Why Weight-Loss Plateaus Happen and How to Break Them
If you’re like Micheala or Paul, you view weight-loss plateaus as a major pain point and source of frustration during a diet.
Oftentimes, a weight loss plateau on the scale – or the perception of one – can lead to making an irrationally, emotionally-charged, and unnecessary adjustment to your nutrition or exercise, that ends up being counterproductive and out of alignment with your sustainable weight loss goal.
Think prematurely cutting carbohydrates or adding in an unsustainable number of dates with the treadmill…
If you’ve experienced the pressure of a weight-loss plateau and it has taken control o how you navigate the remainder of your diet in the past (or has caused you to throw in the towel), then this episode is for you!
- Learn why a weight-loss plateau during a diet is a normal and positive sign (strange, I know!)
- Learn how to determine whether you’ve truly reached a weight-loss plateua or are just being impatient
- Discover the three steps you can consider taking to overcome a weight-loss plateau
- Enjoy the cognitive reframe Paul shares about why you should work to normalize, embrace, and accept weight-loss plateaus
Read our “Maintain Your Weight Loss After A Diet” Blueprint
Join The 5% Community
Hey, 5% Way Podcast listeners. Welcome back to another episode of the 5% Way Podcast with your hosts and sustainable weight loss specialist, myself registered dietician, Paul Salter, and the wonderful Micheala Barsotti. We are so incredibly happy that you are choosing to spend time with us and just want to remind you how much we sincerely appreciate you taking the time to put us on into your earbuds as you go about your day. Because I can’t tell you enough how much fun I have not only preparing, but actually being able to record and deliver these episodes each week.
And I’ve always had this dream that one day I would host like a live talk show or radio show, maybe sustainable weight loss radio. I don’t know. It could be a thing. It should be a thing. But nevertheless, we have this podcast for now and we will make the most of it. So before we get started Micheala, how are you today?
I’m good. And I’m laughing to myself because as you are like, I want to start a live radio show. I’m like still getting used to the whole podcast thing, but nevertheless, we’re here and do I dare say I am excited to be here. It’s growing on me. So let’s talk about some wins in the community. Shall we?
Let’s do it.
Cool. I wanted to share one. That was from one of our community members. So if you’re a new listener here, every single Friday, our members in the 5% Community drop wins into the share your wins. We have a special channel all for it. And we just recognize. So one of our members, Kelly, she had some weekend wins, which I just think so many people struggle with weekends. And so it was so cool to see how far she’s come and I want to share it. So she said she had two weekend wins. Saturday she decided to go out on a girl’s night with some friends. She made the decision to group together two meals before she left. So I felt full when I got there. And it was a potluck she said, so brought a protein shake with me, diet, soda, water, and just sit on those when I felt the urge to snack. Successful night.
And then Sunday afternoon win, went to my sister’s house to play family games. Another potluck. Brought all my meals and stayed right on track. Didn’t feel any pressure to eat off plan from the family. This is huge since it happened before. I think they’re finally getting it. Overall, I felt in control at these two functions. There was definitely tasty treats, I’m on my last week of my diet. So my cravings are in full swing. However, my emotions never got out of control. My mind wasn’t consumed with thoughts of food that I shouldn’t have. I was present in the moment and enjoyed company.
Wow. That to me is like just so many wins. I mean, I know I can relate to struggles in the past of social settings. So just how she navigated that altogether and just talking about how she felt in control. Is just showing how far she’s come. And I think that’s so amazing.
Yeah. It’s the epitome of food freedom, not letting food dictate and drive all of our decisions, our actions and set the tone for the day. I think it’s incredible. And I almost wonder too, Kelly, as you listen to this. This is me calling you out. I’m curious if maybe it’s not so much your family came around, but you are now more clear and stronger on your boundaries and give a lot less fucks about what they think or care when it comes to you doing you and making your food decisions that are alignment with you, feeling your best and your goal. So outstanding. So proud of her and really just thrilled to see how much progress she’s made since joining the 5% community. About to wrap up an incredibly successful diet inside and out and continues to learn every step of the week.
