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Weight loss plateau: why it happens & how to overcome it

You decided to lose weight. You follow a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and start getting promising results, but then, suddenly, you stop getting any progress.

Your weight loss slows down or stops, and you wonder if your scales are broken as they keep showing the same numbers despite all the hard work you put into your training. All that feels very frustrating, you lose motivation, and want to quit.

If that sounds familiar to you – don’t worry, you’ve just hit the weight loss plateau.

We often think that when we start our weight-loss journey, we’ll just continue to get steady progress until we reach our ideal weight, but that’s not true.

In reality, you will experience numerous periods of weight loss, plateau, and sometimes, even weight gain throughout your fitness journey. Your goal is to overcome each plateau and continue moving towards your goals.

Let’s look at the common reasons for the weight loss plateau, and how you can break through it.

Is it really a weight loss plateau?

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Water weight loss

If you recently started your weight-loss program and got very promising results during the first 2-3 weeks and then suddenly stopped seeing any progress – although it may feel like you are stuck and hit the plateau, that’s not the case.

When you get into the calorie deficit, your body turns to other energy sources, and the first one in line is glycogen. It’s stored in your muscles and liver and can be turned into glucose when you need energy. Each gram of glycogen is stored with 3-4 grams of water. So, when your body uses glycogen, water goes away too.

As the result, you lose weight quite effectively in the beginning – but this is just water weight, not fat weight. And when your body empties your glycogen resources along with accompanying water, the overall weight loss slows down.

Although it may feel like you are stuck and your plan doesn’t work, just keep following your diet & training program as you are only starting to lose your fat weight at this point.

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Weight stays the same, but body measurements & composition change

Another situation is when you stop seeing any difference in your weight on the scales, but you notice desired improvements in your body appearance and composition (e.g. through the DEXA scan).

Concentrate on what’s important for you – in the end, it’s all about how your feel and look, not just the number on your scales.

Remember, that your body shape changes with proper training and diet, and you gain muscle while burning fat. So your weight may get stuck on the same level at some point, but you notice the difference in the mirror (and you can wear your favourite jeans again!) – so this also doesn’t mean that you’ve reached a weight loss plateau.

What causes the weight loss plateau?

1. Changes in calorie intake & decreased metabolism

Your body adapts to your diet and activity level, and while you’re trying to lose weight, you may sometimes cause the opposite effect if you don’t consider the natural mechanisms of your body.

For example, if you decide to lower your calorie intake while keeping your physical activity on the same level, you may expect to speed up your weight loss process. But what happens is the opposite – your body doesn’t get enough fuel anymore and gets into starvation mode, trying to preserve precious energy and holding on to your body fat. Your metabolism slows down, and you can even gain weight instead of dropping it.

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2. Food that causes water retention

If you follow a healthy diet, you already know that you should avoid foods rich in carbs, saturated fats, and sodium.

This is especially important when you try to lose weight, as excessive salts and sugar make your body retain more water, causing an increase in weight and unpleasant bloating & swelling effects, despite your training efforts.

3. Eating too much

We already covered how cutting your calories intake and eating too little can make your body slow down metabolism and lead to the weight loss plateau.

Another evil is eating too much. If your portions are oversized or you snack more than you need, it simply increases your calorie intake, and your body ends up with extra calories that it can’t burn with your regular exercise amount.

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4. Hormonal imbalance

Our hormones support many body functions – from muscle maintenance and hunger experience to reproduction and growth.

And our hormone system is a complex mechanism that can be affected by our lifestyle, including diet, sleeping habits, physical activity, and stress management.

For example, not getting enough sleep increases the level of the stress hormone cortisol, which in its turn, increases appetite and makes your body store fat, especially in the belly.

Besides poor sleep and a stressful lifestyle, our hormones can get out of balance because of an unhealthy diet, low physical activity, and various health problems.  

5. Doing the same training routine for too long

Now that we covered diet-related reasons, let’s turn to your training program.

Have you changed it since you first started your weight-loss journey? Did you increase the challenge level with time and keep your workouts versatile and fun?

These factors are important for keeping your body challenged and getting on the next fitness level. Making your training more interesting and fun is also great for your motivation and mood.

Getting a personal trainer or using a fitness app is a great way to ensure that your workouts will change with your needs and progress, and always be most effective, fun, and challenging.

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6. Chaotic training

Another reason for hitting the weight loss plateau could be the lack of a consistent training plan.

If you choose random exercises which are not necessarily effective in your case, move from one exercise to another without a clear routine, or don’t train consistently with a gradual increase in intensity, this all can sabotage your results.

