Why do weight loss plateaus happen and how can we overcome them?

Achieving your ideal body weight can be tough.

If you’ve ever started a diet or fitness plan, then you know after a certain point it gets harder. When you reach a wall and find yourself unable to lose weight, that is called a weight loss plateau. It’s not unusual to hit a weight loss plateau even if you are eating carefully and exercising regularly.

Let me explain why and how to combat this:

Part 1: What is happening in your body during a weight loss plateau


1) Bye bye water weight!

In the first weeks of losing weight and lowering your calorie intake, your body gets energy from storage, specifically your muscle and liver glycogen. Glycogen is a form of carbohydrates stored in your body that partly consists of hydrogen and oxygen, a.k.a. water. Yes, that means you often lose water weight when these storages are burned for energy. This is only temporary and not a sustainable form of weight loss. In order to lose 1 lb of body fat, you have to burn 3,500 calories. To do this in a week is not something that is sustainable. It is much more effective to plan long term for losing actual fat than expecting immediate results.

2) Losing muscle mass lowers your metabolism.

Even if you focus on losing fat, lack of exercise while dieting leads to muscle loss. When you are on a low protein diet without strength training, losing muscle is inevitable. Unlike fat mass, muscle mass is metabolically active. That means having more muscles keeps your metabolism high. With a strict and unbalanced diet, losing muscle will happen. If you lose too much muscle mass, that will affect your metabolism and hinder your general weight loss. That is why strength training is a huge factor to maintain muscle mass while trying to lose weight.

3) Physical change = change in nutritional needs.

Having a slower metabolism slows your weight loss. As your weight drops, your nutritional needs also changed. Let’s say you were 155 lbs and eating 2000 calories to reduce body weight. After month 1, you drop your weight to 150 lbs. Since your body frame got smaller, your body needs less energy to survive. This means you have to either increase your physical activity or decrease your calorie intake (by a healthy amount). Long story short, if the calories you eat equals the calories you burn, you reach a plateau.

If you’re thinking, okay so now what? Not to worry, there are plenty of proactive strategies you can take to overcome this plateau.

Part 2: Strategies to overcome a weight loss plateau

These strategies have been scientifically proven, and references to research articles on factors that affect weight loss can be found at the bottom of this article.

1) Track everything you eat.

At this point, guessing and estimating foods won’t work. Make sure you’re logging in everything, even the small snacks because it contributes to your progress in the long-term. If counting calories or focusing on numbers is triggering for you, there are mindful eating techniques to help with tracking.

2) Increase your physical activity!

There’s two ways to go about this. Most people think you have to add more training sessions, which is one approach. The other is simply being more active throughout the day outside of exercise time. For example, standing instead of sitting or taking walking breaks. Even dancing while doing laundry! For more tips on non-exercise physical activity, check out this article.

3) Prevent muscle loss with protein.

Increase your protein intake and boost your metabolism! Like we said before, muscle mass is metabolically active so having more muscles gives you a higher metabolism. Make sure you’re consuming a good amount of protein that reflects your body weight to maintain as much muscle as you can while losing weight. To get a custom macronutrient profile, book a free lifestyle assessment with our nutrition coaches.

4) Don’t let stress interfere with weight loss.

Mental health, mindfulness and stress management is key! Having high levels of stress hormones interferes with weight loss so make sure you schedule time in your calendar for stress management habits. Our coaches enjoy meditation, journaling, and physical activity. Find strategies best suited for you by setting customized wellness routines and facing any mental blockers by overcoming a negative diet mentality.

5) Get your beauty sleep!

It’s scientifically proven that sleep deprivation is related to weight gain! When you don’t get enough sleep, that alters your hormone levels, which affects your appetite and fat storage. Ultimately, lack of sleep lowers your metabolism (see references at the bottom). Set routines in the evening for getting well rested, like setting boundaries for screen time and having an earlier bedtime.

6) Measure your waist, you may be getting slimmer!

It may sound counterintuitive, but you may not be moving on the scale or even gaining weight in muscle while your waist measurement goes down. The number on the scale isn’t the be all and end all. You can be looking and feeling better, having a better muscle to fat ratio and slimming out, so keep measuring and taking before and after photos. Jax Lee who participated in our 28 Brighter Days Challenge struggled with the number on the scale, but realized she lost 1.75” on her waist! Read her story here.

7) Hold yourself accountable!

Setting daily reminders and having a buddy you can check-in with helps with goal setting. If you’re thinking that’s easier said than done, you’re not alone! We created a 28 Day Fall Body Care Challenge strategically designed with daily check-ins, weekly challenges and leaderboards to make setting good habits as fun as possible. Join a community of health-minded folks that cheer each other on and hold each other accountable. Use the code ZEYNEP for 10% off.

Set goals that are realistic and motivate you to continue working towards your health goals! We are all about sustainable progress that overcome weight loss plateaus, which can be discouraging and frustrating. If you’re unsure where to start, book a free lifestyle assessment with our nutrition coaches.

References

Food tracking

Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects

Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial

Integrating technology into standard weight loss treatment: a randomized controlled trial

Increase protein 

Diet induced thermogenesis

Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women

Stress management and response

Shaping the stress response: interplay of palatable food choices, glucocorticoids, insulin and abdominal obesity

Stress management-augmented behavioral weight loss intervention for African American women: a pilot, randomized controlled trial

Stress management can facilitate weight loss in Greek overweight and obese women: a pilot study

Protein

The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance

Defining meal requirements for protein to optimize metabolic roles of amino acids

Sleep

Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index

Adverse metabolic consequences in humans of prolonged sleep restriction combined with circadian disruption

Resting metabolic rate varies by race and by sleep duration

NEAT (Non-exercise activity themogenesis)

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)

Variability in energy expenditure and its components

Energy expenditure during common sitting and standing tasks: examining the 1.5 MET definition of sedentary behaviour