And my win I’ll quickly shout out before we dive in as of recording this, we have just finished doing the first of two live trainings for our first ever masterclass, how to build your own sustainable nutrition plan. And the win is just the utmost flexibility and patience with every single member who attended on Saturday. Because literally three minutes after I hit the record button that we got started, I lost power due to a local thunderstorm and tornado that touchdown, which means no internet, no ability to connect on Zoom and host said live training.
But positive in the win I’m really taking away is not only the gratitude of everybody who was flexible in understanding, that had blocked out this time period on their Saturday morning, but it allowed us to see an opportunity to over deliver and actually host this live training twice, which we did. Again, this is Monday, March 14th, as we record this episode. But we hosted one yes, yesterday on Sunday, we’re doing another one on the 15th, Tuesday. And I am just incredibly excited and really just jazzed about how yesterdays went and know that I’ll be able to deliver even better tomorrow now that I’ve actually done one of these.
So just big wins all around. Everyone who attended has reached out in some way, shape or form to share how valuable the experience was and how much they learned. And holy shit, did we spend a lot of time with them. Just over two hours, which was not intended, I guess I just had a lot to say and a lot to teach, but let’s talk about teaching and focusing on you, our dear listener today, with the topic specifically tied to that pesky, clunk of metal, we all know so well as the scale. Some of us have a very strong love, hate, indifferent relationship, if you will. Some of us like myself are on borderline indefinite vacations from the scale altogether. And today’s episode is specifically going to focus on educating you why weight loss plateaus happen, helping you to better understand why they are normal and actually a positive.
And then ultimately give you three surefire strategies to break through these plateaus so you can continue achieving and working toward your fat loss goals. And the first thing I want to begin with is to just say this loud and clear, with bold, underlying all capital font, if you will. But a weight loss plateau is not a bad thing. In fact, it is actually normal and a positive sign that your body, specifically your metabolism is humming along exactly how it should be. And to help me best illustrate this point, let me just give you kind of a quick refresher on how our bodies physiologically respond to a calorie deficit or a diet. The first thing we need to remember. That calorie deficit is an incredibly strong physiological stressor. Our bodies are wired to get out of that kind of stress as soon as possible.
So the way that your body responds is by making several adaptations to either get you to eat more or expand less energy, to kind of close the gap, so to speak on that calorie deficit. And some of the ways our body adapts includes reducing the number of calories you burn throughout the day, as well as throughout your workout. So it’s really, really interesting, is if you did the same workout like sets reps, time, et cetera, week one of your diet, and then you did it again like week eight, you would burn significantly fewer calories during week eight, despite doing the exact same workout.
Your body just becomes incredibly more efficient and able to conserve calories. Another adaptation, increasing production of the appetite, stimulating hormone ghrelin while decreasing production of the appetite suppressing hormone lectin. Your body all reduces the amount of energy that you have that is present throughout the day.
Therefore, your activities of daily living or your daily step count, tend to trend downward and collectively these changes work to either get you to eat more or experience a reduction in energy expenditure to, as I mentioned, close the gap on that calorie deficit. So ultimately when this transpires, after a few weeks of having just started your diet, when the scale reaches a plateau, that’s just a sign that your body’s working and doing what it’s supposed to. It’s responding as it is supposed to the calorie deficit and stress that you have placed on it.
And a good numerical example to think of is maybe before beginning your diet, you were eating 2,000 calories per day, and then to initiate your diet, you began eating 1,600 calories per day. And you notice for the first few weeks, the weight slowly, but Shirley melts off, but after about four weeks, you just don’t see any movement on the scale whatsoever. What has happened is your body has adjusted to that new consistent calorie intake and now 1,600 calories has become your new maintenance amount. And therefore you reach that dreaded plateau and you find herself in a pickle. And I’m curious Micheala specifically the past couple of years, as you were going through some significant growth in your own nutrition journey, how did you used to interpret seeing stagnation on the scale?
Oh gosh, I used to freak out. First of all, I had the expectation that single time I got on the scale, that number was supposed to be going down. So if it didn’t go down, I immediately freaked out, thought that the plan wasn’t working and I hate to admit it, but I likely always made drastic behavior changes. So I cut carbs that day or I thought maybe I had to skip a meal or just over exercise. There were all these crazy things that I did when in all reality, I don’t even know if I was at a plateau because it was one day and I would just make all these drastic decisions.
