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At some point during the weight loss journey, most people experience something called a weight loss plateau—a time when the numbers seem to stop peeling off the scale and maybe even creep upward. It can be discouraging when a plan that was working suddenly stops resulting in weight loss. Keep reading to learn why plateaus happen and how to move past them.
What is a weight loss plateau?
If you’ve experienced the frustration of a weight loss plateau, you’re not alone. Many people experience a slowdown or pause in results during their weight loss journey.
A weight loss plateau occurs when you stop losing weight after a period of successful weight loss. Sometimes, plateaus will only last for a few weeks. Other times, it may be a sign your body has adjusted to a lower body weight, and you may need to modify your weight loss plan to get past this plateau.
Why do weight loss plateaus happen?
Often, a weight loss plateau could mean your metabolism has slowed with the weight loss. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. Your metabolism is kind of the generic term for how your body breaks down calories at your baseline, without exercise. If your metabolism has slowed down, then that means you’re burning fewer calories at rest—making it harder to burn more calories than you consume if you don’t make changes from what you’re currently doing.
A popular theory used to explain plateaus is the set point theory. This theory argues that the body has a process to maintain its weight within a certain range. It may explain why plateaus develop during weight loss efforts—as you lose weight, you get closer to the edge of your current set point’s range, and your body slows your metabolism to keep you from breaking through that range.
Still, many people believe it’s possible to move your set point by increasing activity levels and muscle mass to boost your resting metabolic rate.
Here are some of the ways your metabolism and diet could be causing a plateau:
Too few calories
If you cut calorie intake too low for long periods, it can cause slight changes in your metabolism that could add up to a weight loss plateau.
For each kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of weight lost, the number of calories burned at rest decreases by 20 to 30 calories per day. So after a 10-pound loss achieved with a lower calorie intake, calories burned at rest could decrease around 100–150 calories per day (Hall, 2018).
If you’re eating a very low calorie diet, your body lowers your metabolic rate to help protect you from starvation and balance energy intake. Although this process may be designed to protect the body from losing too much weight, the adaptation can cause problems with trying to lose weight for health benefits.
Problems with portion control
Along with slowing your metabolism, your body releases hormones to increase your appetite when losing weight. It’s estimated that for every kilogram (around 2.2 pounds) lost, the appetite increases by about 100 calories per day (Hall, 2018).
As you lose weight, you may feel strong urges to eat more food as your body tries to stabilize your weight. Extra hunger could make it more challenging to stick to the appropriate portion sizes. So, it’s important to eat foods that help you stay full without adding too many extra calories.
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Loss of muscle mass
As you shed pounds, you’re not only losing body fat. During weight loss, you also lose muscle and other lean tissue. Muscles require more calories for maintenance and to do their job than fat tissue, so having more muscle helps increase metabolism.
On the other hand, if you lose too much muscle, it could cause slowdowns in your metabolism, leading to a weight loss plateau.
Not enough activity throughout the day
If you’re sitting throughout most of the day, you may be burning fewer calories than you realize. While workouts are important, spending the rest of the day sitting at a desk could mean you’re not getting enough movement for the day.
Not enough protein
Protein helps to preserve muscle mass while losing weight (Cava, 2017). So, making sure you’re eating enough protein helps maintain your muscle tissue to help keep metabolism higher.
Hormone changes and medications
Certain medical conditions and hormonal changes may cause challenges with weight loss. For example, thyroid conditions and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) impact hormones and are known to cause weight gain.
Some people may notice weight changes with some medications like steroids or hormonal birth control.
How to move past weight loss plateaus: 7 strategies
Moving past a weight loss plateau can be challenging. Here are some strategies to help you reach your weight loss goals:
1. Practice food journaling
A food journal helps bring awareness to how much you’re eating and your food intake. It can be easy for things like condiments or inaccurate portion sizes to add up without realizing, which can interfere with weight loss. People tend to underestimate the amount of food they eat. One study found that people were eating around double the calories they thought they ate (Lichtman, 1992).
Tracking your foods and beverages helps you stick to your goals and monitor potential barriers to continued weight loss.
2. Balance calorie intake
Balancing your calorie intake so you’re not eating too much or too little can help break a weight loss plateau. Also, changing up the number of calories you eat may help. For example, eating at a deficit for a few days followed by a day of eating your baseline number of calories could help.
3. Do strength training
Weight lifting, interval training, and other types of strength training can help build muscle and burn more calories, even after your workout ends.
Research shows that strength training and weight lifting exercises promote weight loss and support a healthy metabolism (Matsuo, 1999). Another study found that 10 weeks of resistance training may increase metabolism by about 7% (Westcott, 2012).
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4. Increase your protein intake
Since protein helps maintain healthy muscle mass, eating enough of it provides fuel for rebuilding muscle after workouts and maintaining tissue. A 2016 review of research suggests eating between 0.5 to 0.75 grams of protein per day for each pound of your total body weight to help maintain and build muscle (Leidy, 2015).
Aim for a lean protein food—think chicken, fish, beans, or nuts—with each meal to meet your body’s needs.
5. Limit alcohol consumption
Alcohol and mixers add extra calories to your day. Many alcoholic drinks contain 100 calories or more. For many people, if they drink, they tend to consume more than one drink at one time. Those calories add up and could be a sneaky reason behind a weight loss plateau.
On top of that, alcohol loosens self-control, which may lead to mindlessly grabbing snack foods or overeating, further busting a calorie deficit.
6. Set non-weight related goals
It can be easy to feel discouraged when your weight loss suddenly stops. Setting non-weight-related goals can help keep you motivated through a weight loss plateau. Examples of non-weight goals include:
- Walking for 30 minutes each day
- Sleeping eight hours each night
- Training to run a 5K
- Meditating five days a week
- Hiking a specific trail
- Drinking more water
- Stretching 10 minutes per day
7. Move more throughout the day
Getting up regularly to move throughout the day helps burn calories and reduces sedentary time. Even small changes to physical activity, like using a standing desk rather than sitting, adds up for calories burned and weight loss. A 2018 study found that standing for six hours per day could add up to six pounds of additional weight loss over the year (Saedifard, 2018). While that may seem like an insignificant change, six pounds a year—achieved without even adding in exercise—can make a significant difference in long-term weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Cava, E., Yeat, N. C., & Mittendorfer, B. (2017). Preserving healthy muscle during weight loss. Advances In Nutrition, 8(3), 511–519. doi: 10.3945/an.116.014506. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28507015/
- Leidy, H. J., Clifton, P. M., Astrup, A., Wycherley, T. P., Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Luscombe-Marsh, N. D., et al. (2015). The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 101(6), 1320S–1329S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.084038. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25926512/
- Lichtman, S. W., Pisarska, K., Berman, E. R., Pestone, M., Dowling, H., Offenbacher, E., et al. (1992). Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. The New England Journal Of Medicine, 327(27), 1893–1898. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199212313272701. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1454084/
- Matsuo, T. & Suzuki, M. (1999). Effects of dumb-bell exercise with and without energy restriction on resting metabolic rate, diet-induced thermogenesis and body composition in mildly obese women. Asia Pacific Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 8(2), 136–141. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-6047.1999.00083.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24393798/
- Saeidifard, F., Medina-Inojosa, J. R., Supervia, M., Olson, T. P., Somers, V. K., Erwin, P. J., Lopez-Jimenez, F. (2018). Differences of energy expenditure while sitting versus standing: A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal Of Preventive Cardiology, 25(5), 522–538. doi: 10.1177/2047487317752186. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29385357/
- Westcott, W. L.. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 11(4), 209–216. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22777332/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.