Joe is an online weight loss coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose fat and build muscle.
Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.
If you want to know more, check out the about page, or get in touch
Have you ever hit a weight loss plateau and felt discouraged with your progress?
What a ridiculous question, of COURSE, you have, we all have.
Even if you’re doing everything right, weight loss is NOT a linear process, so plateaus WILL happen from time to time.
It’s a common experience that many of us have faced while trying to shed those extra pounds.
I know that weight loss plateaus are frustrating and make you feel like you’re not making any progress despite all your hard work. However, you shouldn’t feel disheartened because
- The scale isn’t always a true indicator of weight loss in the short term
- Even if you are doing everything exactly right, your weight is going to plateau at various different points
- Breaking through a weight loss plateau is always possible
In this article, I’m NOT going to tell you that you can just ignore a plateau until it goes away.
I’m not going to tell you that you can break through a plateau by meditating, manifesting or just believing in yourself
What I will give you is practical and effective strategies to help you push past that plateau and get back on track toward achieving your weight loss goals ASAP.
WHAT IS A WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAU?
So what is a weight loss plateau exactly?
In simple terms, it’s when you stop losing weight for a sustained period of loss.
But how long counts as a plateau?
Well, there is no objective or scientific answer to this, but I’d define a plateau as anything more than 14 days of no weight loss.
If your weight has been static for 14 days, you can be fairly sure that you’ve hit a plateau, and that you need to change something.
More important, is why plateaus actually happen.
There are two maintain reasons why plateaus happen;
- Metabolic Adaptation
As you lose weight, a process called metabolic adaptation happens. As you become a lighter person, you require fewer calories to move and stay alive, and as a result, you need to eat fewer calories to lose weight.
Let’s say you’re a chap weighing 80kg (175lbs). You’d likely need to eat around 2,500 calories a day to maintain your weight.
If you started eating 2,000 calories a day (every day), you’d lose around 0.5kg (1lb) a week.
So over 24 weeks (6 months) you’d lose around 12kg (24lbs).
The problem is, you now weigh 68kg, so to maintain your weight you may only need 2,000 calories a day.
That means if you eat 2,000 calories a day… You guessed it, nothing will happen. You’ll stay the same weight.
This is a weight loss plateau in action.
It’s often mistaken for “starvation mode” which is a presumed state where your body somehow decides to stop losing weight because it’s getting too few calories.
This simply isn’t the case, you can still carry on losing weight at the same rate you were before, i.e. 1kg (0.5lb) per week, but you’ll need to eat fewer calories.
In this case, you’d need to eat 1,500 calories a day (yes, every day) to keep losing weight at that same rate.
Practically of course it doesn’t work like this.
If you kept reducing your calorie intake by 500 calories (maintaining a 500-calorie deficit), you’d soon be at the stage where you were eating dust.
So the logical step would be to have a SMALLER calorie deficit and accept a SLOWER rate of weight loss.
You could go down to 1,750 calories, and accept that you’d be losing weight at around 0.25kg (0.5lb) per week.
- Non-fat weight fluctuations
When the scales go up from one day to the next, most people’s natural reaction is to assume they’ve gained fat and panic.
9 out of 10 times this isn’t the case.
The problem is, in the short term, the scales aren’t good at reflecting fat loss, because it happens so gradually.
So, between Monday and Tuesday, you might have lost 0.2lbs of fat, but you might have 0.6lbs more of food sitting in your gut.
Does this mean you’ve gained weight?
You’ve gained a net 0.4lbs But importantly, you haven’t gained fat, you just have more food and/or water sitting in your gut.
That will happen day in and day out, whether you’re losing weight, maintaining your weight or gaining weight.
So GET USED to the scale going up and down, there’s nothing you can do about it.
EXAMPLES OF WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAUS
If you’re still feeling concerned about the fact that your weight loss has plateaued (or that it might), I’m going to put your mind at rest.
I’ve helped over 100 people lose weight, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM has experienced a plateau at some point.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few real-world examples;
This is a client that was already fairly light but wanted to feel more confident and toned.
They experienced a plateau between 19th December and 17th February.
Yes, that’s almost 8 weeks .
Between those two dates, their weight actually increased slightly.
But look what happened afterward, they carried on losing weight again. Would you have quit after seeing no results for 2 months? Sometimes you need to be patient.
This is another client whose weight plateaued.
A slightly shorter plateau this time; just under a month, but still annoying.
In fact, this client has had several plateaus since I started coaching them in June 2022. Did they quit at any point? Also no.
There have been pause sin weight loss, but look at the overall picture, it’s only going one way, and that’s down.
