Plateau No More

What to do when your weight won't budge

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

It happens to runners and endurance athletes, and it happens to dieters, too: You're working hard to meet your weight-loss goal when suddenly, the needle on the scale refuses to budge. This roadblock often occurs just after your initial weight loss, and again when you can't seem to lose those last few pounds. It's very discouraging to keep working hard when you can't see the fruits of your labor. To make things worse, these weight-loss plateaus can last from several days to months.

If your weight loss has come to an abrupt halt, you must be wondering: Am I doing something wrong?

According to the experts, hitting these plateaus is nothing unusual. As your weight drops and your body composition changes, so do your nutritional needs. There are several reasons why your weight can hit a plateau:

  • As your weight goes down, you not only lose fat but also a small amount of muscle. It's estimated that up to 25% of the body tissue lost during weight loss comes from muscle. Since muscle is critical to keeping your metabolism perking, losing it can reduce your metabolic rate and hinder weight loss. Strength training can help preserve and build muscle to get your metabolism humming again.
  • The set point theory alleges that your body naturally tries to maintain a certain weight where it is most comfortable. If you find yourself stuck at the same weight time and again, you may have reached the comfort zone. Reducing much further typically results in regaining weight.
  • You may need fewer calories or more physical activity to sustain your lower weight. This is the most likely cause of a weight-loss plateau. Further, it's almost impossible to lose much weight without exercising. Many scientists agree that whether you exercise is the best way to predict whether you'll successfully maintain your weight.
  • Other factors that can influence weight loss include thyroid or adrenal gland problems, medications you're taking, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, and quitting smoking.

But more than likely, your weight is at a plateau because your portion sizes have crept up, and/or your workouts have decreased in intensity or frequency. You also may be indulging in high-calorie foods more often.

The truth of the matter is that most people let down their guard a little after their initial weight loss. It's perfectly natural to get more comfortable with the eating plan, and possibly overlook the prescribed portion sizes or quantities. The result is weight maintenance instead of further weight loss.

One Pound of Fat

Some dieters expect their rate of weight loss to be constant. But most people drop weight more quickly when they first begin a reducing program. This initial loss, unfortunately, is half fluid and does not reflect how much actual fat tissue you've burned. It's only later that each pound lost reflects the burning of real fat, roughly equivalent to 3,500 calories.

So don't be fooled into thinking that your initial rate of weight loss will continue. It's hard work to burn off 3,500 calories a week!

How can you get off the plateau and lose those last few pounds? According to the successful losers of the National Weight Control Registry, the secret is persistence. Here are 10 ways to get back on track:

"Keeping up with your journal is a great motivator and helps you be aware of exactly what and how much
you are eating."

  • Exercise: it builds muscle and revs up your metabolism. This is the single most important step you can take to lose more weight. Look for ways to work more activity into your life instead of trying to fit in unrealistically long workouts.
  • Start strength training a few times a week. Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat and helps burn more calories.
  • Check your portion sizes. Maybe it's time to get out your measuring cups and scale again. Most dieters routinely underestimate portion sizes.
  • Are you journaling your food? Keeping up with your journal is a great motivator and helps you be aware of exactly what and how much you are eating.
  • Weigh yourself once a week. Doing it more often can be counterproductive.
  • Make sure your weight-loss goals are realistic. It may be time to shift into weight maintenance instead of striving for more weight loss.
  • Curb-late night munching, which can sabotage your calorie intake.
  • Depending on your calorie level, you may need to select option #3 on the Create a New Plan link from the Weight Loss Center homepage. This will reduce your daily calories by 200. But we don't recommend going below 1,300 calories; this level will ensure you get all the nutrients you need while keeping you full.
  • Focus on the health benefits of the weight you have already lost. Put a picture of your old self in a spot where you'll see it often, to help you stay motivated. Delight in how far you've come, and how good you look and feel.
  • Shake things up in your diet. Treat yourself to a new cookbook, or a subscription to a healthy cooking magazine, to keep novelty and variety in your meals.

Community Support

Visit our community message boards for support and help from our moderators and your fellow Weight Loss Clinic members.

Learn from the lessons of our successful dieters. They will be the first to tell you to give up the guilt -- it does nothing more than lead to bingeing. Accept the fact that plateaus are perfectly normal, and, perhaps with a tweaking of your diet and exercise routine, you will start moving again toward meeting your weight-loss goals.

Reaffirm your commitment to the program and regain the determination you had when you began. Can you remember what motivated you to start our program? Call upon your reserves - you have come this far, so don't give up now.

One more thing: It may be time for a well-deserved reward for all your hard work. How about a shopping spree for fall clothing in that new smaller size?

Published August 14, 2003.


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