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How to Handle a Weight Plateau

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
4
January 10, 2022

We often hear that eating a healthy diet and exercising are keys to helping us lose weight. Experts say: exercise 5 days per week, don’t eat junk food, eat small frequent meals, and manage eating and sleeping schedules. But what happens when you’re doing everything right, losing the weight you want, improving your health, and suddenly you step on the scale and your weight progress has stalled? Here we will help you troubleshoot the reason and get you back to reaching your goals.

There are several reasons why you might be stalling in reaching your weight progress. Don’t get discouraged! Most reasons for an unchanged weight are good ones, and just signs that your routine needs a little time or tweaking. The main reasons that your weight doesn’t keep improving are: you need a routine adjustment, you are stressed, you lost too much muscle, or you are building muscle.

You Need a Routine Adjustment:

Imagine you have a seemingly perfect routine: you eat a healthful 1,800 calories per day, do a brisk, 30 minute walk 5 days per week, and you eat and sleep on an orderly, scheduled routine. If you’ve started losing weight, but recently have stalled, then it is possible that your body has reached the weight loss potential that it can with your current routine, and you may need a little more change. It is also possible, if you are not monitoring your calories intake, that some extra calories have snuck their way back into your diet.

The Change:

  • Add an extra 15 minutes of exercise per day of exercise, or
  • Change the types of exercise to include more variety than just walking, such as: yoga, dance, or cycling.
  • Talk with your Dietitian or Health Coach about your routine.
  • Log your food intake, or take pictures of what you eat using our app to reassess your meal and snack adequacy.

Your Weight Loss Goal is Not Realistic

Your perceived plateau may be your body's preferred weight. Bodies don't like to be out of balance. Body temp likes to be at 98.6 degrees. The pH of blood hangs out at 7.35-7.45—a pretty tight range. Same goes for your weight—the set point theory explains that weight is largely determined by genetics and you can't do much to change it. Before you get depressed, don't worry, you can change your set point. The obesity epidemic is proof that food, exercise and environment can override biology. This has led to an updated theory called "settling point theory" that takes the environment, nutrition and social factors into consideration.

The Change:

  • Lower your set point with slow and steady weight loss. Aim to lose 10% of your body weight at a time, say researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
  • Then work to maintain that loss for six months before starting to lose another 10%.

You are Stressed:

We oftentimes don’t realize that stress affects our hormones, triggering our body to a single stressful event, like a big car accident or death of a loved one, or a series of small life stressors that frequently repeat, such as driving in traffic or dealing with a stressful work or home environment. Cortisol, the "stress hormone," rises in times of trouble. Cortisol is supposed to come back down, but chronic stressors will keep cortisol high, which may stop fat burning and may increase belly fat storage.

The Change:

You are Losing Muscle

Usually, when we diet to lose weight, we will lose mostly water, a little fat, and we also end up losing muscle along with it. You may see your weight drop, but unless you are comparing your strength and muscle mass, you may not know what exactly that you are losing. For general health, most people should exercise 30 minutes a day, nearly every day of the week. But when your goal is for weight loss, you should exercise more often than that or increase the intensity of exercise to burn more calories

The Change:

  • Add  strengthening exercises 3 times per week such as weightlifting to increase your muscle mass, jumpstart your metabolism, and help you burn more calories.

You are Building Muscle

If you are exercising, doing some activity that you haven’t done before, or increasing your strength with lifting weights, hill hiking, or resistance training, you are likely building muscle. Though we oftentimes associate losing weight with losing fat, what we don’t often realize is that our weight might not change initially at all when we start or change an exercise routine. This is because we may be losing fat mass at the same time that we are gaining muscle mass. If you are not sure whether you are building muscle or not, then

  • Ask yourself: Are my clothes fitting looser? Does my body look more firm or more defined? Do I feel stronger?
  • Take pictures of your body weekly or monthly to have a visual comparison of your body change.
  • Use a body fat scale, or ask a trained professional to estimate your body fat % using skin calipers.

If you confirm that you are building muscle, then congratulations! The quality of your body is still improving, even if the weight on the scale is not. With the extra muscle mass you add, you will also boost your metabolism. The body will still lose fat eventually, but you must keep building that muscle. Don’t get discouraged by the weight on the scale. Instead, you may still want to make a change to help your body adjust to building muscle.

The Change:

  • Adjust your routine to add more aerobic exercise, like jogging, swimming, dance, or moderate to fast-paced cycling. this may help you to keep losing weight (and mostly fat).
  • Drink more water - having an increased muscle mass requires more water for protein metabolism. Drinking more water as you’re gaining muscle ensures that you will not dehydrate.
  • Supplement your workouts with a little protein - if you are doing moderate-intensity strengthening exercises for 30 minutes or more, you may need around 20g protein on average, in the 30 minutes after your workout. This will help you to maintain muscle, and also keep your metabolism revved.

Takeaways

Weight-loss plateaus are frustrating but fixable. If you’ve hit a plateau, start tracking food you eat with your Dietitian or Health Coach, assess your stress or change your workout routine. It is crucial that you know if your weight loss goals are realistic for your body and lifestyle. Your doctor and Dietitian can help you find a weight goal that is right, and realistic, for you. Most importantly, remember that when you lose weight safely and slowly, without taking shortcuts, you are more likely to maintain the good habits and health knowledge that you’ve gained. You are also less likely to gain the weight back in the future.

Where does the fat go? When we lose it? Is it gone forever? Your dietitian can help to answer these questions, keep you on track, and coach you through some stubborn weight plateaus, so chat with us regularly for ideas! And remember, the sayings that are scales are packaged with: 'You are more than just a number. You are Beautiful!'