Help! I've Hit a Weight Loss Plateau! A Comprehensive Guide to Breaking Your Plateau
You've committed to losing weight and it's going awesome! The scale is going down, clothes are fitting looser, and you are looking...well, you're kinda like...
This fuels your motivation and you carry on, consistently losing most weeks of the month, but then, something weird happens...all of a sudden the results just sort of stop and you're like....
You are frustrated! You feel annoyed! You feel like, what am I doing wrong?! And eventually, this might even happen...
Ah, the dreaded weight loss "plateau" - that horrid flat line from hell in the weight loss process.
(Yes, I do love making these blogs.) 🤓
So what is one to do? You've made good progress so far and sure, you're happier than where you started and definitely healthier (unless you keep hitting the spaghetti that hard...), but you know you aren't quite "There" yet. How can you get off the Plateau Bus and back onto the Weight Loss Express?
If you have a really short attention span today, consider downloading this handy PDF for some essential and bonus fat loss tips. If you are feeling as 🤓 as I am today, read on for some helpful information to get you back on track.
The Background of the Plateau
What exactly is a plateau? Let me start with what a plateau is not. A plateau is not a one day blip in your weight or even a one week blip. I would suggest that you might have reached a weight plateau if an honest to goodness continuation of your plan has kept you at the same weight for a month or more. SUPER DUPER IMPORTANT CAVEAT: If you have not been 100% committed to your plan (i.e. you are NOT doing regular exercise, you are eating excessively, you are boozing, snacking, etc.), you are NOT in a plateau - you have just been...distracted. That's ok. But you probably don't need to worry about plateauing. You just need to regroup and get back on track. Nevertheless, some of the tips below might still prove to be helpful!
So why does a plateau occur? Well, as I've mentioned in other articles, our bodies really LOVE homeostasis (i.e., the tendency toward equilibrium and stability of an organism). This is a GOOD thing! If your blood sugar is high, your pancreas releases insulin to shuttle the glucose out of your blood stream. If your temperature rises, your body begins sweating to rid yourself of the excess heat. It even helps you on a daily basis with your weight - if you eat a little more one day, your metabolism will temporarily increase to burn off extra calories to keep your weight stable, and, by the same token, if you eat a little less, your body will slow down your metabolism a bit to conserve calories and thereby try to maintain your weight. Thus, our bodies like stability.
When you start a weight loss program, you likely begin to change the way you eat and exercise in order to create a caloric deficit. Your body is like, Whoa! What's going on? I better start using some body fat for fuel here! You therefore lose weight. But as you continue, your body grows smaller, thereby requiring less calories (yes, even if you have been hitting the weights and are becoming a verifiable Hulk/Wonder Woman - see my article HERE on the exaggeration of muscle gain-metabolic increase). Additionally, what was once extremely taxing for the body, is now easy (example: recall Day 1 on the treadmill when you thought you actually might die, and Day 30 when you are like, Yeah, this is easy now! That "easy now" is your body having adapted.) It no longer has to work as hard (read: burn as many calories) to perform the same amount of work. Now your body is like, Oh, we're exercising? I thought we were just casually walking. 😎 I am being a bit glib here, but I think you get the idea.
Sooo, smaller body + improved fitness/less caloric output for same work = Plateau Bus.
Now you are going to need to shake yourself out of this homeostasis again, just like you did before when you first started your fitness journey. There are plenty of ways to do it but they all revolve around the same word: CHANGE.
That's right, you are going to need to DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT in order to get back on that Weight Loss Express.
The methods can come from several different categories that I will present below. Keep in mind, if you are not addressing nutrition, exercising until you are blue in the face to stimulate change will likely leave you frustrated, hungry, and with a permanent seat on the Plateau Bus. See my article HERE on this topic.
Check out these tips organized by topic to help you change it up. Oh, and one more thing: I don't recommend trying 400 new ideas at once. Try ONE THING, BE CONSISTENT, AND ASSESS CHANGE in about two weeks.
