If you’ve ever managed to stick to a long-term weight-loss plan, you’ll already know this—plateaus are depressing.
A weight-loss plateau can derail our hard work, and threaten to put us completely off-track. In order to withstand a plateau and reap the benefits of all your hard work, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know to shift your body into the next gear.
What is a weight loss plateau? How long does a weight loss plateau last? Can I get over the plateau?
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: you can break a weight loss plateau.
What Is a Weight Loss Plateau
A weight-loss plateau is an extremely common phenomenon that rears its head when we try to lose weight. The scales will show that you are no longer losing weight, no matter how strictly you are following the same diet and exercise program. One study showed that a weight loss plateau occurs 6 months into following a low-calorie diet.
Why Does It Happen
Although there is no concrete explanation of why we experience weight loss plateaus, there are three main theories:
- The body—which interprets weight loss as a threat to its emergency stores—defends itself against further weight loss.
- We loosen the reins on our diet or exercise routine as we start to see good results.
- Our metabolism slows, and we don’t adjust our calorie intake to match.
Although we can’t do anything about our body wanting to defend itself, we can control our diet and caloric intake. Some researchers believe that failing to stick to our diet plan is the leading reason for a plateau.
The factors to keep in mind as we push on to the next section are looking at how fast your metabolism really is, your diet, and how to shatter a weight loss plateau.
How Long Does a Weight Plateau Last
A weight loss plateau is considered to be a period of at least four weeks without weight loss results. Hormones, stress levels, even lack of sleep can impact the scales short-term, so it’s important to give ourselves enough time to know that we are really dealing with a plateau.
A plateau can last longer if we don’t make the effort to change some behaviors.
It’s difficult to say how long it could last, because in many cases a plateau derails the diet completely and can send us back to our old eating habits. In those cases, a plateau just becomes the end of a diet, and—in the worst-case scenario—the path back to weight gain.
Best Ways to Get Out Of a Weight Loss Plateau
1. Track what you’re eating.
Studies show we consistently underestimate the amount of food we eat. One study had obese participants estimate how many calories they consumed each day. Analysis over a 2-week period revealed that their estimates were almost half their actual calorie intake.
Tracking our calorie intake and macronutrients—the % of protein, fat, and carbs—gives us an accurate read on what we are actually putting in our bodies. It also allows us to pinpoint one of the biggest contributors to a weight loss plateau.
As an added benefit, tracking our calorie intake can make us more aware of what we eat, in itself. Researchers have found that just the act of recording our food intake supports our weight loss efforts.
The first step in getting over a weight loss plateau should always be to look at your calorie intake, compared to your activity level, and recommended calorie intake for someone of your age and weight.
2. Boost your protein intake.
Increasing your protein consumption can help break a weight-loss stall.
This benefits your diet plan in a few ways:
- Protein boosts your metabolic rate more than fat or carbs. Our metabolism needs to increase to digest our foods. Protein requires us to up our metabolism by up to 30%-almost double that of carbs, and more than double that of fat. A study of healthy women showed that on the day their diet consisted of 30% protein, their metabolic rate was double that of a standard 15% protein intake.
- Protein stimulates the production of appetite-reducing hormones, helping us to feel full sooner, and for longer.
- High protein diets protect against muscle loss. Maintaining muscle helps us burn more fat even when our bodies are resting.
3. Learn to manage stress.
Stress can very easily derail your weight loss. It can affect our sleep, trigger overeating or under eating, and drive us to drink more than we should. Basically, stress is a sabotage monster.
And on top of this, stress triggers the production of cortisol in your body—literally the stress hormone.
Cortisol tells your body there is a threat and we are in danger. Our body’s systems work to prepare us for danger—storing excess fat in case famine is coming, getting our bodies prepared to run if we are being hunted, etc.—and it can be very difficult to drop excess weight when you’re in the fight or flight zone.
Some tips to help reduce stress can be:
- Practicing mindfulness—yoga, tai chi, and simple meditations can help.
- Deep breathing exercises.
- Going to bed on time, and waking on time.
- Planning your day in advance, using a journal, can help reduce stress levels and prepare our minds ahead of time.
Stress has such an impact on weight loss that one study showed 34 overweight women lost an average of 9.7 lb. through a stress-management program that included deep breathing and relaxation techniques.
4. Increase your fiber intake.
Soluble fiber—which dissolves in liquids—slows down the movement of food through the digestive system, keeping you feeling full for longer. Other research has shown that calorie absorption is lower when we increase our fiber intake, meaning we consume 130 fewer calories in one meal.
5. Drink more water.
Studies show that plain water can increase our metabolism by up to 30% for an hour and a half after drinking it. When people tell you to drink a big glass of water before you eat, it’s not just about staying hydrated!
Coffee and tea can also benefit weight loss, as long as you aren’t adding sugar and cream to every drink.
Caffeine is known to boost metabolism by up to 13%, although there is conflicting data on whether this is effective for a range of body types.
Green tea contains a chemical compound that is known to boost fat burning, and caffeine is widely known to increase our energy levels—which can support your exercise program.
6. Cut back the carbs
Low carb diets can be extremely effective for weight loss. According to research, we are more likely to be successful in losing weight if we consume 50 or fewer grams of carbs per day.
7. Cut out alcohol
Alcohol has no nutritional value for our bodies, but it still has a calorie count. If you’re using a calorie-controlled diet, you are wasting your calorie count on a substance that doesn’t support your weight loss journey—and can actually harm it.
You probably don’t need to be told that alcohol relaxes our inhibitions. It can also make us more likely to overeat, make poor food choices, and affect our sleep patterns. Consuming a moderate to high amount of alcohol also dehydrates your body. At some point, your body will need to recoup the water loss, and can retain water for longer—commonly seen as an increase on the scales—several days after drinking.
On top of that, research shows that alcohol suppresses our bodies ability to burn fat, and leads to belly fat accumulation. If you’re trying to avoid the dreaded beer belly, minimizing your alcohol intake is the most obvious choice.
Weight loss plateaus are a normal part of the weight loss journey. Not that this makes it any less frustrating.
Fortunately, you’ve now got a core set of strategies to help you push through a weight loss plateau and help you move closer to your weight goals.
The best way to get out of a weight loss plateau is to stay motivated, be aware of some hidden obstacles on your weight loss path, and whatever you do—don’t give up!
You’ve already laid the groundwork—don’t let a short-term hiccup derail your long-term goals.