Most people who have ever tried to lose weight will be able to identify with the frustration of having what you felt was a good week, then stepping on the scales and the number not changing. But when that continues for the next couple of weeks, it's a real test of your willpower and motivation. Let me assure you that hitting a plateau at some point in your weight loss journey is very common. Weight loss plateaus are a normal part of weight loss, and actually, expecting this and understanding why it happens can make it easier to move past and continue with weight loss success.
Research shows that weight loss plateaus typically occur at least six months into weight loss . A very common trajectory is to lose weight fairly consistently over a period of months, then to hit a plateau where weight loss stalls for a while, and then most often (sadly), weight regain occurs . This is because people become dejected and give up on their dieting efforts.
To knock that cycle on the head, I'm here to tell you to expect a plateau, but also to understand why you'll hit one. This way, you can overcome them and experience continued weight loss down the line.
So, let's jump into what weight loss plateaus are, why they occur and how we can overcome them.
A plateau is characterised by a lack of weight loss, after a significant period of losing weight, despite continued efforts to eat less and move more. True plateaus occur many months into a weight loss journey. If you are a few weeks into your journey and you're not seeing weight loss – something else is at play. For the purpose of this article, we'll be discussing real weight loss plateaus.
It's important to make one thing clear. Losing weight always (ALWAYS!) comes down to creating a calorie deficit. If you're not losing weight, whether two weeks or eight months into a weight loss journey – the number one reason for this is because you are not in a calorie deficit. With the exception of factors like gaining water weight or muscle weight, which may cause a temporary stall on the scales at times – even so these are unlikely to be the sole explanation for a long term weight loss plateau.
The number one thing to remember is if weight loss isn't happening, then a calorie deficit is not present. That isn't to say you are not doing what you should and seemingly eating much less than you need to – it's all to do with the biological changes that occur when we lose weight, causing our energy needs to reduce over time.
To understand why a weight loss plateau occurs, it's first important to understand the body's energy output methods and how these are affected when we lose weight.
Our body's energy output comes from four areas:
These account for all the energy our body uses each day, and they all hold a key to one of the likely reasons why we experience weight loss plateaus. Typically a plateau can occur because of a reduction in all of these areas when we lose weight...
The overall reduction in energy needs as we lose weight can mean that when we think we're creating a calorie deficit, we are in fact, not. This can simply be because our energy needs have reduced so much that what was once a calorie intake suitable to result in weight loss, is now closer to our maintenance energy needs.
On top of this however, sometimes a plateau occurs because a person is simply taking in too many calories to create a deficit – because they're unconsciously eating more than they think they are. This is due to another key reason for weight loss plateaus....
Why? Our bodies do not want to lose energy stores. Regardless of whether we are considered overweight from a health perspective, our body is only concerned with conserving energy stores for survival. This means that when we embark on a weight loss diet and lose weight, our body increases the production of ghrelin (our appetite stimulating hormone) and decreases the production of leptin (our appetite suppressing hormone).
Now you may be saying, 'hang on, but I know I'm not eating more, I'm keeping my food diary'. This may well be true, but research does show that people commonly underestimate their intake by a considerable amount , so it is possible for people to think they're sticking to a reduced intake, but in fact they are eating more, simply because the drive to do so becomes almost impossible to ignore. It's possible you could be failing to record the correct portion size, because these have crept up a little, or you're not logging your kids' leftovers that you absent-mindedly snacked on...? I'm not pointing a finger here – these are just natural human behaviours in response to an increase in appetite.
One final reason weight loss can stall...
Research indicates that calorie deficits can increase our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) . This effect can be more severe if we create a very large calorie deficit alongside an intense exercise programme (as high-intensity exercise can also increase cortisol levels). Raised cortisol levels can increase water retention and also lead to increased fat storage around the abdomen , which can slow weight loss progress.