Look at your daily habits. Do you see something cropping up over and over again? For example, a daily latte, a daily glass (or bottle) of wine, a quick muffin from that pastry cart at the office...you get the idea. Daily habits are the ones that are most likely to throw us off course, not the rare anomaly. Really go over your diet. If you are not a food tracker already, you might want to try for about two weeks and see what you find. It doesn't have to be anything fancy - a simple notebook will do the trick. If you already track your food, really sit down and analyze. Heck, you might want to go old-school and print off a two week period. Even let a fresh set of eyes take a peek and see what they can find. It's like a word search - sometimes a new perspective makes all the difference. And, in my 8+ years of experience, there is nothing more powerful than writing down what you do and reflecting on your own habits! If you are new to tracking or need a refresher, please check out my link HERE.
On that note...really check in on your food tracking. People are typically really bad at estimating/logging how much they eat. I mean this as no slight, I really don't, but it's science. Studies have found that self-monitoring is one of the best things that you can do to facilitate weight loss - people who monitor their eating and exercise (such as through a food and exercise diary) lose more weight than those who don't . I can professionally attest to this - my clients who log almost always lose more weight than those who don't. HOWEVER, people habitually drastically underestimate how much they eat as much as 37% or more (for example, if you thought you were eating 1600 calories, you would actually be eating just under 2200 calories - that's a difference of 600 calories!) . So if you are tracking, you really need to check in on how you are tracking. If you find yourself stuck, you might want to stick to easier-to-track foods for a bit to get the ball rolling again. Ask yourself, is your weight really stuck, or have you gotten a bit more lax with your tracking?
Do you drink on a regular basis? (i.e., more than 1-2 drinks once per week) - I know this may seem low but alcohol calories add up fast and your body preferentially burns alcohol...meaning a lot of your other calories are likely to get stored as body fat. Try cutting out alcohol for two weeks. See if this gets the ball rolling. And I know, no one said this was easy. And no one said it was forever. Seriously, two weeks. See if this makes a difference and helps get you back on track.
How many times per week are you eating out? Restaurants don't care that you want to slim down. I used to work in a restaurant and they care about three things (which all revolve around one thing - $$$): 1. Not wasting food, 2. Using an abundance of oil so food doesn't stick to avoid #1, and 3. Using an abundance of oil/butter and salt so food tastes good so you continue to dine there so they can make more money. You can try as hard as you can to make better choices but let's be honest, making the best choice in a restaurant is like trying to hit a moving target - it's darn near impossible. Let me be clear - I love to eat out and I don't think it's something you have to totally eliminate from your routine. But if you are looking to shed some extra pounds, it is something that you have to be extremely judicious about since the calories out will add up much, much quicker than at home. Additionally, adding any alcoholic beverages will likely loosen your inhibitions and make good decision-making even harder. Try a one-week eat-out break and see if it doesn't get the ball rolling.
Are you a hard-core snacker? Do you get serious between-meal munchies? (These often settle in the hardest mid-afternoon and a couple hours after dinner.) You might need to seriously dial back on the snacking habit. Again, this might require keeping a two-week food journal to really identify, as this kind of snacking is often done extremely mindlessly. Remember, hunger is okay. You are not going to die if you start to get a little hungry. If you are legitimately hungry and the next meal is nowhere in sight, drink some water, have a low-calorie and higher-volume snack (e.g., veggies, apple, low-cal yogurt) and carry on. If the next meal is just around the corner and you have not reached what we now refer to as "hangry" (and you don't have a known blood sugar condition), you will be okay. Have some water and wait for your next meal. If you're stressed, you are going to need to identify this as such and I promise you, eating will not take away the stressor, even if it feels good in the moment. Buckle down and identify the true cause of the problem. If you just like to eat a little dessert at night, find some lower-cal options that can fit into your budget for the day. Some of my favorites include reduced-calorie ice cream, popsicles especially Outshine bars, air-popped popcorn (you might get a little salt bump the next day on the scale, fear not - this is just water), Dove chocolate squares, baked chips, Jell-o cups, and pudding cups. (Food Elitists/Certified Food Snobs: Please don't judge my snack choices or turn your nose up at them - this is what works for me and keeps me happy when I'm trying not to OD on higher-cal fare. Glass houses, right?)