Yeah. So let’s talk about how to determine if in fact you are at a plateau and I actually do have a funny, embarrassing story to share about the scale. When I first started my official bodybuilding competition prep, I think this was January of 2012. Wow. So I had this plan… Wow. More than 10 years ago. Sorry. That’s crazy. I was just thinking about that, anyway.
I had a plan to step on the scale Thursday morning, as soon as I woke up after using the restroom. And I only planned to step on the scale Thursday mornings, why, I don’t know. We live and we learn. Any who, I stepped on the scale week one or after my first full week and I remember I weighed 172 pounds. And then the next week I weighed 170. So I have two pieces of data after two weeks of dieting.
And then the following week, I weighed 172 again, and I thought I had just wasted three weeks of dieting. I immediately slashed my carbs by like 75 grams and thought I was way behind on my diet prep. So I too can relate to the irrational, emotionally fueled knee jerk decision making that comes with that pesky clunk of metal. And it’s important before we have any type of reaction, hopefully one that is now evolving to being proactive decision making, to determine whether or not you have really reached a weight loss plateau. Which can be defined as simply a period in which you temporarily stop losing weight.
And yes, just like you listening in the midst of a dieting phase, I want the weight to come off much faster, preferably yesterday as well. But if we push our progress too quickly, this can become problematic. Because the recommended amount or rate of weight loss, excuse me, when you’re seeking significant sustainable weight loss is somewhere between 0.5 and 1.0% of your body weight per week. Which is between for example, one to two pounds a week for a 200 pound individual.
But if you’re someone who is weighing yourself a few days per week, which is what we recommend two, three days per week, and we can also make it a good, strong argument per weighing in daily, if you are at the level of scale related emotional maturity, which not everybody is. But ultimately you’re going to see natural fluctuations when you’re collecting multiple weigh-ins a short amount of time. And if you see a couple numbers in a row like Monday, 172, Tuesday, 171.8, Wednesday, 172 again, it can be very easy to overreact and make it emotional decision.
So I want to share with you a couple strategies and tidbits, just to make sure you’re doing everything you can to control the environment in which you are tracking and monitoring these metrics of progress, before you make a drastic decision that could end up being a decision that is too premature, leads to maybe losing a little bit more muscle mass than you should, or creating such a strong calorie deficit that you can’t adhere to your plan.
So first and foremost, this is exactly how you should be tracking and monitoring your progress on the scale. First thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up minimal clothing, you should be using the bathroom and on the scale and very similar, if not the same minimal clothing after using the restroom on your given weigh-in days, whether it’s Monday, Thursday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or every day, keep strong consistency across the board.
Next up, we want to make sure that not only are we collecting multiple weigh-ins per week, but we want to make sure we are finding our weekly average. So that is something that can be done in an app, a basic calculator, or one of my favorites, a Microsoft Excel sheet, or a Google sheet. Something that is calculating the average weigh-in. From there we never put all of our weight into a single weigh-in pun intended.
Instead we primarily focus on the weekly averages and I’m not concerned about what days, two, four, and six look like on the scale. Where I’m concerned is what does week one’s average look like compared to week two, week three, week four and so forth. So we always compare weekly averages to one another. And ultimately what we want to do is spot or identify if there is a trend or a lack of trend taking place between the weekly averages we’re comparing.
So what I am going to share with you now utilizing the approach of comparing one week’s averages to the other are a couple observational guidelines I have gathered having worked with just under 1,500 men and women in the past eight to 10 years or whatever it may be. And I have talked about the scale far more than I care to admit, far more than I probably prefer to because it’s such a hot topic among people. Because it’s something that can totally have the power to set the tone of the day if you let it.
Which is not a place you really want to spend much time, but here are four guidelines to keep in mind. When you begin to assess the difference between weekly averages from week, two week, three week and so forth during your diet. Guideline number one, if the current weeks’ average is higher than your previous weeks, meaning you go from 170.4 to 171.8 and you’ve collected multiple weighs each week. It’s likely a sign that you have reached a plateau. So you may need to be proactive here and adjust your portions accordingly. A second guideline in situation that often presents itself is if the current week you are on, if that average is roughly the same as last week within 0.5 to 1.0 pounds, go back one week to determine how the present week compares to see if a trend is present.
