How to break through a weight-loss plateau

When you lose weight, your body burns fewer calories at rest and during physical activity than it did before.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Q: Since January, I’ve lost 15 “pandemic” pounds. I have more to lose but my weight loss seems to be stuck now. What gives?

Weight-loss plateaus are a normal, but frustrating, part of losing weight.

Early on, it’s motivating to see and feel your healthy-eating efforts paying off. Your weight is going down, your clothes fit better and you have more energy. A few months in, though, your weight loss slows or comes to a halt, despite following the lower-calorie diet that initially helped you lose weight.

In many cases, it’s possible to push through a weight-loss plateau. The key, first, is understanding why your weight loss has stalled.

Biological responses to weight loss

There are physiological reasons why weight loss naturally slows down.

When you lose weight, your body burns fewer calories at rest and during physical activity than it did before. That’s because a smaller body requires less energy to function than a larger one.

A calorie-reduced diet also causes you to lose a small amount of muscle, which contributes to a slower metabolism. (Resistance training and eating more protein can help counter muscle loss from dieting.)

As well, hormonal adaptations occur with weight loss that drive up appetite and make you feel less full, resulting in a subconscious desire to eat.

Under-the-radar dietary blunders

There are other explanations for weight-loss plateaus, subtle culprits that you may not be aware of. Take a moment to determine if any of the following common roadblocks are impeding your progress.

‘Relaxing’ on the weekend

Without the structure of weekdays, it’s easy to stray from your meal plan on weekends.

Larger meals, a few cocktails and/or extra snacking can show up on the scale Monday morning. The result: You play catch up during the week to take off that weight.

If weekends are slowing your progress, map out your Saturday and Sunday meal plan in advance. It’s also helpful to track your food intake Friday through Sunday.

Consider weighing yourself on Friday and Monday mornings to become aware of weekend weight gain.

Creeping portion sizes

It happens so gradually most people don’t even notice. You’re pouring a little more granola into your bowl, serving yourself an extra half-cup of rice and eating six ounces of salmon instead of four. Those extra calories add up day after day.

To make sure your “eyeballing” of portions isn’t off, reassess portion sizes every so often.

Use a digital food scale to weigh protein food like fish, chicken and red meat. Use measuring cups for breakfast cereal and cooked grains and measuring spoons for cooking oils, salad dressing and nut butter.

Having a no-snacking rule

Not including a healthy and satiating snack between meals can cause you to arrive at your next meal feeling famished. And more likely to overeat.

When meals are longer than four to five hours apart, include a small snack that contains protein and low-glycemic carbohydrate. One-quarter cup of nuts or seeds, yogurt and berries, sliced apple with almond butter or whole grain crackers with tuna are good choices.

To control calories, keep snacks to 150 to 250 calories.

Eating more because you’ve exercised

If you burn 400 calories during your Peloton workout, resist the temptation to add those calories back to your diet, thinking it balances out.

Research suggests that you can’t count on exercise to increase calorie-burning. The theory is that our brain responds to increased exercise by adjusting our metabolism to keep daily energy expenditure within a narrow range.

In other words, you’ll burn similar calories over the day whether you work out or not. Adding exercise calories to your meals could actually lead to weight gain.

Don’t ditch the exercise, though. Besides offering enormous health benefits, regular exercise can also influence body composition, reduce stress, improve sleep and enhance mood.

Losing sight of your goal

It’s not unusual to pay less attention to your goal after losing 15 pounds. After all, you feel great now.

But losing focus can make you less mindful about your food choices and portion sizes. To stay focused (and motivated), set small short-term goals to help you lose the remaining weight.

If you feel you’re closely following an eating plan that’s enjoyable and sustainable, re-evaluate your weight goal. It’s possible your target isn’t realistic.

Pat yourself on the back for the progress you’ve made. And stay focused on maintaining your healthy habits.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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