Why Has My Weight Loss Stopped and Can I Break a Plateau?

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question-icon-newI think I’m at a plateau losing weight because its been several weeks and my weight loss has completely stopped! I currently weigh 185 pounds and I have been at this weight for about 2-3 weeks even though I have cut my calories down to 1,600-1,800 a day and I burn another 1,000 calories off with exercise every day. My diet has been working great for months but all of a sudden my weight loss just stopped. Please help!

answer-icon-newAlmost everyone who has tried to lose weight has experienced the dreaded “plateau”. You may be doing all of the right things – eating healthy amounts, exercising – but the results aren’t paying off for the effort. Before you get discouraged, keep in mind that in the long-term you will overcome if you are consistent and persistent. Don’t give up! Consider a couple of modifications going forward such as tweaking your physical activity, your food intake, or both. But, before you do, assess your starting point. Here’s your plan:

1. Start Tracking
Make sure you are truly eating the calories you think you are by journaling your food intake. Be honest and record portion sizes and when you’ve eaten, as well. Assess your food intake for two typical weekdays, and one typical weekend day.

Same goes with activity. Record your exercise in the same journal, and on the same days as the food intake, and make sure to record the intensity of the activity as well (to measure intensity, use the intensity scale below).

Do not proceed to the next steps until you’ve determined whether your plateau is caused by eating too many calories, low nutrient calories, late-night calories, not getting as much activity as you thought, too low of an intensity of activity or any combination of these common culprits.

Once you’ve assessed where you stand, you can make a plan to modify your routine accordingly. For example, if you notice you eat poorly in the evenings, modify that for one or two weeks and see if it increases your weight loss.

2. Be a Detective
diet-diary-break-plateauHere are some questions to ask yourself and things to look for as you go through your journal that might give you a clue as to what may be causing your plateau:

  • Is my diet carbohydrate heavy?
  • Is there a protein source at every meal and snack?
  • Do I drink enough water?
  • Am I eating too many calories for weight loss?
  • Am I eating enough calories?
  • Do I eat at regular intervals throughout the day?
  • When do I eat the majority of my calories?
  • Am I feeling full and satisfied after my snacks, meals?
  • Are my calories coming from beverages?
  • Are the foods I’m eating nutrient rich?
  • Am I eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and other high-fiber foods?
  • Are the foods I’m eating mostly natural and unprocessed? If not, why?
  • Do I eat more after stressful situations?
  • Have there been stressful situations lately that may be causing me to eat more?
  • Am I enjoying my meals and snacks?
  • Are there any foods that I can’t resist, and consequently have too much of?
  • Do I eat when I’m at a dinner table, or in front of the television?

If you’re unsure how many calories you need to lose weight, here’s a chart that estimates how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. Subtract 500 calories to come up with the estimated calories needed for weight loss.

GenderAgeSedentary*Moderately Active*Active*
Females19-301800-20002000-22002400
31-50180020002200
51+160018002000-2200
Males19-302400-26002600-28003000
31-502200-24002400-26002800-3000
51+2000-22002200-24002400-2800

To keep your metabolism high, don’t go below 1,200 calories a day, unless directed by a physician.

Food timing may also play a part in your plateau. It’s best not to go without eating for more than 2 hours, to keep you metabolic fire burning optimally. If you eat late at night, try eating earlier, and limit snacking afterwards to only fruits and vegetables.

3. Shake Up Your Exercise Routine
If you are, indeed, eating a healthy, low-calorie diet and exercising regularly (and have proof from your journal that you’re doing everything right), try to change your exercise routine in one or two ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Add intensity to your workouts, such as plyometrics to a strength training workout, or short bursts of intervals throughout a cardio workout (see routine below).
  • Change the time when you are exercising (if you’re exercising in the afternoon, try exercising in the morning before you go to work).
  • Try a new activity (grab a buddy and try a new class such as Zumba, kickboxing, or a buy a new fitness DVD).
  • If your exercise is strictly cardio, introduce strength training into the mix to increase muscle mass (and thus increase metabolism).

4. Check Your Body Composition
If you’ve been strength training regularly, you may see your weight plateau or the scale even move up, since strength training builds lean muscle tissue, and muscle is more dense, and consequently weighs more than fat.

Newer scales often have an option to measure body composition. If you have a scale that measures body composition, use this feature and track your progress over time. If the weight doesn’t change, perhaps the body composition may be telling the rest of the story.

measure-body-fat-monitorAnother clue for you may be hidden in your circumference measurements. If you do not have a body composition scale, or even if you do, this measurement can help you solve the plateau mystery. Get out the tape measure and track your waist, arm, thigh and hip circumferences. Take measurements every 4 weeks as that should be enough time for your body to adapt to the exercise and diet. Be sure to measure the same side, and the same location every time.

Often, when exercising regularly, you feel as if clothes are fitting better than before. The circumference measurement brings this to light by providing an actual number to the feeling. Even if the scale remains steady, you’ll know that you’re burning fat if your circumference measurements are decreasing.

Keep in mind that if you are thin and begin strength training, you may see an increase in circumference measurements, indicating a gain in muscle mass.

5. Relax
If you’ve been trying harder and harder for the last few weeks because the scale isn’t budging, you may be at risk for burnout and/or injury. The process of losing weight is just that – a process. It takes time to gain weight, and it takes time to lose weight. One part of changing a lifestyle is being patient. Your body is adjusting and adapting – it’s doing its job. Don’t let your perception of what you think it should be doing get in the way of what positive things you’ve done and the progress you’ve made. I’ve even recommended my clients to take a short break from the grind of working out, to give them a chance to change focus and get out of the expectation mode.

If you’ve found that you’re driving harder and harder, but seeing less and less results, try taking a break. Choose activities that you find to be enjoyable or even relaxing. Try this for two weeks, then ease back into your prior routine again and see if you notice a difference in how your body responds. You’ll be pleasantly surprised!

If, however, you’ve found that you’ve been too lax in your workouts, here’s the intensity training schedule mentioned earlier for you to incorporate into your cardio workouts. Do this routine no more than three times a week and always include a rest day in between.

Increasing Exercise Intensity Through Intervals
If you’re looking to kick your heart rate up a notch during your usual bout of exercise, this routine will do the trick. Use it for any activity, such as biking, cardio machines, walking, running, or even in the pool. It’s also a great way to beat boredom.

20-Minute Interval Program

MinutesIntensity*
1:00-4:003-5
4:00-4:306
4:30-6:004
6:00-6:307
6:30-8:004
8:00-8:308
8:30-10:005
10:00-10:309
10:30-12:005
12:00-12:308
12:30-14:005
14:00-14:307
14:30-16:004
16:00-16:306
16:30-20:003-4

*Intensity Scale:
1 – is very, very light,
3 – is light
5 – is somewhat hard but can still talk fairly comfortably
7 – is hard
9 – is very, very hard
10 – is total exhaustion

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About Author

Alice Burron

Alice is determined to motivate kids and adults to get fit and healthy. An M.S. graduate from the University of Wyoming in Physical Education with an emphasis in Exercise Physiology, Alice has more than 15 years of experience as a Personal Trainer. See my profile page for more information!

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