Is portion control your nemesis? As many of you know, I am all about keeping what you love in your diet (read more HERE), BUT if you're the type of person who is only satisfied by extremely large portions of food, you are going to need to make some adjustments...here are some tips for addressing portion distortion:
1. Reconsider what is a normal portion and if you are actually hungry or bored/stressed/emotional/etc. Here's a HANDY GUIDE to help you. If you find that your portions have been drastically different than what is shown in the guide, you might need to take some time to retrain your body what a healthy portion looks like.
2. Increase the fiber and water in your food while cutting back on fat and sugar. Fiber helps the stomach to feel fuller and stay fuller longer (particularly soluble fiber, which acts like a sponge and soaks up more water, helping you to feel fuller longer - think how oatmeal expands). Water helps to fill the stomach, also making you feel fuller. Foods rich in soluble fiber include: oats (oatmeal), broccoli, sweet potatoes, beans, peas, lentils, apples, pears, oranges, and flax and chia seeds. Foods rich in water include: cucumber, lettuce, celery, tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, spinach, watermelon, strawberries, broccoli, grapefruit, carrots, and cantaloupe. Adding these foods to your diet can help to keep your belly feeling fuller longer without overdoing it on calories.
3. Watch the fats and sugars. I am by no means advocating a fat-free or sugar-free diet (1. fat is essential for your health and 2. I'm a realist, plus a little sweet snack has been shown to actually help people achieve their weight goals as part of a calorie-controlled plan). BUT here's the thing: fat is super dense in calories (each gram of fat has 9 calories, whereas each gram of protein/carbohydrate has only 4 calories), and sugar is easy to over-consume since, in many of the foods/beverages it's in, it comes without fiber, therefore quickly spiking blood sugar, causing a cascade of insulin released, which drives fat storage. Fats, whether in oils, butter, dressings, fattier cuts of meat, fried food, nuts, nut butters, avocados, and pastry/cakes/cookies/ice cream, are all extremely dense in calories. Yes, some of these sound like really healthy foods - and they are! - but they are STILL extremely high in calories. This is always one of the hardest points I have making with people. Even though it's a health food, it doesn't mean that you can just eat it willy-nilly - the calories still count. I strongly suggest with the aforementioned fats that you take the time to learn what a serving size looks like, how many calories are in it, and even measure them out for a while - you might be shocked at how much you've been consuming. Some of these little changes are really all you need to get back on the Weight Loss Express.
The same goes for sugar...it adds up crazy fast and does little to making you feel full and satisfied. Some of the biggest offenders are those pesky sugars that sneak up in beverages, particularly pop and coffee drinks. Again, I am not saying never (many of you know I love my Starbucks so I can't be a total hypocrite here 🤪), but, since this article is all about plateaus, if you find that your weight is stuck, this is another area that you might really want to take a closer look at. A latte here and there is not the problem, but if you are stuck or this is a daily habit, it will definitely add up and cause some serious insulin spikes and greatly increase the risk of fat storage (or at least making it very hard to get fat-loss going). And while the jury is still out on artificial sweeteners, I have my druthers they do more harm than good as some research suggests they trick the brain into craving more actual sweet stuff . Bottom line: if you know that sweets are your Achilles heel, this could be your area to tackle.
Have you been eating in a caloric deficit for a while? It might be time to take a little diet break (i.e., eating at a maintenance caloric level for a set period of time). A recent study compared continuous dieters with "intermittent dieters" (those who took a 2-week diet break after 2 weeks of dieting) . The intermittent dieters lost more overall weight and body fat than the continuous dieters, and also experienced less overall weight regain than the continuous dieters. This study suggests that breaking up periods of dieting can help give both a mental as well as physical break from the rigors of eating in a caloric deficit.
