For months now, you’ve been putting in work. Your diet has never been cleaner, you’ve been pushing and going hard in the gym, and you can confidently say that you’ve been staying strictly on course - and as a result, you’ve started making solid progress towards your health and fitness goals.
But then, something happens. The scale suddenly stops moving. Despite continued efforts to watch your eating choices and going to your regular workouts, you just can’t seem to lose any more weight, especially not at the rate you were seeing in the beginning. You might even see a small gain or two! It’s enough to make you want to throw in the towel and scream, “what is happening?”
Welcome to the infamous weight loss plateau.
Plateaus can be frustrating at the best of times and discouraging at the worst. But what you do during this period in your weight loss journey can make or break your progress and determine how successful you will be in the long run.
Here’s everything you need to know about weight loss plateaus: why they happen, the tell-tale signs that you’re in one, and how to finally break through.
What causes weight loss plateaus?
The first thing to know is that plateaus, annoying and discouraging as they are, are a common roadblock for many people who embark on a journey to better health and fitness. As much as we would like it to be, weight loss is rarely linear, and your body has a couple of mechanisms that could actually be stalling your progress in the name of maintaining homeostasis.
The first thing to consider if you’re experiencing a plateau is whether there’s been a change in your caloric needs. If you’ve already had some success during the initial part of your weight loss journey, you’re probably already familiar with the importance of a caloric deficit - but let’s recap just in case.
Calories, which you get from the food you eat, are the units of energy that your body runs on. They’re not just for exercise and activity: all of your other bodily functions, from digestion to brain activity, depend on calories for fuel. The number of calories that your body uses every day for all of those essential behind-the-scenes processes is called your ”basal metabolic rate
” (BMR). Your BMR can be calculated from a couple of factors including your age, weight, and height. If you were to eat this many calories every day, you would be eating to maintain your current body weight. Exercise and physical activity can increase this daily calorie burn.
So in order to lose weight, you should be at a caloric deficit. In a deficit, you are eating fewer calories than are necessary to power all those essential functions and physical activity. So your body has to turn to another source of energy instead. You store excess energy in your fat and muscle tissues, and so your body begins to break those down in order to get energy and stay fueled. And bam: this leads to weight loss!
But if you calculated the number of calories you needed to eat daily for weight loss, that number likely took into account your weight at the beginning stage of your journey. Now if you have lost some weight already, your basal metabolic rate has likely also decreased due to changes in your fat and muscle mass. Recalculating your caloric needs using your current weight might reveal that you need to cut more calories or increase your exercise.
Poor diet quality could also be playing a major role in how well your body is managing your weight loss attempts. If you are only focused on cutting calories and aren’t paying attention to the nutrients that you’re eating, you may not be giving your body all the tools it needs to function at its best. It may even lead to changes in certain hormone levels that are crucial for successful weight management.
Some common nutrient deficiencies that could be hurting your weight loss progress include:
- Protein: As any fitness buff will tell you, protein is one of the most crucial ingredients for a successful weight loss campaign. Eating more of this macronutrient can influence how your body releases hormones that determine how hungry you feel and influence your cravings. In other words, getting enough protein in your diet means that you’re more likely to be full and satisfied with your meals.
On the other hand, eating a diet that’s low in protein might lead to more cravings and subsequent snacking and high-calorie eating that could be inhibiting your weight loss progress.
Protein also helps you to maintain your muscle mass. This is significant here because muscle tissue requires a lot of energy to maintain, so your BMR stays higher when you have more lean muscle. If you aren’t eating enough protein and working out to maintain as much muscle tissue as you can, your metabolism can fall significantly and make it harder to lose weight down the line.
- Vitamin D: The so-called “sunshine vitamin” is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, and it could be one of the reasons that your diet has reached a standstill.
that Vitamin D deficiencies are associated with obesity, with some theories suggesting that the vitamin plays a role in how your fat cells store excess fat. Other research points to the role that Vitamin D plays in the synthesis of testosterone
, a hormone that is especially pertinent for men who want to improve their body composition and lean muscle mass.
- B Vitamins: This group of B vitamins helps your body metabolize the fats, proteins, and carbohydrates you eat, which could be good news for anyone looking to boost their metabolism and lose weight. One study even found that rats who were fed a high-fat diet and were given a Vitamin B supplement showed less weight gain and improved metabolism than rats who didn’t receive the vitamin supplement.
