What Causes a Weight-Loss Plateau? | Ask the Dietitian

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What Causes a Weight-Loss Plateau? | Ask the Dietitian

If you’ve ever experienced a weight-loss plateau, you know the disappointment of stepping on the scale after another week of eating well and exercising only to see the same exact number as the week before. For days, or sometimes even weeks at a time, your weight may not budge, which can make your efforts to eat well and move more seem, well, like a waste of time.

The truth is, weight-loss plateaus happen to almost everyone trying to lose weight — even those go-getters with plateau prevention plans. In order to overcome one, it’s important first to understand why they occur. Here are three contributing factors that can lead to a stalemate with the scale:

1. WATER WEIGHT LOSS RETURNS

A rapid drop in weight is normal during the first few weeks of weight loss, but what you may not realize is that a fair amount of this initial weight decrease comes from water lost as the body uses up carbohydrate stores in the form of glycogen (sugar). As carbohydrate intake fluctuates day-to-day, it’s not uncommon for some, if not all, of that water weight to return, which can offset fat loss and cause a plateau.


READ MORE > WHAT 1,500 CALORIES LOOKS LIKE [INFOGRAPHIC]


2. YOUR BODY DOESN’T JUST BURN FAT

The downside to losing weight is that your body doesn’t just burn fat for energy — it breaks down muscle, too. Unlike fat, muscles burn calories, so losing muscle will slow the rate at which you use up energy from food. This, of course, impacts weight loss, and is part of the reason why cutting too many calories can work against you because your body will break down muscle at a faster rate. For tips to offset this, learn why protein is good for weight loss and how to optimize your carb, fat and protein goals.

3. WHEN YOU WEIGH LESS, YOU BURN LESS

As a smaller person, you expend less energy moving around than you did at your heavier weight. Thus, the same number of calories that produced an initial loss may now just maintain your current weight. To continue losing, you’ll have to increase the calories you burn through physical activity and/or reduce the number of calories you eat. For up-to-date calorie need estimates, be sure to update your nutrition goals in MyFitnessPal every 5–10 pounds or so.

Remember, it’s completely normal for weight loss to slow or even stall on occasion, so don’t get discouraged. Now that you understand the main causes of weight-loss plateaus, you’ll be able to devise a plan of attack if and when the number on the scale stops dropping.

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  • christina

    I want a fitness friend im29 married 3kids girls

    • Valarie Breen

      Where do u live?

  • christina

    We live in warrenton mo we love exercise

    • claud

      Christina, add me on mfp. From MO also! 🙂
      Claudpolo

      • christina

        Cool

  • lovelydork

    I live in ofallon mo!

    • christina

      Awsome

  • Pat

    Darn I saw o’fallon and got excited but it’s the wrong side of the river. I am looking for a motivational buddy in Illinois

    • madmomma

      I’m in IL, what part are you from?

  • AuNaturelMel

    Good points. So many variables can affect what you see on the scale. When I was trying to lose weight, I always looked for a general trend and expected blips along the way. Totally worked out for me. 🙂 Mel at fattyliverdietguide

  • Holly

    I l

  • missdesiree

    #3 really resonated with me. I am currently on a weight loss plateau for the past 2 months and I have not yet changed my calorie goal. This makes total sense–I will now re-evaluate! Thanks! #lightbulbmoment

    • hayley

      I had the same problem, too! Joining WW a few years back was really the first time I realized that once the pounds start consistently falling off, the calories (or WW Points) I intake each day should start to decrease as well in order to continue losing at the same rate. So, for about every 5-10 lbs (or whatever increment you decide), decrease your caloric intake by the amount needed to consistently lose 1 lb, 1.5 lbs, 2 lbs per week (or whatever rate you’re comfortable with) until you can reevaluate calories at your maintenance/goal weight. This process has helped me lose the 20 lbs I needed and keep it off for nearly 5 years.

    • bill

      Be careful about not reducing your calorie intake too much. Soon your body will take the hint it’s not getting enough fuel and will put the breaks on your metabolism. Not enough protein and you risk burning muscle, which as they said will also lead to a lower metabolic rate. So eat enough, just make sure it is nutrient rich food, not donuts and pasta!

