Weight Loss Plateau: It happens to the best of us: embarking on a new lifestyle routine to achieve our fitness goals, only to find our results hit a wall. After losing the initial 5 or 10 pounds (or putting on some muscle), we start to feel good, and then everything comes to a halt. Today we explore weight loss plateaus and how to keep progressing toward our goals.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
What is a Weight Loss Plateau?
A weight-loss plateau (also known as weight loss resistance) is simply the point at which, despite your continuing efforts to lose weight, the progress stops. Someone may be doing exactly what they have been doing that led them to lose the first 5 or 10 pounds, but suddenly the same habits yield no more results. In some cases, the same practices that led to an initial weight loss can even lead to regressed results (putting back on some weight).
What Causes a Weight Loss Plateau?
The causes of weight loss plateaus vary wildly from person to person. One common reason is the implementation of rigid, unchanging habits.1 For example, pursuing strict caloric restrictions for many months at a time or doing the same type of workout day in and day out without variation. Our bodies adapt very quickly to habits. In self-preservation efforts, we will down-regulate things like metabolism because the body believes low calories (for example) are the new norm.
This adaptation is brilliant for survival; it means the body keeps hold of body fat when famine comes (or in some cases, caloric restriction is so intense the body believes that the famine time has already arrived).
Other reasons include hormonal irregularities, autoimmune conditions, toxicity, trauma, and excessive stress.
How to Overcome a Weight Loss Plateau?
Since the reasons for weight loss plateaus vary, understanding what is blocking your body from losing more weight can require a little investigation. This list, however, encompasses tools to help you achieve more significant physical and mental health states. In applying these principles, you will be able to break through weight-loss plateaus and achieve a more balanced and sustainable healthy lifestyle.
A healthy mindset is one of the most foundational tools to overcome a weight loss plateau. The concepts of placebo (and nocebo) are generally known, whereby an individual’s beliefs about the outcome of a situation will influence the outcome, whether the intervention itself does or does not promote the outcome.
In other words, your beliefs are crucial in generating actual physical outcomes. In this case, views like “I’ll never lose weight,” “it will just come back like it always does,” or “this is too hard” will influence your ability to lose and keep off weight successfully.
Other aspects of mindset that can take a negative toll on your goals are beliefs of low self-worth. It is crucial to embark on a weight loss journey from a place of self-acceptance and self-love. Exercising out of punishment or restricting diets pursued out of fear of eating will take a toll on your mental health and not promote healthy, sustainable lifestyle choices.
Cultivating a healthy mindset regarding food can require time, so be patient with yourself. Consider working with a qualified therapist, doing lots of self-reflection in journals and talking openly with friends about your emotions, or reading books on the power of the mind-body connection can help improve this relationship.
2. Stress Management
Stress is one of the biggest roadblocks when you have a weight loss plateau. This is due predominantly to the release the hormone cortisol into the body during periods of stress. Chronically elevated cortisol levels are associated with various disease models and promote insulin resistance linked to obesity and diabetes.3
High cortisol levels from stress can also trigger cravings and encourage comfort eating. Emotional eating is often a learned behavior from childhood. It can also respond to increased hunger hormones and hormonal response to craving hyper-palatable foods (high in fat and sugar).4
Stress comes in chemical, physical, and emotional forms. Chemical stress is found in toxins like home cleaning agents, body care products, artificial perfumes, environmental toxins like pesticides and herbicides, and air pollution.
Physical stress can come from too much or too little movement. Although a sedentary lifestyle is understood to be ‘unhealthy,’ many people who work out daily can still be considered sedentary! You technically qualify as sedentary if you’re working out 1 hour a day but spend the other 23 sitting down or sleeping.
On the flip side, those who obsessively exercise and move all day long can also cause too much stress on the body, not giving it enough time to recover. The key to movement is consistency and balance. Incorporating a few days of high-intensity exercise is a great way to boost weight loss. One study highlights that short bursts of high-intensity activity yield better results than other exercise methods.5
Mental (or perceived stress) is often overlooked because it remains relatively abstract, but it does play a massive role in generating genuine physical outcomes. One study highlights two obese groups, one of which was given lifestyle advice and participated in a stress management program, while the second only received lifestyle advice. The first group demonstrated a significantly higher drop in BMI than the second group.6
Techniques that can help reduce stress include:
- Meditation (and guided meditations)
- Diaphragmatic (deep belly) breathing
- Tension, Stress and Trauma Release (TRE)
- Qi Gong
- Tai Chi
- Gentle Yoga
- Time in nature
3. Healing from Trauma
This point is linked to stress management and mindset. Healing from trauma, however, addresses an often more subconscious type of stress or operating system. Trauma creates coping mechanisms that can bring on stressful behaviors (like self-sabotage) and thoughts (like low self-worth), perpetuating stress and the aforementioned negative consequences on your body.7
The body is known to hold trauma memories in the physical body.7 This occurs whether you are aware of it or not; for many people, how we store trauma is not conscious.
