How to break past weight loss plateaus
Losing weight isn’t easy. It takes patience, time, and readiness to make long-term, sustainable changes.
These are all especially important when you run into a weight loss plateau.
Some people who are trying to lose weight do it rapidly at first, but then, no matter what they try, their weight loss progress starts to slow.
A few different approaches can help you manage these plateaus, and we’ll explore them below.
But first, while it’s tempting to focus on the numbers on the scale, it’s also important to remember the end goal: improving your overall health.
These improvements might be higher energy levels, better sleep, an elevated mood, or getting sick less often.
With ZOE's personalized nutrition program, you can learn how to eat for your body and your long-term health goals.
Is a weight loss plateau normal?
Given the time and effort you’ve put into losing weight, plateaus can be frustrating and disheartening. But they’re normal.
If you’ve lost weight rapidly to begin with, a plateau can also be confusing. So, why do weight loss plateaus happen?
Your body’s primary and preferred energy source is glucose, or blood sugar. It’s what all your cells use as fuel.
When your body doesn’t need to use glucose for energy right away, it stores it for later. The “storage form” of glucose is called glycogen. And most of your glycogen is held in your muscles and liver.
When you cut back on your energy intake, your body converts glycogen back into glucose for fuel.
Glycogen holds a lot of water. In fact, there are 3 grams of water bound to every gram of glycogen.
When your body is releasing its stored glycogen, it also releases plenty of water, which weighs quite a lot.
We pee out this excess water, which helps explain why we get lighter on the scales early in our weight loss journeys.
Other causes of weight loss plateaus
There can be many other reasons for a weight loss plateau later in your weight loss journey.
Changes in body composition
Two major components of your body weight are fat mass and muscle mass. When you lose weight, it comes from both sources.
But muscle mass is much more metabolically active. This means that muscle mass uses more energy than fat mass.
If you think about it, this makes sense. You use your muscles for just about everything, from making a cup of tea to brushing your teeth.
Because your muscles are constantly active, they have higher energy demands.
Even though muscle is much more metabolically active, fat does still require energy to maintain. This means that as you lose fat — and especially muscle — your body needs less energy that it used to.
So, as your body adjusts to a lower weight, the amount of energy you need also changes.
If your calorie intake is higher than your new energy needs, it may contribute to a weight loss plateau. However, weight is far more complicated than a simple equation involving calories.
Set point theory
As you lose weight, your body may perceive it as starvation and actively compensate by increasing hunger hormones and reducing fullness signals.
The idea is that this is your body’s way of making sure you eat enough to return to your set point.
It’s very important to note that set point is only a theory. It can help explain why most people find losing weight very difficult.
But it doesn’t explain particularly well why your set point may go up if you gain a lot of weight.
Many studies suggest that body weight is complex and affected by:
biological factors, such as hunger hormones like ghrelin and leptin
psychological and emotional factors, such as depression, anxiety, and stress
social factors, such as resources, social support, and isolation
Another theory describes a “settling point.” It proposes that your weight settles at various levels throughout your life.
This theory suggests that your biological, psychological, and social factors can impact where your weight is settling.
What we eat
The type of foods you eat can play a key role in how hungry you feel. This, of course, can influence how much you eat.
Some foods will keep you satisfied for longer, while others are unlikely to do so.
For example, some people digest refined carbs, such as white bread and white rice, particularly quickly. This can lead to blood sugar spikes, followed by dips.
Our research at ZOE shows that people who experience blood sugar dips after eating are more likely to get hungry soon and eat more throughout the day than people who don’t have these dips.
Our research also shows that blood sugar responses after eating can vary significantly from person to person, even if they eat the same food.
If you’re stressed, it’s likely to affect what and how much you eat.
In the short term, stress can suppress appetite for some people. But long-term stress often increases appetite. This may lead to a weight loss plateau.
Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” In the long term, excess cortisol levels can disrupt many aspects of your health, including your immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Because of this, it can also increase your risk of mental and physical health problems.
While some stress is unavoidable, finding ways to manage stress could make your weight loss journey a little easier.
