How to Overcome a Dreaded Weight Loss Plateau, According to Experts
A dietitian and nutritionist explain why those last few pounds are so hard to lose and what can help.
When you start doing all the right things to lose weight—like switching to a healthier diet and hitting up the gym regularly—those initial pounds melt off quickly. For a while, the number on the scale continues to drop, your clothes get baggier and baggier, and you feel motivated by your progress. But then, months into your success, you hit that dreaded weight loss plateau. It can seem nearly impossible to get over that hump that's keeping you from losing those last 5 or 10 pounds. However, hitting a weight loss plateau is totally normal, according to Erin Palinski-Wade, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian and author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.
She notes that weight loss is always easier in the beginning stages compared to when you get closer to where you want to be. That's because the first few pounds you lose are mostly water weight, which comes off quickly. "After this initial weight loss, the rate 'slows' a bit as you start to lose actual fat mass," Palinski-Wade explains.
But, she points out, it's actually best to lose weight at a slower pace if you want to maintain that weight loss long term. "You want to focus on losing weight slowly over time. This may seem discouraging, but losing more than 1 to 2 pounds per week can lead to losses of muscle and fat," Palinski-Wade says. "Since muscle makes up a large percentage of metabolism, losing muscle can lead to hitting a weight loss plateau, or even gaining the weight back quickly after getting to your goal."
It's also possible that if you've hit a weight loss plateau, your body is in an adjustment period, where the scale is "stuck" at a certain weight no matter how clean you eat or how rigidly you stick to your workout schedule. "This can be the body's way of adjusting to weight loss. Typically, this plateau lasts for two to three weeks, then the weight loss resumes," Palinski-Wade says.
Your body's natural behaviors aside, there are also some other factors that can keep you from losing weight that have absolutely nothing to do with what you're eating or how you're exercising, according to Tony Castillo, a Florida-based nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. "You might have been sleeping less or have been dealing with more stress from work or family. Those are both reasons why someone may plateau," he explains.
Here's the good news: If you've hit a weight loss plateau and are struggling to lose those last few pounds, there is hope yet. Regardless of what the reason is behind your weight loss plateau, these expert-approved tips and tricks will help you move toward your ultimate weight loss goal.
How to Continue Losing Weight After Hitting a Weight Loss Plateau
Use a food journal.
One of the best ways to figure out why you may no longer be losing weight is by tracking your intake. "When your progress stalls, go back to the basics," Palinski-Wade says. "Keep a food journal for a few days and write down everything you eat and drink. See if your portions may have increased slightly or if you're grabbing a few bites of food mindlessly without realizing it."
Change up your workout.
Sometimes all you need to do to overcome a weight loss plateau is switch up what you're doing at the gym. "The body gets accustomed to an exercise routine every four to six weeks," Castillo says. "If your body has become too used to your workout, your muscles won't work as hard, which means you will burn fewer calories during each workout. Switch up the type of exercise or change the intensity to see if that can help you break through a plateau."
Manage your stress.
Since being super stressed can mess with your body, you need to learn how to manage the pressures of your life in order to continue toward your weight loss goal. "Stress management is important for weight loss," Castillo says. "Starting a meditation routine, journaling, or even reading a book can help."
Get some sleep.
Like managing stress, getting the proper amount of sleep is pivotal when it comes to weight loss. "Make sure you're getting at least seven hours of sleep each night," Palinski-Wade says. "Just like when your stress levels are high, lack of sleep can increase appetite and insulin resistance, which can cause your body to store fat versus burn it."
Don't go cold turkey.
If you start kicking foods you love to the curb in order to lose weight, it can backfire. "Don't eliminate a food group you enjoy eating. You followed a diet and it got you the results, but you can't sustain it," explains Castillo. Instead of trying to stick to a diet that cuts out certain food groups—like keto or Atkins—focus on having a balanced diet that will keep you happy and satisfied, as well as provide lasting results.
Step away from the scale.
When the number isn't dropping on the scale, something better could be happening: You could be replacing fat with muscle. "Body composition changes, and changes on the scale don't always match up," Palinski-Wade says. "Follow your typical eating and exercise plan, but focus on your measurements and changes in inches and how your clothing fits. It's very possible you may lose body fat while gaining muscle. When this happens, the scale doesn't appear to move, but you can see yourself losing inches."