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What to Do When Weight Loss Stalls

Weight loss can be a difficult thing to get started. Once you start losing weight, seeing that progress feels like the reward for all your hard work. As that number on the scale continues to go down, motivation is high to keep up the routine. However, there will likely come a point where the decrease in that number on the scale starts to slow or stall. This is what is often referred to as a weight loss plateau.

This slowing or settling of weight loss is expected and the key to working through it is to anticipate and plan for it to occur. Weight loss plateaus do not mean you are doing something wrong or that you are failing to carry out your weight loss plan. Plateaus can be very frustrating as you continue to eat and exercise carefully without experiencing that continued success. Try to remember that a weight loss plateau is to be expected and your body is working the way it is designed to. After all, your body works from a desire to build and grow weight, not lose weight.

What causes a weight loss plateau?

A weight loss plateau occurs when the balance of calories consumed (calories in) vs. calories burned (calories out) nears equal balance. Initially, the changes you made to your eating and exercise routine made it so your calories consumed were less than your calories burned. If you cut down your calorie intake by 500 calories per day and increased your exercise to burn an additional 300 calories per day, you may have been losing a pound every four to five days. That progress is easy to spot. But as you start to lose weight, the number on the scale is not the only change the body is going through.

Some may think that the reason for a plateau is either food or activity related, but calorie “balancing” happens on both the calories consumed and calories burned sides of the scale.

How does weight loss plateau on the "calories consumed" side of the scale?

As you lose weight, you need fewer calories to maintain your new body weight. So if you continue to eat the same number of calories as when you started to lose weight, you’re likely to maintain the plateau you’re in.

Additionally, your body’s absorption of calories from the food you eat becomes more efficient to slow weight loss. And, if you’re consistently eating foods in a similar daily routine, your body will become more efficient at digesting those foods, promoting weight maintenance.

How does weight loss plateau on the "calories burned" side of the scale?

If you always stick with the same exercises and workout routine, your body will become more efficient at those movements and burn fewer calories doing them. This can happen no matter if you’re walking, running, swimming, lifting weights, dancing, or any other movement. As you become more experienced with that movement, you will burn fewer calories unless you increase the time or the intensity.

As you lose weight, you may have lost muscle, which results in slowing your metabolism, meaning that every day you are burning fewer calories than you were previously.

If you focused on cutting carbohydrate calories as a path to weight loss, you likely burned through your muscle stores of glycogen. Glycogen is the energy that is stored in your muscles and liver. Glycogen is partly made of water and that water is released when glycogen is used for energy. Some of that initial weight loss may have been the result of losing water weight, and once you are done losing that weight, your weight loss will plateau.

How do I work through a weight loss plateau?

Working through a weight loss plateau starts with accepting that plateaus are normal for most people when trying to achieve a goal weight. A plateau means that your body has adapted to the new routine and is settling into a new normal weight. It also means that if you are pursuing additional weight loss, additional change will be needed. As you think about ways to change up your routine, consider the following:

  • Ae you satisfied with your current weight? Why or why not?
  • Are you really in a plateau?
  • How quickly should you consider a change to your weight loss plan?

Are you satisfied with your current weight? Why or why not?

Think back to the reason you began pursuing weight loss in the first place. Were you pursuing a specific health goal? Were you working on improving a chronic health condition? Were you preparing your body for a successful surgery?

Think about how quickly you have lost weight to this point and why you are stuck on a plateau. Have you been losing weight faster than one to two pounds per week? If so, that weight loss may have been primarily water weight or may include some muscle loss.

Losing weight at a slower rate is still progress and recognizing that progress can help you through a plateau. Focusing on your initial goal for weight loss can help you to refocus and be motivated to develop a new plan of attack.

How quickly should you consider a change to your weight loss plan? Are you really in a weight loss plateau?

If you started losing weight more rapidly than two pounds per week, it’s likely that weight loss is going to slow down at some point. Steady, prolonged weight loss may be frustrating at times, but it’s actually shown that people who lose weight this way are much more likely to keep it off. Try to keep this in mind as you evaluate a weight loss plateau.

Did you stop losing weight or has your weight loss slowed down to a more maintainable pace? Progress toward a goal takes time.

It’s important to acknowledge your frustration and try to establish realistic goals for your weight loss. Try to focus on long-term goals. We recommend evaluating your progress at least weekly. But know that at least three to four weeks of no change in weight is needed before saying that you are truly in a weight loss plateau. So before you change your routine, be patient with the one you have and give it time to work.

In the meantime, while waiting for weight loss progress, continue to challenge yourself and focus on developing habits that further your overall health:

  • Continue to try new exercises and activities
  • Join an exercise or wellness class
  • Try new foods and recipes
  • Try eating at different times of day
  • Focus on mindfulness and stress relief
  • Examine your sleep habits

My weight loss has truly plateaued. How can I move forward?

When you have reached a true weight loss plateau, you have gone as far as you should expect to go with your weight loss plan. If losing additional weight aligns with your current goals, then it’s time to start changing things up. Like every other stage in your weight loss journey, you have options:

  1. Hold yourself accountable. Have you increased food portions over time, started snacking more, or working out less? Ask yourself about the reasons that these things occurred. If you're struggling to stick to a plan that you believe was working, it may help to talk through that plan with someone. Consider talking with a friend or recruiting "weight loss allies" to help you stay focused on your goals. Having external accountability can lessen the pressure you put on yourself to achieve your goal on your own.
  2. Decrease your calorie intake. This may or may not be realistic and safe depending on your current calorie consumption. In particular, over-restricting calories can lead to muscle breakdown, low energy, and decreased metabolism as the body adapts to fewer calories consumed. In this case, exercise can help greatly to maintain muscle and metabolic output. Over-restriction can also lead to hunger that results in less than ideal food choices and overeating. If you have concerns that you may be over-restricting calories, or have difficulty setting calorie goals, we encourage you to reach out to Nutrition Counseling.
  3. Consider a new exercise or workout routine. Making your routine more challenging or trying a new activity can challenge your body in a different way and result in more calories being burned. This can also help to prevent mental fatigue that may come with repetition and motivate you to work out in new and exciting ways. Try incorporating short workouts throughout the day by breaking up screen time with a short walk or quick set of squats.

Try Not to Let a Weight Loss Plateau Discourage You

Try to remind yourself that progress has been made to get to where you are now. It’s easier to maintain that progress than it is to claw your way back to that plateau from a higher weight. For that reason, set a short-term goal to maintain your progress. This can allow you time to work on a long-term plan to work off the plateau once and for all.

If you do see yourself reverting to previous habits, this is a good time to refocus, change focus, or ask for assistance. For more help in working through your weight loss plateau, please contact Sauk Prairie Healthcare's Nutrition Counseling.