One last example, and one of the longest and most severe plateaus I’ve dealt with.
This one last from mid-December to early March, so almost 3 months.
Could you deal with 3 months of no weight loss? It’s a good question to ask yourself if you WANT to lose weight because it could happen.
But look at the bigger picture, and it’s clear that weight loss happening.
HOW TO BREAK THROUGH WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAUS
⚖️ Weigh Yourself Daily
Daily weigh-ins are NOT obsessive or unhealthy. They take 5 seconds to step on the scale and then record the weight in your phone.
If you think daily weigh-ins make you ‘obsessed’ or anxious about your weight, what’s the alternative?
NOT knowing what your weight is doing? I’d argue that will make you more obsessive and anxious.
Daily weigh-ins will allow you to see exactly where you are on your journey and accurately track your progress, there’s no point in turning a blind eye to your weight if it’s what you’re trying to change.
Face up to it, and start NOW
⬇️ Reduce Your Calorie Target
A genuine weight loss plateau is often most quickly broken by a small reduction in calories
No, this doesn’t mean eating 500 fewer calories a day (that sounds terrifying) most of the time I get my clients to drop their calories between 5-10%
For someone eating 1,800 calories, that would mean eating 90-180 fewer calories which would bring their target to down between 1,620-1,710 calories
⬆️ Increase Your Calorie Target
Doesn’t this go against what I just said?
Well technically yes, but if your calories are SO low that they prevent you from hitting your target, causing you to overeat, then your calorie target needs to be higher.
Think about it like this.
You actually need 1,500 calories to lose weight but you’re eating 1,000 per day because you want to speed things up.
You get through the first 4 days eating 1,000 calories but then binge on 2,400 calories the next 3 days
(But you still tell everyone you’re eating 1,000 calories).
What’s actually happened is tha you’ve eaten an AVERAGE of 1,600 calories per day which is TOO MUCH for you to lose weight.
If you upped your calorie target to 1,300 you might find it easier to stick to and you’d actually start losing weight
⬆️ Increase Your Activity
Instead of changing your calories, you could just do more activity.
I always recommend adding in steps rather than saying you’re going to do more high-intensity exercise (cycling, swimming, sport) because the calories burned from steps are much easier to predict.
1,000 steps will burn roughly 50 calories, so if you add an extra 3,000 steps to your daily strategy, you’ll burn an extra 150 calories a day which could be what you need to get your weight loss efforts moving again.
And you get to eat the same amount!
🍗 Increase Protein Intake
Protein takes more energy for your body to digest than carbs or fat.
This means you store fewer calories from high-protein foods than you do from high-carb or high-fat foods.
Protein also helps to fill you up because it’s more satiating than carbs or fat.
This means that;
- The more protein you get in your diet, the fewer calories you’ll store
- It’ll be easier to stick to your calorie target because you’ll feel fuller
No brainer. Eat more protein.
😴 Get More Sleep
Sufficient sleep will help regulate your appetite.
If you can regulate your appetite, you’ll be able to stick to your calorie target much more easily.
If you can stick to your calorie target, you’ll lose weight.
✈️ Take A Diet Break
A diet break is a period where you take some time off of tracking, and allow yourself a few more calories.
I know what you’re thinking, how the hell will that help me break through a plateau?
Well, it won’t, but what it will do is allow you to come back after the break with renewed focus and motivation to stick to your target.
A diet break should last about a week.
N.B. A diet break is NOT an invitation to go crazy and eat as much as you can, doing that will make you GAIN weight and set you back even further
Just Be Patient
The best advice I can offer you if you’re in a plateau is BE PATIENT. Plateaus will happen and there’s not much you can do about it. If that plateau has last more than two weeks and you definitely sticking to your calorie target then it’s probably time to lower your calories a little
WHY DOES YOUR WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAU?
So you know HOW to break a plateau, but it’s also helpful to know WHY plateaus happen.
This is especially useful for keeping your mindset strong; if you know why your weight has gone up from one day to the next, you’re more likely to compartmentalize it and move on, rather than panicking, getting depressed or quitting.
So what causes plateaus?
❌ Not Sticking to Your Calorie Target
This is the most obvious one. If you’re not sticking to your calories, then it’s unlikely you’ll be in a deficit and you won’t lose any weight. Before you start worrying about being in a plateau, make sure you’re eating the right amount of calories first
💩 Constipation/Irregular Bowls
Have you ever been for a number 2 and felt as light as a feather after?! Well there’s a reason for that, your number 2s can weigh between 1-2lbs (0.5-1kg).
That means that if you don’t go at your regular time and you’re ‘backed up’, which has an impact on your scale weight.