So what I mean for that is let’s say, for example, you’re a few weeks into your diet. You’re on week three and week three’s average weigh-in is 170.4 and then week four’s weigh-in is let’s say 169.8. It’s a 0.6 difference. What we’re going to want to do is look, one week further back to see what week two was. And let’s say week two was 171.8 to discern whether or not a strong trend is present. Now we can see, we went from 171.8 to whatever I said, 169.6 or eight across two weeks, which means we are absolutely trending in the right direction. Therefore, you don’t need to make any changes. But if there was minimal to no change between two and three and then weeks three and four, it is time to be proactive and go ahead and make either a nutrition and exercise or a combination of both adjustments to help reinitiate that weight loss.
And then the third situation I’ll share with you is if your current week’s average is slightly down, determine whether or not it does fall under that optimal rate of weight, loss of 0.5% to 1.0% of your body weight per week. And if it is, don’t make any adjustments. Because here is one of the biggest game changing pieces of advice I can share with you about the scale. Your goal during a diet is to lose weight at an optimal rate. Again, within 0.5% to 1.0% of your body, weight eating as much food as possible.
If you are still losing weight, even if it’s a bit slower than you would prefer, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to cut your food prematurely. Like I mentioned, it’s going to send fatigue and cravings skyrocketing. It’s going to start to negatively impact your adherence, your workouts, your recovery, maybe your body composition if you start cutting too drastically, you lose a little bit of your hard earned muscle mass.
It is not a recipe for success. And the way I’ll frame it for you is basically this. If you can lose weight eating 1,600 calories per day, why would you start eating 1,200 calories per day? You want to diet and lose weight, eating as much food as possible at any given time. And on that note of patients Micheala, I’m curious, how have you seen patients be a problem area that you’ve had to struggle with in your own nutrition journey or with those you’ve worked with over the years?
Well, first thing I just want to say is that back when I was your client, and I remember you telling me the goal is to eat as much food as possible and have you see results. It was like, even though it’s such a, well, duh. But it was mind blowing to me because that was never my thought process. So it was always, how can I get there the fastest and I have to make the biggest, drastic changes to do so. So yeah, when it comes to eating more and still seeing results, I mean, that’s how we adhere to our plan long term.
So if you make all these drastic changes very early on and you have a 12 week cut, you’re in week three and already your stomach’s growling after every single meal, good luck. I mean it’s not going to happen that you’re able to really stick it out and have that consistency that you need to see results.
So to your point, why would you not rather see maybe a little bit slower results on the scale that is too. Because we also know that we might be seeing bigger body composition changes over those weeks, even though we’re not seeing big scale drops. So my advice is always to look elsewhere. Where are you tracking your progress that’s not just on the scale. We get so wrapped up in that. But I’m currently in a diet phase, I’ve had quite a few weeks of stagnant weight and what kept me from just dropping my weight or dropping my calories was that one, I took a step back and I’m like, am I being as consistent as I think I am? Where could I clean things up?
That’s always my first go-to because again, I want to remain eating what I’m eating now, if I can, and still milk a little bit more results at that pace. So what can I do to clean it up? I noticed I am picking a little bit still after dinner. Okay, boom. I’m going to try that for this next week. So I try to put my mind somewhere where I can like put that focus. So something that I have absolute control with, and then the other piece is just looking at those other options your non-scale victories. What are you tracking aside from just the scale to assure that you are making progress and moving things along?
Absolutely. And something we recommend during a diet is taking both body in composition measurements, as well as pictures, if not weekly, definitely every two weeks during a diet. Just so you have multiple areas of data to compare on a weekly or every other week basis. So that if one is down, it’s like having a multi-faceted, diverse stock portfolio. You don’t put all of your eggs into one basket in case doesn’t have any movement or in the case of stocks goes down. You want to have some diversity there.
