How to Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau

If you have been trying to lose weight for a while. And for the past couple of weeks, maybe couple of months even, your weighing scale has not moved at all.

And that’s causing you distress.

It could be because you have encountered what we determine as a weight loss plateau i.e., your weight loss has come to a complete standstill.

Before we get into talking about how you can tackle this problem. You have to understand that daily weight fluctuations are common.

I’ve noticed this quite a lot among people who I work with, that many of them get emotionally invested in the day-to-day scale weight changes.

If the scale weight drops, they feel happy. And when the weight suddenly goes up, it gets them anxious. They feel disappointed.

But here’s the thing.

Your body weight is just a data point.

You shouldn’t be emotionally invested in this metric. And a day-to-day fluctuation of your body weight is in fact, normal.

If you had eaten a heavy dinner the previous night, if you ate your dinner late, if you ate more salty foods, if you are in a certain phase of your menstrual cycle— all of these different factors could contribute to a sudden change in your body weight the next morning.

What actually matters is if your weight is on a downward trajectory over a long period of time. So track your body weight every morning, calculate the weekly average by adding all the weights in a given week and dividing by 7.

And if you’re losing weight on average from week to week, you’re on track.

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It is not one single data point that makes a difference.

That’s why it’s important to weigh yourself every day and not sporadically on random days.

Weigh yourself every morning after using the toilet and while wearing minimal clothing. And do this under the same conditions for every weigh-in. That keeps most variables constant.

While daily fluctuations are common. Sometimes you may also not lose any weight 1-2 weeks in a row and suddenly see a drop the next week.

Our bodies aren’t exactly machines; they are complex biological systems.

There are so many processes going on. It’s hard to always predict trends in a linear fashion.

Some weeks you could be holding onto more water weight; you could have higher stress. Your food intake may not be as regulated as you think it is. There are many variables at play.

Don’t be worried if your weight loss stalls for just 1-2 weeks.

It should ideally be the case that you have tracked your body weight diligently for 5-6 weeks and still have not seen any progress. That’s when you determine that you’ve most likely encountered a plateau.

Why has my weight loss come to a standstill?

If you’ve been undereating for a long period i.e., months or years, this could happen because your body’s metabolism adapts to the lower energy consumption over time.

In most cases however, that is not what’s happening.

Usually people under-report or under-estimate their food intake.

If you don’t have a record of what you have been eating for the past two to three months, you cannot tell with certainty what your energy intake had been during that period.

In such a case, you should start tracking your calories and maintaining a food diary for two to three months before determining if you have in fact, encountered a weight loss plateau.

You need to track everything you eat. Not just solid foods.

That means liquid calories that come from juices, smoothies; condiments, sauces, alcohol; everything counts. Skipping out on any of these when you’re tracking food, can lead to you easily overshooting your actual calorie target by as many as 1000 extra calories (or even more).

So you may think you’re eating only 1400 calories. But reality could be that you’re consuming 2400 calories. Don’t let there be such discrepancy between your perception and the reality.

Track everything for two to three months and keep that data in place so you have a clear picture of what’s going on in terms of your weight loss progress.

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You’re also probably not moving enough.

This is more of a problem if you’re a shorter individual. If you’re near the 5 feet tall mark, your energy requirements are already low compared to someone of a taller height.

It’s hard for shorter individuals to reduce food intake by a lot, because they’re already eating less to just maintain their body weight. To eat even lesser is a challenge.

What you can do is to make sure that you’re moving enough throughout the day.

Hitting a daily step target is the best way to ensure this. And if you don’t have data for your step counts for the past two to three months, that’s another thing you need to fix.

So have your calorie records. And your step count records.

When both these things are in place, you’d have a good idea of if you’re actually doing what you say you’re doing.

If these things are taken care of, another reason for a plateau could be an underlying medical condition.

If you’re experiencing symptoms like fatigue along with your weight issues, it’s a good idea to see a doctor for a full-body check-up.

