Even the best-laid weight loss plans can hit plateaus. You can cut calories and carbs, increase your step count, and stick to a routine, but at one point or another, you’re bound to stall out in your weight loss journey. More often than not, a weight loss plateau isn’t a reflection of your motivation, nor is it a sign of failure. It can happen to anyone and everyone; the key is to know what to do when you reach that plateau.
Losing weight may be something you measure in numbers and physical appearance, but it’s important to remember the mental and emotional side of weight management as well.
“Weight management can be a long-term project with many ups and downs, and our thoughts, beliefs, and how we talk to ourselves can impact our behavior and success,” says One Drop coach, Sandra, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), and certified wellness coach (CWC). “Therefore, it’s crucial to stay positive to push toward your goals.”
In addition to staying motivated, it’s also important to understand why weight loss plateaus can happen in the first place.
What Causes Weight Loss Plateaus?
First, it bears repeating that weight loss plateaus are not only normal, “they should also be expected in all people,” says One Drop coach, Hanna, RDN, CDCES. In fact, research shows that, on average, weight loss plateaus tend to happen after about six months of following a low-calorie eating plan.
In the most basic terms, weight loss requires you to burn more calories than you consume. But, of course, there’s more to losing weight than just what you eat and how much you move (although those two factors are definitely crucial). It’s also about what, exactly, you’re losing as the pounds come off.
Case in point: Weight loss often happens rapidly at first because you’re mostly losing water weight, explains Kuldeep Singh, MD, a weight loss surgeon and director of The Maryland Bariatric Center at Mercy Medical Center. When you cut calories, your body starts getting energy by releasing glycogen, a form of glucose stored in the muscles and liver that’s partly bound to water. Releasing glycogen means your body is also releasing water, hence the loss of “water weight.”
It's also worth noting that muscle tissue is mostly made of water, explains One Drop coach, Julia Dugas, RDN and certified personal trainer (CPT). So, when you rapidly lose weight soon after you start limiting your calories, you're likely losing muscle mass as well.
However, there’s only so much water weight your body can lose. As you begin to lose more weight, you usually lose not just fat, but you can lose more muscle, too. Muscle helps to keep your basal metabolic rate (BMR, or the rate at which you burn calories) up, even when you’re at rest. So, if you lose too much muscle, your BMR can decline, meaning you’ll burn fewer calories in a resting state, slow your metabolism, and potentially hit a plateau in your weight loss. That’s why experts often recommend strength training in combination with healthy eating in weight loss plans: To build up muscle tissue that will help maintain a high BMR and keep weight off long-term. (But keep in mind that some forms of exercise may spike blood sugar for some people and, in turn, make it harder to manage weight.)
Still, gaining muscle tissue can be very difficult when you're limiting calories, notes Dugas. "Since your body may not have enough excess calories for baseline metabolic function, calories that may normally be used to build muscle could be used elsewhere (such as organ function)," she explains.
That said, everyone’s metabolisms are different. For example, factors such as age and sex can affect BMR: The older you get, the more fat you tend to accumulate (and the less muscle you have), meaning you burn fewer calories as you age. And, since men tend to have more muscle mass than women, on average, that means they often naturally burn more calories.
BMR can also vary depending on your genetics and whether you live with a chronic condition such as diabetes, thanks to the way the condition affects glycemic control and insulin sensitivity. What’s more, taking insulin can present challenges when it comes to weight management as well, notes One Drop coach, Lisa Graham, CDCES and registered nurse (RN). “Insulin does two things: It helps to move glucose from the bloodstream to cells so the body can use the glucose for energy, but it also helps the body store extra calories as fat. So, if you’re eating more calories than you need, the insulin will store those extra calories as fat, which could hinder your weight loss efforts.”
However, this doesn't mean insulin is doing something "bad" to your body. Regardless of whether or not you live with diabetes, we all need insulin to help regulate our blood sugar levels and metabolism, and, quite frankly, to get the energy we need from food. If you take insulin and you're concerned about the way it affects your body, make sure you have an open and honest dialogue with your doctor about it.
Again, though, these are all broad generalizations, and everyone’s bodies function differently. (Find out how your One Drop coach can help you create a weight loss plan that’s right for you.)
