Few things in life are more frustrating than doing what you’re supposed to do and not getting the results you expect. Studying hard for an exam but not earning the “A”; training hard for a marathon but not hitting your time goal; sticking to your weight-loss plan but finding that the scale simply refuses to budge…
Unlike academics or training for a run, when it comes to weight loss, your body is evolutionarily designed to resist progress. (For early humans, retaining weight meant staying alive!) Consequently, weight-loss plateaus are likely to happen in nearly every weight-loss journey — even when you’re doing everything right. The good news is that although a plateau can be frustrating, it can be overcome.
What Causes a Weight-Loss Plateau?
One of the most aggravating things about weight-loss plateaus is how difficult it can be to find the cause of the plateau. Sometimes, the issue is that you simply “fell off the wagon,” and it happened so incrementally that you didn’t notice. In this case, the solution is straightforward: You must recommit to the healthy diet and exercise habits that you’ve let wane. Other times, the issue is that you’ve been too enthusiastic; eating too little or failing to get enough recovery after many strenuous workouts (or even amidst unrelenting life stress) can also lead to a plateau. In these cases, relaxing your efforts and focusing on a gentler approach can be beneficial. And, of course, there are times when the number on the scale isn’t telling the whole story —e.g., you may be losing fat but gaining muscle. Perplexing, huh?
Hitting a weight-loss plateau when you think you’re doing everything right can be enough to make you want to throw up your hands and give up. But don’t do that! There are steps you can take to get “unstuck” (provided you are targeting a healthy weight, which we’ll discuss). Read on to learn about the six most common causes of weight-loss plateaus — and potential solutions — so that you can untangle what’s happening with your body and determine the best way to move forward.
#1. You’re Eating Too Much… or Too Little
When it comes to your diet, relaxing and/or taking a break from time to time is normal and healthy. After all, humans are not robots! However, a skipped fast “here and there” or an “occasional” splurge meal can sometimes become more habitual than you realize and turn into a barrier to your weight-loss progress.
On the other hand, you may also experience a plateau if you’re being too rigid, specifically with calorie restriction. Crash diets, aggressive fasts when your body is overstressed, or detoxes that force your body to work too hard with too little fuel for too long will eventually backfire. If you maintain intense, prolonged restriction, your body will eventually respond by going into “starvation mode” where it does everything it can to conserve as much energy and body fat as possible. (You can thank evolution for that.) However, given that your environment isn’t causing the “food shortage,” your weight-loss plateau will most often be due to overcompensation, particularly in response to stress. (Ever eat the whole tub of ice cream after a tough day at work?) Studies have shown that pure willpower simply does not hold up in the long term, so if you’re white-knuckling a restrictive diet, you’re likely to wind up plateauing… or worse.
Solution: Try Logging Your Meals and Fasts
Food logging (which you can do with the Zero food journal) is a powerful tool for building consistency and keeping weight loss on track. In particular, it can help you connect your eating habits with your true hunger levels and can encourage more mindful eating — both of which help you make healthier decisions when it comes to meals and snacks. In a 12-month study of diabetic patients, those who journaled consistently lost significantly more weight, while those who journaled inconsistently experienced more plateaus and setbacks, particularly over the holidays. Multiple studies show that food logging and frequently monitoring your weight are strong predictors of who will lose weight, overcome sustained plateaus, and keep weight off in the long term. It’s no accident that Zero can help you do both!
#2. You’ve “Shrunk,” So You’re Burning Fewer Calories
When you’re losing weight, you’re literally shrinking your body. And the less mass you have, the less energy you’ll burn — especially if some of the mass you lost came from muscle. It’s thermodynamics!
Caloric expenditure is largely a function of your weight and body composition; the heavier you are and the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. Therefore, as you lose weight, you’ll experience an unavoidable decrease in metabolism. For example, all other factors being equal, a 200-pound male will burn approximately 200 calories more than a 175-pound male in a day, just by virtue of possessing those extra 25 pounds of live, energy-burning cells. This difference in metabolism holds true both at rest and during activity, which means your weight loss may slow or even stall despite you eating the same number of calories. (This is especially true if you lost a significant amount of muscle, since muscle is more metabolically active than other types of tissue.)
