It's not in your head. Weight-loss plateaus are real. Here are five sneaky reasons they occur and how to blast past them.

Lainey Younkin, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
September 14, 2020
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You've lost 10 pounds! Then the dreaded scale stops and nothing you do seems to move that number down, ugh. It's not you; it's your body. Well, it's you and your body. But it's fixable. Keep reading to learn five sneaky culprits behind weight-loss plateaus and how to slide that number on the scale down again.

1. Calories sneak back in

You've started your diet and are in full food-tracking mode. But then a month goes by and you aren't so religious about it. An extra handful of nuts here, an extra glass of wine there and without knowing it, you've added 250 to 500 calories back into your day. While you might not gain weight, it could be the reason weight loss has stalled. Titilayo Ayanwola M.P.H., RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Plateful Of Yum, explains, "After losing weight successfully for a month or two, people tend to get lax on their efforts and hit a weight-loss plateau because they no longer pay attention to the amount of food they are consuming and are inaccurately estimating their portion sizes. In reality, they are most likely eating more than they think they are, causing their weight loss to stall."

But don't worry, it's easy to remedy this, she says: "To correct this: you should continue to weigh and measure your food to ensure you are not underestimating your portion sizes, and also continue to keep a food journal. A food journal is very insightful and can help you identify times when you might be mindlessly snacking, which is also a contributing factor to hitting a plateau." You don't need to track calories forever, but it's a good way to identify issues.

2. You're not eating enough

Yes, we just said you may be eating too many calories, but the opposite could also be true. "Our bodies are really smart," says Megan Kober, RD, a registered dietitian at The Nutrition Addiction. "If you've been eating super low-cal, you probably lost weight initially, but that isn't sustainable. You have to eat more to feed your metabolism."

Severe calorie restriction signals the body to conserve energy, not burn it. It's your body's way of protecting you because it doesn't know you're dieting. It just thinks you've run out of food and doesn't know when you'll eat again. To combat this, lose weight slowly—not through crash diets—and eat protein, fiber and healthy fat every 3 to 4 hours.

3. You've unintentionally slowed your metabolism

When you lose weight, you lose muscle and fat. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. So, as muscle mass declines, the rate at which you burn calories does too. To rev up your metabolism again, pick up some weights at least three times a week. "If you are trying to reduce your body fat and you've hit a plateau, you absolutely need to be lifting weights," says Kober. "Not 3-pound dumbbells. But something that is going to challenge you and help you build muscle. The more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn by sitting in the hot tub reading a book. Each pound of muscle equals 50 to 150 more calories burned each day." That's something we can get behind.

4. Your weight-loss goal isn't realistic

Your perceived plateau may be your body's preferred weight. Bodies don't like to be out of balance. Body temp likes to be at 98.6 degrees. The pH of blood hangs out at 7.35-7.45—a pretty tight range. Same goes for your weight—the set point theory explains that weight is largely determined by genetics and you can't do much to change it. Before you get depressed, don't worry, you can change your set point. The obesity epidemic is proof that food, exercise and environment can override biology. This has led to an updated theory called "settling point theory" that takes the environment, nutrition and social factors into consideration.

You can lower your set point with slow and steady weight loss. Aim to lose 10% of your body weight at a time, say researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Then work to maintain that loss for six months before starting to lose another 10%.

Remember that it's normal for people's weights to change throughout their lives. If you're trying to weigh a number you weighed in high school or before you had babies, it may not be sustainable given your current lifestyle. If it's a lot of work to maintain the weight you want to be and you find yourself constantly thinking about food and your body, then that's a good sign you need to change your expectations.

5. You're a stress ball

The stress alone of hitting a weight-loss plateau could be enough to send cortisol soaring. Cortisol, the "stress hormone," rises in times of trouble. But it's supposed to come back down. Chronically high cortisol levels halt fat burning and may increase belly fat storage. The two ways to lower stress are to manage the trigger—the thing (er, or person) causing the stress—or manage your response to it, ideally both. Pick up those weights, go on a walk, talk to a friend, journal, listen to music or sleep. And be patient with your weight loss. Slow and steady wins the weight-loss race.

Bottom Line

Weight-loss plateaus are frustrating but fixable. If the scale is stuck, start tracking food again, assess your stress and pick up some weights. Review your weight-loss goal and determine if it's realistic for your lifestyle. And don't forget to pat yourself on the back for the weight you have lost. Sustainable weight loss is a journey, so don't be too hard on yourself and enjoy the process!