Have you ever embarked on a weight loss journey, watching the pounds fall off as you eat less and exercise, only to struggle to “get rid of those last 10 pounds?” This is called a weight loss plateau, and it’s not uncommon. However, weight loss plateaus aren’t necessarily bad. While losing weight is critically important if you are overweight or obese since these conditions can lead to much more serious metabolic, cardiovascular, and mental health disorders, generally healthy people might benefit more from focusing on how they feel rather than the number on the scale. In this article we’ll look at what the science has to say about how to break a weight loss plateau, who should try to lose weight, and why trying to lose weight when you don’t need to can lead to anxiety and other more serious complications. We also provide a few tips on how to either get past a weight loss plateau or simply maintain your weight if you find your body is happy and healthy.
Healthy weight, healthy body
It’s no secret that maintaining a healthy weight is key to staying healthy. Obesity and overweight have been associated with numerous serious conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes (T2D)
- Heart disease
- Gallbladder disease
- Sleep apnea
- Several cancers
- Mental illnesses
- Body pain/difficulty functioning
- All natural causes of death
If you have any of these conditions, losing weight is of the utmost importance; in fact, it can be a matter of life or death. In this case, hitting a weight loss plateau can be particularly problematic. But to effectively counter a weight loss plateau, it’s important to understand what it is and what causes it.
What is a weight loss plateau?
According to Mayo Clinic, a weight loss plateau occurs when your body weight stops changing, even though you’re following the same diet and exercise regimen. Nearly everyone who is trying to lose weight will experience a plateau, even when following the most well-planned weight loss approaches.
The secret to losing weight isn’t really a secret at all. You just need to cut calories: you cannot gain weight if you consume less energy than you use. When you first start losing weight, the pounds will probably seem as though they’re melting right off. This is because, initially, the body releases stored glycogen — a type of carbohydrate found in muscles — for energy in response to a calorie deficit. When glycogen is burned for energy, water is released, so the significant weight loss you see is water weight.
Inevitably, calorie restriction will also lead to muscle loss along with fat loss. Because muscle kicks up calorie burning, a loss in muscle tissue will actually reduce the amount of calories you burn, slowing your metabolism. Your body also adapts to exercise and becomes more efficient at conserving energy the more you work out — which means that workouts that used to burn 300 calories, for example, will eventually start to burn less. At some point, you end up burning the same amount of calories that you take in; meaning, you stop losing weight. Put simply, to start losing weight again, you either have to start exercising harder, or eat even fewer calories.
Is losing weight for everyone?
While people with certain medical conditions do need to reach a certain healthy weight to avoid further complications, not everyone should lose weight. Our society seems to have reached a point where we’re focused more on a number on the scale rather than more objective measures of metabolic health — such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels or blood glucose (A1c) levels.
It is important to talk to your doctor if you do think you need to lose weight for health reasons, or even if you want to lose weight for another reason. They can perform an overall assessment of your current health and recommend a healthy weight for you — which might be different from the number you have in mind. There is such a thing as an unhealthy weight, and if you unknowingly try to reach an unrealistic number for your health and well-being, you might find yourself worse off than when you started your weight-loss journey. Here are some less subjective ways to assess whether you’re at a healthy weight or not:
- Get a physical. If your doctor finds that your blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and other measures of metabolic health are in range, then you probably don’t need to lose any more weight — and doing so could put you at risk.
- Start, and stay with, a small goal. Losing too much weight too quickly can sabotage your weight loss goals — and your general health — by slowing down your metabolism, making you feel tired,and even leading to nutrient deficiencies. Research has shown that large gains in metabolic health can be associated with small losses in weight — as little as 5% of your body weight. If you aren’t morbidly obese, you might not need to lose as much weight as you think you do to achieve better health.
- Focus more on body composition. Muscle is denser than fat and takes up less space, so as you lose body fat and gain muscle mass through exercise, you might not see the number on the scale drop. A better measure of your program’s success might be a body composition scan, which determines your percentage of body fat. And, of course, a simple look in the mirror might tell you everything you need to know, if you see lean muscle where flabby triceps used to be.
- Aim for energy. Do you feel good, or are you struggling to get through your day? If you’re completing all of your daily tasks, including your exercise routine, with energy and enthusiasm, are sleeping well, and generally feel like you can face anything, you’re at a healthy weight for you. (Note: Fatigue can be a serious problem unrelated to weight loss. If you consistently struggle with fatigue, have trouble sleeping and/or feel depressed, you should talk to your doctor immediately.)