It is estimated that 80-90% of our decisions come from the subconscious, which is why it’s important to actively seek out and heal from the experiences from our life that may have been traumatic.8 In doing so, you can reduce stress, improve your mindset, and break self-limiting beliefs that may be holding you back from achieving your weight loss goals and any goal in life.
Some modalities that may help explore and heal from trauma include:
- Somatic Experiencing (SE)
- Tension, Stress and Trauma Release (TRE)
- Depth psychotherapy
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
Tracking can be a touchy subject for weight loss because over-tracking can lead to unhealthy and obsessive habits. The benefits of tracking certain aspects of your body and habits can also help you see what’s going on.
We tend to get the situation wrong when we generalize or guess statistics and habits. For example, many people may think they eat three times a day when the average American eats 17-21 times a day. The misreporting is because most people forget that snacks and beverages add up, too.9 We forget the handful of nuts we had after our shower, the muffin that Kathy brought into the office for us, the afternoon pick-me-up crackers we had on the way to the meeting, or the chips we snacked on while watching TV after dinner.
Studies suggest that one of the primary reasons for failed goals is a failure to adhere to the plan correctly.10 Although individuals believed they were adhering completely, they were not.
Our unconscious habits tend to skew in assuming we’re “better” or “worse” than we are and can lead to under-eating or over-exercising.
By keeping track of some aspects of our weight-loss journey, we can start to see what’s real and then, from there, aim to minimize our reliance on tracking metrics (as not to get too obsessed with the numbers). The goal is, of course, to develop sustainable habits that are a part of a healthier lifestyle; to cultivate habits that can eventually come naturally.
5. Don’t Eat Less; Eat Less Often (Intermittent Fasting)
Although many people equate caloric restriction to weight loss, the reality is that prolonged caloric restriction downregulates metabolism, leading to a weight loss plateau.11 Continuing to cut calories more and more eventually leads to an unsustainable and dangerously low caloric intake, promoting metabolic damage and compromising the immune system.12
On the other hand, what promotes weight loss is eating less often. Intermittent fasting is simply the act of restricting your daily feeding window. The results are well studied, and they suggest that those who eat the same amount of calories but within a limited time frame yield better weight loss results. Intermittent fasting boosts your metabolism and has also been shown to reduce hunger levels.13
There are various ways to implement it, which include:
- Daily intermittent fasting: the restricted feeding window of 4-12 hours
- Weekly intermittent fasting: one 24-hour weekly fast
- Alternate day fasting: eat every other day.
- Monthly fasting/ fasting-mimicking diet: implementing a five-day caloric restriction each month
6. Diet Variation
Along with intermittent fasting, implementing diet variation principles helps ensure that the body adapts without hitting a plateau. Instead of restricting carbohydrates long term (a strict keto diet), including higher carb days every so often helps remind the body that there is no famine, so it can continue to be a fat-burning machine.
Diet variation can look a few different ways:
- Weekly variation: 1-2 high-carb days per week and one fasting day per week on an otherwise ketogenic diet
- Monthly variation: one week of high-carb refeed per month
- Seasonal variation: higher carb during the summers (where there is naturally more fruit available) and low carb winters
Finding a sustainable practice that works for you and your lifestyle is key. Keeping the body adapting and guessing will ultimately reduce the likelihood that it will ever plateau (adapt) to a stagnant routine.
Many products promote toxicity in the body, which can lead to a weight loss plateau. Toxins create inflammation in the body and disrupt the endocrine system. This can lead to leptin and insulin resistance.14
Leptin helps regulate hunger levels, so interfering with this signaling can lead to cravings and feelings of constant hunger, leading to overeating. Insulin plays a role in balancing blood sugar, managing inflammation, and promoting healthy weight.
Toxins also interfere with circadian rhythm, mitochondrial function, and liver function, all required to achieve a healthy weight.14-15
8. Sleep Quality
Overcoming weight loss resistance is essentially impossible without addressing sleep quality. This is because quality sleep plays into every point mentioned above. Sleep impacts our mental and physical health in so many ways that it should be a priority for any individual looking to get or stay healthy.