Therefore if maybe the scale’s being a pain in the ass, but you notice clothes are fitting better. And that you’re leaning out in the mirror. Those are all motivating signs. And the number one determining factor as to whether or not you’re going to keep at your goals. I shouldn’t say number one, one very important one is the perception of progress. So if the scale is not showing you progress, you want to have multiple outlets in which you can find that progress taking place, because it’s absolutely happening if as to Micheala’s point, you are being as consistent as you’re supposed to in doing all of the right things.
Well, and depending on what your relationship is like with the scale, when you are in maintenance. Let’s say you do weigh-in a couple times a week and taking that average. If so you should know how much your weight fluctuates. You ate late one night and you had a really hard workout. I know all of these things because I do track my weight, even when I’m in maintenance, I track it a little bit less. But so why would I not think that after a hard workout, when I’m dieting, that my weight might be up a little bit, which also might cause the average to be a little bit less than what I’d like. So it’s just taking into consideration the big picture and understanding that you are going to have those fluctuations
Absolutely, great point. Let’s then discuss three common reasons that Micheala and I observed time and time again, as to why you may be experiencing a weight loss, excuse me, plateau, and what you can do to overcome each. So these are going to appear quite simple and as Micheala said earlier, kind of like, duh, but they need to be reiterated. You need to hear them again because when we are in the midst of a diet, we develop a case of diet brain, we become much more prone to being emotional rather than logical.
So hearing the reiteration of the simplistic basics through a lens of logic is a little bit more powerful, so to speak. So that’s why we are doing this. So first and foremost, you may be moving less than you think or less than you used to. Therefore you’re expending fewer calories. And it’s as simple as that. Remember, your body is fighting against your dieting efforts, trying to get you into a place where you feel more fatigued. You don’t want to move as much, and you are literally expending less energy throughout the day, both during your activities of daily living and your workout.
So an action step you can take to try to help curb that is track your daily step count, and then set a daily step goal. This is incredibly valuable, particularly during a dieting phase. And your goal does not have to be that generic 10,000 steps per day. It absolutely can be. But what I would encourage you to do is track your step count from the very beginning of your diet, add 1,000 to that. As soon as you start your diet. So maybe it’s like week one, you’re averaging 6,000 steps. Set your goal at 7,000 after that week, and then never miss that goal, or obviously consistency being greater than perfection here. But that is your goal the remainder of the diet. So yes, even during week seven and week eight, when you’re a little bit more tired than usual, you still hit that goal. That’s going to go a long way in promoting consistent energy expenditure from start to finish during the diet
Point or reason number two, you’re simply eating more than you think. Kind of like Micheala mentioned. I’m very guilty of this when I’m used to mass meal prep, just picking at things as you go, whether it’s during meal prep or after dinner, whatever it may be. You’re just eating more than your plan calls for it. It’s because you’re human. There’s nothing wrong with that. But having the awareness creates an opportunity for you to then go make a change. If you are really trying to push as much progress as possible out of this dieting phase, and you want to be a bit more patient with making another adjustment to your nutrition, make sure you have dialed your consistency into a T. 99 plus percent compliance, not like this forever, but to really squeeze the most progress out of your dieting phase, you’ve got to make that a priority.
And it’s also important to remember too sad, but true, most nutrition labels are pretty inaccurate. There can be inaccuracy between 10% and 70% depending what you’re looking at, which is just a damn shame, I understand. And on that note, I would just encourage consistency in how you’re tracking, measuring food, how you’re interpreting nutrition labels. It’s the consistent adherence that’s going to be key for your significant sustainable results.
And the action step on that note I’ll share with you is just simply commit to being 99 plus percent compliant with your portion goals. From start to finish, not just Monday through Friday, seven days per week, if you truly want to not only get the most out of your short term diet, but also if want to be able to have as much objective data as possible to help you make a logical, patient, and informed decision about whether you need to adjust your portions any further to initiate weight loss.
Yeah. And I’ll just chime in here for a second too, and say that one of the things I do when I ever enter into a diet phase, that is a game changer for me with my consistency is I change my meal prep strategy. So I go from, I like to do more of a bulk style prep when I’m in maintenance. So I just cook all my chicken and whatever else I’m having for the week and have them in a container. And then I pick and pull as I’m making a meal.
