You've worked hard to improve your diet and exercise habits, and you've been rewarded by seeing the number on the scale continue to drop. But then for no reason you can identify, the scale doesn't budge — even though you're still eating a healthy, low-calorie diet and exercising regularly. You've hit a weight-loss plateau.
Before you get too discouraged, you should know that 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 healthy-eating and exercise habits.
What is a weight-loss plateau?
A weight-loss plateau occurs when you no longer lose weight despite continuing with your exercise and healthy-eating habits. Being stuck at a weight-loss plateau eventually happens to everyone who is trying to lose weight.
Although hitting a plateau is common, most people are surprised when it happens to them, for they believed that if they just maintained a reduced-calorie diet, they would continue to lose weight. The frustrating reality is that even well-planned weight-loss efforts often become stalled.
What causes a weight-loss plateau?
The progression from initial weight loss to a weight-loss plateau follows a typical pattern. During the first few weeks of losing weight, a rapid drop is normal. In part this is because when calories from food are reduced, the body gets needed energy by releasing its stores of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles and liver. Glycogen holds on to water, so when glycogen is burned for energy, it also releases water, resulting in substantial weight loss that's mostly water.
A plateau occurs because your metabolism — the process of burning calories for energy — slows as you lose muscle. You burn fewer calories than you did at your heavier weight even doing the same activities. Your weight-loss efforts result in a new equilibrium with your now slower metabolism.
At this new equilibrium, calories eaten equals calories expended. This means that to lose more weight, you need to increase 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.
How can you overcome a weight-loss plateau?
If you're at a plateau, you may have lost all of the weight you will, given the number of calories you're eating each day and the time you spend exercising. At this point, you need to 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.
- Cut more calories. Reduce your daily calorie intake by 200 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 feeling hungry all of the time, which increases your risk of overeating. In addition, this reduced calorie intake should be sustainable. If not, you'll regain the weight you've lost and more.
- Rev up your workout. Increase the amount of time you exercise by an additional 15 to 30 minutes. You might also try increasing the intensity of your exercise, if you feel that's possible. Additional exercise will cause you to burn more calories. Consider adding resistance or muscle-building exercises. Increasing your muscle mass will help you burn more calories.
- Pack more activity into your day. Think outside the gym. Increase your general physical activity throughout the day by walking more and using your car less, or try doing more yardwork or vigorous spring cleaning.
Don't let a weight-loss plateau lead to an avalanche
If your efforts to get past a weight-loss plateau aren't working, talk with your doctor or a dietitian about other tactics you can try. You may also want to revisit your weight-loss goal. Maybe the weight you're striving for is unrealistic for you. If you've improved your diet and increased your exercise, you've already improved your health even without further weight loss. For those who are overweight or obese, even modest weight loss improves chronic health conditions related to being overweight.
Whatever you do, don't revert back to your old eating and exercise habits. That may cause you to regain the weight that you've already lost.