When you started your new diet you knew it’d be hard work but you might have anticipated a smooth and steady weight loss journey all the same. But you never thought there’d be times when the weight just wouldn’t budge no matter how you attacked the gym or changed up your diet.
The process of weight loss isn’t linear unfortunately and from time to time you’ll notice that the scales don’t shift or the tape measure isn’t giving you lower numbers you’re after.
That doesn’t mean all is lost. Knowing how to manage and overcome weight loss plateaus are key for continued weight loss. In this article we’ll give you our tips for getting over a weight loss plateau and how to get back on track.
A Recap on Calories
Whether you lose weight or put it on is down to energy balance. As a unit of energy, the calorie acts within the laws of physics – in particular thermodynamics.
What that means in simple terms is that if you eat more calories than your body needs, it will store it as adipose tissue and you will gain weight. This is referred to as positive energy balance. Conversely, if you eat less than your body needs it will tap into stored fats and you’ll lose weight – or at least fat mass anyway.
And if you eat the same amount of calories as your body needs? You’ve guessed it, your weight stays the same. This is what is referred to as maintenance.
The problem is that although the calculation of calories in might appear quite straightforward, the amount of energy you burn each day is much more difficult to properly evaluate. The reason why is that there are lots of different ways that your body uses calories. Here are the main four categories:
- Basal Metabolic Rate – the energy your body uses to maintain bodily functions such as maintaining heart and breathing rate, core body temperature and brain function.
- Physical Activity – the energy used during exercise or other structured movement.
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – energy used during non-structured activity such as general movement, changing posture, household chores etc.
- Thermic effect of food – energy used to digest macronutrients.
Throw in additional variables such as fat free mass levels, as well as age, gender and medication and there’s a lot that can go potentially wrong when trying to calculate your energy balance.
Typically, for weight loss you are advised to drop your daily maintenance calories by around 20-25% in order to allow a gradual but achievable deficit. They usually equates to a 500 kcal decrease.
Over time though, it’s inevitable that at some point in your weight loss journey you’ll hit a sticking point. When you do, you can use these tips to get you back on track…
#1. Recount Your Calories
When you first started your diet you probably worked out your daily calorie needs and exactly how many you needed to lose weight. You hit your 500 kcal deficit and off you went.
With so many ‘calories out’ variables it can be difficult though to know exactly how much energy you are using on a daily basis. And one common fault you might fall for is not re-evaluating your calorie needs once your weight starts to change.
Studies have shown that as you lose weight your resting energy expenditure  – basically your metabolism – starts to slow too. If you don’t take this into account by reducing your calories further, you’ll probably be hitting maintenance or even positive energy balance without you even knowing it.
Remember, that in order to lose fat mass you need to hit a 20-25% deficit from your maintenance calories. But as you lose weight your overall daily calorie needs naturally start to decrease.
Key Point: Remember to re-evaluate your calorie needs to reflect your current body weight.
#2. Weight Train
If you’re not already in a relationship with the iron then you need to make this a priority.
We’ve already mentioned that one large component of calorie expenditure is basal metabolic rate. Whilst this accounts for the energy needed to maintain autonomic functions such as heart rate and central nervous system regulation, it also includes fat free mass – a very metabolically active tissue.
What this means is that the more lean muscle tissue you have, the higher your resting energy expenditure (REE) will be. The extra calories you burn at rest isn’t a massive amount though – maybe 100-170 kcal or so extra per day, but put that extra muscle through a workout and your calorie burn will explode.
As you build muscle you’ll probably notice that your weight on the scales doesn’t shift much – it might even go up. The important thing here though is that you see past this. As the aim is to lose fat mass, not total mass, scales don’t always tell the whole story. Progress photos, the way your clothes feel and if you have access to the technology, body fat percentage equipment all provide a better indication of your progress.
Key Point: Weight training won’t necessarily help you lose weight on the scales but it will certainly help you lose fat mass.