- Your weight doesn’t fluctuate. In the beginning of your weight loss journey, you might see big changes on the scale. Eventually, you’ll reach a weight that you can easily maintain, even with occasional deviations from your nutrition and exercise plans. The best time to weigh yourself is every morning when you first get out of bed. If you notice very little change from day-to-day, your body is probably telling you that you’re at a pretty good weight.
- You’re happy. If you feel good about the way you look and feel and you enjoy your nutrition and exercise plans, don’t torture yourself by struggling to reach a certain number on the scale. Worrying too much about how much you weigh, rather than other measures of health, can lead to anxiety or even more serious conditions, such as disordered eating. If you feel that anxiety over your weight is making it difficult to function and is potentially leading to more serious conditions, you should talk to your doctor immediately.
How to break a weight loss plateau
If you do need to lose more weight to achieve better health, a weight loss plateau can be frustrating. While the simplest strategies for breaking a weight loss plateau are centered around calorie intake and exercise intensity, breaking a weight loss plateau often isn’t that simple. That’s because food and exercise aren’t the only things that impact weight loss. In fact, research suggests that weight loss plateaus may more often be attributed to a person’s failure to continue adhering to their weight loss plan; even miniscule deviations due to “diet fatigue” can add up, if they happen every day. Here are some ways that you can breathe new life into your weight loss plan and keep progressing toward your goals:
- Keep a food diary. We are woefully bad at estimating our daily calorie intake. You might not be losing weight simply because you are eating more than you think. The best way to avoid this is to track the amount of food you eat every day, using an app like MyFitnessPal or others.
- Reduce stress. Stress increases levels of a hormone called cortisol, which contributes to fat accumulation around the midline. Fortunately, studies among obese individuals have shown that participating in a stress management program leads to greater improvement in Body Mass Index (BMI) than just following advice on a healthy lifestyle. Check out our article, 7 Ways to Reduce Stress and Keep Blood Pressure Down, for simple stress-reduction strategies.
- Get enough sleep. The recommended amount of sleep for the average adult is 7 hours each night. Obese people that fell short of this recommendation experienced smaller reductions in waist circumference than those who got at least 7 hours of sleep each night. For suggestions on improving your sleep, check out our article, Why Sleep Matters For Metabolic Health.
- Eat more vegetables. Not only are vegetables full of fiber, which has a number of health benefits, but they also help you feel full, longer due to their high water content, which can help you eat less without feeling like you’re starving.
- Rethink your exercise plan. Because your body adapts as you get more fit, you might need to work out more intensely (or more often) to achieve the same benefits. But exercise plans won’t work if you don’t enjoy them, so think outside the box: instead of just pushing harder during your spin class, try adding more activities throughout your day. They can be simple, enjoyable activities — such as taking a walk with your dog, playing a game outside with your kids, planting a garden or even using a stand-up desk.
- Don’t get caught up in diet fads. Keto, Paleo, South Beach, Atkins — these diets have proven successful for a many people. But a recent meta-analysis confirmed what we’ve always known: the most important factor is not the diet, but the calories. You’ll do better if you track what you eat so you know exactly how many calories you’re eating and make the most of the calories you do eat by focusing on high-quality, nutrient-dense whole foods.
- Be ready for the long haul. The most successful weight loss plans aren’t temporary ones that achieve short-term goals, like getting a bikini bod just for the summer. Instead, they focus on long-term health and longevity. According to doctors, it can take 3-5 years for your body to adapt to a new weight and for a weight loss plan to be considered “successful.” You’ll find it more rewarding if you approach your weight loss journey less like a trial-by-fire, fleeting ordeal and rather as a long-term opportunity to build really healthy habits that make you feel good.
Maintaining a healthy weight (or losing excess weight) is critical for avoiding more serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or even death. Unfortunately, most people who embark on a weight loss endeavor will experience a weight loss plateau; the pounds no longer come off despite following a nutrition and exercise plan. For many of us, there is no need to keep pushing beyond this plateau, as long as our doctors conclude that we’re metabolically healthy and we’re happy and energetic. But for some, weight loss plateaus can be a serious roadblock to better health. Fortunately, these plateaus can be broken with just a little outside-the-box thinking and by redirecting our focus from the number on the scale to more objective measures of health. If you think you need to lose weight, talk to your doctor to come up with an easy-to-stick-to plan focused on maximizing your health and well-being, both physically and mentally.