Not getting enough sleep downregulates metabolic rate and interferes with hormone levels to drive appetite and promote fat storage.16-18 Although exercise is essential for overall well-being and health, getting quality sleep is more important for weight loss.19 Indeed, you could literally sleep your way to weight loss!
Weight loss plateaus occur when tactics that help an individual lose weight no longer provide any more weight loss benefits. The causes are varied but are often rooted in a lack of variety in the diet and exercise routine. Other aspects that often need to be addressed are mental and emotional factors, like stress management, healing trauma, and achieving a healthy balanced mindset.
Your body is resilient and able to adapt to tough situations… To a point. Unfortunately, your organ systems can only take so much regarding environmental toxins, processed foods, and harmful personal care products.
Over the years, toxins can build up in your system, creating inflammation and disrupting your endocrine system. And that leads to stubborn weight gain that has nothing to do with how clean you eat… If you’re suffering from unwanted weight gain, your first line of defense isn’t another expensive stationary bike… It’s a safe and effective cellular detox.
CytoDetox is a gentle yet highly effective way to target toxins at a cellular level. Support the removal of toxins like heavy metals, pesticides, and biotoxins without the painful detox symptoms of some harsher supplements.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based on the opinions of The Cell Health team. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information from the research and experience of the Cell Health team. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for the accuracy of the information provided. Still, we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
- Hall, Kevin D, and Scott Kahan. “Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity.” The Medical clinics of North America vol. 102,1 (2018): 183-197. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012
- Publishing, Harvard Health. “The Power of the Placebo Effect.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-power-of-the-placebo-effect.
- Holmäng, A., and P. Björntorp. “The Effects of Cortisol on Insulin Sensitivity in Muscle.” Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, vol. 144, no. 4, 1992, pp. 425–431., doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1992.tb09316.x.
- Yau, Y H C, and M N Potenza. “Stress and eating behaviors.” Minerva endocrinologica vol. 38,3 (2013): 255-67.
- Shiraev, Tim, and Gabriella Barclay. “Evidence-Based Exercise: Clinical Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training.” 2012. Australian Family Physician, vol. 41, no. 12, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Dec. 2012, pp. 960–962, https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.998344208782447.
- Xenaki, Niovi et al. “Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial.” Journal of molecular biochemistry vol. 7,2 (2018): 78-84.
- Kolk, Bessel A. van der. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2015.
- Dow, Mike. Your Subconscious Brain Can Change Your Life: Overcome Obstacles, Heal Your Body, and Reach Any Goal with a Revolutionary Technique. Hay House, Inc., 2020.
- Zeballos, Eleina, et al. “Frequency and Time of Day That Americans Eat: A Comparison of Data From the American Time Use Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.” United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, July 2019, www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/93514/tb-1954.pdf?v=5648.9.
- Thomas, Diana M et al. “Effect of dietary adherence on the body weight plateau: a mathematical model incorporating intermittent compliance with energy intake prescription.” The American journal of clinical nutrition vol. 100,3 (2014): 787-95. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.079822
- Polito, Angela, et al. “Basal Metabolic Rate in Anorexia Nervosa: Relation to Body Composition and Leptin Concentrations.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 71, no. 6, 2000, pp. 1495–1502., doi:10.1093/ajcn/71.6.1495.
- Gibson, Dennis, and Philip S Mehler. “Anorexia Nervosa and the Immune System-A Narrative Review.” Journal of clinical medicine vol. 8,11 1915. 8 Nov. 2019, doi:10.3390/jcm8111915
- Kim, Kyoung-Han et al. “Intermittent fasting promotes adipose thermogenesis and metabolic homeostasis via VEGF-mediated alternative activation of macrophage.” Cell research vol. 27,11 (2017): 1309-1326. doi:10.1038/cr.2017.126
- Grün, Felix, and Bruce Blumberg. “Endocrine disrupters as obesogens.” Molecular and cellular endocrinology vol. 304,1-2 (2009): 19-29. doi:10.1016/j.mce.2009.02.018
- Taheri, Shahrad et al. “Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index.” PLoS medicine vol. 1,3 (2004): e62. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062
- Buxton, Orfeu M et al. “Adverse metabolic consequences in humans of prolonged sleep restriction combined with circadian disruption.” Science translational medicine vol. 4,129 (2012): 129ra43. doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.3003200
- Shechter, Ari et al. “Alterations in sleep architecture in response to experimental sleep curtailment are associated with signs of positive energy balance.” American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology vol. 303,9 (2012): R883-9. doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00222.2012
- “Your Guide to Healthy Sleep.” National Institute of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services , Aug. 2011, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthy_sleep.pdf.