A weight loss plateau is a stall in weight loss progress that has been constant for 2 – 4 weeks. This means during that period you haven’t lost any weight.
Maybe your weight has fluctuated in the day to day but when tracking the weekly average your weight has stayed more or less the same (+/- 1 pound).
For some people it will happen suddenly, you’ll be losing weight consistently, then one week it’ll just stop and stay stopped. For others it will be more gradual, maybe you’ll be losing 2 lbs a week, then 1.5 lbs, then 1 lb then 0.5, before finally hitting 0.
Which way it happens doesn’t really matter; in the end the result is the same.
You’ve hit a weight loss plateau.
A weight loss plateau is an indication of metabolic changes in the body which work to bring your weight loss to a standstill over time.
However, weight loss plateaus are not always what they seem and can actually be split into 2 categories;
The real plateau where your weight loss has truly stopped due to a host of metabolic adaptations and you need to do something about it
The false plateau where your weight loss has stopped due to a variety of factors which give the impression of a plateau but aren’t
The trick is determining which category you fall into so you can take the appropriate action to get weight loss going again.
Have You Hit A Weight Loss Plateau?
Weight loss although simple is not always easy. At any given time, there are a variety of factors that work to give the impression of hitting a plateau when in fact you haven’t.
The key is understanding what these factors are and how to fix them.
Once you can do that then you’ll be able to determine much more accurately whether or not you’ve hit a true plateau.
What Causes A False Weight Loss Plateau?
As we’ve just been talking about there are a number of reasons for false plateaus with most of them being related to whether or not you’re maintaining a calorie deficit.
Even a small adjustment in either the number of calories you’re eating or burning is enough to throw your weight loss progress off track and bring you to a standstill.
When in truth it’s not a plateau you’re just eating at your maintenance calories.
Let’s take a look at what can do this.
Not Tracking Your Food Closely
After a few weeks or months of dieting it can be tempting to ease up on the detailed food tracking and to think that you have it all under control. However, this false sense of security is one of the biggest reasons for an inadvertent increase in the number of calories you’re eating.
Maybe you’re not tracking everything until the end of the day and are forgetting everything you ate.
Maybe you’re eyeballing food servings as you eat a lot of the same things and think you know how much it is.
Whatever it is, it’s causing you to eat more calories than you think you are and giving the impression of a having hit a weight loss plateau. Go back to tracking things as closely as you did when you started, weigh your food and keep a food diary, and the weight loss will soon resume.
A Reduction in Exercise
Sometimes it’s not food related but exercise related instead.
If your activity levels change but your food intake remains the same this can create a mismatch between how many calories you think you need and how many you actually need.
For example, if you’ve recently moved to a new house, job or gym and it involves less walking than before this will have an impact on your daily calorie burn that needs to be accounted for in your diet.
Be aware of how your activity levels change and make sure this is reflected in how much you eat.
Underestimating Your Calories
Accurately estimating how many calories are in any given food is notoriously difficult, combine this with trying to guess how many grams something is and you have a recipe for disaster. (1)
If you want to be sure that you’re on track then you need to not estimate, even if you think you know, always take the time to be sure.
Overestimating Your Exercise
Like with estimating calories eaten, estimating calories burnt through exercise is equally difficult, with individuals often hugely overestimating the amount. (2)
This creates a situation where you think you can eat more than you can whilst remain in a calorie deficit.
When in fact you’re actually overeating and bring yourself to maintenance calories which gives the impression of a weight loss plateau.
Weighing Yourself Incorrectly
When weighing yourself you want to ensure that you keep the conditions the same every time. This means if you wear your underwear to weigh yourself one morning you don’t want to then wear a t-shirt the next time.
Instead, you want to weigh yourself in your underwear every time for continuity and consistency of results.
For the most accurate results weight yourself first thing in the morning, after going to the toilet and before you eat or drink anything.
If you change how you weight yourself from day to day you can give the impression of weight gain or a weight loss plateau, when in fact it’s just a false alarm as a result of the inconsistent methods of weighing.
Water retention is one of the leading causes for stalled weight loss and the impression of having reached a weight loss plateau.
It can be caused by a variety of factors including;
Increased salt intake
Elevated cortisol and stress levels
Increased carb intake
Supplements like creatine
The important thing to remember is that although some causes of water retention can result in a large change in weight, it is temporary.
When the water retention subsides, you’ll see a whoosh of weight loss all in one go. This is the loss of additional water and the weight loss progress you’ve been making all along finally revealing itself.
This again highlights the importance of tracking your weight and taking a weekly average to get an accurate picture of what’s happening.
What Causes a True Weight Loss Plateau?
A true plateau is when even after you’ve ruled out all of the above possibilities, have waited 2 – 4 weeks and are still not losing weight.
In other words, you’re doing everything to the letter and progress has stopped. If this describes your situation then it sounds like you’ve hit a true weight loss plateau.
A true weight loss plateau is when changes in your body mean that your calorie deficit becomes calorie maintenance.
This happens for a few reasons;
Changes in Body Weight
A reduction in your BMR as a result of changes in body weight. A smaller body requires less calories to function every day.
A Reduction in Thermic Effect of Food
When in a calorie deficit you eat less food than normal which means the overall thermic effect of food (the number of calories you burn digesting food) reduces inline with the amount of food you eat.
A Reduction in NEAT Activity
A reduction in NEAT activity as a result of being in a calorie deficit and your body’s attempt to preserve energy means you do less spontaneous activity like fidgeting and burn less calories on a daily basis.
The longer you’re in a calorie deficit the greater the effects of adaptive thermogenesis which reduces you daily calories needs beyond what is expected from the above metabolic changes.
All of the above factors work together to bring about a change in calorie needs that eventually means your calorie deficit is no longer a deficit but your maintenance.
Although this is often seen as bad news because your weight loss has stopped, you should see it as good news as it means you’ve successfully lost weight.
Take some time to congratulate yourself on how far you’ve come and then get ready to get weight loss started again.
How to Overcome A Weight Loss Plateau & Start Losing Weight Again
So, you’ve hit a plateau.
A true plateau.
One where your calorie deficit has become your calorie maintenance and weight loss has stopped.
What do you do?
Well, you have 2 options;
Eat less calories
Burn more calories
Both options are valid, and both achieve the same result, putting you back into a calorie deficit. What you choose to do comes down to personal preference and there is no right or wrong answer.
However, a few points to keep in mind are;
If you’re already doing cardio then adding more could potentially increase your recovery needs, making maintain weight loss and muscle mass more difficult
Trying to burn a specific number of calories a day through exercises can be difficult (but not impossible) to accurately measure which leaves more room for error
Once you’ve decided what you want to do you need to increase your calorie deficit by 10%. To do this you’ll take your maintenance calories (the number of calories you’re currently eating and have hit a plateau with) and calculate 10%.
You’ll then either remove that 10% from your daily calories or aim to burn that many more calories a day. For example, if you’ve been eating 2,000 calories a day to lose weight and have hit a true weight loss plateau, you’ll figure out 10%.
2,000 x 0.1 = 200.
Now you know 10% you’ll take that off your daily calories to give you your new calorie deficit.
2,000 – 200 = 1,800.
This means 1,800 is your new calorie deficit.
If you opted to continue eating 2,000 calories and increase cardio, then you’d need to burn an extra 200 calories a day.
Once you done this the next step is to track your weight for 2 – 4 weeks to ensure that it’s having the desired effect and weight loss has started again. If it has, fantastic. If not, then repeat this process again until you are.