#3. Keep Protein High
Although your overall calories will continue to decrease, one nutrient that should remain similar throughout your weight loss journey is protein. This macronutrient not only regulates enzymes, immune cells and some hormones, it also regulates lean muscle levels too.
It is quite common during a weight loss program to lose muscle. If you don’t get enough protein in your diet and include weight training on a regular basis, your body can choose to use muscle as an energy source – a process called gluconeogenesis.
Your body is continuously going through a cycle of building new protein cells and bodily tissues and breaking them down as well. When you are in a calorie deficit, the rate at which you break muscle down can speed up – and if protein loss rises above the rate at which you’re building new cells you’ll begin to lose muscle.
Maintaining high protein during weight loss helps you to achieve a positive net protein balance – and studies show that those who have a higher protein intake during calorie restriction lose more fat mass .
Whilst individual protein requirements differ based on lean mass, type of exercise and medical health, the most recent review suggests between 2.3-3.1 grams per kilogram of lean mass per day is enough to maintain muscle whilst decreasing fat mass .
Key Point: Keeping your protein intake high will help you preserve muscle on a calorie deficit.
#4. Try Interval Training
If you’ve got this far we’re guessing that you’re exercising on a regular basis. But what type of exercise you do is just as important as adding it into your program in the first place.
High-intensity interval training is a short, intense way of cardio training that not only burns a huge amount of calories but can preserve muscle mass too. It’s far more beneficial than long, steady cardio for fat loss.
To complete a HIIT session you’ll need to choose a type of training that you enjoy and can complete with good technique – popular activities include cycling, sprinting, body weight circuits etc.
Then choose the timings of work and recovery. These vary dependent on research, but generally lie between work intervals of 30 seconds to several minutes, separated by rest intervals of 1-5 minutes .
It’s tough but productive. not only do you burn a load of calories during the session, you’ll continue to burn them afterwards too. The process of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), simply referred to as the afterburn effect means that your metabolism will be elevated for hours after your workout, helping you to spark fat loss once again.
Key Point: Interval training is a time-efficient way of boosting your metabolism and fat loss.
#5. Move More
One side effect of calorie restriction and weight loss is that of reduced voluntary and involuntary physical activity.
As far as your body is aware, you’re not fasting to lose a bit of excess fat, you’re struggling to find food and all of a sudden it’s worried that you might starve. And whilst the concept of ‘starvation mode’ isn’t as as clear cut as what many will have you believe, one thing is for certain – when you’re losing weight your body will adapt to slow weight loss down.
In an attempt to preserve remaining energy stores, you’ll find that not only does your REE decrease but so does your release of norepinephrine and other chemicals that give you that ‘get up and go’ feeling. This can lead to reductions in motivation to exercise and also general movement as well.
This is particularly important as reduced NEAT has been shown to suppress and in some cases even increase body weight .
Studies show that when you put yourself in a calorie deficit, your body reacts by trying to decrease the amount of subconscious physical activity you complete . What this means is that your body doesn’t actually want you to be active so you’ll have to make an almost special effort to move as much as you can to increase both your structured and unstructured energy expenditure.
The process of weight loss isn’t linear unfortunately and everyone who undertakes a diet and exercise plan will at some point hit the dreaded plateau. It is important to understand why this happens but also what strategies to put in place to overcome it.
By adjusting your approach to weight loss you’ll be able to overcome your barriers and get back on track. These simple tips help you get there.
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- Evans, EM. Effects of protein intake and gender on body composition changes: a randomized clinical weight loss trial. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2012; 9(1): 55
- Helms, ER. A Systematic Review of Dietary Protein During Caloric Restriction in Resistance Trained Lean Athletes: A Case for Higher Intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014; 24(2): 127-138
- Gibala MJ, McGee SL. Metabolic adaptations to short-term high-intensity interval training: a little pain for a lot of gain? Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2008; 36: 58–63
- Levine, JA et al. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002; 16(4): 679-702
- Trexler, ET et al. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014; 11: 7