🍞 🍝High Carb Intake
No, carbs aren’t ‘bad’ for weight loss, however, eating carbs WILL make you temporarily heavier, but this isn’t body fat.
Carbs are stored in the muscles in the form of ‘glycogen’ (this is a good thing as it’ll make your muscles look fuller), so if you are adding to glycogen stores, this will increase your weight a little.
Also, for every gram of carbohydrates you store, you’ll also store 3g of water.
So if you’ve eaten more carbs than usual, expect your weight to be temporarily higher than normal
🧂 High Salt Intake
Salt (sodium) also causes water retention. This is because your body tries to maintain, a specific salt-to-water ratio.
Just like consuming carbs, consuming more salt than usual will result in a higher-than-usual scale weight – obviously if you eat a meal that’s high in salt AND carbs, the effect will be even more severe.
💧 High Water Intake
You may not have water retention, but simply drinking water can affect your weight.
Try this; step on the scale, then drink one liter of water. Step on the scale again and you should be about 2lb (1kg) heavier.
This shows you that, if you’ve not been for a number 1 in a while and have a full bladder, this can have a big impact on your weight.
Similar story if you’ve just drunk a big glass of water
If you’re on your period, this can cause hormonal changes which can also affect water retention, which will affect your weight in the same ways described above.
Be aware that when you are on your period, your weight will generally be higher than normal.
💪🏼 You’re Gaining Muscle
You can gain a small amount of muscle, even if you’re in a calorie deficit.
So, if you’re adding muscle, this will of course affect your weight, it won’t be an ‘acute’ effect like drinking water (i.e. you won’t suddenly gain a pound of muscle overnight), but it will ‘slow down’ your weight loss.
🔥 Reduction in Weight and Metabolic rate
This is the most important reason to be aware of, why? Well because if you don’t address it, you won’t be able to break your plateau.
When you lose weight, you become a smaller, lighter person (obviously).
Because you’re smaller and lighter, you need fewer calories to stay alive and move around than you did before and your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) is lower.
This also means you need fewer calories than you did before to lose weight.
As this study confirms “This lowering of TDEE is referred to as adaptive thermogenesis, decreasing energy expenditure to match the lower caloric intake dietarily, thus halting or decreasing the rate of weight loss”
So if when you started your diet, you were losing weight on 1,800 but you’ve STOPPED losing weight, you may need to reduce your calorie intake by around 10% to carry on losing weight at the same rate.
This process is called metabolic adaptation, i.e. your metabolism constantly adapting to your current weight.
It’s important to understand that this is NOT starvation mode. Starvation mode is a myth.
WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAUS VS FAT LOSS PLATEAUS
So now you know that when your scale weight plateaus, it doesn’t always mean that you’re not losing fat.
In fact, it usually just means that you have more water or food in your body than usual.
Even if you know this, seeing the scale go up can still be annoying, so what other progress markers can you use to be sure that you’re still making progress APART from scale weight?
Well, there are quite a few;
📸 Progress Photos
Yes, you can just look in the mirror.
The problem is, you probably look at yourself in the mirror several times a day, and fat loss is so gradual you probably won’t notice any changes from day to day.
So, instead, you should take progress photos.
These are my recommendations for taking photos that’ll actually tell you something;
- Take two photos, one font and one side shot
- Have as few clothes on as possible
- Use the same location, and the same lighting each time
- Take them at the same time of day
- Take photos once a month, or each time you lose another 5lb (2.5kg)
Compare your latest set of photos to the previous set, and also the initial set.
You’ll be surprised how different you look
This one is more subjective, but another great progress marker; how do you feel?
When you sit down, does your stomach spill over the waistline of your trousers?
Do you ‘wobble’ a bit when you walk?
How far do your stomach and chest stick out?
All these things are subconscious things that you probably wonky notice if you’ve been the same weight for a long time, but if you start losing weight, you’ll feel these things starting to change.
You can of course take measurements if you want to know exactly WHERE your weight loss is happening.
For most people, I’d recommend waist and hip measurements as a minimum, because these are the areas you likely want to lose fat from.
You can of course also take chest arm, and shoulder measurements although this more relevant for people that are trying to build muscle
How do your clothes feel and fit?
You might have a pair of jeans that you stopped wearing because they got too tight, and losing weight might allow you to slip back into them.
Your clothe getting looser in the right places is always a good feeling, and if that’s happening, it’s a very good indication you’re losing weight, even if the scale doesn’t say so.
％ Body Fat Percentage
The other thing you can measure is your body fat percentage.
I wouldn’t recommend this however because all the available methods for measuring body fat percentage can be extremely inaccurate and inconsistent.
