Stuck on a Plateau?

Get that scale moving downward again

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

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Has your weight loss come to an abrupt halt? Does the needle on the scale simply refuse to budge?

I know you must be frustrated. After all, you're eating more healthfully, getting more physical activity, trying to lose weight at a slow and steady pace -- and just not getting results.

Don't lose hope, though. It's not uncommon to be plugging along, losing weight, and, all of a sudden, get stuck somewhere above their goal weight. It's hard to fathom that one week, your eating and physical activity program was taking the pounds off just like clockwork, and the next week, the scale has come to a dead stop!

There are several things that can cause a weight-loss plateau.

First, keep in mind that when you first start a weight-loss plan, you're often losing fluid along with fat, so you may lose more than the expected 1-2 pounds per week. But the Weight Loss Clinic plan is designed to help you lose fat, not precious muscle or fluids, so the rate of your weight loss will most likely slow down after that.

To keep it in perspective, one pound of fat equals 3,500 calories -- and that's a lot of calories to cut from your diet and/or burn during physical activity.

Beware of Calorie Creep

Another common reason for a plateau is that you may be eating more than you think. It's easy for portion sizes to creep up, and before you know it, you end up eating more than your plan prescribes.

A simple way to get back on track is to pull out those measuring cups and spoons and measure your portions for a few days. Eating just a few extra calories every day can slow down your weight loss.

Here's another possibility: If you initially lost weight on the plan -- and are following the prescribed portions exactly -- your body may have adjusted to your new calorie level. If this is the case, you may need to lower the calories on your Eating Plan. Go to Create New Plan and choose Option #3, "Reduce my calories," to cut calories by approximately 200 per day.

This is also a great time to add or delete foods from your plan. Want more fruits and vegetables? Select Option #2, "Modify my plan," choose fruits and veggies more often in the questionnaire, and more will show up on your new Eating Plan. Remember that eating plenty of high-fiber fruits and vegetables is the ticket to long-lasting weight loss.

Your cooking techniques may also be costing you more calories than you realize. Make sure you count the fats you use in cooking on your eating plan. And if you use oil, margarine, or butter in the preparation of your food, don't add more fats at the table.

Calories add up, whether they come from slightly larger portions or a little something extra in the pan. An extra ounce here, or teaspoon there, can make a difference. Tighten up your preparation to make sure you keep your calories in check.

Mix It Up for Fitness

Hitting the treadmill every day for a 30-minute walk or doing the neighborhood loop with your buddies gets your body into a groove. After a while, your muscles get used to the routine and become very efficient at doing the task at hand.

To keep your muscles guessing -- and performing the ultimate calorie burn -- vary your physical activity. And push the envelope to power past that plateau!

For example, during your 30-minute treadmill session, include a few intervals at higher speed or at a higher incline (climb hills if you're walking outside). Sustain this higher intensity for a few minutes, then return to your comfort level. After you recover, do it again. This will help you burn more calories and get back to losing weight.

Also make sure your routine includes strength-training exercises (like weight lifting), which help counteract muscle loss due to aging. Building and preserving muscle mass is a key factor in reaching a healthy weight, as muscle requires more calories to maintain than fat.

More Plateau Possibilities

Certain medications, including some antidepressants, blood pressure, and diabetes medications, can interfere with weight loss. Check with your doctor to see whether any of your medications could be getting in the way of your weight-loss goals, and if there is a suitable alternative that won't have the same effect.

It's also important to make sure you have set a realistic goal. Try achieving the weight you maintained easily as a young adult. If you've always been overweight, a realistic goal may be a weight at which your levels of blood fats, blood sugar, blood pressure, and energy improve.

Accept that healthy weight loss is slow and steady. Aim to lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds a week. Even if you lose just 1/2 pound a week, you're still moving in the right direction!

The bottom line in nearly all cases, of course, is that weight loss is the result of a simple mathematical formula: If you take in more calories than you burn, you gain weight; if you eat fewer than you burn, you lose weight.

Obviously, you want to be in the latter group. So figure out how to create a calorie deficit by eating less and exercising more. That will get the needle on the scale moving south and get you off the plateau -- once and for all.

Originally published May 06, 2004.
Medically updated April 2006.


©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


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