Solution: Build Strength and Maintain Muscle
Resistance training builds muscle, thereby increasing your body’s caloric expenditure both during exercise and at rest. Therefore, it’s essential to incorporate resistance training (whether that means lifting weights at the gym, attending a Pilates class, or simply doing air squats and push-ups while your coffee brews) throughout your weight-loss journey. And you don’t need to “bulk up”; purely maintaining muscle during weight loss can help limit the reduction in basal metabolic rate (i.e., the energy your body uses to perform basic functions like breathing) that tends to accompany traditional weight loss. By preserving muscle and building strength, you’ll improve your metabolic health, better your body composition, and make progress toward overcoming that pesky weight-loss plateau.
#3. Your Body Is in Its “Happy Place” (Which May Be Different from Your Intended Goal Weight)
Weight-loss plateaus often happen after a comparaby easy initial phase of weight loss. That’s partially because of a phenomenon called adaptive thermogenesis.
Adaptive thermogenesis is essentially a fancy way of saying that when your body weight deviates significantly from its preferred weight, or “set point” — i.e., the number on the scale your body hovers around without too much effort — it will try to get back there. And studies show that, like a rubber band being stretched more and more, the lower you go below your pre-weight-loss set point, the harder the body works to “snap back.” One study estimated that for each kilogram of weight you lose, you burn 20–30 calories fewer per day while your appetite increases by 100 calories more per day. This also works in reverse, with people who are trying to gain weight burning more calories and consuming less as their body weight increases.
The body maintains its tight weight range around your set point through a complex interplay of physiological cues that raise or lower your basal metabolic rate, hunger levels, and even the amount of unconscious fidgeting you do in a day. This phenomenon may explain why it is so hard for most people to sustain significant weight loss, with nearly 90% of dieters reporting a return to their original baseline within 5 years. All of this is to say, weight loss is not the simple mathematical formula it was once believed to be.
Solution: Be Patient, and Add Protein
You’re probably wondering what this means for your weight-loss journey. Are you permanently stuck at your body’s “happy place” if it’s different from your goal weight? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “no.”
Though it may take time, especially if you have large amounts of weight to lose, you can reprogram your body’s set point. Research shows that 4+ weeks of weight stabilization can minimize your body’s attempts at adaptive thermogenesis and help to “reset” your set point. In other words, if you’re experiencing a weight-loss plateau, you may just need to spend a few weeks being patient. Weight loss is not linear, and a short-lived plateau may actually be serving your weight-loss journey, not detracting from it.
While you’re waiting for your body to recalibrate, there is one thing you can do to assist: Eat more protein. Because you use more energy to metabolize protein than carbs or fats, upping the protein portion of your daily caloric intake to 30% (which, if you’re consuming a 2,000-calorie diet, is 150 g), will increase the energy you expend at rest — thereby helping to counteract adaptive thermogenesis.
#4. You’re Getting Fitter
If you’ve been running, cycling, hitting the gym, or otherwise working out as part of your weight-loss journey, bravo! Improving your cardiometabolic fitness has lifelong health benefits, regardless of how many calories you burn or how much weight you lose.
That said, as you get fitter, your body becomes more efficient, meaning it uses less energy to perform the same work. This is why the same running pace or number of HIIT reps will feel easier! Unfortunately, if your goal is to keep burning the same amount of calories in order to lose weight, you’ll have to go farther, faster, or harder (or a combination of the three).
One other reason you might be seeing a plateau as your fitness increases is that you’ve gained muscle while losing fat. Muscle weighs more than fat, so the number on the scale might not budge, but that’s not a bad thing! Improvements in strength and body composition, with or without weight loss, can go a long way towards improving your health and quality of life. And remember: Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so in the long term, building muscle is a step in the right direction towards your weight-loss goals!
Solution: Try “Exercise Snacks” and Increase Your NEAT
Any added movement counts when it comes to your daily running total — even extremely short bursts! And you can add them at any time during your day. One recent study found “exercise snacks,” like running stairs for just 15–30 seconds at a time intermittently throughout the day, can improve blood sugar regulation and promote weight loss.
