You’ve tightened up your diet and the pounds are flying off! Your clothes feel amazing on you and you’re full of energy! But then…it all comes to a grinding halt. The scale isn’t moving anymore, so what gives? Well, you’ve hit what’s called a weight loss plateau.
The comforting thing about hitting a weight loss plateau (I’m sure you’re thinking there’s absolutely nothing comforting about your weight stalling…) is that you’re not alone.
It happens to 99% of us, and it’s part of the process.
What is a Weight Loss Plateau?
A weight-loss plateau is when you’re actively following a diet and exercise plan to lose weight, and the number on the scale stalls, despite your overall approach remaining the same.
So, in other words, your food plan and exercise regime hasn’t altered, yet at the same time, your scale weight isn’t lowering.
There is also no specific timeframe as to when a plateau can happen on a weight loss journey.
It could occur at any time: one month, three months, or even six months into a diet, for example.
Why Does a Weight Loss Plateau Happen?
There’s no easy answer to this question because honestly, it could be one of many reasons why.
However, in my opinion, there are three common culprits as to why it happens:
1. Calorie and macro calculations are estimations
Whether you’ve done the maths yourself and worked out how many calories you should be having each day, or you’ve punched your data into an online calorie and macro calculator to work it for you…
I’ve got some news.
The calculations you get are purely an estimate.
No online calculator will ever be 100% accurate.
Usually (and this doesn’t account for everyone of course), most calculators have an inaccuracy of anywhere between 200-400 calories, which is quite a lot when you think about it.
Because we humans are not metabolically neutral.
How many calories your body needs to keep it alive – combined with how much energy you’re burning on a daily basis – generally differ day-to-day.
So in the case of your weight stalling, you could be eating at a caloric maintenance level.
This means your body is neither in a calorie deficit nor calorie surplus.
For this reason, I always recommend leaving everything the same for 3-4 weeks after initially setting up your diet.
This gives you plenty of time to let the body settle into a groove and for a pattern to emerge.
After 3-4 weeks you’ll know if you need fewer calories to make sure you’re in a calorie deficit.
Or, slightly increase them in case you’re losing too much weight too quickly.
2. Water weight is first to go
At the start of a weight-loss diet, your body loses water.
The reason water loss happens initially is that the body loses glycogen from the liver and muscles.
Only after your glycogen stores are much lower will the body then turn to fat stores for energy.
Now, the thing is, the water loss effect is only temporary.
At some point your glycogen stores are going to fill back up, hence the plateau.
So, you might lose a bunch of weight in the first couple of weeks, then stall.
This is a prime example that you have lost water weight when stores of glycogen have filled back up.
The good news is, this doesn’t mean fat loss isn’t happening underneath though.
3. The metabolism adapts
The further we get into a weight loss plan, the more our energy needs change.
In short: the number of calories you eat at the start of your diet will not be the same as at the end.
Your body originally starts in a calorie deficit, but at some stage, this stops and it adapts.
As time goes by and weight loss occurs, our energy needs decrease.
This means the further along into the diet we get, the less and less we need to eat to keep burning body fat.
There are scientific reasons behind why this happens.
But for now, I’m giving you a basic overall explanation so you understand that metabolic adaption is a very real reason why weight loss stalls.
3 Important Things to Address When You Hit a Weight Loss Plateau
At some stage in your diet, your body weight is going to stall.
And I’m sorry to sound blunt, but it’s part of the process, so don’t beat yourself up.
Instead, recognize your achievements to date and smile.
You have worked hard!
Don’t throw in the towel
Hitting a plateau doesn’t mean the journey is over.
This is the point where people lose their heads because they have an expectation dieting should be smooth sailing.
But dieting isn’t smooth sailing, so don’t quit.
Look at stalling as a positive sign.
It means you have made progress and that you still probably are making progress.
Sure, hitting a plateau can bum you out.
After all, you are human.
Weight loss has never been and will never be linear, otherwise, many more people would reach their weight-loss goal with ease.
So learn to be patient and trust your body as long as you’re confident everything is dialed in as it should be.
The first time you stall after a continuous run of dropping weight isn’t a sign that changes need to be made.
Most of the time fat loss is still bubbling away regardless of what your weight on the scale is showing.
