the sensitivity of dietary adherence in determining the kinetics of weight loss.
Generally speaking, the exact cause of the weight loss plateau is unclear. Many theories exist, such as:
- Rapid weight loss may slow down metabolism
- Failing to adhere to diet plan or exercise regimen in the same way or intensity as a few months back
- The body adapts to weight loss and starts defending itself against further weight loss
Keep in mind rapid weight loss is normal in the first few weeks of a low-calorie diet. When you cut calories the body obtains energy initially by releasing glycogen stores. Glycogen, partially made of water, is a type of carbohydrate found in the liver and muscles. As glycogen is burned for energy it releases water. This leads to weight loss that’s mostly water. When you start losing weight, you also lose some muscle alongside the fat. Muscle helps maintain metabolism. So, with rapid weight loss, the metabolic rate declines making you burn fewer calories than you did before. Slow metabolism slows down weight loss even when you consume the same amount of calories (2).
The obesogenic environment, including an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle, and physiological responses to weight loss could also contribute to weight loss plateau (3).
Weight loss plateau can decrease your confidence and motivation to keep going. But, it’s important to bear in mind you can continue losing weight with useful tips and strategies below.
1. Reassess your habits
Weight loss is all about making lifestyle adjustments and outlining a strategy that keeps you going. This is particularly important for persons who want to lose a significant amount of weight. You need a structure that helps you stick to your schedule. Therefore, the first thing you need to do when you reach a weight loss plateau is to reassess your habits.
The stall in weight loss is the opportunity to evaluate your diet and activity plan. Compare the same habit now vs. a few weeks or months ago when you made changes in activity levels and diet.
Have you loosened your rules a little bit?
Did you start allowing yourself to indulge in fast food thinking exercise will burn off those calories?
Or maybe you started neglecting your workout schedule?
Be honest with yourself because the answer can explain why you’ve reached a plateau. You’ll immediately know what to fix whether it’s a problem with exercise or your eating pattern.
2. Start a food journal
Keeping a food journal, or food diary may seem like a tedious task. But a daily log where you write down everything you eat and drink can help you lose weight and keep it off. Why? Studies reveal that people are inclined to underestimate their calorie intake during the day. Self-reported, i.e. subjective, measurements of calorie consumption tend to be inaccurate (4). In one study, 57.5% of participants underreported what they were eating. Underreporters had higher BMI, fat mass, visceral fat, and perceived stress compared to their counterparts (5).
Since we underestimate just how much food we consume, our eating habits can contribute to weight loss plateaus. One of the easiest things you can do to continue losing weight when you’ve reached a plateau is to start a food journal. In this diary, you write everything you consume, even if it’s just a bite. Evidence confirms that tracking food intake is an important component of a successful weight loss over time, but it’s important to do it regularly (6).
A food journal helps you see precisely how many calories you eat during the day. That way, you can adjust your workout routine to burn more calories than you eat.
You can keep your food diary in an old-fashioned way by writing down the food intake in a notebook or planner. Many people prefer using apps where they can enter what they eat/drink and see how many calories they consumed at the same time. Some apps may also show whether you’re getting sufficient or insufficient amounts of certain macronutrients.
When it comes to the choice of the food journaling method it depends entirely on you. Ideally, you should opt for a method that works for you best so you can stick with it. Read your food journal and evaluate it regularly to have a clear image of how many calories you consume. You’ll be able to modify your workout, and lifestyle in general, in real-time and overcome the plateau.
3. Increase the frequency and/or ntensity of your workouts
Physical activity is crucial for weight loss and maintenance. While most people would like to slim down without having to exercise, the reality is that regular workouts are necessary. Remember, weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you consume. In other words, workouts and diet adjustments go hand in hand and are an integral component of a successful weight loss.
Weight loss plateau is tricky as it is. It would be even more difficult to overcome this problem without exercise. The reason is simple, exercise supports weight maintenance and muscle building both of which improve metabolism. A fast metabolism is vital for successful weight loss, but it can slow down and lead to a plateau as seen above.
Therefore, to overcome weight loss plateaus you need to exercise more often and increase the intensity of your workouts.
Even though recommendations state adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (7) some people need more than that. Every person is different and their bodies function differently so exercise requirements may not be the same for all. That said, getting more than 300 minutes of moderate physical activity can lead to greater benefits whereas 150 minutes may be necessary for maintenance only.
