On getting past a weight loss plateau. Originally published 8 September 2017. Last updated 12 April 2021.
Table of Contents
- Struggling With Making Progress on Weight Loss Goal
- Write Down Your Goals
- Can Weight Loss Slow Down Metabolism?
- Visualize What a Weight Loss Plateau is Like
- Tips to Modify Your Diet or Exercise Routine
QUESTION: “I'm struggling with making progress. I have written down goals, meditated, taken action steps and for some reason I am not making any progress on my ‘Lose 50 pounds goal.’”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question. I can completely understand your frustration.
First, I want to be sure to mention that you are off to a good start. Writing down your goals is a perfect first step. In my experience, many don’t even get that far.
Second, know that you are not alone. In my experience, having helped hundreds of individuals lose weight, seeing the results from their efforts can seem like that proverbial carrot dangling in front of them. Close, but not within reach. It’s so frustrating, especially when you have been doing everything right and your body simply isn’t responding.
There could be a couple of things going on. Now, I’m going to assume that the listener asking this question may have lost a little bit of weight. Maybe not a lot, but even a few pounds. The body often adjusts to this weight loss by doing something that surprises most people: when you lose weight, even a little weight, your metabolism slows down. I repeat: when you lose weight, your body’s metabolism slows down. Remember, the word metabolism is referring to the number of calories you burn in a day. A large portion of the calories you burn every day is due to keeping your organs functioning, breathing, powering your brain, digesting and absorbing nutrients, etc.
Shouldn’t it be easier for those that are overweight or obese to lose weight? In short, yes. This is partly why, when starting a diet or when trying to lose weight initially, the first few pounds come off relatively easily. Some of this weight is probably just water weight and some muscle wasting, not fat loss, but that’s a different post altogether.
So, how is it possible that someone that carries more weight has a higher metabolism? This is because when our bodies are forced to carry more weight, we burn more calories as a result of that.
Here’s what happens when you plateau – your metabolism has gradually slowed down as the weight was coming off. You’ll be following the same meal plan and exercise routine (the one that has been working so well over the past few weeks and months). The weight will be coming off and then BAM! Nothing. Weight loss stops. If your metabolism has slowed down and yet you’re consuming about the same number of calories and doing the same exercises, you will plateau.
Still confused? I hope this helps…if you’re not driving right now, do this with me:
Raise your left arm above your head directly in front of you, kind of like a front shoulder raise. Now, raise your arm directly in front of you, but keep it at shoulder height. Your left arm should be higher than your right. Now, slowly start to lower your left arm, keeping your right arm still. The left arm represents your metabolism slowing as you lose weight. Your right arm, which shouldn’t be moving, represents the diet and exercise routine you have been following. That’s why it’s stable. Eventually, as you continue lowering your left arm, it’s going to line up with your right. That represents the plateau.
So, how can you break through the plateau? If I was successful with this demonstration, you already know the answer: you need to find ways to move your right arm. That means you have to change either your diet or your exercise routine.
In my experience, individuals usually find it a bit nicer to modify their exercise routine. This is often because they feel very comfortable with the meal plan they’ve created. They’ve found their rhythm. Also, sometimes folks are following a low-calorie diet as it is, so having them cut even more calories could be dangerous.
Now if you haven’t been sticking to a specific meal plan, that will be the best place to start. But, if you have been controlling your portions and watching your calorie intake, we can look to mixing up your exercise routine.
Here are some tips and examples:
1. Check with your healthcare provider to make sure that there isn’t an underlying condition that may be preventing you from losing weight.
2. If you haven’t begun tracking your food intake, start. This should be the first step if you haven’t begun doing this already. You can use good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil or there are lots of free phone apps available. Every time you consume a meal, a snack, or even a drink, write it down. Write down the day/time, what you ate or drank and how much of it you consumed. Or, if you prefer to use a free phone app, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics likes one called “Cronometer” (spelled C-R-O-N-O-M-E-T-E-R).
I’ve used it and have had my students use it and it’s very user friendly. The reason this technique is so powerful is because it, first, forces you to become aware of what you’re eating and drinking as well as your portions. Second, by bringing you this awareness, it makes the eating behavior less automatic. You start to think about whether the food or drink is going to help you with your weight loss goals. And it’s for these reasons researchers have repeatedly found that simply tracking your food intake can help jump start weight loss.
If you’re wondering, “Well, how many calories should I be eating each day?” Most health professionals recommend you consume between 1,500-1,700 calories each day. Don’t go below 1,500 calories each day because that could place unnecessary stress on the body. And, as always, be sure your health care provider is aware of your diet and weight loss goals.
3. Next, exercise. The National Weight Control Registry has studied 60,000 people for over 10 years. All of these folks have lost at least 30 lbs. and successfully kept it off. Want to know what they had in common? Exercise. But, just saying “exercise” isn’t enough. We need to be more specific about the types of exercises that will help trigger weight loss. Say walking for 30 minutes each day is your preferred method for cardio. To mix things up, consider adding in some resistance training. It could be body weight exercises, lifting actual dumbbells and barbells, using resistance bands… whatever suits you. Why would this help? Resistance training is one of the best ways to build muscle quickly. Muscle is very active tissue and helps increase our metabolisms by burning calories for us
4. If you normally just do cardio, add some resistance training. It could be body weight exercises, lifting actual dumbbells and barbells, using resistance bands… whatever suits you. Why would this help? Resistance training is one of the best ways to build muscle quickly. Muscle is very active tissue and helps increase our metabolisms by burning calories for us.
5. When it comes to cardio, change the intensity. If you normally walk for 30 minutes, jog instead. Now, I don’t expect you to jog for 30 minutes straight. Even you end up jogging for only 5 or 10 minutes or maybe even 2 minutes, and then walk the other 28, that’s fine.
Why would this help? Well, by increasing the intensity, you will burn more calories during that 2-, 5- or 10-minute jog than you would if you just walked. We’re finding that by incorporating high intensity activity like this, you not only burn more calories during the workout, but we find there’s somewhat of an “afterburn” effect – which means the body continues to burn more calories after you finished the workout! What a nice added bonus!
I wish you all the best as you smash through your weight loss plateau!