How to break through a weight loss plateau
It’s officially been a month now since we all started our New Years Resolutions. If you’re still going, then that fast weight loss in the beginning has likely slowed down (it may have even stopped). As I mentioned in a previous article, those quick drops in the beginning are mostly water weight. You may have lost 5 to 10 pounds in the first few weeks, but you should now consider 1 to 2 pounds a week to be a tremendous success. This is a slow and steady process, so don’t get frustrated if the scale isn’t dropping as fast as you hoped it would.
Like this time every year, I’m getting lots of questions about how to break through a weight loss plateau. I’ll get to some simple suggestions below on how to jumpstart your weight loss, but first I want to explain that even a week or two of holding at the same weight is not necessarily a plateau. As long as you’re doing things right, you may still be burning off body fat while your body stubbornly retains water. I’ve seen it many times where a client is frustrated by no movement on the scale for weeks and then he or she suddenly drops 3 pounds in a day and it stays off. Don’t live or die by what the scale tells you. As long as you stick to your plan properly, your body can’t help but burn off body fat. Even if the number on the scale isn’t moving, that doesn’t mean stored fat isn’t moving out of your fat cells.
Maybe you’re causing your own plateau
Weight loss does cause your metabolism to slow as your body tries to protect you from starving to death, but typically when I look into people’s plateaus, I often find some common causes that can actually be corrected:
1. Calorie creep. As people get deeper into their diet plans, their portion sizes tend to slowly creep up. This is especially common when people stop measuring ingredients and switch to “eye-balling” it. If you were measuring before and the scale suddenly stopped moving after you quit, you might want to switch to strict measurements again. I personally don’t enjoy measuring my meals so my other bit of advice is throw away a portion of your food and replace it with a pile of vegetables. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s probably the easiest way to cut out calories and still satisfy your appetite.
2. You’re moving less than you think. You don’t realize how sneaky your body can be when it comes to conserving calories. You may be cutting out food calories and exercising more, but even an hour-long workout only takes up a tiny percentage of your day. Running a calorie deficit means you have less energy than usual. This means you will feel less energetic than usual. You can’t just give into the feelings and sit the rest of your day. Going inactive for the majority of your day will quickly negate the positive effects of your workout. Make it a point to do the things you normally do. If you’re normally inactive, make it a point to take a walk, pace around while you’re on the phone or in between commercials, clean up the house, etc. Not only will some simple movement get the scale dropping again, but you’ll feel better. Sitting around will just make you feel tired and miserable. I always talk about momentum when it comes to diet and exercise and it applies here as well. If you just sit, it’s going to feel hard to get moving, but once you start moving, it feels easier to just keep going.
3. Beware grazing. This gets more people than you’d think. People tend to think of total calories consumed in terms of meals and even snacks, but a few nuts here or a couple M&Ms there don’t really count, right? One mini-snack doesn’t matter, but grazers tend to graze a half a dozen times a day which adds up to an additional meal. Take pictures of everything you eat with your phone or through our GO Meal Tracker to get a real idea of how much you’re grazing. The added benefit of GO is that it will allow you to visualize times of the day that may give you extra trouble. Knowing where the problems are allows you to formulate strategies to deal with it. Plus the simple act of having to take that picture will give you a half second to reflect on if you really need to eat this or not.
4. Sleep matters. Our modern society seems to discount the importance of sleep more and more. Short sleep cycles have not only been shown to contribute to weight gain, but it has also been shown to negatively impact the effects of dieting. Cutting your sleep short increases your appetite throughout the entire day, and it increases your body’s ability to store fat and to hold on to body fat stores. The end result is your diet and exercise plan feels harder and it’s less effective. Reduced calories are going to make you feel tired anyway, so you might as well get a healthy amount of sleep rather than increasing the amount of time you sit around feeling miserable.
Additional tricks to jumpstart weight loss
I mentioned a few of the common problems and some solutions for those particular issues, but it really is possible to do everything right and still have your weight loss stall. The natural reaction is to cut calories more to starve the scale into submission or double down on exercise to lose the fat or die trying. This is an unpleasant way to break a plateau and it can actually exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. If your body is cutting your metabolism to conserve calories, then cutting out more can lead to additional decreases to your metabolism or increases in the amount of muscle tissue lost to make calorie conservation easier.
If the scale is staying steady, then you really only need a little nudge to get it moving again. It can be hard enough to stick to your plan, and turning it into a daily punishment is just going to cut the whole plan short.
Below are some tricks I’ve used with hundreds of people over the years to break through their plateaus without cranking up their suffering:
1. Move your workout to the morning. I’ve mentioned many times the benefits of working out first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. It not only increases the amount of fat you burn during your workout, but it also sets your body up to store less fat that you do consume throughout the rest of the day. If you’re not a fan of working out early, I suggest a quick 4 minute workout that doesn’t require any equipment. I demonstrated the workout and talked about the benefits of fasted training on a local daytime talk show. It will get you breathing hard pretty quickly, but that’s why it works. High intensity causes physiological changes that you just can’t get with a long slow workout.
2. Add a HIIT segment into your cardio. On the subject of intensity, a simple way to change up your cardio routine and really jumpstart your weight loss is to add a 4 minute high intensity interval segment into the middle of your cardio workout. Simply add 8 intervals consisting of 20 seconds of tough effort mixed with 10 seconds of easy rest. It’s good to put it into the middle of the workout to ensure you have enough time to warm up and to give you time to normalize your breathing after all that effort. Whether you’re outside, on a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical, adding this into your workout 3 days a week is typically more than enough to bust through any annoying plateau.
3. Don’t eat too close to bedtime. Your body uses a mixture of sugar and fat for fuel during the day. The only time when your body fuels itself 100% from stored fat is when you’re asleep. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to fuel your sleep, but it does require some. If you eat too close to bedtime, not only does your body not need to tap into fat stores at all, but it’s going to spend all those hours storing new fat. In addition, the process of digestion can interfere with your sleep. Your metabolism slows in preparation for sleep which lowers your body temperature. Eating too close to bed raises your temperature and disturbs your sleep. Lying with a full stomach can also lead to acid reflux and heartburn since gravity is no longer holding the digesting food properly in place. I already mentioned the importance of sleep in weight loss, so try to avoid things that will disturb your sleep and lessen the effectiveness of your plan. A snack before bedtime is fine, but to set up the ideal conditions for a good night’s sleep (and for burning stored fat) the research suggests it’s best to have about 2-3 hours between your last meal and bedtime.
Try minor changes first
If your metabolism is truly pulverized after YEARS of dieting or extreme calorie restrictions, you might need to look into refeeding, which basically means adding carbohydrates back into your diet to stimulate your metabolism. However, I’ve found most plateaus aren’t the result of severe metabolic slowdown, but rather from slight changes to your activity level and food intake. It’s hard to maintain the discipline needed for weight loss for such a long time. It’s perfectly natural to slide after months of diligence. Don’t give up and don’t look for the extreme fix. Try some simple things to get the scale moving again and then reevaluate if the scale refuses to budge.
Thank you for this. How did you know I had plateaued? ;)
I think the grazing is what’s getting me. I need to watch that more carefully. I think moving my workout to the morning will help, too.