In the first weeks or months of your weight-loss journey, the regular scale routine can feel intoxicating. Each time, the number reads a little lighter than before. You share your week-by-week numbers with your friends and family; they congratulate you on your success. Sure, weight loss isn’t easy, but you are confident that you can hit your goals.
Then, one day, the scale doesn’t budge. A few weeks later, it still won’t budge. Your reaction might be to think that you’re something wrong.
Don’t succumb to negative self-talk, says Dr. Alexandra Sowa, a New York City-based internal medicine physician and diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine and founder of SoWell Health, a weight-loss consultancy based in New York.
“It’s so important to expect to hit a plateau at some point. If you don’t, it can be easy to get frustrated, give up on healthy lifestyle changes and regain all of the lost weight.”
After all, even those who follow their diets to the letter can expect to hit a weight-loss plateau about six months into their weight-loss journeys, according to 2014 research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Why? Your body is a master adapter, Sowa says. Its end goal is homeostasis, or for everything to stay the same. But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your fitness goals.
Here are three possible reasons you’ve hit a weight-loss plateau — and how to break through to reach your goal weight.
Reasons You’ve Hit a Weight Loss Wall
1. You’ve already lost some weight.
“One of the main drivers of a plateau is that, after weight loss, your body’s metabolic rate changes as well,” Sowa says. That’s because your overall body mass is the primary determiner of your resting metabolic rate, or the number of calories you burn per day before factoring in exercise and activity. So, as your body mass drops, so does your metabolic rate, meaning you have to keep cutting more calories to continue seeing results, she says.
However, the metabolic rate declines that accompany weight loss are often greater than what could be explained through body mass alone. For example, when a 2016 obesity study from the National Institutes of Health examined the metabolic rates of men and women who had previously lost weight on the TV show “The Biggest Loser,” researchers found that former contestants, after losing weight, burned 499 fewer daily calories than they should have based on their weights.
“It has been hypothesized that your body doesn’t know the difference between intentional weight loss and famine, so it tries to help your body hold onto and even regain weight,” Sowa says.
How to break through:
For every 10% of your body weight you lose, you need to consume roughly 20% fewer calories to continue losing weight, Sowa says.
And to keep any metabolic declines to a minimum, it’s important to not only burn fat, but to also build muscle, says Los Angeles-based registered dietitian, nutritionist and certified diabetes educator Vandana Sheth, a former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She notes that a pound of muscle is more metabolically active (meaning it burns more calories) than a pound of fat, so by increasing muscle mass, you can help keep your metabolic rate up and not have to cut so many calories to get out of your plateau.
A 2015 review published in the journal “Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism” recommends increasing protein to account for 25% of your daily calories to minimize any muscle loss while dieting. If you’re eating 2,000 calories per day, that works out to 125 grams of protein, with each gram containing four calories.
2. You’re getting fitter.
When you try an exercise for the first time, you may feel really uncoordinated or even shaky. But by your second set of that exercise, you may notice things clicking a bit more. That’s your body learning how to perform that exercise and figuring out which muscle fibers to recruit, which to let relax and how to coordinate it all.
The same thing happens over the course of weeks (or months). “Your body becomes more efficient, so it burns less energy doing any given workout,” explains registered dietitian and health fitness instructor Jim White, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia.
What’s more, it’s important to realize that it takes more energy (or calories) to carry a 200-pound body through any given workout than it does a 150-pound one, Sowa says. As your body becomes more efficient, you burn fewer calories during each workout, which could translate to a stuck scale.
How to break through:
Focus on the concept of progressive overload, or incrementally increasing the demands on your body so that you’re constantly challenged — no matter how fit you get, says personal trainer Mike Donavanik, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Los Angeles. “A simple solution is the FITT principle,” he says. “Every three to four weeks, change up your exercise frequency, intensity, time or type of exercise.”
3. Your body needs time to reset.
“The set point theory suggests that there is a weight range at which our body is comfortable, and any time we move away from that weight, our body works toward getting us back to the comfortable weight,” Sheth says.
Originally, the theory suggested that genetics fixed your set point, but now experts are exploring the possibility that your set point is actually more flexible, explains Stephen C. Woods, professor emeritus of psychiatry and core associate director of the Obesity Research Center at the University of Cincinnati. He notes that environmental factors, lifestyle and brain activity may all significantly influence the body’s set point.
“A plateau may simply be your body adapting to a new set point,” says Toronto-based registered dietitian Abby Langer. “Your metabolism needs time to adjust.”
How to break through:
Stay patient after hitting a plateau for a month or two before you try increasing your caloric deficit through cutting calories, exercising more or employing both tactics, White says, warning not to go under 1,200 calories without medical supervision.
It can be hard to wait, but it’s important to remember that even your weight loss leading up to the plateau can have significant health benefits, Sowa says. Be patient and, as long as you don’t give up, you can achieve your weight-loss goals.
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3 Reasons You’ve Hit a Weight-Loss Plateau — and How to Break Through originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 06/03/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.