      • Walt Corey

        Your body will always burn fat first. Once that is depleted it will, begrudgingly, turn to protein. There has been an awful lot of research on that in the last few year. You might want to google “jason fung muscle”

        • robinbishop34

          Nonsense. Your body will actually burn protein quicker than it will stored fat if engaging in strenuous activity. First used is glucose in the bloodstream which when depleted causes considerable fatigue. The body will utilize fat stores at this point if doing a slow and steady activity like brisk walking. None of this really makes any difference if a person is in a calorie deficit with sufficient protein/healthy fat macros.

  • Robert Antony Lindsay

    Hi can any body help I’m 16st.5 n I’m starting to work out with wights but no idea what I should eat to help with this pls help

  • Pat

    The third item’s point is correct but it then says you need to burn more calories to lose more weight. When you weigh less you’ll need more activity to burn the same number of calories seems like a better way to say it. When one of my MFP pals logs walking at 4mph for 30 minutes he burns fewer calories than me because he weighs less. That makes sense to me anyway.

    • bill

      True, and remember it’s a whole lot easier to just not take it in, instead of having to burn it off. Smaller portions become bigger if you just eat slower!

  • Ron

    I was at a plateau for a couple of months. In fact, after losing almost 35 lbs I gained about 5 lbs back. What reallllly happened was I had a lot of social activities (birthdays, etc.) and was lulled into each a little more than usual. I was still exercising a lot, but found that I was snacking more on some of my favorites (peanut butter, cheese, nuts, etc.). A week ago I decided to get serious again and the weight started falling off … 5 lbs lost in 2 weeks.
    Stayed away from those high cal foods and started drinking lots of water.
    Wallah! Back on track.

  • Kacey

    So if the water weight comes back, how do you lose it again if you are still eating well and excerisicing(which caused the water weight loss in the first place)

    • Sp8zmanspiff

      The body will always try to have a ready store of energy available, so there is not much you can do to keep it off forever. Calorie restriction is how the water weight is lost in the beginning.

      • bill

        Actually programs like Nutri-System get you on a very low sodium diet, which is why you see such great results in the beginning. Monitoring (and limiting) your sodium intake is time well spent, especially if you’re putting it on french fries!

  • Tara

    I recently had pneumonia and an ear infection. In the first week of being sick, I lost almost 5 pounds, gained a little back, then lost a little. After that initial yo-yo, the scale didn’t budge for a month. My eating/exercise habits didn’t change (I wasn’t really working out before and definitely didn’t when sick). Before being sick, I was losing steadily. Now, the scale is finally moving again but slowly. Is this normal?

    • bill

      It’s very easy to get dehydrated when you’re sick as your body has an increased need for water. If you don’t get enough, your body will work hard to retain it, making weight loss much more difficult.

  • Sp8zmanspiff

    Odd that the one reason I believe a plateau occurs is not listed. At one time, when I was doing resistance training, I noticed that the scale wasn’t moving, yet my clothes were getting looser. I believe I was building muscle, which is dense and losing fat, which is fluffly, at the same rate, so I was becoming fitter while the scale wasn’t moving.
    So try to use other fitness metrics besides the scale, Body Fat Percentage, body measurements like hips and thighs. It is possible to lose inches even if you are not losing pounds.

    • Jagan Kumaravelu

      Totally agree. If you are into strength training and all, you will build muscle and lose fat but your weight fluctuations will be wild, causing you distress. I have the Omron Fat Loss Monitor and I use it to track my fat % changes. That way if I see a decrease in body fat but no (or gain) in weight increase, I won’t freak out. Fat loss is THE thing, not necessarily weight loss.

    • Animal SoulBonder

      This should have been there…Its possible to even weigh more and look leaner and it will all be due to muscle gain!

    • robinbishop34

      With the very limited exception of what are called “newbie gains,” it really isn’t possible to build muscle unless you are engaging in a “progressive overload” routine while maintaining a small calorie surplus (high protein).

      Progressive overload is a strict weightlifting program whereby you push/pull weight heavy enough to limit you to say 3 sets of 8 for any given exercise. The weight is heavy enough that you struggle like hell to push up the last 1 or 2 reps of the last set. Once you reach the goal of 3 sets of 8, you then increase the weight slightly so you can do 8 reps the first set, 7 reps the second set, and 6 the last. You then work up until you can do a full 3 set of 8, and then increase the weight again. The numbers I’m using are somewhat arbitrary but you get the idea.

      This is a very intense workout and you would probably start out w/weight that allowed you to do 12 reps or so at first until your core is strengthened and technique is established. Proper technique is vital not only for safety but to yield maximum results. A trainer can help you with this.