But considering that you don’t have medical conditions, you’re tracking your food intake correctly and you’re moving daily according to your step target. Here are a few reasons why your weight loss could have stalled.

Your body has become more efficient.

Initially, when you were sedentary and didn’t move at all, your fitness levels were low. This meant your body needed more energy to perform exercise movements and even simple tasks like walking.

But as your fitness levels increase with time, your body becomes more efficient. Your heart becomes more efficient at pumping blood because you have been challenging it regularly.

Now your body requires less energy to perform the same physical activities.

You can counter this decrease in energy expenditure by increasing the amount or intensity of the activity. If you have been currently walking 8,000 steps, increase that to 10,000 steps.

If you been walking 10,000 steps, maybe increase that to 12,000 steps.

Increase your activity levels.

Also if you have lost weight in the past couple of months before hitting your plateau, now you’re lighter. With less load to carry, it is easier and less energy-intensive for your body to move about.

You can make it challenging for your yourself to walk by wearing something like a weighted vest or a weighted backpack. This would counter the drop in energy expenditure.

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When you eat less for an elongated period of time, your body reduces unnecessary movements.

Involuntary movements like moving your hands while talking, blinking your eyes will reduce. You’ll tend to fidget less. These become lesser in frequency as a measure to preserve energy. Small things that add to the decrease in energy expenditure.

In order to counteract this, you’ll need to increase your voluntary energy output i.e., by walking more and increasing your daily step target.

You may be overlooking your lack of sleep and being highly stressed all the time.

Everyone is obsessed about having the perfect exercise regime and the perfect diet. But if you’re not going to bed on time, not getting enough sleep, not taking care of your stress. It’s going to make a lot of biological processes in your body go haywire.

This could lead to changes in your appetite. You’ll be tempted to eat more calorie-dense snacks which are easy to overeat. You may overlook the extra biscuit you ate between meals.

If you repeat such mindless actions 2-3 times throughout the day, that can easily add an extra 200-300 calories.

Not only that. Being highly stressed can lead to you holding on to more water weight than usual causing your weighing scale number to stall.

How long do weight loss plateaus last?

Weight loss plateaus can last for as long as you don’t take any active measures to tackle them.

Your body weight had probably been stagnant for a long period of time before you took any active measures to lose weight. Your body eventually adapts to your normal way of eating. It reaches a set point and stays there.

So a weight loss plateau is not going to go away on its own.

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The first step to break out of a plateau is by setting new targets.

New calorie targets. And new daily step targets.

Provided you have been tracking your food intake for a consistently long period of time. Drop your calorie intake by 100-200 calories from your current target.

So if you have been eating 1500 calories consistently for 5-6 weeks with no change in scale weight. Drop it to 1300 calories.

Your weighing scale should start moving.

But beyond a certain point, you cannot drop calories any further. If you’re already eating say, 1200 calories per day. It’ll be hard to reduce your intake even more while managing to keep up protein and micronutrient consumption.

It’s a miserable place to be in when you’re eating very less food. In that case, you need to increase your activity levels.

If currently you’re walking 8,000 steps a day, start walking 10,000 steps a day. If you’re walking 10,000 steps a day, start walking 12,000 steps a day. Build up from that to a place that’s challenging yet comfortable.

Make sure you’re maximising both ends of the spectrum— reducing calorie intake from food and increasing activity levels through steps.

If your calories have been low for an extended period of time, and you have been also walking a lot (>15,000 steps a day) and it’s getting harder for you to raise targets even further.

And you have been doing this diligently for months now with your scale weight not moving at all.

Then it’s time to take a diet break.

You should be taking a diet break every four to five months regardless of a plateau, because eating less for long periods of time can get stressful.

If you feel chronically stressed, or if you anticipate an upcoming stressful period, it’s good to plan a diet break ahead of time.

