Watching the pounds fall off after staying true to a workout program and healthy eating plan is an amazingly gratifying reward. But for many people, a weight-loss plateau shows up at some point or another. Of course weight loss isn’t the only goal of sticking with a healthy routine, but if that’s your goal, it’s insanely frustrating when your results come to a screeching halt despite how much effort you’re putting in.
Hitting a weight-loss plateau sucks, but it’s also totally normal. And while you may jump to conclude you reached one because you weren’t working hard enough, or your willpower wasn’t up to par, it may be comforting to know that this phenomenon is a result of your biological needs trying to counter your efforts. And you’re more than capable of fighting back.
Why do we reach weight-loss plateaus?
Hitting a plateau is extremely common, and happens for many reasons. “If you are successfully losing weight, you’ll most likely hit a plateau at some point,” Amanda Foti, M.S., R.D., a senior dietitian at Selvera Weight Management Program, tells SELF. A plateau is when weight loss stagnates even when you’re diligent about your food and fitness habits. How quickly you reach one can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months, depending on the person.
There are many reasons why weight loss may taper off after initial success. Your body may start to adapt to your training routine—when you don’t vary your workouts, they can become less challenging and less effective over time. And even if you’re strength training regularly, it’s normal to lose a little muscle along with fat. Lean muscle is better at burning calories when the body is at rest, so the slight dip may cause your metabolism to slow down. Losing weight in general lowers your body’s energy needs, decreasing your metabolic rate even further. If you don’t adjust your caloric intake as your weight changes, you can end up consuming more than you should to lose weight.
Our bodies also react to lower caloric intake and weight loss by doing the opposite of what we want. (Thanks, biology.) “As we begin to lose weight on a conventional calorie-restricted diet—following the ‘eat less, move more’ approach—the body fights back thinking that it is entering a state of starvation,” David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, tells SELF. Cue the release of stress hormones like cortisol, which has been shown to promote fat storage.
Additionally, rapid weight loss through extreme calorie restriction can throw off hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin and leave you feeling constantly hungry, Foti adds. For some, years of unhealthy habits and overly processed diets can even lead to insulin resistance—meaning your cells no longer respond the right way to the hormone. Ludwig calls insulin the “ultimate fat cell fertilizer” because having too much of it creates metabolic changes that tell fat cells to hold onto calories. “You may have plenty of calories stored in fat cells, but the brain can’t see them, because it looks for available calories in the bloodstream,” Ludwig explains. Your brain then tells you to eat more.
So, how can you step in and take control?
The best way to bust through a plateau is to “engage our biological responses to work for us, not against us,” Ludwig says. Luckily, the best way to do this is to stick with healthy weight-loss habits. Here are some tweaks you can make to what you’re already doing to push past a plateau.
Rethink your nutrition: Ditch processed foods and focus on eating quality protein, whole-grain carbs, and healthy high-fat foods, like nuts, avocado, and real dark chocolate. These foods take longer to digest, giving you sustained energy and helping to prevent insulin spikes. When insulin levels are normal, fat cells stop storing calories and are able to enter the bloodstream, making them available for your body to use, Ludwig explains. This also kicks the metabolism back into gear, “and now you begin to lose weight with the body cooperating instead of kicking and screaming.”
Get more sleep: “Sleep deprivation can cause insulin resistance,” Ludwig notes. It also can throw your hormones out of whack and is connected to weight gain. Getting adequate sleep will also give you energy to power through your workouts and help you resist cravings for unhealthy foods.
Strength train: To keep up your lean muscle mass and keep your metabolism revving as you’re losing weight, make sure to incorporate strength training into your routine at least two days a week. Keep your protein intake up, too. “Opt for lean protein at every meal and snack,” Foti says.
Vary your fitness routine and kick up the intensity: “Especially if you’ve been doing the same workouts over and over, chances are your body can perform those exercises efficiently, which means it’s burning far less calories than when you started,” Foti says. HIIT workouts are great for burning fat and increases the afterburn effect, allowing your body to burn more calories even after you stop working. To optimize results, your perceived level of exertion should be between eight and 10 (on a scale of one to 10)—if you use heart rate as a measurement, aim to work at 75 to 80 percent of your max.
The key to getting past any weight-loss roadblocks is to not get discouraged. “We tend to be very critical of ourselves and when we set a goal and don’t reach it, we immediately see it as a failure,” Foti says. “Instead, know that this is part of the process” and remember how far you’ve already come.