      It’s easy to get hung up on “other factors,” that yield results, but what is causing you to lose inches is being in a calorie deficit. There are MANY factors that can fluctuate weight when you weigh everyday (which I don’t recommend) especially if you’re a woman, and these can confuse people.

  • John

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for not saying since you are in a calorie deficit your body goes into starvation mode. I am so tired of hearing about that nonsense.

    Great article and on point.

    • bill

      If you continue to be in an extreme calorie deficit, your metabolism WILL slow down. Easily solved by eating more healthy proteins and plenty of fiber. You burn the most calories processing protein, plus it takes longer. Add in the fiber and you won’t get hungry as easily. Remember the classic Lay’s potato chip ad-‘bet you can’t eat just one’. there is a reason for that-between the salt, fat, and starchy carbs it’s a perfect storm for setting off your cravings. Fill up on healthy proteins and fat, with plenty of fiber. Throw the salt and sugar out!

      • Walt Corey

        google arguments “jason fung metabolism slow down”

        • bill

          Sorry it took me awhile but I finally did as you suggested. Just watched Part 1 from Dr. Fung and it is OUTSTANDING! Can’t wait to watch the rest. He does a great job of explaining what is actually going on. Many thanks. I will pass it along.

          • Walt Corey

            That is great Bill! I am positive you will find parts 2-6 even more illuminating. The book, btw, Obesity Code, is awesome. A must read for those with weight issues with or without Diabetes. He also has sort of ‘one off’ web casts on You Tube that are single subject.

  • edison_storck

    The weight loss plateau doesn’t exist. It’s a myth. Instead what happens is that people “forget” the calories they eat (such as Ron below who plateaued while eating birthday dinners and snacking on “peanut butter, cheese and nuts” — can’t really find anything higher calories then that unless you drink oil), or simply don’t account for the fact that a lighter body needs less calories (such as missdesiree below who didn’t update MFP’s goals for 2 months).

    What you have to do is simply eat less calories than your body needs so that your stored fat acts as alternative fuel.

    That’s it. That literally is all there is. And MFP does a pretty fantastic job approximating these.

    Sure, weight loss is not linear, so some weeks you will lose a bit more than you are theoretically supposed to lose, and some weeks you will lose a bit more. Also worth knowing that food takes as long as 5 days to, ummm, “travel” through your digestive system. In the end it all averages out.

    Now personally I wanted to lose 30 pounds. I figured 2 pounds a week is aggresive, but still healthy. So i set the app up to do this for me. I’m conservative, so I tend to leave a few calories empty, i.e. as long as I have eaten around 1500 cals I will probably not “use up” all my calories after exercise to be on the save side in case MFP underestimates my caloric need. I now followed this for 70 days and have lost 20 pounds. So around 5 more weeks and I should be fine. I’ll then probably keep tracking at least for a bit so that I stay in control.

    • bill

      Sound advice.

    • Walt Corey

      Yes Edison, it really does. see my post above.

      • edison_storck

        Fair points, of course you have to adjust for your basal metabolic rate or it won’t work. I implied that. At the same time it’s worth noting that your BMR does not change dramatically unless there is dramatic weight loss. As an example my current BMR is at 1950 calories whereas almost 28 pounds heaver it was at about 2100 calories.

        In any case I would advice to just be cautious: If MFP says you are OK to eat, say, 1700 calories, then I simply hust eat 1500 or I eat 1700 but do a bit of cardio. As long as I “keep” a few 100 calories unused per day, it doesn’t matter top much if my BMR is wrongly estimater by 50 or so calories.