Don’t crank things up just yet
What do the vast majority of people do when they don’t experience a drop in weight for even one week?
Yep, they panic and slash their calories so they suffer more than necessary.
Not only that, they increase their exercise so they end up dead on their feet after a couple of weeks.
This approach is only sustainable for so long.
So my advice would be to keep everything the same for 3 weeks when weight stalls.
Ways to Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau
1. Assess caloric needs
At some point when you stall, you will need to make an adjustment to your calorie intake.
Like I mentioned earlier; the number of calories you start your diet on will not be the same amount you end on.
In laymen’s terms, the body doesn’t require as many calories the lighter and leaner you get.
This is because your BMR (basal metabolic rate) lowers, so you have no option but to decrease your food intake over time in order to keep things moving in the right direction.
If your weight, body measurements, and pictures have remained the same for three weeks straight – now is the time to make an adjustment to your calories.
Always go gentle here. Never cut calories too drastically as you need somewhere to go in the future when you stall again.
Reduce by 100-150 calories and see how this works.
You should be able to etch out some more progress for a little while by doing this.
And when you stall again later down the line, just hold back for three weeks and re-assess.
2. Increase activity
An alternative option to reducing calories when you hit a weight loss plateau is to increase your overall physical activity.
And this can come from an increase in NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), or sports-like exercise.
NEAT is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating, or sports-like exercise.
So, look at increasing your activity level through NEAT to burn more calories.
Use your legs to go to the local shops instead of using the car.
Do more yard work and jobs around the house, cycle to places instead of taking the bus, etc.
Also, look to increase your weekly workouts from three times a week, to five, for example.
3. Change your exercise Regimen
Sometimes, the easiest way to break through a plateau is to challenge yourself by changing things up when it comes to your workouts.
This could be done by increasing the intensity of them or trying something completely new.
If you currently walk a few times per week, try a combination of walk/running instead.
Two minutes walking followed by one minute running, for example.
You’re going to burn more calories by doing this.
Or, instead of going on the treadmill in the gym for 45 minutes, do a resistance workout, followed by the elliptical trainer for 15-20 minutes to end the workout.
If you have a personal trainer you can ask them to shake your workout routine up to see if you can break through your plateau.
4. Incorporate resistance training
Strength training is so underrated when it comes to fat loss.
But the problem is, many people are too scared to build muscle in case they get “too big“.
And of course, in their mind, they’re thinking more muscle equals much heavier scale weight.
Let me tell you one thing…
We’d all be Mr & Ms. Olympia if it was that easy to add the amount of muscle you picture yourself walking around with.
And you’re only lifting weights a few times per week.
It’s literally not going to happen, so chill.
It’s in your interest to gain some muscle, and it’s a good idea to do this especially when you’re dieting.
The more muscle you have, the more calories and fat the body burns at rest.
Strength training is also a great way for burning calories and revving the metabolism up for hours after the workout.
5. Track calories
If you don’t track what you eat – especially when dieting – you have no idea how many calories you’re consuming.
And this impacts your rate of fat loss because researchers have reported that people tend to underestimate how much food they’re eating.
Tracking your calories allows you to modify your diet when necessary.
Also, tracking your food makes life so much easier when dieting.
You’re organized and efficient, and research shows those who do this tend to have better results with their weight-loss goal.
6. Up your protein
Protein is the most valuable macronutrient when it comes to fat loss.
Well, it’s the most valuable macronutrient period.
Your body burns more calories digesting protein than it does carbohydrates or fats.
Furthermore, protein is satiating too.
Which is exactly what you want when you’re trying to lose weight.
Another major benefit of eating enough protein is that it’s muscle-sparing; meaning, it protects you against losing any muscle.
I strongly recommend both men and women consume no less than 110g protein per day from quality protein sources.
And this doesn’t mean the type of protein you get in packet ham and cheese which tastes like plastic.
7. Work on reducing any stress
Stress can really impact your weight loss goals.
I know this first hand.
Mine wouldn’t budge for about a month, but I knew I was holding water retention from stress so I didn’t panic.
The thing with stress is that it can easily trigger food cravings (namely sugar pangs), and can also produce cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone“.