In my opinion, you’re far better off using scale weight and a mixture of the other measurement methods above.
WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAU FAQs
Can a Weight Loss Plateau Be a Good Thing?
You might not think a weight loss plateau is a good thing when you’re in the moment, but in the long term, a plateau is a perfectly natural part of weight loss and it is almost never something to worry about.
Weight loss is NEVER linear, so you need to accept that plateaus are going top happen, regardless of how good you are at sticking to your calorie target.
If you’re in a 500 calorie deficit, in theory, you should lose around 1lb per week.
And that might happen most weeks, but other weeks you might lose nothing, then the following week you might lose 2lb (1kg).
You’ve still lost 1lb a week ON AVERAGE, so in hindsight, was the plateau a bad thing?
Another situation where a weight loss plateau could be a good thing is if it’s pre-planned.
You might proactively plan to raise your calories to maintenance for a week or two just to give yourself a diet break, and that’s fine.
Your weight loss will slow down or stop, and as soon as you’re in a deficit again, it’ll resume.
One other situation where a weight loss plateau is fine, is during an unplanned diet break.
Let’s say you book a spontaneous holiday and you want to enjoy the local food and booze for a week.
Carry on being active and stop tracking calories for a week.
Unless you go absolutely mental, the chances of you going backward and gaining weight are minimal.
How Long Does a Plateau Normally Last For?
A plateau can technically last from one day to… forever I guess?
It really depends on what your definition of a weight loss plateau is, because there isn’t a ‘scientifically agreed’ duration of a plateau.
It also depends on how closely you’re monitoring your weight, and whether you take any action.
If it’s just a plateau based on fluctuations in water weight or food in the gut, I tend to find plateaus for my clients can last from anything between 2 days and about 2 weeks.
If I’m working with someone and their weight hasn’t moved for two weeks, I’ll usually look at either increasing their activity or decreasing their calories.
If your weight loss plateau is a result of metabolic adaption then you’ll definitely need to adjust your calories in and/or calories out to break through it.
If you don’t, you could technically plateau forever.
What if You Hit A Plateau in Week 1 or 2 of Your Diet?
If you hit a plateau in week or 2 of your diet then your starting calories probably weren’t right in the first place.
Use this calculator to get an accurate(ish) idea of how many calories you should be eating for weight loss
Be mindful however that this may not be 100% correct and you’ll need to closely monitor your weight to see what effect this is having.
If this is the case then your calories will need to come down (or your activity will need to go up)
🤷🏽♂️ Will a Weight Loss Plateau Go Away on Its Own?
80% of the time, a weight loss plateau will fix itself.
A short plateau (2-14 days) is usually caused by water retention, food in the gut or lack of bowel movements.
If this is the case, the plateau will go away as soon as the excess water or food is gotten rid of
If, on the other hand, the plateau is a result of the fact that you’ve lost weight, and metabolically adapted to a new lower weight, then the plateau won’t go away on it’s own.
If that’s the case, then you’ll need to either lower your calories or increase your activity to make sure that you get back into a calorie deficit and keep losing weight.
🔫 Can You Avoid a Weight Loss Plateau in The First Place?
You can’t avoid fluctuations in body water, salt, and glycogen (unless you eat and drink exactly the same amounts at the exact same times of the day), so in that sense, you can’t avoid short weight loss plateaus.
You could technically avoid metabolic adaptation (for a long time at least) if you started dieting on very low calories.
Let’s say for example that you theoretically needed to eat 1,500 to lose 1lb (0.5kg) a week. If you ate 1,000 calories a week, the chances of you hitting a plateau anytime soon would be very low.
HOWEVER (there’s always a however)…
If your calories were that low, you’d find it really tough to stick to for any length of time, and you might plateau simply because your calories are so low that you get sick of that target and binge.
Effectively, the lower your calories are, the less likely you are to have plateaus related to water/food/bowl fluctuations, but the less like you’ll be to actually stick to that target.
A Plateau Isn’t Always a Bad Thing
Of course, in an ideal world, you’d lose some weight every single day but that simply isn’t realistic. Plus there is something worse than a plateau, and that’s gaining weight. See a plateau as a temporary pause in weight loss rather than ‘I’ve stopped losing weight forever’
Weight loss plateaus are just a normal part of dieting and you need to embrace them if you’re going to be successful in the long term.
You need to accept that some weeks, the scales just won’t go down and you need to be ok with that.
As long as you’re consistently hitting your calorie intake and output targets you WILL eventually lose weight.
If you are in a plateau for longer than 14 days, however, it may just be that you need to drop your calories a little to carry on losing weight.
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