        • Walt Corey

          Absolutely Edison. That’s the whole ‘check in’ on MFP or adjusting goal on the IOS app where you set your current weight. This gives MFP the info to do your ‘progress’ chart. There are actually two formulas for BMR, one is Mifflin – St Jeor and the other has no name that I’ve found. Mifflin is, allegedly, more accurate. As I am 5’9.5″ and I am a software developer, I wrote an app to create a chart with the two formulas, Oddly, they intersect at 165lbs. That difference you mentioned, 1950 vs 2100 when 28 lbs heavier is reasonable as the only variable changing in the actual formula is your weight, weigh more, higher bmr That said, either formula is for, essentially resting metabolic rate and, to that, you must apply Bennedict-Harris which adjusts your BMR to your daytime activity level as RMR is while you are sleeping. So, where I had a desk job my lifestyle is considered sedentary, from there it could be lightly active, active, heavily active etc. sedentary is a multiplier of 1.2, lightly active 1.3, etc etc with a construction worker likely 2.0 or close to it. The other thing, for a guy, MFP won’t lower your suggested calorie budget below 1500 so if one were loyal to MFP that plateau would be at 1500 when one sets a budget of 1500 per MFP and their actual BMR drops to or below 1500. Oh, you mentioned cardio. You can consider this a suggestion or trivia. As far as MFP and my chart program goes I adjust for a lifestyle of sedentary but I did go to the gym 6 times/week and from what the treadmill told me I burned 650 calories in that hour. As I got more accustom to the program and speed I’d adjust either or both up to keep my hourly burn mid 600’s, times 6 times per week that would be an extra lb per week. Initially it worked great I was losing pretty consistently 1.5 – 3 lbs/wk. I dial in my weight to the treadmill every time. I saw an article, on here actually, where treadmills could be as much as 13% off. That sounds a lot like they could be spot on also. So 660 gives some wiggle room for error. But once MFP stopped lowering my daily caloric budget that straight slope down in ‘progress’ started to shallow out until it was horizontal. So, where MFP is telling you, presumably, in order to lose 2lbs/week take in 1700 cals if you got up to burning an additional 3500 cal/wk at the gym, that 2 lbs becomes 3lbs.

          Additionally, if you are also diabetic, either known or unknown yet, that complicates things further as insulin will cause insulin resistance which means it is harder for you to absorb the glucose in the blood which means your body will produce more insulin and around and around you go. This is why snacking is so completely bad advice. Insulin is secreted when you eat to tell your body to stop burning fat for fuel as it will be provided by what you are eating. If one is constantly eating, your body is constantly secreting insulin and you stop burning fat. This is what leads to a plateau caused by your body lowering metabolism to match what you are eating vs what you need, the result being one is constantly tired and cold as you body is trying to ‘slow’ dowm. This is why I am doing a 24hr fast every day…actually a 22hr-23hr fast every day to force insulin secretion to zero and let my body unclog, specifically liver first and pancreas second. It is the fat clogged pancreas that medical science, until recently, thought meant the beta cells in the pancreas were killed. T2D is a malfunctioning (think clogged fuel injectors) pancreas, not a dead one.

          • Jen

            Every day? Or every other day? I have used the 500 calorie every other day plan and love it, although it slowly melds into 1500 per day… I will use this again per your post. I have a huge problem with munching constantly, although I do not have diabetes, fasting every other day defiantly helps this issue.

          • Walt Corey

            Hi Jen. Everyday. I, effectively eat one meal per day, supper. At some point between five and seven. If one figures it takes an hour then 23 hrs per day I am fasting.

            I believe the doctor’s name is George Fisher but he researched researched diabetes for over 30 years and concluded one becomes diabetic potentially a decade or more before it is detectable in the blood. This is actually consistent with my experience. The key here is the proper interpretation of the glucose tolerance test results which reflects diabetes years and decades before one is diagnosed. This is also consistent with Dr Jason Fung’s assertion diabetes causes obesity NOT obesity causes diabetes. Read his book, Obesity Code and watch his six part series on you tube.

        • robinbishop34

          Correct. Ignore all the bro science and stay with a calorie deficit to lose. It’s the ONLY thing that works and everyone reading these blogs need to have that cemented in their head.

  • Matthew Kirwan

    Spot reduction is a myth. And all the situps in the world isn’t really going to help you lose weight.

  • bill

    In truth, I don’t believe there is anything like a ‘plateau’, which suggests some mysterious and invincible block to your weight loss efforts. There is ALWAYS a reason why you go up or down, and it’s important to understand specifically what that is, instead of just blaming it on a ‘plateau’ that is beyond your control. Several causes are addressed here-water retention probably being the most significant. Also, as you lose weight and get in better shape, your body becomes more efficient, so you will burn fewer calories from the same amount of exercise. Weight loss comes primarily from what you eat though. Write down EXACTLY what you are consuming. You just might find hidden calories, or simply discover you were consuming a lot more than you realized. Not drinking enough water will also signal your body to RETAIN more water. Too much salt and too many starchy carbs will also make you retain more. So amp up your workouts as you get in better shape, but mainly pay close attention to exactly what is passing by your lips!

