Nutrition Expert- Saba Shaikh, Practicing Clinical Nutritionist, Mumbai.
You’ve been working hard to follow a healthy, low-calorie diet and improve your exercise habits, and your reward has been watching your weight go down and feeling better. Now, however, for no reason you can identify, the scale has stopped budging. You’ve hit a weight-loss plateau.
Don’t get discouraged. It’s normal for weight loss to slow and even stall. By understanding what causes a weight-loss plateau, you can decide how to respond and avoid backsliding on your new healthy habits.
What is a weight-loss plateau?
Being stuck at a weight-loss plateau eventually happens to everyone who tries to lose weight. Even so, most people are surprised when it happens to them because they’re still eating carefully and exercising regularly. The frustrating reality is that even well-planned weight-loss efforts can stall.
What causes a weight-loss plateau?
During the first few weeks of losing weight, a rapid drop is normal. In part, this is because when you cut calories, the body gets needed energy initially by releasing its stores of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles and liver.
Glycogen is partly made of water, so when glycogen is burned for energy, it releases water, resulting in weight loss that’s mostly water. This effect is temporary, however.
As you lose weight, you lose some muscle along with fat. Muscle helps keep the rate at which you burn calories (metabolism) up. So as you lose weight, your metabolism declines, causing you to burn fewer calories than you did at your heavier weight.
Your slower metabolism will slow your weight loss, even if you eat the same number of calories that helped you lose weight. When the calories you burn equal the calories you eat, you reach a plateau.
To lose more weight, you need to either increase your physical activity or decrease the calories you eat. Using the same approach that worked initially may maintain your weight loss, but it won’t lead to more weight loss. (1)
How can you overcome a weight-loss plateau?
When you reach a plateau, you may have lost all of the weight you will on your current diet and exercise plan. Ask yourself if you’re satisfied with your current weight or if you want to lose more, in which case you’ll need to adjust your weight-loss program.
If you’re committed to losing more weight, try these tips for getting past the plateau:
• Reassess your habits.
Look back at your food and activity records. Make sure you haven’t loosened the rules, letting yourself get by with larger portions or less exercise. Research suggests that off-and-on loosening of rules contributes to plateaus.
Tracking your calories and macronutrients, protein, fat and carbs can provide concrete information about how much you’re taking in. This will allow you to modify your diet if needed.
Overall, researchers have reported that people have a tendency to underestimate the amount of food they eat (2).
• Cut more calories.
Further cut your daily calories, provided this doesn’t put you below 1,200 calories. Fewer than 1,200 calories a day may not be enough to keep you from constant hunger, which increases your risk of overeating.
Research has confirmed that low-carb diets are extremely effective for weight loss.
In fact, one large review of 13 studies with follow-up lasting at least a year found that people who consumed 50 or fewer grams of carbs per day lost more weight than those following traditional weight loss diets (3).
Reducing your carb intake may help get your weight moving in the right direction again when you feel hopelessly stalled.
Whether carb restriction leads to a “metabolic advantage” that causes your body to burn more calories is a question that continues to be debated among nutrition and obesity experts.
• Rev up your workout.
Most people should exercise 30 minutes a day, nearly every day of the week. But people trying to lose weight should exercise more often than that or increase the intensity of exercise to burn more calories. Adding exercises such as weightlifting to increase your muscle mass will help you burn more calories.
Resistance training promotes the retention of muscle mass, which is a major factor influencing how many calories you burn during activity and at rest. In fact, resistance training seems to be the most effective type of exercise for weight loss (4).
Other types of physical activity have also been shown to protect against a metabolic slowdown, including aerobic exercise and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) (5,6).
• Manage Stress
Stress can often put the brakes on weight loss.
In addition to promoting comfort eating and triggering food cravings, it also increases your body’s production of cortisol.
Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” While it helps your body respond to stress, it can also increase belly fat storage. What’s more, this effect seems to be stronger in women (7).
• Avoid Alcohol
Alcohol may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts.
Although one alcoholic drink (4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of hard liquor or 12 ounces of beer) contains only around 100 calories, it provides no nutritional value. In addition, many people have more than one drink at a sitting.
Another problem is that alcohol loosens inhibitions, which may lead you to overeat or make poor food choices. This may be especially problematic for those trying to overcome impulsive food-related behaviors.
research has shown that alcohol suppresses fat burning and may lead to belly fat accumulation (8).
If your weight loss has stalled, it may be best to avoid alcohol or only consume it occasionally in small amounts.
• Drink Water, Coffee or Tea
While sugary beverages lead to weight gain, some beverages may help reverse a weight loss stall. Studies have found that plain water can boost metabolism by 24–30% for 1.5 hours after drinking a 17-ounce (500-ml) serving (14).
This may translate into weight loss over time, especially in those who consume water before meals, which may help reduce food intake.
Coffee and tea may also benefit your weight loss efforts.
These beverages typically contain caffeine, which has been shown to increase fat burning and boost metabolic rate by up to 13%. However, these effects seem to be strongest in lean individuals (9,10).
In addition, green tea contains an antioxidant known as EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which was found to boost fat burning by 17% in one study (10).
• Get Plenty of Sleep
Sleep is extremely important for good mental, emotional and physical health.
It’s also becoming clear that not getting enough sleep can lead to weight gain by lowering your metabolic rate and altering hormone levels to drive appetite and fat storage (11).
In fact, not getting enough sleep may be a contributing factor in cases of stalled weight loss.
• Be as Active as Possible
Although working out is important, other factors also influence the number of calories you burn each day.
For example, your metabolic rate increases in response to fidgeting, changing posture and similar types of physical activity.
These types of activity are known as non-exercise activity thermogenesisTrusted Source, or NEAT.
Research has shown that NEAT can have a major impact on your metabolic rate, although the amount varies significantly from person to person (12,13).
The Bottom Line
Weight loss plateaus can be frustrating and demoralizing.
However, they are a normal part of the weight loss process. In fact, nearly everyone experiences a stall at some point on their weight loss journey.
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can take to begin losing weight again and safely achieve your goal weight.