Unfortunately, some vitamins like B-12 are only found in animal products. So deficiencies are common in people who eat restrictive diets that minimize their intake of meat and dairy. Vegetarians, vegans, and other plant-based eaters are also more at risk of these deficiencies. If unaddressed, this could be standing in the way of successful weight loss over time.
- Vitamin C: You probably already know that Vitamin C is an important nutrient for the immune system, and it turns out that this protective response is also necessary for healthy weight loss.
Chronic inflammation from excess fat tissue can affect how your body responds to insulin, a hormone that influences fat storage. Insulin resistance
can then trigger your body to hold on to fat and resist weight loss. But Vitamin C, which you can get from various fruits and vegetables, works to counteract this inflammatory response and protect your body from damaging free radicals.
You might also be dealing with other hormonal imbalances, specifically when it comes to hormones that regulate your appetite and fat-burning abilities. Hormonal imbalances can be brought about by changes to your diet as your body tries to “correct.”
Your thyroid hormones, for example, are crucial for regulating your metabolism. As such, it’s one of the most important hormones that you want to be functioning correctly if you’re trying to shed the pounds. But there is evidence that certain restrictive diets can negatively impact your thyroid, making it harder to lose weight.
A great example of this is the keto diet, which emphasizes eating minimal carbohydrates while increasing your dietary fat intake. The low carbohydrate intake and subsequent weight loss can then cause your thyroid to release less of the hormone T3
in response to what it perceives as starvation. This can then cause your weight to come to a standstill as your body tries to conserve as much energy as it can, negating the effectiveness of your keto diet.
Diet And Exercise Adherence
Finally, it’s definitely worth taking a look at your adherence to your diet and exercise routine. Sometimes your plateau is simply a sign that you’ve relaxed the reins and reduced your strictness. It’s only natural, especially if you’re following a particularly restrictive diet or intense exercise regimen. However, it’s more important now than ever to stay on course for successful weight loss due to the natural decrease in your metabolism.
Give yourself an honest evaluation. Take a close look at your eating habits in the past couple of weeks. Have you been allowing a couple more snacks here and there or paying less attention to your portion sizes? Similarly, have you been hitting those workouts with the same intensity? These are all common factors that could be contributing to a slower fat burn.
How do you know if you’ve hit a plateau?
There’s no strict definition of a “weight loss plateau” since weight loss is different for everybody. However, you may have hit a plateau if you’ve maintained the same strictness in your diet and exercise routine that you had at the beginning but have stopped seeing progress for several weeks.
So if you’re going on three or more weeks without making any progress, it may be time to reevaluate your weight loss plan.
However, it’s important to consider whether the stall in your weight loss is due to a significant change in your body composition. The old saying “muscle weighs more than fat” is relevant here: while not literally true, muscle tissue is much denser than fat tissue, so you could actually be shrinking and toning up while not seeing a change in the scale. So to best track progress, keep an eye on your measurements in addition to weight, since you could very well be making progress in a different form.
But if the weight on your scale isn’t changing and you’re seeing no progress in your measurements, you are likely at a weight loss plateau.
How long do weight loss plateaus normally last?
In an ideal world, weight loss would be linear and predictable. Unfortunately, there are so many different variables that play into your weight and body composition that this is hardly ever the case.
If you’re positive that you’ve stayed strictly on your plan during this time and still aren’t seeing any changes, it’s a sure sign that you are at a plateau. Unfortunately, a weight loss plateau won’t go away on its own - so this means that it’s probably time to shake up your diet and/or exercise plan.
The bottom line here is that you’re not very likely to “break through” a weight loss plateau if you don’t 1) find what’s stopping you from making progress, and 2) make the appropriate and necessary changes.
How to break through a weight-loss plateau
Knowing what’s getting in the way of your weight loss progress is the first step to finding a solution. Remember, your plateau could be stemming from a wide variety of issues ranging from dietary deficiencies to a significant downregulation of your metabolism. So the best way to understand what is happening in your plateau is to find out what’s happening with your nutrition profile and hormones.
Base’s Diet Testing Plan
can give you clear insights into what is holding you back from progressing towards your weight loss goals. This at-home testing kit can key in and identify some of the most common culprits of weight loss plateaus including:
This test not only pinpoints the reasons for your weight loss plateau but also gives pertinent suggestions for dietary resolutions for those issues, all from the comfort of your own home.
There are few things more frustrating and discouraging than not seeing any progress in your weight loss journey despite putting in the work. Whatever you do, don’t throw in the towel - a weight loss plateau is a common issue that can be overcome as long as you know what’s causing it.
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