9 Ways to Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

Losing weight is an extremely rewarding experience but a weight loss plateau can represent a frustrating halt in your progress. However, everyone who is working to lose weight will eventually hit one of these slow patches, so it is important to know why weight loss plateaus happen and the best ways to overcome them and continue losing weight.

What is a Weight Loss Plateau?

A weight loss plateau is a common and wildly frustrating part of any weight-loss effort. After a few weeks or months of seeing consistent weight loss as a result of your diligent calorie counting and regular exercise, you might see a diminishing progress or it stops entirely. It seems that no matter what you do, or how dedicated you are to your strategy, those extra pounds simply won’t disappear.

This is called a weight loss plateau and is well known and widely studied by the medical community. The interesting thing about trying to change your body (through something like weight loss) is that your body is extremely intelligent. It can adapt itself to new habits quite easily – even changing its caloric needs by altering your metabolism. This is precisely what happens during a weight loss plateau.

Although our body’s plasticity is why we are able to control our weight through diet and exercise, this same flexibility can also be a major obstacle to your overall fitness goals. Fortunately, understanding what causes a weight loss plateau can also provide some answers on how to overcome it. [1]

A man wearing oversize jeans depicting weight loss

How to lose weight Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Causes of a Weight Loss Plateau

A weight loss plateau is caused by a variety of factors, the main ones being the confusing nature of water weight, the loss of muscle mass and the natural reduction in calorie-burning.

Water Weight: When you begin to eliminate a certain percentage of calories from your diet, a lot of that weight is caused by the release and use of glycogen, which is quite high in water content. In some ways, this is the same as losing “water weight”. Combined with regular exercises, after most of your glycogen stores are done, your body will become accustomed to these new resource limits and physical demands. Furthermore, based on your carbohydrate intake, your water levels can also fluctuate, causing some of this water weight to return, making it more difficult to continue losing weight at the original pace. [2]

Calorie-burning Process: As we lose weight, it naturally becomes harder to lose even more. As an overweight person, you are more likely to burn a larger percentage of your excess weight, since every activity and strategy has a more pronounced effect. Once you slim down, it becomes more difficult for the body to keep adapting, while still remaining healthy.

Muscle Mass: Essentially, your body burns fat through exercise and calorie reduction, but this also causes some loss of muscle mass. With less muscle in the body, your body is unable to burn calories as effectively, which will result in a decrease in your overall metabolic speed. With a lower metabolic speed, the muscles will use the energy at a slower rate, meaning that fewer calories will be burnt, and less weight will be lost. [3]

Lifestyle Changes: There are plenty of other reasons why your body may stop burning calories as quickly. They include new medications you might be on, changes in hormonal levels as a result of menstruation or menopause, a weakened immune system and an intake of tobacco, among others.

Ways to Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau

The good news is that many weight loss plateaus are temporary, lasting a few days or weeks if you remain on track with your weight loss strategy of dieting and exercise. However, some weight loss plateaus can be stubborn, but there are a number of effective strategies for overcoming a weight loss plateau, such as getting more sleep, increasing physical activity, reducing stress and further limiting your diet, among others.

Drink Green Tea

While many people turn to coffee to eliminate their desire for food, and also give their metabolism a boost, it can actually be detrimental to you if you’ve reached a weight loss plateau. It may be a better idea to switch to green tea, which is a healthier source of caffeine, and also provides a number of antioxidants to the body, such as catechins and epigallocatechin. These catechins are proven to increase metabolic speed, stimulate the function of the liver, and help to eliminate the pesky abdominal fat. [4]

Increase Protein Intake

As you work out and lose weight, you will be losing muscle mass as well, so that must be replaced as you exercise. Protein is a key ingredient in any diet, but if you have reached a weight loss plateau, it becomes more important than ever. You will want to increase the amount of lean protein you consume, such as the protein from fish and plant sources, rather than red meat and poultry. This can help stimulate the regrowth of muscle mass, rather than fat, which will speed your metabolism up once again. [5]

Stress Management

One of the worst things for someone who is on a weight loss plateau is stress and anxiety. While this may seem like a normal response when you see your weight loss progress grind to a halt, it can further slow your weight loss because stress hormones can cause inflammation in the body. In turn, this can lead to excess fat deposition, as the body does this when it feels threatened or goes into “fight or flight” mode. Find ways to relieve stress, such as exercise, yoga, meditation or any other hobby that helps to clear your mind. [6]

Less Salt Intake

As mentioned earlier, water weight can be a major contributor to a weight loss plateau. If your salt intake is too high, it can also cause the body to retain water, which can lead to a slow down in your weight loss. If you consciously cut out salt from most of your meals, you may see the needle of the scale begin to move again. [7]

Regular Sleep

Not getting proper sleep is a major problem for people who hit a weight loss plateau and get stuck. It can be stressful, and the constant dietary restrictions and additional exercise can make regular sleep patterns challenging. However, sleep is the time when your body heals itself, develops new muscles, and passively burns fat, thanks to an elevated metabolism. Bottom line, don’t cut your body short on sleep when you are trying to lose weight! [8]

Be Active

When you hit a plateau, the only proven way to push past it is to exercise more and/or consume fewer calories. Increasing the duration, intensity or frequency of your workouts may be required if you can’t seem to overcome a plateau naturally. [9]

Diet Choices

The other half of overcoming a weight loss plateau, apart from exercising more, is to eat less. It may seem hard to restrict your caloric intake even further, but if your body is burning fewer calories, yet you are eating just as many, you aren’t likely to see any more progress in terms of weight loss. [10]

Facts About Your Weight Loss Plateau

  • Weight loss plateaus are often temporary and can be overcome with strategies and patience.
  • There is a limit to how effective your initial weight-loss strategy can be.
  • Everyone experiences weight loss plateaus, both athletes and those trying to slim down.
  • You can continue losing weight, so don’t get discouraged and abandon your good habits.
  • Even if your plateau lasts for weeks or months, you can overcome it with the right approach.

Steps to Break Your Weight Loss Plateau

You can break your weight loss plateau in below simple ways;

Calorie Cycling: This strategy consists of alternating the amount of calories you consume on a daily basis, shifting from low-calorie to high-calorie days. This will prevent your metabolism from getting complacent or adapting to its new situation, which can rapidly help to overcome a weight loss plateau. [11]

Drink More Water: Although water weight is something that most people try to avoid, it is important to remember that water doesn’t contain any calories, but it does leave you feeling full. If you are struggling to cut back even further on your caloric intake, be sure to drink a glass of water before, during and after every meal. This will not only help to prevent snacking and hunger pangs, but will also flush the body of excess toxins that may be slowing down your metabolism.

Interval Training: A general increase in exercise is recommended to overcome weight loss plateau. However, interval training is a more specific strategy that will challenge your metabolism, resulting in rapid muscle growth, and keep your heart rate up. Basically, interval training consists of intense sets of varying exercises that target different muscle groups, separated by brief periods of rest. [12]

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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