Apologies if this all sounds a bit doom and gloom. It's really not I promise! Yes, losing weight long term is a challenge, and our body does somewhat fight against it eventually. But, knowing what is going on gives us the power to approach weight loss in the most sustainable way, and to know what to address when we know we've hit a plateau.
Essentially, something needs to change. In the words of Einstein "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" – and this applies to weight loss plateaus too. If you've reached one, what you are currently doing isn't going to get the same results anymore. Something different is required to get things moving again – the key is identifying what needs to change.
So here's the good part – my top 8 ways to overcome a weight loss plateau. And spoiler alert – they're all actions to counter the reasons plateaus can occur in the first place!
Let's be honest, six months or more into a weight loss journey, your enthusiasm may be waning somewhat. While we may start out weighing and recording absolutely everything that passes our lips, and jumping for joy when we see those lbs coming off each week, six months in and several weeks of STS (staying the same) is likely to dampen that energy.
It's common to start skipping diary days or failing to record all foods accurately in our diary each day, when we have been doing it for a long time. Remember those kitchen scales you were attached to for the first few weeks? Well they need to make a special reappearance now to help you get back to accurate diary keeping.
If the research is true, and our appetite does in fact increase as we lose weight, it's highly likely you could be eating more than you think you are if you're not tracking accurately. Manage that change in appetite by logging your food and consciously aiming to stick to a reduced calorie intake. And this is where Nutracheck comes in very handy! Our super helpful food diary and extensive UK food database can help you keep as accurate a food diary as possible – we have the numbers, you just need to do the tracking.
We know that our energy output reduces as we lose weight, making a calorie deficit harder to create. Having more lean muscle tissue increases our metabolic rate and daily energy output, as muscle tissue uses more energy than fat mass – even at rest. Focusing on building and maintaining our lean muscle mass can be the key to moving past a weight loss plateau and boosting our metabolic rate.
How do we do this? Resistance exercise is the answer. Exercises that work against a resistance, whether that be our body weight or a by lifting weights, work to maintain our muscle mass or even build more muscle mass if the resistance is high enough. Lifting weights is one of the best things we can all do for ourselves in the fight against the frustrating weight loss plateau. To read more about resistance exercise check out my blog here.
Higher protein diets have been associated with successful weight loss in some people . This is because protein is very filling, meaning we find it easier to stick to a reduced calorie intake. But also, protein requires the most energy to be broken down and digested – more than carbohydrates and fat. This means the more protein we eat, the more energy we use each day for digesting food (AKA the thermic effect of food!).
Focus in on your protein intake in our app by switching the nutrient column in your diary to track protein (tap the nutrient column header and select PROTg) and ensure you're not falling short of your daily target. Better still, switch to our Higher Protein nutrient goal and aim for an increased protein intake for a while. This goal increases protein slightly and reduces your carb target a little. To switch goals in the app, tap on the blue menu button to the right of the search bar in your diary, followed by 'Nutrient Goals' > 'Higher Protein'.
Along with protein, fibre is also a very filling nutrient, so it's great for managing our appetite. High fibre diets have been linked to improved weight loss in some people too . Fibre is also incredibly good for our gut as it helps our digestion run smoothly and also feeds our gut microbiome. A healthy and diverse gut microbiome has been linked to many positives such as better weight management and reduced disease risk too ,so it's definitely a good idea to look after our gut!
It's worth noting that when you're trying to increase your fibre intake from a lower level, it's best to do it slowly and make sure you're drinking plenty of fluids. Aim for an increase of around 3-4g per day for a week, and then another 3-4g per day the following week and so on, until you reach the ideal 30g per day recommendation. Keep an eye on how you're feeling and if you experience any out-of-the-ordinary bloating or changes to bowel movements, maybe slow down the increase to give your body time to adjust. Fibre is very nutritious, but introducing a lot all at once can sometimes be a bit much for our digestive systems.