And when you have excess cortisol, your body not only can experience a loss of muscle mass – it holds water because it’s in self-protection mode too.
So try your best to reduce stress where you can.
I understand we’re human and life brings us challenges, but learn to meditate, take deep breaths, and stay as positive as possible.
8. Improve your sleep
Whether you’re going through a stressful period in life or you’re just not a very good sleeper – not getting enough sleep can have a detrimental impact on fat loss.
Most people need between 6-8 hours of sleep per night, but always listen to your body and get the necessary amount it needs to feel recovered and fresh.
Too little sleep can cause the body to feel stressed, which again, may trigger food cravings.
If you’re under stress and sleep is a major concern, the best way to combat this is to consider taking a break from working out to get your body and mind in a better state.
Also, it’s worth following a bedtime routine as this is proven to help the body and mind relax.
9. Don’t take the scale too seriously
There are many more ways to monitor fat loss progress on a diet than the scale.
The scale is merely one way, and actually not the most accurate at that.
Not seeing the number on the scale go down doesn’t mean progress has stalled.
You could be gaining muscle, for example, or it could be water weight.
Take weekly body measurements, and I’d also encourage you to take pictures once a month to compare to previous ones to see if there have been any changes.
Remember: your goal is fat loss, not weight loss.
So don’t be married to a goal weight of any kind – it shouldn’t matter.
10. Include a weekly cheat meal
You probably think I’m crazy suggesting this.
The reasons most people quit a diet is because:
- They lose motivation
- They restrict their favorite foods too much
So, the logical step around this is to work with these culprits, not against them.
Trying to eat a clean amount of food for months on end just isn’t possible for 99% of us, so a way around this is to have one weekly cheat meal.
It keeps us sane, motivated and gives us something to look forward to at the weekend.
And by doing this we don’t suffer for a prolonged period of time, scraping by week-to-week on the verge of binging.
And don’t be frightened of putting fat on from eating one meal off the plan.
If you’re in a decent enough calorie deficit and putting in the work, it won’t make the slightest bit of difference – but this isn’t a ticket to go crazy and binge.
The next day you probably will be heavier than you were, but it’s not fat – don’t worry.
It’s water from the increase in sodium more than likely, but it’ll come off in a day or two.
11. Increase water intake
Most people don’t drink enough water on a regular basis, but especially when trying to lose weight.
Water acts as a natural diuretic, which means it flushes you out (in a good way).
It helps to flush out excess salt in the body, and it’s also great at keeping hunger at bay.
I always make sure I drink a decent amount of water before each meal to fill me up more.
12. Monitor booze intake
Alcohol and weight loss unfortunately don’t go hand-in-hand, so if you’re “just having a couple of glasses a night“, it can make a big impact on your weight loss.
Especially if the calories are unaccounted for.
An average-sized glass of red wine is around 125 calories, and that’s being conservative.
I don’t imagine many people are measuring and weighing how much wine they’re pouring into their glass…
Most alcohol has sugar in it, which as we know isn’t great for fat loss.
If you must have alcohol (and I’m not against it at all, by the way), go for gin or vodka – something lower on the calorie list, and track it.
13. Increase carbs
“Going keto” or “low carb” seems to be one of the trends for losing weight at the moment.
But, I’ll let you into a secret…
Carbs aren’t the devil, and carbs themselves do not make you put fat on.
Being in a calorie surplus does.
Why would you want to suffer and restrict yourself from carbs anyway?
You can absolutely lose weight without them, so ignore those people who say you can’t.
I have been very lean eating carbs on a diet before. I always eat them, year-round.
If you’re stalling, sometimes slightly increasing your carbs gets the metabolism-revving again as it acts almost like a refeed.
If you’re in starvation mode your body will lose interest in dropping more weight, so it needs feeding.
14. Ride the storm
This may suck a little bit to read, but during a plateau, you sometimes honestly just have to be patient and ride the storm.
And I know it’s hard work.
You may only stall for 1-2 weeks anyway, so it’s not the end of the world, but even if it’s longer, you will eventually start losing weight again.
My advice during this time would be to stay as consistent as possible and by doing so, it’ll keep your spirits high.
And when you are consistent, reward yourself.
Get a massage, a manicure, or go to the movies, etc.
About the author
I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).