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Tip the scales on a weight-loss plateau

Medically reviewed on Dec 8, 2016

Most people experience a plateau at some point during their weight-loss journey. Plateaus may last a few days to a few weeks and sometimes even a few months.

Rather than get discouraged when the scale seems stuck, try to think of this minor setback as a reminder of the great things you've been doing. Plateaus occur when you've been consistent with healthy eating and exercising. They're your body's way of saying, "I've mastered what I've been doing. I need to change things up and challenge myself!"

So, what exactly happens when you reach a plateau? First, look at weight change in the big picture. Your body needs a certain amount of energy, in the form of calories, just to live — for breathing and other normal organ functions. This is your metabolism or resting metabolic rate. Your body also uses energy to digest food and do basic activities, such as listening to music or reading a book, and to exercise.

A smaller tank to fill

Here's another way to look at a weight-loss plateau: Think of your body as you would a vehicle. To lose weight, you have to cut back on calories or increase your physical activity so that you burn more calories. Doing both is ideal. Over time, as you lose weight, your body doesn't need as many calories to function because there's less of you.

You can compare the energy your body needs to the fuel in your vehicle. A large SUV needs more fuel to fill its tank than a compact car does. As you lose weight, your vehicle (in this case, your body) needs less fuel — fewer calories — to make it operate. That means you'll need to adjust if you want to lose more weight. To break through a plateau, you'll need to tip the energy balance by cutting back more on calories or burning more calories by increasing your exercise. This could be as easy as skipping second helpings at dinner or taking the stairs instead of the elevator as often as you can. Small changes really do add up.

5 steps to navigate a plateau

Here are a few of the common issues that can cause a blip in your weight-loss journey and how you can work through them.

  1. Find other ways to measure your success. How your clothes fit, body measurements, fitness level, confidence and your energy level are all examples.
  2. Assess your eating and exercise habits. Have you been lax on measuring portions or tracking your intake? Have you been cutting your workouts at the gym short? Sometimes when you stop paying attention, your portion sizes and overall calorie intake increases. You may need to decrease your energy intake, increase your energy expenditure or both.
  3. Focus on long-term patterns rather than day-to-day fluctuations. Just as eating a salad doesn't instantly make you healthier, having an occasional treat doesn't cause health complications. Take a look at your food choices over the course of several days. Are you choosing foods for fuel and nutrition most of the time?
  4. Have you already met your goals? Are your goals realistic? Maybe it's time to reassess and set new goals.
  5. Is your goal weight appropriate for your sex, height and age? When you first start to lose weight, you might lose muscle as well as fat. Exercise builds muscle. Muscle burns more energy and weighs more than fat. When you have more muscle mass, you can burn more calories at rest — as well as look slimmer and carry less fat.

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