Generally speaking, your caloric needs change as your weight fluctuates. In other words, the more weight your body loses, the fewer calories you’ll need to take in to maintain that weight. For example, let's say that, at your starting weight, you were pretty sedentary and you were consuming 2,500 calories per day. Then you transitioned to eating, say, 1,500 calories per day, and you started exercising more, and, as a result, you lost 30 pounds. Once you lose that weight, you don't necessarily need to keep cutting your calorie intake to be lower than 1,500 calories per day, especially if you're more active than you were when you were consuming 2,500 calories. Rather, the goal at that point is to simply maintain the new habits that have led to your success—which, of course, will totally depend on the individual and their unique circumstances.
Think about it this way: If you’re carrying less weight, you won’t need as much energy to move around and go about your day as you did when you were at a heavier weight, and getting around required more energy, right? That means it’s up to you to restructure your exercise and eating habits in tandem with your weight loss progress to account for the change in your caloric needs and ensure you’re expending more calories than you’re taking in.
There’s also the issue of our own misperceptions when it comes to weight management. Multiple studies suggest that many of us significantly underestimate our calorie intake, as well as the amount of time we spend at rest—meaning, even when we think we’re on track with our weight loss plans, in reality, we might not be.
Overcoming Weight Loss Plateaus
Even if you reach your weight loss goal, weight management is more of a lifelong process than it is something you can check off of your to-do list once.
With that in mind, it’s not necessarily about avoiding weight loss plateaus; rather, it’s about knowing how to navigate them when they happen.
But that doesn’t mean you have to tackle the problem alone. If you’re stuck at a plateau despite making all the changes that you need to, Graham encourages you to follow up with your doctor, as it could be related to an underlying medical condition or even medications you might be taking.
For guidance on what you can do on your own time, follow these tips from One Drop coaches on how to overcome a weight loss plateau:
- Consider the big picture. When you’re having an off day, it’s easy to assume that every day thereafter is going to be off, too. Especially when it comes to weight loss, progress isn’t always obvious at first glance, and one “bad” day can seem like a stain on your entire journey. So, when those off days do happen, instead of focusing on exactly how fast you’re losing weight, “focus on whether you’re moving in the direction you want overall,” suggests Hanna. “Remember: Slow and steady wins the race.”
- Get grateful. “We often tend to think negatively about our bodies when we’re frustrated with weight loss,” says Sandra. “To shift this negative thought, think about the good things your body is doing for you—for example, getting you from one place to another, or giving you the strength to complete a workout.” Whatever it is you’re thankful for, try taking a few minutes each day to write it down, whether in a handwritten journal or even in the Notes app on your phone.
- Switch things up. Maybe you’ve found your groove in a workout routine or eating plan, so much so that you actually look forward to it every day. But, the fact is, weight loss will eventually stall if you’re taking in more calories than (or just as much as) you put out. To keep your body guessing, “use the plateau as an opportunity to revamp your routine,” suggests One Drop coach, Chauntel Herrod, a certified diabetes prevention specialist. For example, “think about other types of movement you’d like to try for fun,” she says. “This plateau may be an opportunity to try something new!” (Try these no-equipment exercises for a quick total-body workout the next time you need something new in your exercise program.)
- Log your self-care. If you aren’t already doing so, try tracking your food and activity each day. Whether you do so in a journal or via an app or fitness tracker, the idea is to get a better sense of how many calories you’re actually consuming and expending, instead of just estimating at random points in time. (In case you don’t know, the One Drop app allows you to log meals for free—including details on the carb and calorie content of each food—in addition to weight and activity, as well as medication, blood sugar, blood pressure, and A1C levels.)
- Double-check your weight loss goals. If you set a weight loss goal for yourself and, no matter what you do, you can’t seem to comfortably or realistically reach it, it might be time to rethink that goal. In other words, consider the possibility that you’ve already reached a weight that’s healthiest for your individual needs, and that pushing yourself further might just do more harm than good. “Ask yourself if these changes are realistic and if you need help,” says Hanna. “If you want a second pair of eyes, reach out to your One Drop coach. That’s what we’re here for.”
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop, and Julia Dugas, RDN, CPT, clinical health coach at One Drop.