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What to do when the scale won’t budge: Getting through a weight plateau

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You were cruising right along—eating well, moving more and seeing results (yes!)—and then all of a sudden, your digits stopped dropping as quickly. Or maybe they stopped dropping, period. It’s frustrating for sure, but it’s also a normal part of dieting. 

Dr. Alexandra Sowa, a New York Physician and member of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, says that nearly everyone should expect to hit a weight plateau at some point in their weight-loss journey—even if they’ve been consistent with their eating and fitness habits. But don’t worry. We got you. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s going on, and how you can push past that plateau.

What is a weight-loss plateau, anyway?

When a person who has been steadily losing weight stops seeing progress—that’s a plateau. You could be doing all of the same things that worked before and the scale still won’t budge. Research shows that people typically reach a weight loss plateau at about 6 months into their weight-loss journey, or after losing about 10 percent of their total body weight. 

What causes a weight-loss plateau?

There are a few things that could be at play here:

1. Metabolic Adaptation 

Your body can’t tell the difference between famine and dieting for weight loss—and wants to maintain homeostasis, or balance. It does this through metabolic adaptation: Your body dials down its energy expenditure and calorie burn to avoid further weight loss and to help preserve its energy stores. Essentially, it’s a means of survival in response to weight loss. 

To understand how metabolic adaptation works, it helps to know the four components that make up your overall metabolism. First, there’s your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the energy you expend for basic life-sustaining functions like breathing, digestion, and anything your body does at rest. BMR accounts for roughly 70% of your total daily energy expenditure. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) includes the calories you burn through daily movement—things like doing laundry and running errands, as opposed to actual planned exercise. It accounts for roughly 15% of your daily energy expenditure, but varies significantly per individual. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the energy required to eat, digest, and absorb the food you eat. And it accounts for approximately 10% of your daily expenditure. Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) is just what it sounds like—it’s the energy used doing activities like yoga, jogging or swimming—and accounts for roughly 5% of your total daily energy expenditure. 

When you begin to lose weight by cutting calories and being more active, your body responds by lowering your BMR in an attempt to keep your weight steady (back to that homeostasis mentioned above). NEAT also decreases to help your body conserve energy. TEF naturally drops, as well, just due to the fact that you’re eating less. And EAT lowers simply because a smaller frame doesn’t burn as many calories, so the same 30-minute walk you did 10 pounds ago will require less energy. Plus, as you lose weight, you lose muscle in addition to body fat. And that’s important because the more muscle you lose, the slower your metabolism. So getting through a weight-loss plateau (or avoiding one in the first place) isn't just about burning fat. It's also about making sure you retain or gain muscle.

2. Set Point Theory

This theory was developed in 1982 by researchers William Bennett and Joe Gurin, and claims that there is a specific weight where your body feels comfortable. It is sort of an internal control system that dictates how much you should weigh, or how much fat you should have based on your genetic makeup. And it can be a reason your weight loss has plateaued—your body is trying to maintain its natural weight. Everyone is different (as is everyone’s set point!), but you could expect to lose anywhere between 10 and 20 pounds until your body begins resisting change.  

3. Changes In Exercise & Eating Habits 

If your initial lifestyle changes were too extreme, they’re not going to be sustainable, and sooner or later you’ll start bending the rules. Maybe you choose different foods. Maybe you cut back on the loads of daily activity you were doing. Even small, unconscious calorie fluctuations can lead to a weight-loss plateau. 

How do you get out of a weight-loss plateau?

Here are some strategies to try:

Track Your Food & Activity Research shows that, on average, people underreport or underestimate the amount and type of food they eat when they hit a plateau. So keeping a food diary for a week and logging all your meals, snacks and beverages can really help you pinpoint areas of improvement. Same goes for tracking your weekly activity. The act of keeping a journal alone can help move you towards your weight-loss goals because it holds you accountable and allows you to be more conscious about your diet and fitness habits.

Tweak Your Fitness Routine  It's important to continuously challenge your body and mix up your fitness routine every three or four weeks. That’s because your body quickly builds up a tolerance to routine movement. You could try different kinds of activities, or up the amount or intensity of what you’re already doing. In addition, remember that as you lose weight and your metabolism slows, you won’t burn as many calories through exercise as you did before. The good news is that switching things up can help change this, especially if you incorporate strength training. One pound of muscle burns many more calories than the same amount of fat. Building lean muscle mass will bump up your metabolic rate and help you burn more calories, which could get you through your plateau. 

Focus on Nutrition  Make sure you’re eating a whole foods-based, well-balanced diet with a good balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fats. Weight loss isn't about depriving yourself, it is about making sure you are getting all the proper nutrients. And consider amping up your protein intake. Research shows that high protein diets are more successful in aiding with weight loss—thanks, in part, to the metabolic increase it spurs—than diets that are high in carbohydrates and fats. Don't forget the vegetables, either: They offer filling fiber and other nutrients your body needs. 

Get Good Sleep  Yes, the amount you get is important, but it’s also key to get quality rest. Sleep strongly impacts hormone levels, which in turn affects your metabolism, appetite and ability to burn calories. A government-funded study conducted by the University of Chicago found that people who got proper shut-eye saw more fat loss-based weight reduction than those who did not. 

Reduce Stress  Multiple studies have confirmed the link between stress and an inability to lose weight successfully. Constantly feeling frazzled causes your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline, which pump glucose into your system. This leads to elevated blood sugars and sugar cravings. Cortisol also causes your metabolism to slow down, making it tougher to burn calories. Try stress-relieving practices such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, walking, reading, or journaling about what you are thankful for. 

Weight loss plateaus happen, but they are no reason to give up on your goals. You'll see that small changes in your habits can get you right out of that plateau and put you back on track to achieving your goals. 

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