It’s happened to all of us. You’ve started your diet, you’ve started exercising regularly. You’re doing really well. You’ve seen great results for the first few weeks. Sooner or later you seem to have hit a massive brick wall. You feel like your tyres have burst. You have hit the dreaded weight loss plateau.
If like me, this has been a regular occurrence, you know how frustrating this feels. You work so hard, just for your body to metaphorically stick its 2 fingers up back at you.
Any good diet gets you to consume fewer calories than your body burns over time. If that’s the case you’re probably wondering why you’re still hitting a weight loss plateau after a while.
So, what is a weight loss plateau?
It’s what I define as a pause in weight loss when someone has been intentionally dieting for at least 3 weeks.
What causes a weight loss plateau?
There are many things that cause a plateau in weight loss. This article will outline, what they are. We are also going to go through each thing and how you can overcome them.
These are the main culprits of a weight loss plateau:
- Not making changes
- Not eating enough vegetables
- Metabolic adaptation
- Not accounting for liquids
- Protein/resistance training
- Lack of sleep
Calorie goal too high/low
People usually are unrealistic with their goals.
Most people try to lose weight too fast and set unrealistic expectations. The thing is, I am a big advocate of losing weight fast. When done properly, in my opinion it’s better than slow weight loss. But the problem is most people don’t know how to do it properly and are not prepared for the sacrifices it requires to do it faster. But if you want to attempt to lose weight faster, I have an article “Is it bad to lose weight fast?”.
When people are trying to lose weight unrealistically fast, sometimes they are going slower than necessary, thus not seeing results.
Depending on how fast, you want to lose weight, this is what I base my deficits on:
- Small deficit: 10-15%
- Moderate deficit: 20-25%
- Large deficit: 25% +
Then use a calorie calculator to work out what your maintenance calories are.
The more weight you have to be to lose the larger you can make your deficit without you feeling rubbish. The leaner you are the smaller, you may want your deficit.
Not making changes
When a lot of people start a diet and training program to lose weight, they’ll do the exact same thing all the way. I am a big advocate of doing the same training style and similar diet all the way through. But that’s the same style, but with adjustments as you go along.
For instance, you can do the same training plan, but if you’re wanting to get stronger, you wouldn’t still do the same weight and reps, forever. You’d increase the volume. You’d increase the weight you’re lifting or increase the number of reps, per set. You’d increase the volume, but you’re still doing the same exercises.
Same for your diet. What got someone from 230 pounds to 200, will not be what gets them from 200 to 170 pounds.
I have written about this in my article about how many calories you burn at rest. The short of it is; the less you weigh, the fewer calories you burn at rest.
Therefore you either want to look to bring your calories down as you go, or bring your activity up, to burn more calories to compensate.
What I advise is, if you see no changes after 2-3 weeks. Drop your calorie intake by 200-400 calories for 2 weeks, then play from there.
Eat more vegetables
No matter the type of diet, if you’re in a deficit you will lose weight.
However, the type of food you eat will make a big difference. I always advise that the bulk of your meals consist of lots of vegetables. I have written an article about how having large meals with low energy-dense foods has been shown to help with weight loss.
This means foods that have a lot of volumes but few calories, such as most vegetables. They fill you up but don’t take many calories. So for example, if you had chicken and pasta for dinner. You could remove half the pasta and replace it with vegetables, you’d lower the calories, but the weight of food would be the same and would be just as filling.
Vegetables contain a lot of fibre. I have written about the importance of fibre. But in short, fibre slows down the absorption of food in the intestine, thus keeping you full for longer. So make sure you’re getting enough. Around 30g a day or 14g for 1000 calories you eat is the sweet spot.
The longer you’ve been dieting, the more likely you are to experience metabolic adaptation. People often refer to this as starvation mode, however, that’s not quite true.
This is where your rate of Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) decreases. NEAT is a very important under-looked part of the weight loss process. When you’re losing weight your body is trying to protect you by trying to get you to burn fewer calories. Before food was abundant, this would be a survival mechanism.
So what happens is, you subconsciously move around less. You start skipping dog walks and watching tv instead for example. You may fidget less than you used to. That 5-minute walk to the shop, becomes a car journey.
This is why I recommend a pedometer. Anything that tracks your steps is great.
To prevent a decline in NEAT all you have to do is have a daily step goal and make sure to exceed it consistently. Or you can have a weekly step goal and make sure that’s met over the week. Otherwise, you run the risk of your daily steps declining during your diet, which will lower your daily calorie burn, potentially taking you out of your deficit.
Another reason for a weight loss plateau. I doing anything for long enough generally leads to fatigue. Then fatigue will lead to inconsistencies.
In your first couple of weeks, you lose over 10 pounds. You feel amazing and on top of the world. But this will inevitably slow down. This is when your enthusiasm starts to wane off. Then everyone around you looks like they having fun, eating and drinking eve thing you miss, whilst you’re always feeling a little hungry. After a while you start feeling a little resentful.
