In yours and virtually everyone else’s weight loss journey, there will come a time where your weight just won’t budge no matter if you’re eating less-than-your-normal calories and regularly exercising. This portion of your transformation is what the fitness world calls a plateau.
But, how many weeks is considered a weight loss plateau anyway?
If your weight has leveled out for about 4 weeks (1 month), I think it’s safe to say that you’ve already hit this dreaded stage. Although, it could last longer than that if you let it.
That being said, there are several ways around it. There are also other signs you can watch out for other than what the weighing scale tells you. Also, are plateaus even a bad thing to begin with?
I’m going to walk you through all that today but let’s start with the basics so you can understand the logic and the science behind all of it.
What is a weight loss plateau?
A weight loss plateau is when your metabolism burns roughly the same amount of calories as you ingest after you’ve already adjusted your eating patterns and physical activity to lose weight.
For example, let’s say you’re a 25-year old man who’s 5’9″ tall, sedentary as heck, and weighed 200 lbs. The MayoClinic’s calorie calculator says you’d need 2450 calories to maintain that weight.
Now, you decide you want to lose weight. So, you trim down your portions to a total of 1700 calories per day and went to the gym 3 days a week. Every week, you lose weight, you feel better, and you look better, too.
But, fast forward to a few months into your new lifestyle, and now the weighing scale just shows you the same number over and over again despite having already adjusted your diet and activity level. This right here is the weight loss plateau.
The question now is:
Why does weight loss plateau happen?
To answer this, first you have to understand the logic behind energy balance.
Per research, energy balance is the fundamental principle governing your weight. Any change in your weight, be it an increase or decrease, results from an imbalance in these energies.
Energy, in this case, refers to calories and balance (or imbalance) refers the ratio between the calories you consume versus the calories you burn.
Specifically for weight loss, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn. I, and many others, know this state of being in a caloric deficit as negative energy balance. Eating less food (I.e. going on a diet), using more calories than usual (e.g. through physical activity), or a mix of both is how you can accomplish this state.
With that said, here are 2 reasons weight loss plateaus happen:
1. Our bodies are hard-wired to seek equilibrium.
Research suggests that bigger people typically burn more calories because they have more weight to support. Therefore, losing that weight also slows down your metabolism leading to fewer calories burned.
Eventually, your weight loss-induced metabolism slows down to a point where you burn roughly the same amount of calories as you eat, leading back to a balance between energies. Thus, putting a stop to weight loss.
2. Your appetite subtly increases without you noticing.
According to a research, this might be a bigger reason for your plateau because appetite regulation happens below your conscious awareness. So, you might think you’re sticking to your diet but your portions may have gotten bigger instead, albeit so subtly that you don’t even notice.
Another research also points out that for every kilo of weight you lose, your appetite also increases by approximately 100 calories/day. Compared to the meager reduction in your metabolism (20-30 calories/day for every kilo lost), that’s more than 3x the difference. These numbers support the claim of appetite being the more dominant factor for plateaus.
When does weight loss plateau happen?
Per research, the dreaded plateau usually happens after 6 months into your weight loss program. But, as it is with virtually everything else, the timing is going to be different for everyone. So, I believe it’s better to expect yours to happen anytime within a year.
The same study also suggets that an early weight loss plateau is typically observed more in people who’ve intermittently broke their diet adherance. This further supports the notion of appetite being a greater influence to plateaus.
What are the signs of weight loss plateau?
Besides having your weight loss at a standstill, there are other signs you can watch out for when you’re at (or nearing) your plateau. To me, these signs are helpful because they also tell me when there’s something in my routine that I need to adjust. Check ’em out:
You feel tired and unmotivated
Over time, you’re going to build healthy habits that will lead to long-term results, and one of those is consistency with your exercises.
However, when you reach your plateau or even if you’re just approaching it, you may feel too tired and unmotivated to exercise as much as you typically do. You might even find excuses to skip working out, like “oh, there’s too much drama at work today” when you normally would have considered the exercise as therapy.
You become moody as heck
A 2017 study from Social Science & Medicine says that there are strong direct and indirect links between mental and physical health, with physical activity being the largest contributor to the indirect effects.
That may explain why waning motivation and irritability often accompany fitness plateaus.
Speaking from experience, I also believe that body transformations, whether they be for weight loss, muscle bulk, or whatever else, they’re all just as mentally taxing as they are physically demanding.
You’re eating more (unhealthy) food
Remember when I said that a change in your appetite is likely more to blame for your plateau compared to sluggish metabolism?
Right, so try to introspect for a bit and figure out if you’ve been eating, or at least craving for more food for the past few days.
Truthfully though, there are multiple reasons you crave food and it’s not always because you’re at your weight loss plateau. For example, a study suggests that cravings result from prior conditioning (e.g. as a reward or from social gatherings).
On the other hand, there’s another study that suggests how deprivation amplifies food cravings. This is particularly true when you’ve on a low-calorie diet for months.
For instance, let’s say you used to treat yourself to cake every time you had a tough day at work. But now that you’re trying to lose weight, you deprive yourself of that reward which makes you crave for it.
Situations like these can be very common in any weight loss journey and if you often find yourself in it, maybe it’s because you’re nearing your plateau and need to switch things up.
You’re not getting any stronger
As you lose weight, it can be very hard to maintain mass even for experienced lifters. Most of the time, you lose both fat and muscle which puts your strength and mass gains to a halt.