If you’re looking for a gentler approach, increasing the level of non-exercise activity you do each day (like standing versus sitting, basic housework, and shopping in the store versus online) can significantly increase your total energy expenditure. One study comparing the postures, activities of daily living, and fidgeting of otherwise sedentary volunteers proposed that making even minor changes can burn as many as 350 calories more per day.
#5. Too Many Processed Foods
Regardless of how much food you’re eating, the types of food you’re eating might be sabotaging your weight-loss goals. An overwhelming body of recent research has linked greater consumption of ultra-processed foods with a host of health problems, from obesity to depression. These foods — often store-bought goods that have a long list of ingredients and a suspiciously long shelf life, such as packaged cookies and crackers, frozen pizzas, and soft drinks — are often high in calories, sugar, hydrogenated fats, and artificial colors, and may make it difficult to lose weight.
In one recent crossover study, participants followed either a highly-processed-food diet or highly-unprocessed-food diet for 14 days, and then the diets were switched. Researchers found that participants ate faster, consumed approximately 500 more calories per day, and gained weight (an average of 2 pounds) when on the processed-food diet compared to the unprocessed-food diet. This isn’t terribly surprising given that the hyper-palatability of ultra-processed foods makes it difficult to notice when you’re hungry or full. (That perfect blend of salty or sweet is intentionally engineered to keep you eating, eating, and eating some more!) In addition, the sugars, refined carbohydrates, and oils used in these long-lasting products have been shown to create higher levels of inflammation in the body, which studies indicate may make it tougher to lose weight.
Solution: Focus on a Whole-Foods-Based Diet
Studies show that choosing a high-protein diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats is one of the best ways to connect to your body’s natural hunger cues, eat mindfully, and lose weight with less effort. A diet centered on minimally processed foods can also reduce chronic inflammation, which is important, since too much inflammation can make it difficult to lose weight. Cook at home, and choose whole, minimally-processed foods when you can to help break through your weight-loss plateau.
#6. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep (and Restoration!)
Burning the candle at both ends (i.e., skimping on sleep and recovery) can stall your weight loss. When you don’t sleep enough, your hormone levels shift to make you hungrier and lessen your body’s ability to process glucose, which ultimately raises your blood-sugar levels and can lead to insulin resistance and even type-2 diabetes over time. Then, the more tired and hungry you feel, the less willpower you have to resist temptations. One meta analysis demonstrated that sleep deprivation leads to eating an additional 385 calories per day (equal to about four and a half slices of bread).
Of course, you may be someone who prioritizes getting 7+ hours of sleep every night (which is great!), but if you’re still chronically stressed, that might explain your weight-loss plateau. Too much stress — including stressing about weight! — leads to too much cortisol, which may increase fat storage and undercut your attempts at weight loss.
The Solution: A Little More R&R
If you were ever looking for a reason to hit snooze, this is it. (Though it must be said that going to bed earlier is a better strategy!) Getting 7–9 hours of quality sleep each night will help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight. If you’re looking for a place to start, work on establishing a consistent bedtime and healthy nighttime routine.
But, don’t stop there! Including other restorative activities such as yoga, foam rolling, or a coffee chat with a good friend can help lower your stress and cortisol levels, making it easier for you to break through that weight-loss plateau.
A weight-loss plateau can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to mark the end of your weight-loss journey. Celebrate how far you’ve come, re-examine your goal, and spend some time tracking your habits to see where you can make small adjustments. If you are overweight or obese, even small reductions in weight can make a big difference to your metabolic health. Alternatively, if you are already within a healthy range, ask if your goal is realistic or if another approach to health might be even more beneficial.
And remember: Successful (i.e., lasting) weight loss not only takes time, it’s rarely linear. Plateaus are a normal, expected part of the journey — but, they don’t have to last forever. If you’re making healthy nutrition, movement, sleep, and restoration choices most of the time, you may just need a little patience while your body catches up. Then, if your body still feels stuck in a rut, use the ideas here to mix things up!