A diet break is nothing but a period of time when you increase your food intake back to maintenance calories. So if you’re eating 1200 calories right now and your weight is not budging.

It’s a good idea to maybe increase your food intake to 1700, even 1800 calories. And just stay there for 2-3 weeks.

Then go back to eating whatever you were eating before the diet break. And your weighing scale should start moving again.

Diet breaks should be incorporated on a regular basis during a weight loss phase. It gives the body a break from the stress of dieting. And also gives you that mental break from constantly having to eat less.

If you have not been tracking your food intake and your step counts consistently, you don’t need a diet break. Because you have probably done one unknowingly during periods of unmindful eating.

Apply this strategy when you have been disciplined for at least 5-6 weeks with your food tracking and been monitoring activity levels.

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The next thing you need to do is increase your protein intake.

Eating more protein keeps you full longer, but it’s not just that. Eating more protein means your body uses up more energy to digest food.

Calories from protein consumption will make sure that your body is expending more energy compared to calories from any other kind of food.

Protein also helps in preserving muscle. Having more muscle ensures you’re burning more calories.

Although minor in terms of energy expenditure by themselves, these small things add up over time collectively to turn your body into a fat burning machine.

Fat loss is ultimately the difference between how much energy you’re consuming and how much energy you’re expending.

Energy expenditure is taken care of by a lot of things— exercise, daily movement, digestion of food (hence focus on more protein). Make sure you’re maximising all avenues to the best of your ability.

Eat more protein and lift weights to build muscle. These will indirectly help you lose weight and break through the plateau.

Don’t overexert yourself at the gym.

We already spoke of the importance of good sleep and stress management.

Many people think of working out at the gym as a way to de-stress. But the gym is a physical stressor for your body.

I know that you feel good after a workout; everyone does. But workouts are still a form of physical stress you’re subjecting your body to.

And you need to have the resources to recover form it.

If you already have a lot of stress in your life, adding to that by physical exerting yourself in the gym, and failing to provide the resources to recover (more food, more sleep), is going to add to your overall stress levels.

This will in turn contribute to stalling your weight loss efforts.

So make sure you’re doing your bare minimums. But don’t go out of your way to “punish” yourself at the gym.

And don’t overdo healthy foods.

Just because some food has been labelled as ‘healthy’, it doesn’t mean you can snack on it all day long. Many people feel that nuts are healthy, which is correct. But they are also calorie-dense.

Even healthy foods have energy content in them. Make sure you’re tracking those and don’t overindulge. Track all your meals.

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Don’t rely just on your weighing scale number.

There are other metrics that you should track alongside for a holistic picture of your progress. Track body measurements weekly (chest, upper-arm, waist, hips, thigh), and take monthly progress pictures (front, side and back).

The weighing scale alone is not a good indicator of progress. Make sure you have all other relevant data as well.

This covers all strategies you’d need to break out of a weight loss plateau.

Keep in mind that a calorie deficit is a temporary phase.

You will not forever be eating, whatever you eating right now to lose weight.

Once you reach your goal, you will bring your calories back up to maintenance. And then stay there for as long as you’d like.

Don’t obsess over eating lesser and lesser.

Also remember that whatever your body’s energy requirements were before you started your weight loss journey. They are going to be different from whatever your body’s energy requirements will be after you have reached your goal weight. Usually slightly lesser.

We’ll discuss the details on maintaining your new body weight in a future post.

If you have been trying to reach your weight loss goals for a while now, but are struggling a bit in the process.

It’s probably because of a lack of consistency, a lack of guidance or a lack of support.

If you’d like a 24×7 support system to hold your hand and guide you through the process till you get to your goals, you should consider 1-on-1 coaching with Workday Physique.

Ajitesh Gogoi is an online fitness coach and the founder of Workday Physique™— a weight loss coaching service for busy professionals. His mission is to empower busy professionals to achieve their weight loss goals. And transform them into their most confident selves.
Ajitesh Gogoi

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