Remember, that training too much is as bad as training too little, as it puts your body under stress preventing recovery and fat loss.

How to break through the weight loss plateau?

1. Keep track of what you eat

If you reached a plateau, start writing down everything that you eat during 1-2 weeks, including every little snack. Write down portion sizes too.

And then calculate macronutrients, which are even more important than calories.

You need to make sure that you don’t eat too much – which often happens because of uncontrolled snacking, especially if you’re guilty of choosing snacks with hidden sugars (like juices, granola bars, and flavoured coffee).

At the same time, you need to get enough protein for building muscles, enough fat to support your hormonal system, enough carbs for supporting your energy level, and enough fibre, which is also associated with weight loss – so undereating won’t do you any good as well.

Keep track of what you eat and calculate your macros, and you will be able to make informed changes to your diet that will help you lose weight.

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2. Increase protein intake

Protein requires the most energy to digest among macronutrients, gives you a feeling of satiety, helps you build muscle, and boosts your metabolism.

Start drinking protein shakes as a healthy snack – just mix it with water or plant-based milk and enjoy it when you feel hungry between your meals.

If you often wake up in the middle of the night craving some food, start having a protein shake right before bed. And you can even drink it at night, at the time when you wake up hungry.

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3. Ditch alcohol

Alcohol brings lots of empty calories into your body and drops your energy level for the next day. It causes sleep problems, increases appetite, and boosts the levels of cortisol and oestrogen hormones, which makes your body accumulate fat.  

So if you like having a glass of wine now and then, make it a treat for yourself when you reach your weight goal, but try to avoid it altogether when you’re in the process.

4. Increase your activity level

Sometimes, even having regular high-intensity training could be not enough if you are completely inactive for the rest of the day.

Try to be as active as possible in your everyday life – avoid elevators and take the stairs instead, walk around your office while on a call, park your car further from your workplace so that you can walk some extra steps.

Every little thing counts, so being more active in small ways every day will also help you boost metabolism, burn more calories, and facilitate weight loss. Use a step tracker for extra motivation, as you can see how many calories you burn with each activity.

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5. Change your workout

If you feel that your current training routine does not bring the desired results anymore, try increasing the intensity of your exercise and make your workouts more challenging. Increase your weekly training time as well and visit the gym more often.

On the contrary, if you feel that your body is under stress because of excessive training, decrease the intensity or frequency of your workouts.

It’s always best to have an individual training program developed based on your needs and fitness level, and regularly adapted to your progress – that way you will ensure that your body gets the proper type and amount of training for reaching your goals.

6. Work on your muscles

Growing muscle requires a lot of energy, so working out your muscles boosts your metabolism and helps your body burn more calories between your training sessions.

Make sure to include the proper amount of strength exercises in your training routine, as cardio alone will not bring you desired results.

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7. Manage your stress

Everyday stress can put us off the inner balance and cause many problems from health issues to struggles with losing weight.

Find the time to meditate and relax for some minutes every day to let go of anxiety and thoughts, improve your mindfulness, and clear your mind. You will notice a great difference in your stress levels even if you spend just 5 minutes of your time on meditation daily.

8. Get enough sleep

If you don’t rest enough, your body gets in a survival mode, and your hormones are not so happy either – and we already know how important it is to keep your hormones in balance for weight loss and general health.

Sleep for 7-9 hours every day and be consistent with your sleep schedule. Studies show that consistency and proper duration of sleep both contribute to better weight loss results.

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9. Take a break from your diet and training

Sometimes, your body and mind just need some extra time to recover. And we’re not talking about a cheat meal here – more like a week or two without diet restrictions and without working out.

You still need to be active in your lifestyle, but don’t do your training routine. Your body and mind will properly rest, your muscles will properly recover, and you will be ready to continue your program with fresh energy and motivation.  

10. Get a health check-up

The best thing to do is to turn to a professional for help, when all your efforts seem to be in vain and you can’t reach the desired weight loss results.

Make a blood test, check your hormone levels – that will help you identify the root of the problem and develop your further plan based on your body needs and health state.

A weight loss journey may seem like a difficult battle with your own body, which should never be the case. Always listen to the signal your body gives to you, as it is an amazingly complex mechanism that does everything for a reason.

Hitting a weight-loss plateau feels frustrating and demotivating, but don’t worry and keep going as it’s just a part of the process. By listening to your body, you will be able to break through the plateau and achieve your weight goals.

And finally – remember that your attractiveness is much more than just a number on the scales, so keep moving towards self-love and self-confidence rather than to that fickle number. You can do this!

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