We know that we naturally move less when we're following a weight loss diet, so make a conscious effort to avoid this. Walk as often as you can, take the stairs instead of the lift, stand up for meetings rather than sitting down, move at least once an hour when sitting for long periods – do what you can to consciously move more throughout the day. Our daily NEAT movements can increase our energy output by a surprising amount!
For more tips on increasing NEAT read my blog here.
We've already mentioned resistance training, so that also falls under this section. But exercising more in general is one of the single best ways to help us move past a weight loss plateau. We know that exercise requires less effort from us the more often we do it, so it's vital to keep progressing our programme over time to avoid a plateau. Change the type of exercise you're doing, or increase the intensity or duration of some sessions. The key is to do more than you have been doing. Ideally, we should review our exercise programme every 6-8 weeks to ensure we're progressing and continuing to see adaptations and changes.
Moving more and building lean muscle tissue is also one of the best ways to maintain a healthy metabolism, and since losing weight can wreak havoc with our metabolic rate – we want to do all we can to boost this in order to move past a plateau.
This may be easier said than done, but higher stress levels are no friend to a weight loss journey. Losing weight and exercise can increase our stress hormone levels, so focusing on mindfulness and stress management techniques can be really helpful. In fact, research shows that people who practise stress reduction activities while aiming to lose weight have a better weight loss success rate .
Along the same lines, sleep is incredibly important for managing stress and cortisol levels. Poor quality or inadequate amounts of sleep can lead to raised cortisol levels , which we know is no good for successful weight loss. So aim to make time for relaxing activities to manage stress and also to prioritise sleep – read more about sleep here.
This can be a scary concept for anyone on a weight loss diet, but sometimes when a true plateau is reached, a diet break may be what's needed. A chance to relax your mind, boost your metabolic rate and essentially reverse all those energy reductions related to weight loss.
Maintaining a calorie deficit for a prolonged period of time can mean our body is under stress for too long, which ultimately just leads to more stress and harder weight loss. Scheduling in a break now and again can be really helpful to long term success and avoiding the potential to give up and ultimately regain the weight.
The best way to do this is through reverse dieting. This is where we increase the amount we're eating but very slowly, to allow our body time to adjust and avoid weight regain. To do this, aim to eat 50-100 calories more each day for a week, then increase by the same the following week and so on. Keep tracking your weight and if you notice it creep up, hold the increase for a week or so to allow time for adjustment. Ideally you should be able to gradually increase your intake over several weeks to get back to a long term maintenance level where you neither gain nor lose weight. Spend a little bit of time there – a diet holiday if you will – then embark on a calorie deficit diet again when ready.
It may seem like this will stall weight loss – but actually in the long term, it could be your ticket to successfully reaching your ultimate goal.
Prevention is better than cure when it comes to most things in life and a weight loss plateau is no different. While a plateau is more or less inevitable during a weight loss journey, we can give ourselves the best possible chance of not reaching one too soon or having an easier way out when we do. This all comes down to how we approach weight loss from the outset!
Try to approach weight loss in a moderate way to avoid such a massive shock to your body. Aim for a moderate calorie reduction – don't start on 1,000 calories per day and 5 exercise sessions per week. This will send your cortisol levels sky high and make things so much harder. Eat plenty of food in terms of bulk – lots of fruits and vegetables, fibre and protein from the get-go. This will keep your digestive system and metabolism ticking over nicely.
Remain active as much as possible, but eat back your exercise calories to avoid a huge deficit. When you sign up to Nutracheck your default diary setting is the Combined view, which automatically adds your daily exercise calories back onto your allowance for you to eat back. It's important you do this if you're regularly exercising, because the app has already factored in the required calorie deficit for weight loss in your food allowance each day. Excessive exercise without correctly refuelling can put your body in too much stress and slow down weight loss in the long term.
I completely get the desire to really go for it and aim for fast results, but take it from me, this rarely works long term. A more moderate, sustainable approach from day one is going to be your key to success – and when that plateau does come a-knocking, you now have the know-how for overcoming it. You've got this!
Nutritionist Emma White (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.