    • Walt Corey

      As you lose weight your BMR (basil metabolic rate) drops as that is based on age (pretty much constant over a diet), sex (immutable), height (pretty much immutable), and weight (ideally constantly dropping). So BMR drops with weight loss. It will reach a point where the caloric deficit you started with is equalized by your BMR and weight loss drops to zero, ergo, a plateau. So, as you lose weight you need be be constantly also dropping what you consume in calories.

      If you are diabetic then there is also insulin resistance that plays into this where your body can not provide enough fuel from fat because insulin is the hormonal trigger and if resistance to that is great enough your body will, instead of burning fat, lower you metabolic rate. This manifests as being wicked tired during the day, cold hands and feet. The best way to overcome that is actually not eat. Seriously….certainly don’t snack between meals, eliminate sugar and sugar substitites, and, frankly, drop breakfast or breakfast and lunch and eat only once per day. Why is this important? Insulin resistance is caused by two things, persistently high insulin levels. Every time you eat your body secretes insulin so to break the persistence eat less often.

      I am not a Dr nor am I a dietician. I have, however, spoken with both who didn’t understand the hormonal interaction driving ones metabolism. Consequently, I’ve “scienced the sh*t out of it” over the last 18 months.

  • bill

    There’s nothing wrong with sit-ups, but they are a very inefficient way to help you. Concentrate on your larger muscles-squats, dead lifts, and overhead press. These work on your larger muscles which will burn more calories. You are also engaging your ab’s and they will help reduce your belly a lot faster than sit ups. As for food, start by eliminating sugar! ANY soda, fruit drinks, white bread, and the like. Fill up on fruits and vegetables, vegetable or lean protein-chicken(not fried!), salmon, grass-fed beef, healthy fats from nuts, olive oil, avacado’s, and lots of fiber (beans, fruits and vegetables). Make sure you’re drinking LOTS of water. Substitute quinoa or brown (NOT WHITE) rice for pasta. Best to avoid any processed foods, but if you must, read the label and be on the lookout for high sugar and sodium content. Keep reading the internet-there’s a ton of great information out there.

  • Walt Corey

    On point two, burning muscle, that theory has been largely debunked. Think about it, Prior to industrialized agriculture people did have times of outright famine as well as things like Winter where food was scare(r). If being on a forced ‘diet’ meant lossing muscle how would one be able to get out of bed, avoid being prey vs preditor, survive as a species? Review Dr Jason Fung’s most excellent presentations and blogs on the subject. When there would be massive digestion of muscle, would be after all available fat was already burned. It’s not that there is no muscle loss, it’s just very minor.

  • Nic

    Since tracking my weight, I’ve notice that my periods play a big part, too. I will gain weight right before my cycle and lose it afterwards. Being hormonal with weight gain – yikes!

  • Chuck

    We don’t mind putting ten pounds on a year but we want it off in a week. That’s part of the problem. Making small changes in our diet prior to becoming obese is the key.

  • Roro

    When will the article with the ’10 tips for getting over a weight-loss plateau’ be posted?

  • robinbishop34

    The key point to focus on is “if you weigh less, you burn less.” A plateau is caused by a person not taking into account their lower caloric needs as they continue to lose fat.

    The maintenance calories for a person at 200lbs is obviously higher than it is at 160lbs. What is a deficit at the higher weight, is simply maintenance at the lower weight. A person must re-calculate their TDEE as they lose and adjust their deficit accordingly.

    That said, regardless of weight, protein should make up a good portion of your daily allotted calories. This is especially true as body fat decreases as there is fewer fat stores to be utilized as fuel. The body (as the article states) will consume amino acids that would otherwise synthesize into muscle tissue as fuel just as soon as it would burn fat. This is particularly true when engaging in high intensity, aerobic activity.

    As you lean out, it is advisable to increase the proportion of protein in your daily allotted calories as well as engage in a limited, heavy lifting program. By doing a full body split (deadlift, overhead, pullup) and (squat, benchpress, row) with heavy weights and high protein, your body will maintain much more muscle, and burn fat, or glucose/glycogen that would become fat as fuel more efficiently.

    This is the same type of workout for bodybuilding, but say only two sets of each rather than three, and perhaps one or two reps short of what is possible on each set. To bodybuild, you would do the same routine but push weight to what is called “progressive overload,” and go into a small calorie surplus (mostly protein).

  • Regular exercise and balanced diet is the best way to reduce weight.

  • Allison Wright

    That wasn’t really helpful. Eat even less more is the solution…yeah, super motivating..