It’s another week, another weigh-in, and the dial on the scale is stubbornly stuck where it’s been for the last month. You’ve hit the dreaded weight loss plateau. Pretty much everyone undergoing a major healthy lifestyle change has been there one time or another—even those who eventually meet their weight loss goals. So, before you throw in the towel, let’s dive deeper into what’s going on and take a look at some tips for breaking through.
Why plateaus happen
It’s a tremendous morale boost to see the scale steadily tick down in the early weeks of a new wellness program. Likewise, it’s a real bummer when your weight loss appears to slow down or stop altogether, no matter how diligent you’ve been. Some of this effect can be blamed on physiological changes taking place in your body. In the first phase of a wellness program or healthy lifestyle change, your body starts dipping into your fat reserves to make up the calorie deficit. In the process, you’re also releasing a lot of excess water so you appear to drop pounds quickly. Once the fluid weight is depleted, however, your weight loss trend more accurately reflects your actual fat loss, hence the plateau.
For most people, this maxes out at 1 to 2 pounds a week. In addition, your body also breaks muscle tissue as well as fat when you reduce your calorie intake. Since lean muscle mass drives your energy consumption, your metabolic rate will fall as you lose muscle. Additionally, emotional factors such as boredom and complacency can contribute to plateaus. After a few weeks into your new lifestyle change you may have a more relaxed attitude toward portion sizes and even mind “less” eating.
How to break through
The good news is that if you continue to stay the course and take in fewer calories than you use up, you will eventually start losing again and overcome the plateau. Here are a few pointers to help you stay the course.
• Keep up with your food diary. This is a biggie. Food logging is a proven strategy for successful weight loss. If you haven’t been recording your food intake, or have slacked off in recent weeks, start again now. Having a clear picture of your daily food intake will help you identify possible pitfalls and motivate you to keep making positive and healthy choices.
• Watch your serving sizes. Measuring, weighing, and counting out portions is fussy and tedious. But “eyeballing” and “guesstimating” is a sure way to sabotage your efforts. A generous quarter cup of cereal can easily become a half cup, and 6 potato chips can often turn into 16 when you’re eating them directly from the bag.
• Go easy on treats. “Healthy” snacks such as granola, nut butters, trail mix and full-fat yogurt can slide into the realm of “too much of a good thing.” Although packed with nutrients, these foods are also calorically dense, so they’re best used as a once-in-a-while snack rather than a daily staple. Other indulgences such as dinners out with friends and an evening cocktail can stall your weight loss if you partake too often.
• Pump up your strength training. Muscle building exercises help your body convert stored fat energy into lean muscle—a total win-win for your fitness goals.
• Mix up your exercise routine. Over time, your body will adapt to your usual regimen so you’re not achieving the same calorie burn you did at first. Interval training, in which you alternate bouts of high-intensity activity with periods of moderate-intensity exercise, is a good way to rev up your metabolism.
For example, try 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise consisting of 3 minutes of light jogging alternating with an equal amount of faster paced running. Another good option is to look for ways to add more physical activity to your day outside of your usual workout, such as taking the stairs or walking farther to your car. Step counter apps on your phone can help you chart your progress.
• Don’t lose hope. Don’t plateau your way into a pint of ice cream. Use it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness as you celebrate your progress so far and recommit to your path forward.
So, let’s recap
Almost everyone undergoing a healthy lifestyle change experiences the dreaded plateau. Much of this can be blamed on your metabolism struggling to find a new normal as you shed pounds. To get over this hump, look for any subtle changes in your eating patterns that may be contributing extra calories. Also, try revving up your workout by expanding your muscle-building routine. You can add periods of interval training and incorporate more casual physical activity into your day.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that you are not that number on the scale. It does not reflect what kind of person you are and should not be your only measuring tool for success. Treat the scale as a casual guide and focus on the positive effects you feel from your new lifestyle change.