Weight loss journeys are tough.
At first the weight seems to fall off, but at some point along the way the numbers on the scale stop moving.
This is called a weight loss plateau.
A weight loss plateau can happen at any time on your journey, whether 4 weeks in or 4 months in, and it can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating.
The good news is that experiencing a plateau is a normal part of the process and there are things you can do about it.
We spoke with Accredited Practising Dietitian Pennie McCoy for her advice on how to manage these frustrating times and begin losing weight again.
“What we’re looking at with a weight loss plateau is when the weight recorded each week remains stable for at least two to three weeks,” explains Pennie.
“If you have just two weigh-ins where your weight remains stable, we wouldn’t consider that to be a weight loss plateau. What we’re looking at is at least two or three weigh-ins where the weight is the same.”
If this is happening to you and you haven’t been using a tape measure, Pennie says now is the time to start.
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“Waist measurement is a really good indicator on how your body composition is changing. We measure ourselves with the scales and that measures our overall body weight, but our waist measurement measures our body composition. So that’s looking to see the fat cells reducing and the muscle cells increasing.”
“When you have a weight loss plateau from a scale perspective, go and double check your waist measurement. If there hasn’t been any change with that measurement as well, then you have probably hit a plateau.”
Often a weight loss plateau will appear a few months into a person’s journey.
When this happens, the first thing to do is to really reflect on your day-to-day life. What foods are you eating? Are you exercising? Are you particularly stressed or busy right now?
Reflect on all the different areas and see if there are any where you may have taken your foot off the pedal.
If you’ve recently stopped tracking your meals or measuring your food, now is the time to start again.
“You might not need to do it every single day, but when you first started your weight loss journey, you were probably recording your intake five to seven days a week,” says Pennie.
“And now that you’re really into your journey, it might be only every other day that you’re tracking, or it might be once a week. You might think, oh I know what I’m doing now, I’m hitting my food units, I’m hitting my targets in my head, so I don’t need to track anymore. But the first thing you should do if you’re having a plateau is go back to the tracker and track your food every day.”
If you’ve been eating the same meals day in, day out, Pennie also suggests going back to the menu plan and mixing this up.
“You may have found some key favourites from the beginning of your journey and you’ve just been rotating the same breakfasts and lunches and dinners. But if you’ve hit a weight loss plateau, go back to the menu plan and find some new inspiration. Include different recipes and get variety from different types of food within each food group. Then look at making sure these portion sizes are in line with what the menu plan is suggesting.”
“Remind yourself what 100g of meat, chicken or fish looks like so that when you're making your evening meal you’ve got that visual in your head.”
With exercise, look at how often your exercising, the length of time you’re exercising and the intensity levels of the exercise you’re doing.
Pennie suggests doing at least 30 – 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days of the week, making sure you’re including a least three sessions a week of resistance training.
“Resistance training helps to increase your muscle strength and muscle mass,” explains Pennie. “And we know that those muscles are really great metabolic burning houses of our body. So the more muscles that you have, the higher your metabolic rate.”
If you’re already doing exercise or resistance training, look at whether you can add an extra 1-2 days per week or increase the intensity of the workout to help boost your metabolic rate.
It’s also important to consider what incidental exercise you’re doing throughout your day.
If you’re someone with a desk job, chances are you’re not moving very much throughout the day. So set yourself a goal to make sure you're moving and be as active as possible.
“Get up and move around every two hours or every hour," says Pennie. "I’m not talking about going out and doing a workout, just increasing movement.”
“It might be as simple as walking up the stairs or walking around the block, but increasing that incidental activity can be a really significant component of helping address weight loss plateaus.”
Lifestyle factors like stress and sleep are often overlooked when people are thinking of weight loss, but they play a significant role.
“Sleeping patterns and stress can have implications on our weight management because both trigger hormones in our body that affect our ability to manage our appetite and feel full,” explains Pennie.
If sleep or stress is an issue for you, look at what’s happening in your daily routine and try to put some buffers in place. This could be looking at doing daily exercise to tire you out and release endorphins, or starting a meditation routine, or adding breathing techniques that can help reduce or manage your stress.
In terms of sleep, make sure you are going to bed at the same time each night, don’t have devices in the bedroom and consider reducing your amount of screen time.
When you’re on a weight loss journey, planning really is key.
Refocus on your short-term goals and try not to let the plateau throw all the amazing progress you’ve made out the window. And remember, if you’re coming to the end of your weight loss journey, the pace of your weight loss could simply be slowing down.
“It can be really difficult to stay motivated because you’re trying really hard to get where you want to go but sometimes our bodies just don’t shift weight the way we want them to,” explains Pennie.
“So reset your goals to be daily specific targets on what you can do right now.”
Work on just this week, keep moving and get those weight loss goals back on track.