At first, losing weight felt almost easy. You attacked your diet with conviction—cutting back on added sugar and upping your vegetables. Working out was fun and people at the gym might have even started to recognize you. Close friends cheered you on as those first few pounds seemed to slide right off.
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But now, months later, not so much. Yes, you're still faithfully turning up at the gym and turning down desserts. But no matter what you do, the scale is stuck. So what happened?
You've hit a weight-loss plateau, and it's not your fault. "Everyone is different, and a lot depends on how much weight you have to lose, what plan you're on and other factors—but on average, plateaus tend to strike after around six months," says weight-loss expert and certified personal trainer Melissa Majumdar, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Here's how to push past the plateau and get back on track to meet your weight-loss goals.
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Exercise plays a vital role, too—but research shows the key to lasting weight loss is what you eat. These tips can help you bust through your plateau.
Is it possible—just maybe—that you're not sticking as closely to your diet as you think? Bites of this and that can add up and be hard to pinpoint. The only way to know for sure is to write it down, Majumdar says. She recommends using an app to easily track your intake. Or you can always jot it down the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. Whichever way you choose, the results may surprise you and help you refocus your efforts.
You need protein for muscle growth and repair, and healthy carbs for energy. Check your food log and see where you might be running low. Stick with lean sources of protein like eggs, fish, chicken, Greek yogurt, beans, lentils and tofu. For carbs, go with whole grains like oats, brown rice, quinoa and farro, and starchier vegetables like sweet potatoes and butternut or spaghetti squash. Fruits are fine, too—but watching your portions can be especially helpful as you're breaking through this weight-loss plateau.
Know ahead of time what, when and how much you'll eat, Majumdar suggests. "Otherwise, the day gets away from you, and you end up eating anything." Buy prechopped veggies to save time in the kitchen, and give one of EatingWell's Meal Plans a try, like our 7-Day, 1,200-Calorie Meal Plan.
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Breaking out of a food rut may help you bust out of that plateau. "Most of us burn out on our go-to foods," Majumdar says. If you're sick of chicken breast, have the thigh or drumstick instead or try a new fish or tofu. Challenge yourself to try at least one new recipe each week.
"If you cut out all your favorite foods, the changes won't last," Majumdar says. The trick is making those old faves fit with your new way of eating. If it's burgers you crave, skip the bun. Can't part with fries? Order them now and then, but pair them with a salad. If you're a chocoholic, find small ways to satisfy your sweet tooth, like with one of these low-calorie chocolate desserts.
Desperate times—and your plateau may seem like one—may sometimes seem to call for desperate measures, but stick to healthy habits. Don't go below 1,200 calories a day without a doctor's supervision. "You need your hunger and energy levels to be sustainable, and it's difficult to meet your daily needs on such a limited diet" Majumdar says.
Your body gets used to the same workout, so over time you won't see the same results. Challenge yourself in different ways: if you've been doing mainly cardio, add more strength training. "Weight lifting is going to be very helpful," says Majumdar. If you're scared you might bulk up, relax—experts have put that myth to rest.
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"This is where I think a lot of people have unrealistic expectations," says Majumdar. "They'll add in a walk, but they don't lose weight, and they're frustrated." Try circuit training or other activities that get your heart rate up. "Exercising at more intensity over short periods of time can get you into weight-loss mode again," she says.
Those early pounds you shed were most likely water weight. After that, weight loss naturally slows. Before you toss out your bathroom scale, make sure your goals are realistic. Normal weight loss is about a half-pound to two pounds a week, says Majumdar. If you're in that range, you may not be in such a slump after all.
We know it's hard, but try not to obsess over the numbers on the scale. Other changes count, too: Maybe you've lost an inch around your waist, dropped a dress size or kicked your fitness level up a notch. Get your blood checked and see if your cholesterol has improved. Or maybe you've simply noticed you have more energy these days. They're all reasons to celebrate!
You and the gang went out to The Cheesecake Factory—and your diet went out the window. Skip the guilt. "Every plate is a clean slate," Majumdar says. "Making one bad choice isn't going to break your whole diet." Treat each meal as a fresh chance to make a healthy choice, and nix the negative self-talk.
"Probably the biggest mistake dieters make is to quit," says Majumdar. Instead, know that you'll need to make adjustments along the way. "Your body changes, your life changes," she adds. "So the original plan may not work. If you're not open-minded, it's going to be more challenging."
Weight-loss plateaus are a frustrating part of the journey, but you can get through. Finding support from a workout buddy or online group—or from a professional—can help keep you accountable to get you over the finish line.