Are you a pretty heavy meat eater? While I am not one to jump on food/diet trends, you might want to consider the benefits of a more plant-based diet (note I said "more;" I am not suggesting becoming a full-fledged vegan unless you are moved to do so). Plant-based diets have numerous health benefits including an increased consumption of micronutrients (i.e., vitamins and minerals) as well as improvements in blood pressure, A1C, and cholesterol . Additionally, studies have found that plant-based diets may help to spur weight loss . Again, I am not suggesting becoming a vegan or even a vegetarian, but you might consider including more meat/animal-free meals or even days in your diet and see if it might help to improve not only your body composition but your health as well. Interestingly, a study of the "flexitarian diet" (i.e., consuming meat and fish occasionally) found benefits for body weight, metabolic health, and a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes .
Is all your cardio long and slow (or maybe short and slow)? It might be time to kick up the intensity a bit. As you probably know, I am all for walking and it is truly the bread and butter of my fitness routine (the studies on the benefits of walking are immense and the evidence for its health benefits are overwhelming - check out some here). However, if that is all you are doing, you are really missing out on the benefit of kicking up the intensity every now and then. As long as your doctor has given you the green light (no limiting cardio/metabolic conditions, no nagging injuries that higher intensity work could flare up), try adding in one higher intensity session per week to start. Remember, intensity and duration of workouts are inversely related - if you are going hard, 20 minutes is perfect (less if you are a total newbie to the HIT world or are less conditioned). (Definition of "hard": you are not having fun anymore, it kinda sucks, you want to stop - like an 8 out of 10 on a subjective intensity scale). High intensity training (HIT) can take on many different forms and interval schemes, but commonly involves a warm-up, then alternating a period of higher intensity work with a period of lower intensity work. This is then repeated for the duration of the workout. The ratio of work to recovery can vary dramatically, but a commonly used setup for newbies would be 1:2 (work:recovery). It can be done on any modality but should be one that you are extremely comfortable with to minimize the risk of injury (I don't typically recommend treadmills for beginners unless you are going to stick with challenging yourself with the incline vs. the speed).
On the other hand, is all or most of your cardio high intensity? It can be really easy to get carried away with HIT work - we often hear in the media about its greater efficiency over lower intensity, steady-state forms of exercise, its ability to achieve a greater "after-burn" effect, and its effectiveness at "torching fat." While HIT is efficient and can take the intensity up to higher levels where one is burning more calories in a shorter period of time, it should not be considered the "only" thing that you do. (Some popular programs do have you using predominantly HIT work BUT they should be done on alternating days, for shorter periods of time - like 20 minutes or less - and should involve ample recovery. Additionally, these types of programs have a finish line when one would theoretically go back to a more well-rounded program or at least take a break from HIT before starting back up again.) The problem with HIT is that higher intensity work can be more stressful on the body, which can lead to fatigue, injury, and even intensified food cravings (please see an in-depth discussion of that topic HERE). So if you have been doing predominantly HIT work, it might be time to take a little break (1-4 weeks, depending on how long you've been going at it) and try some other types of training, such as resistance training (using more traditional work-recovery ratios), longer lower to moderate intensity cardio, and flexibility/mobility work. You might also try varying your modalities.
Do all of your workouts involve only cardio machines? Trust me, some might call me a cardio bunny 🐰, and I admit I do love a good run or jump rope session, but if all of your training revolves around around aerobic exercise, you are missing the enormous benefits of resistance training. Including resistance training provides a varied stimulus to your body, will help to "tone" and shape your body and retain lean muscle mass while you are working to lose body fat, which helps to keep you stronger, feeling more robust, and leaner than if you shirk the weights. While I do not by any means recommend nixing cardio altogether (the heart-health benefits are too great), you might want to find greater balance in your approach by incorporating strength training at least 2 days out of the week that incorporate all your major muscle groups.