So, if you’ve ever noticed how you’re just not getting any stronger at the gym, and you can’t seem to rip through more reps and sets, take that as another sign of a weight loss plateau.
And now that you know what you can watch out for, here are few weight loss plateau solutions you can do:
How to break a weight loss plateau
Move more outside the gym
Breaking through the weight loss plateau can happen beyond the confines of the kitchen and the gym (or wherever it is you do your exercises). As a matter of fact, I think there’s significantly more opportunity there.
Think about it: Most people spend about 1 hour working out, approximately 1 hour eating (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and 8 hours sleeping per day. That’s only 10 out of 24 hours. What you do with the rest of the 14 hours can help you burn more calories and cross the proverbial plateau.
For one, you can cook your own food instead of buying take out. It’ll mean more effort on your end but it’s healthier, and it burns a little more calories, too. You could also talk to your colleagues at work instead of sending an email, park further away from your destination so you walk more, or take the stairs instead of the elevator, among several other things.
Keep a food and activity diary
Speaking from personal experience, I think achieving a few of your goals comes with a sense of comfort. That’s a good thing but sometimes, it can be too good in that you sort of ease off on the gas pedal and coast.
Food and activity diaries help keep you on your toes, so to speak, so it’s harder for you to get complacent. These diaries should contain:
- Exactly what you’re eating
- How much of it you’re eating
- What exercises you did, and
- How long/intense you did those exercises.
You could write these things down on paper if that’s what you want, but a more convenient method is to use certain apps on your phone. There’s a surplus of them but what I always recommend is Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal.
It’s free, has a wide range of foods with their calories and macronutrients at the ready, and an activity tracker so it has virtually everything you need.
Tweak your calories
Circling back to the principle connecting weight loss and negative energy balance, the simple and perhaps most obvious solution is to eat fewer calories.
If right now you’re eating 2000 calories and you’ve stopped seeing results, cut that down to 1500 kcal and you’re almost sure to lose more weight.
However, don’t go below 1200 kcal as most experts agree that that’s the minimum amount of calories you should be consuming to remain healthy.
Switch up your exercises
Cedric X. Bryant of Ace Fitness says that your body adapts to exercise routines within 6-8 weeks. When this happens, your body is slower to respond to the same movements, eventually leading to the wretched plateau.
Therefore, it’s important to keep your body feeling like it’s constantly being challenged with new tasks to stop it from settling.
A couple of simple ways to do this include the following:
Ramp up the intensity
As your workouts get more intense, so does the number of calories you burn per session. So, if reducing the number of calories you ingest isn’t an option, ramping up the intensity of your exercises should help put you in a state of negative energy balance.
In the case of weights, you can either increase the weight you’re lifting, your reps, or your sets. Increasing one of these usually takes away from the others but as your body is forced to adapt to the more challenging stimulus, they should all still follow suit.
Or, you could change your exercises or splits entirely. Those work, too. For cardio/aerobic exercises, how you increase the intensity depends on what exercise you’re doing. For example, climbing uphill is an easy way to make walking more intense. With rope skipping, on the other hand, you could learn tricks (e.g. double-unders) to make it more challenging.
Apart from the intensity, the duration of your exercises also plays a factor in how much calories you burn per session. As seen in the results of one research, lengthier and more vigorous exercises trend toward more weight loss.
Also, the minutes you add to your total exercise hours don’t have to be on the same day. If you previously worked out 3x/week, maybe try increasing that to 4-5x this time.
Having said that, exercising longer to break your plateau can only work if you, at the very least, maintain your intensity. Reducing the intensity of your workouts in the name of extending your sessions is simply counterintuitive.
Take a break from both your diet and your exercise
Speaking of counterintuitive, this advice might seem like it (especially after the previous tips) but it’s really not.
I know I’m speaking for a lot of people when I say that a lot of times, the lifestyle changes required to get in better shape can be stressful. This stress can make you feel demotivated and fatigued which then contributes to the plateau.
So, if you’ve been pushing yourself hard on your workouts and have been consistent with your diet, maybe it’s about time you took a break from it all.
Maybe take it easy for a week, go on vacation, or do whatever else that helps you release all that stress. But when you come back, make sure you also bring a healthier mindset back with you.
Quit dieting and counting your calories
Again, this may seem counterintuitive to the previous tips but hear me out.
Research states that diet-induced weight loss affects your hormones in a way that gives you a larger appetite. Ultimately, these hormonal and appetite changes favor weight regain and partly explains why a good majority of dieters regain most, if not all of the weight they lose.
I’m not saying calorie restriction doesn’t work though – because it does. What I mean to say is that it might not be the best long-term solution. One other study even says that without conscious control of your calories (i.e. counting calories), your body will simply find ways to replace them.
So, if you’ve been battling (and perhaps even beating) the plateau over and over again, consider paying more attention to the quality instead of the quantity of the calories you consume.
Our work on How to start a clean eating lifestyle without feeling stressed should help get you started in the right direction.
The bottom line is that weight loss plateaus happen because your body is smart enough to adjust to recurrent stimuli. If you gave it a steady dose of the same amount of calories and the same exact workouts each and every day, you will eventually find yourself stuck at a certain weight.
The solution? Give your body something new to adjust to. Be aware of the signs of an impending plateau and switch things up to keep your body guessing.
And with that, I take my leave. Adios! Share this with a friend before you leave, will ‘ya? Cool!