Losing weight can be tough, but you know what else is tough? Feeling like you’re doing everything right and still not seeing the number on the scale go down—especially if you’d been previously losing weight.
That, my friends, is called a weight-loss plateau—and honestly, it’s not all in your head.
TBH, your body doesn’t really want you to lose weight—when you cut back on calories, it sometimes thinks you’re trying to starve yourself. “Your body will then make you feel hungry because it thinks something is wrong and wants you to gain that weight back,” says Peter LePort, M.D., a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif.
Also, when you start losing weight (muscle or fat), your body’s metabolic rate slows down, which means your body starts burning calories at a lower rate, too.
Frustratingly enough, there is also a “set point” at which your body does not want to lose any more weight, says Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., an instructor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “You might notice that no matter what you try, you are always within five to 10 pounds of a baseline weight,” she says. “When you attempt to lose weight, the body aims to defend its set point, via the brain, to keep you in a certain range.”
Still, you’re not totally SOL if you’ve still got a ways to go before you hit your healthy weight. Here’s what might be causing your weight-loss plateau—and how to start losing again.
1. YOU’RE TIRED
If you’re experiencing exhaustion while trying to lose weight, that could be a sign that your workouts are actually too intense. “Often, people try to ramp up their physical activity to levels that are not easy to maintain,” says Stanford. “While they may get some short-term benefit with regards to weight loss, this may be difficult to maintain which will lead to weight regain.”
One study published in the journal Current Biology found that more exercise does not equal more calories burned; instead, those who exercised moderately used the same amount of energy as those who slaved away at the gym.
How to avoid a plateau: Stick to the Department of Health and Human Services’recommendation of least two and a half hours (or 150 minutes) per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, plus strength training at least two days per week.
2. YOU’RE HUNGRY ALL THE TIME
“When you lose weight, the brain and body compensate by making you hungry, which causes you to eat or store more,” says Stanford.
Research published in the journal Obesity showed that patients being given either a placebo or a weight-loss triggering Type 2 diabetes drug ate 100 more calories per day for every two pounds they lost—indicating that weight loss really does make you hungrier.
How to avoid a plateau: Make sure that if you’re craving food, you’re opting for healthier fare like lean protein, vegetables, whole grains, and fruits, says Stanford.
3. YOU’RE IRRITABLE AF
If you’re reached the point in your weight-loss journey where literally everyone is pissing you off, it might be time to reassess your food intake and exercise output in order to keep losing weight without losing your mind.
Women who followed a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet, according to a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, produced more cortisol, the stress hormone, and reported higher levels of stress. And a study published in the journal Obesity found that prolonged exposure to cortisol (like, several months) can actual lead to weight gain.
How to avoid a plateau: If you’re super-stressed out, it might be time to employ some stress-management tools—and even up your calorie intake (especially if you’re exercising a lot).
It’s also important for you to be aware that weight-loss plateaus exist, and to cut yourself some slack when they happen, LePort says. If you know you tend to get stressed out when things don’t go your way (fair), you can try adding yoga into the mix or other regular self-care activities like hanging in a warm bath with candles and a trashy book.
4. YOU’VE LOOSENED UP ON HEALTHY EATING
“In the initial stages of weight loss, people may see that weight comes off rapidly because they are creating a caloric and exercise deficit their body hasn’t experienced before,” says Feller.
After some time, however, it can be easy to slip back into bad eating or sedentary habits. “Relaxing the reins around portion sizes can stall weight loss,” she says.
Avoid a plateau: Try keeping a food journal to keep your diet plan on track. People who kept daily food records lost about twice as much as people who didn’t, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
5. YOU’RE FOCUSED ON CARDIO
It’s easy to think that endless cardio is the quickest way to weight loss, but “don’t skimp on strength training!” says Feller. “Cardio will result in weight loss, but you will lose lean body mass in addition to fat. And losing lean body mass will reduce your metabolic rate and can precipitate a plateau.”
Avoid a plateau: Remember: Make sure you’re strength training at least two days a week. “Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning that the more lean body mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest,” explains Feller.
Adding interval training to the mix can also help, LePort says. Just keep in mind that muscle weighs more than fat, so you may notice your pants fitting looser even if the scale doesn’t change.
6. YOU RARELY MOVE OUTSIDE OF THE GYM
It’s great if you’re getting your 150 minutes of exercise in per week, but Americans spend more than 12 hours out of a 16-hour waking day sitting, according to a studypublished in the Annals of Internal Medicine. And that’s not doing you any favors, especially if you’ve hit a plateau.
Avoid a plateau: Being active isn’t something that just happens in the gym, so make sure you keep moving to keep those weight-loss goals on track. Even just standing can boost your calorie burn, LePort says.
It’s also a good idea to add little calorie-burners to your everyday routine, like taking the stairs, parking your car farther away from a store entrance, and doing jumping jacks when you need a little pick-me-up in your day.