How to break through a weight loss plateau, according to people who did it
Get out of stagnation station
Those first few days of a new workout regime are always the most difficult. You wake up as sore as if you spent all night repeatedly doing jhadu-pocha. As your workout app’s reminder notification pops up, you grumble as you change into your exercise gear. One day you realise you’re not so sore anymore. You feel more energetic. You’re excited about swapping healthy recipes in your Whatsapp group chat. Well into your fitness journey, you see the numbers dip on the weighing scale. You feel healthier, stronger and breeze through 30 surya namaskars. Then the universe throws a wrench in your fitness journey and you hit that dreaded weight loss plateau.
For people that are trying to build healthier habits and a better relationship with food, our body and exercising, seeing this needle get stuck can be incredibly demotivating.
“There are people who struggle to lose the last few kilos that they wanted to. Some even end up gaining some weight back,” says fitness trainer Dhiraj Bediskar.
“I thought I was doing everything right. I had lost about 5 kilos, felt more toned and stronger, and then just no change for weeks,” says Payal Mehta.
Having struggled with extra kilos for many years, she finally got motivated enough to get on a fitness track and saw real change. But the weight loss plateau hit her hard. “After a point, I think I had even gained weight, I didn’t understand what was going on with my body.”
Seeing the gym shots and progress pictures of all the fitness enthusiasts on your social media feed may have you believing that building muscle and losing fat sustainably is a linear process. It’s a lot more topsy-turvy.
Why do some people experience this weight loss plateau?
Of 807 Tweak readers, an overwhelming 94% said they hit a weight loss plateau and struggled to break through. Many fitness experts themselves have had to deal with it, so know that it’s a lot more common than you think.
Different factors could be at play, making it more difficult for you to shake out of your stagnation.
Your body adapts
“The human body is made to adapt to any situation to make a certain activity easier to perform. Working out makes your body stronger and fitter, making it more difficult to see changes the more you work out. Although that’s a positive to show that your body has become more efficient and fitter – it stalls the progress you’re making,” explains Simrun Chopra, deep health coach and founder of Nourish With Sim.
Think of it this way. When you start working out, it’s easier to lose weight and burn fat because your body has been shocked, from being sedentary to suddenly exercising. The more you do it, your muscles start to catch on and learn. After some time, your body gets used to the movements and knows what to expect.
Your muscles are still being worked but they have the strength and ability to get through them smoothly without completely freaking out.
Scientists have proposed a set-point theory which, in terms of diets and weight loss, proposes that our body has a predetermined baseline or ‘natural’ weight that it sticks to. This set-point is determined by our DNA, environment, hormones and overall genetic makeup.
The set-point would be the number on the scale that your weight is largely in the range of when you’re on a normal diet.
Our weight loss and gain hovers around this set-point, plus/minus a few kilos here and there, and your body will fight to make sure it stays within this range. When your body weight starts to drop in your fitness journey, hormones like leptin, which regulates our hunger, and insulin are triggered to snap the body into action and bring your weight back your ‘normal’ range.
Regardless of what we eat and how much we exercise, your body will fight reduced calorie intake by sending signals AKA hunger pangs and cravings to your brain. Sometimes, even slowing down your metabolism.
A set-point can be changed with a sustained long-term fitness routine and healthy habits. Focus on maintaining your weight in this time instead of pushing it more. You need to exercise patience to get through this reset and adjustment period.
You lose weight too quickly
We think adopting a very strict diet from the get-go will give us an added push towards achieving our fitness goals. It can help you lose weight but can be a little too much too soon. Highly restrictive diets tend to be less sustainable and can actually end up slowing down your metabolism.
From a biological point of view, losing too much weight may trick your body into thinking you’re in a state of starvation. It goes into crisis mode, trying to hold onto our energy reserves to perform the basics bodily functions when it’s in a state of rest – breathing, digesting food, keep the heart pumping blood.
The body starts rationing energy when we lose weight too fast. It gets smarter as well, lowering body temperature, thyroid stimulation and fat burning. Meaning, that we’re burning less fuel when we need to be burning more, which can cause a weight loss plateau.
You don’t stick to a healthy diet
“One might lose track of their nutrition plan and small fluctuations may also cause a plateau to occur since following a restrictive diet for a lengthy period of time is challenging,” says Anushka Nandani, multidisciplinary fitness coach and co-founder at The Tribe India.
Nandani adds that she’s experienced a weight loss plateau and knows how discouraging it can be. “The only way through is to regroup and plan your way forward and re-access your habits.
A life without chocolate, pakodas, and everything else we love – food deprivation won’t work in the long run. Feeling unhappy and grumpy is not going to inspire you to stick to a healthy diet.
Unless you have allergies or an intolerance, cutting out complete food groups that are ‘bad for you’ can impact the amount of nutrition you get, and make you crave those foods more. The focus needs to be on portion control and you’re likely to stick to such a diet because you’ll enjoy it more.
From sleep and sex to weight fluctuations – our hormones affect every aspect of our functioning, at any age.
Endocrinologist Dr Samudrika Patil, of Vedicure Healthcare and Wellness, explains that thyroid hormones are mainly known for their effect on our metabolism. People with hyperthyroidism can be severely underweight, whereas hypothyroidism slows down our metabolic rate, leading to obesity.
Insulin, produced by the beta cells of our pancreas, keeps blood sugar in check. “It also controls the storage of fat. That’s why insulin resistance causes you to gain weight,” says Patil.
Ghrelin and leptin may sound like hobbits, but they run our appetites. Leptin, the satiety hormone produced by our fat cells, tells the brain you’re full. “Leptin deficiency can lead to obesity because you won’t know when to stop binging.” (Look Ma, I told you I wasn’t just greedy.)
Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, functions oppositely. “Ghrelin levels go down when you eat a meal, as signals are sent to your brain to reduce the secretion of the hormone so that you know you are full.” Recognising and fixing hormonal imbalances are best dealt with by a medical professional.
How to break through the weight loss plateau
You may want to stomp your foot as the weighing scale refuses to budge. But the numbers on the scale don’t tell us the whole truth. They don’t measure the changes to our body composition, that is your body fat and muscles.
Chopra explains, “Being thin doesn’t mean being fit at all. It is very important to continue your routine and maintain it. Hence, it is important to build a simple and sustainable lifestyle that is easy and fits into your regular lifestyle.”
There isn’t one single strategy to break through the weight loss plateau. But there are some changes you can make to kickstart this next part of your journey to healthy living.
Change workouts and keep your body guessing
Once your body gets used to a certain exercise routine, you’ll notice a weight loss plateau. Shake things up with different kinds of exercises. This comes highly recommended by experts and readers alike. “Small, progressive advancements in activity can help break through a plateau,” says Nandani.
Aparupa B went from doing cardio only to switching to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), weight and functional training. Shalini Sinha added weights, and Pratima Poddar mapped out a workout schedule to follow, alternating her days between cardio and weights. And Akanksha Sharma switched up her workout by playing a sport.
Priyanka T invested in signing up with a personal trainer to create a constantly evolving workout regime. “I was stuck in a weight loss plateau for what felt like months. I signed up with a nutritionist and trainer and broke through it to lose my final five kilos in my goal.”
Chopra did the same to get past the weight loss plateau she experienced. “My trainer comes in and trains me to keep my body guessing.”
Ensure you’re working on a calorie deficit
When you consume fewer calories than you burn throughout the day, you’re in a calorie deficit. It’s the primary method of losing fat. An expert can help you calculate how many calories you need in a day to be able to continue with your workouts without feeling hungry, lethargic and fatigued.
If you’re working out and training hard, you may be burning a lot more calories than someone else would with a simpler routine. You’ll then need a higher calorie count on your plate, but with enough margin to have a calorie deficit.
Let’s say that given your lifestyle and body composition, you need a daily diet of 1500 calories to stay energetic and active through the day. But you also like to indulge in dessert after dinner. You can still maintain a calorie deficit by the kind of exercise you choose to do. Something practical and sustainable to achieve long-term results so that even if you reach 1800 calories on a daily basis, you manage to burn 300-400 calories to get to a calorie deficit.
A nutritionist can help you work out your daily meal plans so you can eat enough to stay satiated, stay full longer while maintaining a deficit.
Manage stress and sleep
When you’re stuck in a weight loss plateau, our minds first jump to all the things we’re doing wrong with our diet and exercise routines. But sleep, stress levels and rest are as important because they impact our overall health. A lack of sleep can also impact the food choices we make, how hungry we feel and our metabolism.
Your brain trying to work on low sleep is kind of like being drunk. You make a lot of regrettable decisions. Over-tiredness can make your brain seek rewards in other ways, many times in comfort food.
Too little sleep triggers a cortisol spike. This stress hormone signals your body to conserve energy to fuel your waking hours. Lack of sleep makes us “metabolically groggy” according to a study by the University of Chicago, disrupting our body’s ability to process insulin.
Give your body the time it needs
Breaking a weight loss plateau can take anywhere from six to 12 weeks. When it comes to fitness, our goals need to extend beyond quick weight loss into long-term changes to our bodies. We’re more likely to stick to our goals and keep the weight off and healthy habits in place.
Avoid taking extreme measures and starving yourself. This could slow down your metabolism and only have adverse effects,” says Nandani.