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When you’re trying to lose weight, weight-loss plateaus can be frustrating. This common experience is often responsible for a drop in motivation because it is not a result of exercise or diet efforts, but your metabolism’s natural adaptation to all these changes.
And then you stop losing weight. You may also feel tired, irritable, and hungry. These are the signs of a weight plateau which is nothing but physiological reactions, consequences of a change in lifestyle.
"Approximately 50% of weight variance is reported to be determined by genetics and 50% by the environment (energy-dense foods and reduced physical activity). Body weight is tightly regulated by hormonal, metabolic, and neural factors."
Source: Why weight loss maintenance is difficult, Diabetes Spectrum, 2017
Read on to understand weight plateaus, learn more about the potential role of metabolism, and see tips and tricks to help you manage weight and get over a weight plateau.
If you’re on a weight-loss journey, you may start to see results as you exercise more and change your eating habits. If your weight loss stalls, however, and the numbers on the scale stop moving, that’s a weight-loss plateau.
Why do weight-loss plateaus occur? There may be a number of possible reasons:
Reduced calories = slower metabolic rate
One theory suggests that if you’re eating fewer calories, your metabolism may slow to compensate. Essentially, your body goes into adaptive thermogenesis, or “starvation mode,” to conserve calories. You may have lost muscle along with the fat, too—and because muscle keeps your metabolism going, this loss may also contribute to a slower metabolism.
Set point theory
Set point theory suggests that genetics strictly regulates your weight and body fat range, and your body tries to stay where it is most comfortable. So, if you have a high set point, you may be more prone to being overweight, whereas if you have a low set point, you’re naturally lean. In addition, ghrelin, the hunger hormone, increases after weight loss—and it can cause food intake to increase by up to 30%.
Researchers are taking note. In a 2010 report in F1000 Medicine Reports, “Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight?”, the authors noted, “To overcome weight loss-induced counter-regulation in the overweight, biological signals have to be taken into account.”
When your body gets used to the additional exercise and new diet changes, you may start to see diminishing returns on the scale. Changing your routine may help to provide your body with new stimuli and challenges.
Example of an overweight person who will experience several weight loss plateaus before reaching his or her healthy weight.
Once you start to see results, your appetite may change, causing you to increase your portion sizes. Interestingly, one report suggests that appetite changes may play a more important role than slowing metabolism in weight-loss plateaus: “It has been estimated that for each kilogram of lost weight, calorie expenditure decreases by about 20–30 kcal/d whereas appetite increases by about 100 kcal/d above the baseline level prior to weight loss.”
The authors go on to say: “Despite these predictable physiologic phenomena, the typical response of the patient is to blame themselves as lazy or lacking in willpower, sentiments that are often reinforced by healthcare providers.” In other words, it’s a matter of biology, not motivation.
And finally, here’s another potential reason, and it may be good news for your health: If you’re weight training, and you’ve noticed your weight has stayed the same or even increased, it may be because your body is adding lean muscle tissue—which is actually a plus for your overall health in the long run.
It can be frustrating to see those numbers on the scale stop moving—but it’s important to know that weight-loss plateaus are normal. A 2019 article in Medical Clinics of North America reports that weight loss plateaus are “near ubiquitous”: “Obesity interventions typically result in early rapid weight loss followed by a weight plateau and progressive regain.”
Stress and weight plateaus are related: if anxiety or stress causes you to overeat, and thus gain weight, then you may risk hitting a weight-loss plateau or even gaining the weight back. And overproduction of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone, may lead to weight gain and other health issues.
But can weight-loss plateaus have an impact on your mental health? In a 2007 study published in Depression and Anxiety, obese men were shown to be at a higher risk of depression during a weight-loss plateau. The authors noted: “Weight loss until resistance to further weight loss may be detrimental for some psychobiological variables including depression.”
First, if you have questions about weight loss, it’s a good idea to check with a nutritionist. They can help you assess your weight, help you set a weight goal, and find a weight-loss plan that’s right for you.
Depending on their diagnosis, your doctor may also be able to direct you to a certified nutritionist or DPP (Diabetes Prevention Program) that can offer coaching, tools, and other resources to help you in your efforts.
Body mass index (BMI) can be a useful way to determine whether you are overweight or obese—although you should keep in mind that it may not tell the whole story.
If you are interested in losing body fat and want to set a realistic weight-loss goal, consider setting a SMART goal —one that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
You may also want to set process goals, such as walking 10,000 steps per day, or eating five fruits and vegetables. Setting realistic goals can help you change your behavior and stick to your new healthy habits.
First, it’s important to understand that 1) weight-loss plateaus are normal, and happen often during weight-loss journeys, and 2) a weight-loss plateau may not be your fault—instead, your body may be adapting to the new exercise and diet habits you’ve adopted.
Consider changing up your routine and finding new sources of motivation to help keep you on the right path.
If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got some ideas for creating a game plan.
Now’s the time to start a food journal (or pick it up again) to track your food intake. Have your eating habits changed? If so, how? Make sure to log everything—and stay honest. Understanding calorie intake is key to making a plan—and nobody’s going to see it but you.
Consider cutting carbs and adding more protein sources to potentially boost your metabolism and increase fat burning. One 2004 study indicated that protein digestion increases calorie burning by 20 to 30 percent. You might also try adding certain snacks into your diet, such as seaweed, which contains iodine, a mineral required for the proper functioning of your thyroid gland—which regulates metabolism.
If you’re experiencing a weight plateau despite exercise, you may want to try something new. Consider altering the intensity, frequency and duration of your exercise, or even just adding more activity into your day. And consider trying something new—for example, if all you’ve been doing is cardio, you may want to add strength training, which can preserve and build muscle, and potentially boost your metabolism.
Weight-loss plateaus are frustrating, but they’re normal. A 2019 article in Psychology Today suggests a system called P.R.O.G.R.E.S.S. for weight-loss plateaus: revisiting your reasons for weight loss, observing and collecting data, establishing social support, and other measures to help you stay on track. Don’t act impulsively, don’t go back to old, unhealthy habits, and most importantly, don’t give up!
If you’re experiencing weight loss difficulties, know that you’re not alone—they’re very common when you’re trying to lose weight, and it’s not always possible to avoid a weight-loss plateau. Understanding the possible reasons for your weight-loss plateau, including a possible slower metabolic rate, and creating a game plan can help you overcome a weight plateau and get your weight-loss plan on track.