Conversely, are you so dumbbell-obsessed that you forgot how to run, jump, and get that heart pumping? While weight training has certainly seen a tremendous growth in popularity amongst the masses in large part thanks to YouTube "gurus," we cannot forget that our bodies were born to ambulate (walk and run, that is!). The cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercise such as walking, running, swimming, jumping rope, and every other form of cardio should never be forgotten! While weights will keep your body shapely, cardio will keep that heart pumping well into your golden years (this may not seem sexy now, but my older clients will attest to the fact that there is nothing better than being able to move around on your own in your seventies, eighties, and beyond!). As for the weight loss benefits, regular cardio exercise can help to burn some additional calories (and often more than weight training despite claims stating the opposite since most people don't lift intensely enough to burn more than they would with cardio). It also plays a large role in keeping off weight once you've lost it.
Are you getting enough sleep? This is HUUUUUGE! I cannot begin to tell you what a enormous role sleep plays in helping you to lose body fat. Inadequate sleep will raise cortisol (stress hormone) levels in your body, which can cause the body to retain body fat as well as additional water (making you feel even fluffier). Combine this with caloric restriction and lots of high intensity exercise and your body will just be exhausted and stressed to the max - definitely not a recipe for fat loss success! I put this last, but probably should have put it first. The results of one study were startling - insufficient sleep curtailed weight loss by 55% and increased fat-free mass loss (i.e., the kind you don't want to lose!) by 60% ! In other words, participants lost less weight, and to add insult to injury, the weight they were losing was less fat and more muscle/fat-free mass! Moreover, this was on a regimen of 5.5 hours of sleep - what many of us are existing on quite regularly! One of the very best things you can do for your weight loss effort is to ensure sufficient sleep.
Are you committed? Sounds stupid, right? Of course you are! You read to the end of this long blog, didn't you? (Thank you, by the way.) But seriously. I cannot tell you how many people tell me they want to lose weight but, in reality, their actions are not reflecting it. They literally self-sabotage - knowingly eating too much, skipping their workouts, and making excuses. It's easy to say you "want" to do something, but think back to the last hard thing you did. I always think back to grad school and the level of commitment it required. I wanted to earn my master's degree. It required a TON of sacrifice and the ultimate commitment - my days literally revolved around it. Now, I'm not saying you should make your weight loss journey an obsession or the center of your universe, BUT if you want it, you're going to have to adjust your life a bit to make it more of a focus. If you don't want to be this committed, that's totally cool. You can focus on training to be healthier and stronger and that's awesome! Trust me, you'll be better off with it in your life than without. But if you want really want to shed some weight, ask where it's been on your priority list. If it's been hanging out near the bottom, it might be time to move it up.
So there you have it! All of my suggestions for ways to get off that Plateau Bus and back onto the Weight Loss Express. Remember, the most important thing you can do is to pick just one thing and really commit to try it out for at least two weeks. Any less than this and you run the risk of not giving it a fair shake. Be your own "n=1" experiment. Try one thing at a time and see what works for you. Remember, the most important factor when you are looking to lose weight is having that caloric deficit - you need to be burning off more than you are putting in. While exercise alone is by and large an inefficient way to totally create that deficit, it should absolutely be an integral part of your health plan to strengthen your heart, muscles, and bones, not to mention shape your body. Additionally, it will absolutely make your deficit easier to attain, and, as you get stronger and more fit, you will be able to exercise at higher intensities that will increase efficiency at achieving weight loss.
Commit, try, reflect, try again, and succeed!
Below, I have included a couple attachments here to help you with this process:
In good health,
References: (links to articles included on most for my fellow )
Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111, 92-102.
Mahabir, S., Baer, D. J., Giffen, C., Subar, A., Campbell, W., Hartman, T. J., ...& Taylor, P. R. (2006). Calorie intake misreporting by diet record and food frequency questionnaire compared to doubly labeled water among postmenopausal women. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 60(4), 561-5.
Byrne, N. M., Sainsbury, A., King, N. A., Hills, A. P., & Woods, R. E. (2018). Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in obese men: the MATADOR study. International Journal of Obesity, 42, 129-138.
Nedeltcheva, A. V., Kilkus, J. M., Imperial, J., Schoeller, D. A., & Penev, P. D. (2010). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Annals of Internal Medicine, 153, 435-441. SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave