Unlike popular belief, the road with weight loss is not a straight line down. Instead it is a journey of ups, downs, and plateaus.
A weight loss plateau can be normal even when continuing a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Even more importantly, there are successful ways on how to bust a weight loss plateau.
Need some help to break out from a plateau? Find out how to bust through frustrating weight loss plateaus and keep your progress on track toward your ultimate goal.
What's a Weight Loss Plateau?
A weight loss plateau is when, instead of continuing to gradually lose weight, the scale stays stuck around a certain weight on the scale. This halt in weight loss may occur even if nothing significantly changed in the diet or exercise habits which can seem frustrating.
There is not a specific amount of days or weeks that defines a weight loss plateau; it can be different for every person depending on many factors. However, research shows plateauing can be common around the 6 month mark from the start of weight loss and again sometime in between 1 to 2 years after initial weight loss.
The exact causes for weight loss plateaus are still unclear. One likely reason plateaus occur is the change in resting metabolic rate throughout weight loss.
As weight loss happens, muscle mass can be lost along with body fat mass and water weight. This in turn can lower metabolic rate throughout weight loss which can lead to a plateau.
5 Ways to Break a Weight Loss Plateau
While a plateau can be frustrating during a weight loss journey, these tips will help break through them.
1. Tweak Your Diet
The number of calories burned at a higher weight will not match what the body will burn after pounds have been dropped. Metabolism starts to decrease with weight loss and can ultimately slow down further weight loss.
Even though calories should not be the primary focus, they play a critical part in dropping pounds and need to continue to match the body's needs. Reevaluate the diet after approximately 10 pounds has been dropped. Continue to reassess every 10 pounds until a weight goal has been achieved and weight maintenance is desired.
Increasing protein intake can help with retaining muscle mass during weight loss. Furthermore, increasing protein while cutting back on refined carbohydrates may help with breaking a weight loss plateau.
2. Shake Up Workouts
Continuously repeating the same workout routine can not only get boring, but the body starts to get familiar with the repeated motions and can lead to a weight loss plateau. Varying types and intensity of workouts may help “jump start” weight loss.
One way to do this is to add in high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT and styles, such as Tabata workouts, can help increase calorie burn when the regular routine starts to become less effective.
Although aerobic exercise is important for cardiovascular health, pairing with strength and resistance training provides further benefits. An increase in muscle mass will burn calories even when the body is inactive at rest, an appeal for weight training just in itself.
Incorporating HIIT and/or strength training as part of a workout routine may help break through a plateau. These exercises can be added or, if time is an issue, do these workouts in place of aerobic exercise a few times a week.
Working with an exercise specialist can help provide individualized recommendations for increasing strength and metabolism during weight loss.
3. Monitor Your Diet
Calories can be sneaky. If weight remains stable after tweaking the diet and shaking up workouts, try keeping track of foods consumed.
Even though so-called "cheat" foods still have a place in the diet, a chocolate chip cookie or an extra scoop of ice cream can add up if continuously consumed. Embracing a balanced diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, non-fat dairy products, and healthy fat sources can help keep the diet in check.
Tracking food intake can help reset portion sizes which may have unintentionally increased gradually. It can also be an honest look at what types of foods are being eaten throughout the day.
4. Evaluate Sleep Patterns
Weight loss and a healthy lifestyle include more than nutritious foods and exercise. Sleep is also extremely important for weight loss and maintenance.
Even though the research is still a little unclear, data suggests that the hunger hormones can become altered with lack of sleep. Also worth noting, not enough sleep can contribute to diminished energy for physical activity.
Ultimately, too little or too much sleep has the ability to increase the likelihood of weight gain. Adults should be aiming for seven to eight hours each night.
5. Reduce Stress
Day-to-day responsibilities have the ability to provoke stress. Stress and discouragement can be further exacerbated when the number on the scale will not budge. Initially stress can decrease appetite, leading to a caloric deficit and an ultimate weight loss contributor. However, stress also triggers cortisol to be released.
Cortisol has the ability to increase appetite and lingers in the body for a longer span of time. The long-term elevation of cortisol and appetite outweighs the initial decrease in appetite. Some individuals seek out food for an emotional outlet when stressed, too.
The effects of stress on the diet are not ideal when trying to lose weight. To minimize feelings of stress, try stress-relieving techniques such as reading a good book, listening to the radio, writing out frustrations, and taking a peaceful walk.
Weight loss plateaus can be a frustrating but a normal part of a weight loss journey. The good news is plateaus can be broken with some key adjustments to environmental factors. Plateaus can happen anytime, depending on several factors, but research has shown plateaus can be common around 6 months and/or a year or two after initial start of weight loss.
As weight loss continues, the loss of muscle mass and body size will lower metabolic rate. This can be a main reason for a plateau. When this happens, a tweak in diet, such as cutting back portions or increasing protein, can help shift from a plateau.
Tracking food or calorie intake can also help get back on track with appropriate energy and macronutrient levels. Along the same line, maintaining and building muscle mass through strength training or varying exercises can also help combat this decline in metabolic rate with weight loss.
Lesser known considerations for working through a weight loss plateau include evaluating sleep patterns and finding healthy ways for stress reduction.
Breeze J. Can Stress Cause Weight Gain? WebMD. Published February 3, 2016.https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/stress-weight-gain#1.
Cunningham E. How Can I Help My Client Who Is Experiencing a Weight-Loss Plateau? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Published December 11, 2011. https://jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(11)01829-3/abstract.
Zeratsky K. Why skipping sleep leads to weight gain. Mayo Clinic. Published April 2, 2020. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/sleep-and-weight-gain/faq-20058198.