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Weight-Loss Plateaus: Why They Happen and What to Do About Them

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Weight-Loss Plateaus: Why They Happen and What to Do About Them

No one ever said that losing weight would be easy (even though some people seem to have an easier time at it that others). If you’ve been losing weight slowly and steadily, as is recommended, but then hit a roadblock where everything seems to stall, you’ve hit one of the most common hurdles when it comes to weight loss: the weight-loss plateau.

What is a weight-loss plateau?

In a near-perfect world, you would set a goal to lose weight, cut calories, and jumpstart exercise, and the weight would come off. If the weight was coming off but now it’s not despite doing everything right, you’ve officially reached a plateau.

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Plain and simple, then, a weight-loss plateau is when weight loss stops – and sometimes, weight gain occurs – after a period (usually several months) of actively losing weight. If it’s any consolation, plateaus hit just about everyone who tries to lose weight. And somewhere six months into your weight loss journey is when a plateau is actually expected to occur, according to research published in 2014 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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Why do weight-loss plateaus happen — and what can you do about them?

All well and good, but why do you suddenly stop losing weight when you’re doing everything “right”? Experts believe that there are several possible reasons for a plateau:

Loss of muscle mass

With weight loss, you not only lose fat, but you lose some muscle mass, as well: possibly up to 25% of your muscle mass. This is a big deal, since your muscles help drive your metabolism. When you lose muscle, your metabolism drops, and that means you burn fewer calories, both at rest and when you’re active. Your body perceives weight loss as a threat in case there’s a famine around the corner; that means it deliberately makes it hard for you to shed more of those pounds. And your body might even cause you to gain a few of those pounds back.

Solution

Make sure you’re doing some form of physical activity to help keep your metabolic rate up and include some form of resistance exercises (weightlifting, calisthenics, weight machines) to increase your muscle mass so that you burn more calories.

Lack of adherence

Another possible reason for a plateau is that you’re not being as careful with your eating plan. In fact, if you’ve chosen a relatively restrictive type of diet to follow – intermittent fasting, keto, low carb, or very low calorie – there’s a good chance that after a while, it’s hard to stick to it. Now, that’s not true for everyone, but drastic changes where you’re cutting out food groups or cutting back too much on total calories can make it challenging to stay with it.

Solution

Gather your tools: food scale, measuring cups, and a journal. Pay attention to portions (that means measuring!) and start noting what you eat. Using a food tracking app can work well, too.

You need fewer calories

When you weigh less, you need fewer calories to function and survive than you did when you were heavier. If there’s less of you, you need less fuel to keep your body going. Even if you’re low carbing or keto-ing, or weighing out everything you eat on a scale, you probably just don’t need as many calories as you used to.

Solution

Remember that portions count. You may need to decrease your calorie intake. Again, keeping a record of your food intake can help you spot areas where the calories might be sneaking in. But cutting back too much can backfire. If you’re taking in fewer than 1,200 calories on a regular basis, that may slow your metabolism and lead to hunger, which, in turn, may lead to overeating.

You need more physical activity

If your metabolism has taken a nosedive or you’ve slacked off a bit with the exercise, weight loss can stop. When you were losing weight, your body became more efficient at burning energy (think of it this way: it takes more calories to move yourself around when you weigh say, 200 pounds compared to when you weigh 150 pounds). Physical activity is a must when you lose weight, and it’s even more important to do after you’ve reached your goal.

Solution

Aim to be active most days of the week and consider switching up what you do for activity. Also, cardio is cool, but resistance exercises help you burn more calories, so make a point to do both. Finally, sneak in activity during your day as often as you can – gardening, housecleaning, or walking around when you’re on the phone helps, too.

Want to learn more about weight management? Read “Five Myths of the Weight-Loss Plateau,” “Strategies for Weight Management” and “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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