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When you first started on your weight loss journey, it seemed like smooth sailing. You stuck to your diet and exercise plan, and you saw evidence of all your hard work reflected on the scale during your regular weigh-ins. But then suddenly, something changed. You didn’t deviate from your plan, but your weight just started holding steady. If this sounds all too familiar, you’ve likely reached a weight loss plateau. But don’t give up hope—you can break out of it with the right approach.

What is a weight loss plateau?

The term weight loss plateau describes a point at which you stop losing weight despite not making any new changes to your diet and exercise plan. Reaching one is discouraging, and many people abandon their weight loss efforts when they stop seeing progress on the scale.

You may blame yourself or feel like you’ve failed when plateaus occur, but the truth is that nearly everyone striving to lose weight will experience at least one on their way to their goal. A plateau is a natural reaction to sustained weight loss. In other words, you reach a weight loss plateau because you’ve been successful so far. Viewing this as a normal part of your journey to your goal weight is the first step toward overcoming it.

What causes a weight loss plateau?

Understanding the causes of a weight loss plateau is important to breaking out of one. Generally, it’s tough to pinpoint one single cause of a sudden slowing or cessation of weight loss, but one or more things is likely at play.

Water weight effect

At the start of your weight loss program, your body turns to stored glycogen for fast energy. Burning glycogen releases water and can lead to quick weight drops. When your body exhausts its glycogen stores, it metabolizes fat for energy, resulting in slower progress. Over time, your body accumulates more glycogen and once more turns to it for energy. This leads to another quick drop in weight due to water loss, followed by another slowdown.

Starvation mode response

While you have one ideal weight in mind, your body has its own ideal weight, called the metabolic set point. This optimal weight from a metabolic perspective depends on how much you weigh, how active you are, and your genetics. As your weight creeps closer to your metabolic set point, your body will fight your efforts to keep you from starving, leading to a weight loss plateau. The starvation mode response is the reason severe calorie-restrictive diets often fail over the long term.

Decrease in your metabolic rate

Your basal metabolic rate is the number of calories you burn when you’re at rest, and it’s proportional to how much you weigh. For example, at 200 pounds, you burn more calories at rest than you do at 180 pounds.

When you first begin your weight loss program, improvements in your diet and an increase in physical activity lead to a large calorie deficit. As you lose weight, your calorie intake stays the same, but the number of calories that you burn decreases. This causes a smaller deficit and slower weight loss. In some cases, the changes in your metabolism result in a temporary weight loss plateau.

Muscle gains

Strength training is an excellent way to increase your basal metabolic rate and encourage your body to burn fat instead of muscle. However, muscle weighs more than fat. During periods when your weight loss slows down, increasing muscle mass through exercise may offset fat loss. While you won’t see the numbers change dramatically on the scale, you’ll notice changes in how your body looks and how your clothes fit, due to the shift in your body composition.

How to break a weight loss plateau

Overcoming a weight loss plateau is difficult, but it’s not impossible. The following weight loss plateau tips can get you back on track, particularly when you use a combination of them.

1. Increase physical activity

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week plus two to three days of strength training. If you’re not meeting those recommendations, simply increasing your physical activity may be enough to break through a weight loss plateau.

If your exercise plan already includes the recommended amount, you may need to increase your physical activity further to restart weight loss. Start by extending each of your workouts by 5 to 10 minutes. Continue for a few weeks, and adjust again as needed.

2. Track your diet for a few days

Sometimes, we think our diet is healthier than it is. Keeping a food journal for five days to a week will give you a more accurate picture of what you’re really eating. Record not only your food intake, but also your mood and activities. At the end of your journaling period, examine your records and consider:

  • How much processed food you’re eating
  • Caloric and nutritional impact of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages
  • How much lean protein, whole grains, and vegetables you’re eating
  • Your portion sizes
  • Whether you’re snacking due to hunger or another reason, like boredom or stress

Use your analysis to fine-tune your diet as needed. Although it may be tempting, resist the urge to make major overhauls to your eating plan to break a weight loss plateau. If your body is fighting back against your weight loss efforts, restricting calories may hurt more than help.

3. Check your stress levels

Our ancient ancestors counted on the human body’s stress response for survival. When they

encountered a threat like a predator, the body’s fight or flight response produced the chemicals epinephrine and cortisol to help them fend off the foe or to flee from it. Once the danger had passed, stress hormones dissipated and the body returned to its normal state.

In today’s modern world, we rarely encounter the sorts of life-and-death situations that our stress response is meant to mitigate. Instead, our main sources of stress come from work situations, strained relationships, health problems, financial worries, and other problems that tend to continue for long periods. As a result, cortisol levels often remain chronically elevated.

Studies show that high cortisol levels can lead to an increase in appetite. In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that elevated cortisol may actually contribute to weight gain. Taking steps to control stress in your daily life may lower cortisol levels and get the scale moving again. For stress management, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends:

  • Regular exercise
  • Meditation
  • Talking to friends, family or a professional counselor
  • Actively reframing negative thoughts into positive ones
  • Scheduling in relaxing “me-time”
  • Participating in hobbies and other activities that you enjoy

4. Monitor your heart rate during exercise

When you exercise regularly, your body adapts to meet the demands of exercise, and over time, your fitness routine becomes easier. From a weight management perspective, these adaptations may make your fitness routine less effective, since your body no longer needs to exert as much energy to maintain your pace.

One way to assess your exertion level is to monitor your pulse during exercise. When you elevate your heart rate into its target range, you encourage fat burning. Target heart rate depends on age. To determine yours:

  1. Subtract your age from 220. This is your maximum heart rate.
  2. For moderate-intensity exercise, multiply the figure from step one by .64 to get the low end of the range and by .76 to get the high end.
  3. For high-intensity exercise, multiply the figure from step one by .77 to get the low end of the range and by .93 to get the high end.

You can take your pulse by placing two fingers on your wrist or neck. Count the number of beats for a full 60 seconds. If your heart rate is within the target range for the type of exercise, you’re doing well. If not, increase the intensity of your activity.  

5. Measure as well as weigh

During a weight loss plateau, don’t judge your progress with the scale alone, since your body composition may be changing even if you’re not shedding pounds. Take your measurements along your chest, waist, hips, thighs and forearms, and then measure again every two to three weeks. Also pay attention to how your clothes fit. The small changes that you see can motivate you to keep going during a sustained weight-loss plateau.

How Forward can help you overcome a weight loss plateau

Our 12-week, doctor-led Weight Management Program can help you get back on the path to consistent weight loss. As your primary care provider, we begin with assessments and medical testing that may uncover potential causes of your weight loss plateau. Most often, the solution to a weight loss plateau is altering your overall approach to diet and exercise. That’s why we work with you to develop a plan that fits your goals, health profile, culture, and lifestyle. As you continue to strive for your weight loss goals, we provide ongoing monitoring and advice to keep you on track and ensure that you can maintain your target weight going forward.

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