This is when inconsistencies start to happen.
This scenario plays out in a multitude of ways. You start off enthusiastic with all the best intentions.
But after a while, your habits start to dissipate on the weekends. You start snacking more frequently but tell yourself it doesn’t count. You start picking foods out of the cupboard and eating them there also telling yourself it doesn’t count. You’re now eating spoonfuls of peanut butter or Nutella from the jar. You convince yourself these things don’t all count, but you’re pulling yourself out of a deficit. Trust me I’ve done these things more times than you could imagine.
if this is you, I recommend you do one of 2 things.
Track every morsel that goes in your mouth. I have written a guide on how to use Myfitnesspal properly as most don’t use it very well. It may show you where you’re going wrong.
If you are just getting a bit fed up but still have weight to lose. The best thing you can do is just take a break. All big projects need to be chunked up. Take a break eat the foods you enjoy, relax have a bit of fun. Once you’re feeling good again and excited to diet again, you know you’re ready.
Not accounting for liquids
A lot of people don’t realise that calories from liquids matter.
The thing with liquid calories is; is that they are not as filling as food and people don’t tend to register them and consume them out of habit.
For instance, with alcohol; an average bottle of beer contains around 150 calories, a glass of wine around 200. At the beginning of your diet, it may not matter, as you have a lot of weight to lose. But when you’ve lost more weight, these extra calories will add up and make getting into a deficit harder.
Same for sugary soft drinks and coffees. A lot of coffee shop coffees contain a boatload of sugar and cream. Some coffees have well over 500 calories. It’s not just coffee from coffee shops. If you’re adding sugar to year teas and coffees and have a few days at work, that can also be an extra couple hundred calories to your daily total.
When it comes to alcohol, I advise you to ask yourself what’s more important. In an ideal world, you’d just cut it out completely until you reach your goal. However if you “need” to have a drink; you may want to cut down the amount you have, or schedule and work it into your calorie budget.
The same goes for coffee drinks. To be honest, there are so many alternatives you can have. You can use 0 calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. You can opt for fat-free dairy. Or just have real coffee with no dairy and sugar. Small changes like this can save hundreds of calories each day and leave you able to eat real food and actually feel full.
Losing weight is a stressor on the body and the mind.
Though it may be beneficial for your health, it does have side effects.
Dieting increases various hormones. One hormone in particular which it elevates is cortisol.
Cortisol is known for increasing water levels. This means you might be losing fat, but because cortisol is high, that fat is masked by water. Thus your scale weight is still the same. I go into more detail here talking about weight loss vs fat loss.
If this is the case, if you’re feeling good, just keep going and be patient and the scale weight will eventually change.
This is why I advise you have metrics other than the scale which you can use to measure. My personal favourite is taking a waist measurement. Regardless of what the scale says, if your waist is going down, you’re making great progress.
When it comes to stress, some studies have shown that mindful meditation can be helpful.
One study had 2 groups of people who were obese, going through a weight loss programme, where they had to increase exercise and cut calories by 1000-1200 a day for 6 months. The only difference one group had to attend a weekly mindful mediation session.
Both groups lost weight, but the mediation group lost significantly more. (x)
MM enhanced weight loss by 2.8 kg potentially through greater improvements in eating behaviors and dietary restraint.Spadaro et al, 2017
Protein and resistance training
Too many people try to lose weight without upping their protein or lifting weights. In my opinion, this is the biggest mistake you could make.
Without lifting weight and eating enough protein, you’re going to lose muscle as well as fat. Up to a 1/4 of the weight loss could be muscle protein finally. That’s too much.
without muscle, you’re not going to look better and possibly won’t improve your health much.
Finally, muscle burns more calories than fat, not by a lot, but it makes a difference. So if you end up the same weight with less muscle, you’ll bun fewer calories than someone whos the same weight but with less fat and more muscle.
Not getting enough sleep hinders weight loss.
One study had a group of obese adolescents. They were split into normal sleep and extra sleep. Both groups had to eat in a 500 calorie deficit. The group with extended sleep had significantly better results than the group with less sleep. (x)
A lack of sleep alters hunger hormones. Levels fop Ghrelin tend to increase, this is the hormone which tells us were hunger, thus we eat more. Leptin, our fullness hormone decreases, thus we are less likely to stop eating when we are full. (x)
Finally, when you’re awake for longer there’s more opportunity to eat. Most of us are most likely to eat tasty high-calorie foods late at night all cosy in front of the TV. Honestly one of the easiest things to do when on a diet is just going to bed early. You kill 2 birds with one stone. You get extra sleep and you have less opportunity to graze.
I know plateaus are really frustrating. But the good news is that making a change is totally in your control.
When you hit another dreaded plateau, look at either dropping your calories, making sure you’re being honest without, asking yourself if you need a break, or if it’s just a water retention issue.
Either way, all hope is not lost, if you want to make a change.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.