But as you mentioned, I am a grazer. I love to start making my meal and then I’m also popping things in my mouth at the same time. So that’s not really great for a diet phase. And because I know that about myself, I make that not even possible. So I do the individual meal prep, I prep all of my food on Sunday for the next couple of days, put them in individual containers. So now I’m just grabbing and it leaves no room for me to pick in between my meals. So something just as simple as that, but it makes a big difference for me.
Yeah. Hugely important. Thank you for sharing that. And lastly, the third reason you are likely experiencing a weight loss plateau is because it’s simply time for you to make another adjustment to your nutrition or your exercise. Remember a weight loss plateau is normal, it’s inevitable, it’s a positive. And if you’re doing all the right things, you’re implementing all the strategies Micheala, and I have shared with you over countless podcasts episodes in the 5% fundamentals program, 5% community on social media, wherever it may be, you’re still going to hit a plateau.
It’s how the human body responds to a calorie deficit. So your action step is simply to make your next diet adjustment and understand what nutrients to take from, when to take from them, how much to take and why those particular nutrients. And that is something that we teach in great detail in the online course that we’ve put together, the fundamentals of sustainable weight loss.
Which I’ll drop a link to in the show notes, if that’s something that you are interested in exploring and learning more about, but although we just shared three of the most common factors you may be experiencing a weight loss plateau. There are a few others just to keep in mind that are going to influence the numbers you see on the scale, which may mask a real plateau, or actually prevent you from seeing that one absolutely is present.
And the first one, stress. We are all no stranger to stress, stress, and chronic stress in particular increases the product of the stress hormone cortisol, which promotes fluid retention, which can mask changes taking place on the scale. Poor sleep quality, poor sleep quantity, both negatively impact stress as well as your energy and your appetite, which can also contribute to weird changes on the scale. And you making an emotionally charged decision about whether or not to adjust your portions.
And your daily fluid intake plays a significant role too, because when you’re well hydrated, your metabolism has the opportunity to operate at a maximum capacity. And so does everything else if you’re well hydrated. So a little action step for you, there is to aim, to drink at least 60% of your body weight in ounces per day. And this includes all fluids. Your coffees, your tea, your water, your diet sports drinks, diet sodas, whatever it may be. And Micheala, just curious, anything else that you would add into that category?
No, I mean, basically it just comes down to, there are a lot of factors to consider before you realize that you are truly in a plateau. And oftentimes there are a lot of things that we can do to fine tune before we have to make that next adjustment.
Absolutely. And I know ladies and gents listening that a lot of this was pretty action packed, steps to do based on scenario A, scenario B, guideline C, guideline D et cetera. So what I’ll end up doing eventually, probably around the time this episode comes out is I will make this information available as a written article on our site, the5percentway.com/articles is the best place to find it. And you’ll also be able to download a transcription of this particular episode on our site as well. The5percentway.com/podcast/184, because this is episode 184.
And the last thing I will leave you with, a weight loss plateau is expected. It’s normal. And it’s part of the journey. And most importantly, maybe I should have said this earlier is, you should not fear it or dread it. You should embrace it because when you’re finished dieting, a weight loss plateau is fucking a awesome thing.
It means you’re maintaining your weight loss like a champ. So you’re going to actually want to really reframe your relationship with plateaus after you finish a diet, and you’re going to want to cheer them on when they’re present, because it’s a sign that you’re actually maintaining your weight and doing all the things you’re supposed to keep that weight off for good.
But again, when you experience one during the diet, it is not a reason or an excuse to make an irrational nutrition or exercise adjustment, nor is it a reason to throw in the towel on your diet just yet. It is a natural, physiological response from your body when faced with a calorie deficit or diet.
Well, thank you so much for listening today, ladies and gentlemen, I hope that you found tremendous value in today’s episode. And if you did, we would greatly appreciate. If you not only leave an honest rating and review on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to your podcast. But hey, share this with a friend because I bet you off the top of your head, you can rattle off at least five people who have their heart strings pulled and their head messed with when it comes to stepping on the scale during a dieting phase.
So share this piece of audio gold with them, help with their mind and their heart at ease so that they can navigate and approach scale plateaus in control, understanding why and make the best decision possible to really help them achieve significant sustainable weight loss. Thank you again for listening. Have a wonderful rest of your day. And we’ll talk to you in next week’s episode.