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Health & Fit: A Weight Loss Plateau Can Stall Your Progress—Here's Why It Happens and How You Can Start Losing Again

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You have a plan to lose weight, and you're motivated to get going. You've stocked your refrigerator with healthful foods, you're drinking more water, and you've started exercising. You're steadily dropping weight. Until, bam—you hit a weight loss plateau. Despite your efforts, you are just no longer losing weight.

It might be maddening to see your progress stall when you have more weight you want to lose. But "everybody's weight is going to plateau sooner or later," Donald Hensrud, MD, associate professor of nutrition and preventative medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and editor of The Mayo Clinic Diet book, tells Health. "The issue is that it usually plateaus before people want it to, so they get frustrated and throw in the towel. Realizing what's going to happen as you lose weight can help you take constructive steps when your weight loss stalls."

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Here's why weight loss plateaus happen and what you can do to overcome them, according to experts.

What is a weight loss plateau?

A weight loss plateau happens when you're no longer losing weight despite trying to do so. But how long does this weight loss freeze need to last for it to be considered a plateau?

"Your weight is going to fluctuate, but I define a plateau as when your average body weight remains within 1% of the same number over a four- to six-week span," Brad Dieter, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Washington's Providence Sacred Heart Medical Research Center who focuses on exercise physiology, tells Health.

Dr. Hensrud is more hesitant to put a timeframe on how long weight loss needs to stall before it should be considered a plateau. That's because everyone's objectives are different—while it might not be considered the healthiest approach, some people may simply want to see results more quickly, maybe in time for an upcoming event, and consider hitting a wall in an even shorter amount of time a plateau in its own right.

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What causes a weight loss plateau?

Dieter and Dr. Hensrud agree that the most likely culprit of a weight loss plateau is a gradual letting up on the habits that contributed to your initial weight loss. "After about six months on any weight loss program, regardless of what it is, adherence drops to about 50%," Dieter says.

For example, if you've let up on tracking your calories, you're likely eating more than you think. "It's easy for extra calories to sneak in through snacking or eating while you're preparing dinner," explains Dr. Hensrud.

Then there's the psychological changes that happen with time, Dieter points out. If life's demands have increased, you might be more likely to skip on your workout. If you're bored with your exercise program, you might make excuses not to go. Motivation also often declines as the seasons change. In the colder months, there's typically less emphasis on what you wear, as compared to the warmer months when you're at the pool or beach. During the colder months, it also gets dark earlier, making outdoor exercise challenging.

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Another reason your weight might plateau is because you're burning fewer calories while at rest. "As you lose weight, 20% to 35% of that loss comes from lean tissue or muscle," says Dr. Hensrud. "Lean tissue burns calories at rest, so your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn to maintain bodily functions) will decline as a result."

You can also hit a weight loss plateau if you've set out to lose more weight than is optimal for your body size and frame. "[Society has] this idea that thinner is better, but that's not how our bodies work. For some people, their natural settling weight is higher than others," explains Dieter.

Dr. Hensrud agrees: "The medical literature shows that, in general, people have unrealistic goal weights. Plateaus usually happen before you reach the [unrealistic] goal, so it compounds this cycle of being on a restrictive diet, having weight loss stop, and then giving up and gaining the weight back."

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With that in mind, it's important to talk to your health care provider about an optimal weight range for your height and frame before any weight loss journey. They can consider factors like how your weight is distributed (for instance, visceral fat around the waist is associated with a higher risk of certain conditions, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes) and other markers of health, like blood pressure and blood sugar control.

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How to overcome a weight loss plateau

When your weight loss stalls, Dieter and Dr. Hensrud say you should consider doing the following:

Audit your behaviors. Dieter tells clients at his online nutrition and fitness coaching service Macros Inc to spend a week closely monitoring their food intake with a calorie-tracking app. Make sure you're weighing portion sizes and accounting for calories from bites taken here and there. Track beverages like alcohol and soda, too, as liquid calories can add up quickly. Also, look at your physical activity (aka, any type of movement) and not just your exercise (which is a more planned and structured activity). Are you sitting more than you were when you started?

Increase physical activity. "Most people jump to the conclusion they need to eat less to lose more weight, but it can be easier to increase your movement first," says Dieter. Can you add steps to your day? Can you increase the frequency or amount of time that you exercise? You can also consider changing the type of exercise you're doing. "Your body becomes more efficient at exercise with time, and you'll need to challenge yourself with more intensity, volume, or frequency to continue to see progress," says Dieter.

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Address sleep and stress. If your weight loss is stalled, ask yourself if you're getting enough sleep. Research has shown that short sleep duration can result in metabolic changes that may be linked to obesity. Are you overwhelmed and need to set boundaries to focus on your mental health? "Weight loss happens gradually, and you'll have periods where work or life stress takes over," says Dieter. Chronic stress leads our bodies to produce the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to greater abdominal obesity. High stress is also linked to the craving of less healthful foods.

Lower calories. "If you've accounted for how much you're eating and you can't add more physical activity, then ask yourself if you can lower your calories further," says Dr. Hensrud. If you've consulted with your health care provider and have determined that you can decrease your calorie intake, make small adjustments that aren't overly restrictive. That means that you shouldn't drastically slash your calories—after all, eating too few calories could jeopardize your health. And remember that consuming fewer calories doesn't automatically mean that you have to eat less. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out, you can simply replace some higher-calorie foods with more filling, lower-calorie foods (ie, foods that have a lot of water and fiber).

Adjust your goals. Remember, hitting a weight loss plateau might not actually be a "plateau" at all—it might mean that you've already hit (and maybe even dipped below) your optimal weight. "If you're doing everything you can and are unable to move more or eat less, then you may need to readjust your goal," says Dr. Hensrud. "The habits that helped you lose weight are the same ones that will help you maintain your loss. Keep going with lifestyle changes, and let go of what you thought was 'ideal.' Small percentages in weight loss can equate to big health improvements." Even a weight loss of 5% to 10% of your total body weight is likely to produce health benefits, like reductions in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugars, per the CDC.

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Don't let a plateau send you into a tailspin

It's easy to get frustrated when weight loss stalls, possibly making you want to give up entirely. But focusing on getting to a goal weight may not be the solution. "I believe having a goal weight is problematic because it's an outcome value — it doesn't tell you anything about how to get there," Dr. Hensrud says. "It's like saying I want a million dollars without having a good financial plan on how to do it. I tell patients to focus more on process goals that are enjoyable and sustainable. Diets should not be overly restrictive, and the steps you take to improve your health don't need to feel like punishment or like you're walking uphill on a treadmill indefinitely."

Instead of looking at your health as a final destination, think of it as a journey. "You're going to have periods where you can't make it to the gym as much, work is stressful, or a family member dies, and you have to leave for three weeks to deal with it," says Dieter. "It's normal. If you view healthy lifestyle changes as part of a life-long effort, a few weeks off or hitting a plateau doesn't make a difference."

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