Sleep is crucial for your overall health, and it plays a key role in regulating your appetite.
When you don’t sleep enough, you’re also more likely to reach for foods that contain more sugar and fat.
In fact, one analysis of 11 studies found that people who were partially sleep deprived ate more every day than those who got adequate sleep.
In an 18-month study, researchers found that lower quality sleep was associated with less adherence to a weight loss plan, both in terms of physical activity and diet choices.
What to do about a weight loss plateau
As we’ve seen, many factors can contribute to a weight loss plateau. But there are also many ways to move past it.
Because losing weight can be so challenging, it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional, like a registered dietician. They can also help determine a weight range that’s healthy for your body.
Overall, long-term, sustainable changes are key to reaching and maintaining your best weight and health.
So, if you’ve reached a weight loss plateau, here are some strategies for breaking through it.
Choosing foods that keep you feeling fuller for longer
Scientists have shown that foods rich in protein promote feelings of fullness. It’s because they suppress hormones that make us feel hungry, like ghrelin.
Some protein-rich foods include eggs, beans, legumes, nuts, tofu, dairy, meat, and fish.
Fiber is another nutrient that works in different ways to keep hunger in check.
For example, some types of fiber can hold a lot of water and form a gel when they reach the gut. This can slow digestion and nutrient absorption in your small intestine. As a result, food stays in your gut for longer.
Fiber-rich foods include:
some fruits, like apples, kiwi, and raspberries
whole grains, like oats
pulses, like beans and lentils
Many relaxation techniques can help us manage stress better.
For example, deep breathing influences the autonomic nervous system to help us feel calmer. This is the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary physical processes, like our reactions to stress.
The bottom line is that managing stress is good for your overall health, and it may make your weight loss journey a bit easier.
Upping your physical activity
If you’re keeping active but your weight has plateaued, it may be because you’re gaining muscle mass and losing fat mass.
Muscle is more dense than fat, so you might end up weighing the same, even if your body composition has changed.
If this is what’s happening, your health may be improving, even if your weight has plateaued. Strength training, for example, can help you build muscle.
It’s worth noting that your body adapts and becomes more efficient at doing an activity the more you do it.
So, your body may have gotten used to its usual exercise routine. Try increasing the duration or intensity of your workout if you want an extra challenge.
Try a different eating pattern
Time-restricted eating is a type of intermittent fasting. In fact, it’s the most popular one.
It involves eating during certain hours of the day and fasting the rest of the time. For most people, this means extending the natural fast that happens during sleep.
If you want to try it, we recommend eating within an 8- or 10-hour window.
Research indicates that time-restricted eating may have long-term health benefits, including weight loss.
According to the current evidence, any weight loss that results is similar to the amount people lose when they have a calorie-restricted diet.
In a recent survey, 84% of our members said they felt healthier and 70% said they had more energy.
Weight loss and your health
It’s important to remember that food is meant to be enjoyed. It can also be a big part of socializing with family and friends.
So, it’s worth taking a minute to consider how you’re measuring progress on your weight loss journey. The number on the scale is only one indication of your overall health.
Big, sudden diet and lifestyle changes are often hard to manage and keep up in the long term. Most people who lose pounds rapidly gain them back within a couple of years.
Weight loss is not a quick process, and it should fit into a bigger plan to support your health and well-being.
When it comes to adjusting your diet, small changes can make a big difference.
The key is to find a sustainable approach that fits with your lifestyle so you can keep it up in the long term.
Weight loss plateaus can be disheartening, but they’re often a normal part of the weight loss journey.
They can happen for many reasons, but it’s possible to move through them. Some approaches to try include:
switching up your physical activity
choosing foods that keep you feeling fuller for longer
adjusting your eating habits in other sustainable ways
getting better sleep
Overall, it’s important to remember that weight is only one measure of health.
So, even if the numbers on the scale aren't changing, your health may be improving in other ways.
If you’re concerned about your weight loss progress, a professional, like a registered dietitian, can help.
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