Breaking Through Weight Loss Plateaus

A client recently asked me a question that is all too common, and I wanted to share some details with since it’s something that ultimately affects nearly everyone who’s diligently working to lose weight.

Barb came to me and said, “After losing 80 pounds in 6 months, I haven’t lost anything over the last 5 weeks. What should I do?”

What follows is my response to Barb; while it is with her specific scenario in mind, these are all common themes with weight loss plateaus.

First off, you are amazing, and I couldn’t be happier to hear about your success so far. Although I get the impression that you’re a bit frustrated because you’ve been “stuck” for the last several weeks, I really encourage you to take a moment to look back over the last 7 months and consider how far you’ve come. In the overall scheme of things, this is a drop in the bucket, yet, you’ve literally changed your life for the better. That’s an enormous accomplishment, and you should be very proud of yourself. I sure am.

With regard to not losing anything over the last 5 weeks, there are a few different things that we might consider. But first, I do want to suggest that being able to maintain your progress during this 5-week period is a tremendous accomplishment. As you may or may not have experienced, maintaining weight loss progress can be quite challenging for most folks. In fact, researchers estimate that fewer than 25% of folks who lose weight are successfully able to keep it off for at least a year.

Although it’s only been five weeks, I think this should be celebrated as a “big win” also. In other words, during this 5-week period you’ve maintained your weight loss progress, and you’ve stayed the course. That’s huge. These mini-plateaus or maintenance periods are so important, in fact, that many coaches actually plan them for clients.

What’s more, these “quiet” periods are often a priming period getting your body ready for more progress in the near future. There’s a ton of adjustments going on in your body as you make radical changes like these. In other words, there’s so much more going on than just the number that we see on a scale.

With all of that being said, there are some potential explanations as to why one might experience a plateau. First, it’s important to note that as your body (weight) changes so does your physiology. In other words, the calorie cost associated with every single activity is reduced. For example, if you started at 200 pounds, it was more energy-costly for you to partake in all daily activities (compared to if you are now 120). That’s one thing to consider.

Another is that the body has a number of energy-preservation mechanisms in place in order to offset changes in calorie intake. In other words, energy input (i.e., calories consumed) affect energy output. After all, we’re wired for survival (and to avoid starvation).

The other portion of the above is that as we reduce the number of calories that we consume, our activity levels tend to decline overall; in most cases, this is subconscious. This component of metabolism is called “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” (NEAT), and it essentially accounts for all calories burned during non-scheduled exercise activity, which might include taking the stairs, doing chores, fidgeting, taking a walk, getting up and moving around throughout the day, etc.

Interestingly, this aspect of weight loss research is so powerful (yet often overlooked) that some researchers refer to it as the “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” of weight gain. For instance, researchers find that obese and overweight folks tend to sit for about 2.5 hours more each day (compared to lean folks). That’s a huge difference—enough to account for upwards of 400 – 500 calories burned daily. Researchers also tend to see that folks who are following a reduced-calorie diet also tend to reduce NEAT over time, and this is also often the case when commencing an exercise program.

So, that’s one other thing to consider. Lastly, in addition to the proposed metabolic changes and subconscious adjustments, researchers have found that “intermittent lack of diet adherence” is a major contributor to the frequently observed weight loss plateaus. In other words, if you’re struggling with your weight loss progress, the first place we might look is dietary adherence. Folks may have a tendency to be a little looser with portion sizes and food choices; or, they may not be as concerned about progressing in exercise. These are important things to consider as well.

So, if compliance is not an issue, then the next step would be to consider making some adjustments to your nutrition. The take-home point of the above is that the very same program that got you to where you are today may not be sufficient to get you to that next level, and adjustments may need to be made in terms of decreasing calories consumed and/or increasing your activity levels. It’s a bit tricky to just rely on increased energy expenditure, but it’s a great place to start—especially if that involves the NEAT portion of the equation as well. The food intake side of the equation is a bit more reliable, although it’s not necessarily easier.

In addition to making sure that your overall calories consumed are on par with your goals, then it’s also a good idea to make sure that you’re consuming enough protein (0.72 – 1 gram per pound of body weight per day), as well as adequate amounts of carbohydrates and fats relative to your activity levels. Low-energy-density foods like vegetables and fruits play an enormous role in the process by helping increase satiety (i.e., feelings of fullness and satisfaction) without a bunch of calories.

If you have all of these variables dialed in, then it may also be a good idea to consider supplements that are scientifically designed to boost metabolic rate (i.e., increase calorie expenditure) and/or improve appetite control (i.e., decrease calorie intake).