Diet changes and regular exercise improve your fitness levels. The body doesn’t like monotony. Doing the same number of reps and sets or running the same distance in the same intensity all the time won’t work. The body gets accustomed to those activities, there’s no challenge, and that’s why there’s no weight loss. To move past the weight loss plateau, you need to challenge your body. What does that mean? For example, runners or joggers can increase distance or alternate between fast and slow pace. On the other hand, if you do specific exercises such as strength training you may want to increase the number of reps and sets. Whenever you notice the current intensity and frequency are way too easy, feel free to increase them a bit. That way, your body will remain challenged and give you the weight loss results you’re looking for.
4. Lower your carb intake
Carbohydrates are macronutrients your body needs to function properly. Not all carbs are the same though. Most people consume processed foods laden with empty carbs that don’t keep them full but deliver a lot of calories. If you tend to consume a lot of carbs, it could explain your weight loss plateau. Lowering carbs intake can help you continue losing weight. In fact, low-carb diets are generally more effective than other eating patterns.
A review of 13 studies with follow-up lasting at least a year found that subjects who consumed 50 or fewer grams of carbs a day lost more weight than participants who followed traditional weight-loss diets (8).
Decreasing the intake of carbs can promote your weight loss even when it stalls. Some studies show that very low-carb diets can increase fat burning and support other metabolic changes that contribute to weight loss (9, 10). A Low-carbs diet also has the potential to reduce hunger and promote a feeling of fullness (11).
As you can see, lowering your intake of carbs doesn’t mean you will have to starve yourself. Make sure to modify your diet so that it contains various nutrients, low carbs, high protein, and sufficient fiber. Decreasing the consumption of carbohydrates could help you eat less and avoid overeating. In fact, overeating is a common problem for many people and it could be the culprit behind your weight loss plateau if you can’t address this habit properly.
5. Manage stress
Since stress is the natural response of the body it’s not something we can avoid at all times. The problem happens when we do not manage stress properly. When left unmanaged stress can affect your sleep, health, quality of life, and even your weight. An important strategy to adopt in order to overcome weight loss plateau is stress management.
In one study participants from the stress management group experienced a more significant reduction in their BMI than their counterparts from the control group (12). After all, stress can lead to increased calorie consumption, impair your workouts, and cause other problems that ultimately lead to weight loss plateau or even regain.
When it comes to stress management the options are endless. For some people regular therapy sessions are helpful. Others resolve stress through exercise, reading, writing, painting, spending quality time with loved ones. Everyone’s different so their stress management methods differ as well.
6. Give intermittent fasting a try
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a type of eating pattern that includes periods of fasting and eating. You’ve probably heard a lot about IF because it has become widely popular over the years. The popularity of IF isn’t baseless. People do IF because it works. For example, a review of studies on IF found this eating pattern led to 3-8% weight loss and 3-7% reduction in waist circumference within three to 24 weeks (13).
Since you eat fewer meals, intermittent fasting lowers calorie intake and it can also change hormone levels to support weight loss. The metabolic rate becomes faster (14) when you do IF thus helping you burn fat. Fat, especially in the abdominal area, is stubborn and difficult to lose which is why plateau can become even more frustrating.
Besides weight loss, IF can also tackle insulin resistance, alleviate inflammation, support heart health, and even increase your lifespan.
7. Get enough sleep
Even though getting enough sleep seems like a no-brainer, the reality is that most of us fail to get proper good night’s rest. Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. Unfortunately, we often neglect the importance of sleep for our mental, emotional, and physical health.
Sleep deprivation can increase stress levels, impair your productivity, lower energy levels, and harm your health and quality of life in many ways. What’s more, lack of sleep can disrupt your weight loss efforts and lead to weight gain (15). In one study healthy subjects who slept four hours per night for five nights in a row had a 2.6% decrease in resting metabolic rate. When they slept more, their metabolic rate improved (16).
Getting over a weight loss plateau is all about lifestyle modification and upgrade. Proper sleep is yet another upgrade you need to make. Besides a specific amount of sleep (seven to nine hours), you need a specific sleep pattern. Bedtime should be the same every night. Also, strive to wake up every morning at the same time as well.
Other Things to Try
Besides the tips and strategies mentioned above, you may also want to try the following:
- Be more active (even when you’re not exercising)
- Acknowledge weight loss plateau is normal and doesn’t mean a certain body goal is a mission impossible
- Eat more fiber
- Drink more water
- Make sure every meal contains vegetables
- Spread your protein intake throughout the day
- Avoid alcohol
- Motivate yourself with positive affirmations
Weight loss plateau is often inevitable. Although the exact cause is unclear, various theories point to both physical and psychological reasons. Slow metabolism, loosening diet, and exercising regimens, lack of sleep and stress are some of the many reasons your weight loss stalls. Plateau in weight loss is frustrating and discouraging, but you can overcome it easily. When this stall happens, you need to rethink your diet and modify your lifestyle. This is the time to get even more motivated to keep going.