7 Strategies to Break Through a Weight Loss Plateau

Suzie Glassman


It doesn't matter how much weight we have to lose; we all hit the dreaded plateau at some point. You’re doing everything right. Maybe you have the occasional “cheat” meal here and there, but all in all, weight loss has been going along steadily.

Then, bam! A slap in the face. The needle refuses to budge any further. It may last days to months, and it usually comes when we are in the home stretch of reaching our weight loss goal.

According to Medical News Today,

Research shows that weight loss plateaus happen after about 6 months of following a low calorie diet.
Doctors are unsure why weight loss plateaus occur, but some theories include:
* the body adapts to weight loss and defends itself against further weight loss
* people stop following their diets after a few months
* the metabolism slows down if a person loses weight quickly

I often remind clients that not all plateaus are bad. If you’ve lost 20 pounds and can keep it off (even though you want to lose 10 more), that’s a great sign. The longer you give your body time to adjust to a new low weight while allowing yourself to slowly eat more calories and increase your energy is a good thing.

However, what do you do when you have more weight to lose, and your usual tactics are no longer working? Here are seven strategies to use when you’re ready to bust through the finish line tape of your weight loss marathon.

1. Increase Your Protein

Protein burns more calories as it’s digested than carbs and fat due to something called the thermic effect of protein. Ever heard of the “meat sweats”? This is where the term comes from.

Melody Schoenfeld writes in her book Diet Lies and Weight Loss Truths,

A high-protein diet may prevent a decline in the number of calories burned at rest better than low-protein diets. This means you can burn more calories for a longer period of time, even at rest.

Adding more protein to your diet may give you the edge you need to burn additional calories while eating a low-calorie diet. Protein will also help you maintain muscle mass during a caloric deficit.

While it’s possible, you can consume so much protein that your body stores the excess as fat, it’s highly unlikely.

2. Move More

You likely began some sort of exercise regimen when you began your weight loss journey. Regardless of what you chose, your body will get better at it with time. While this is a great feeling, it also means your body will burn fewer calories doing it because you’re more efficient.

If you’ve hit a plateau, try upping your intensity. If you’re used to walking or jogging at a certain pace, try to go faster or farther. Include interval work where you push yourself hard for 20–60 seconds and then recover. If you haven’t tried weight training, add strength workouts. If you’re unsure what to do, you can Google beginning strength programs or talk to a personal trainer.

Perhaps the larger bang for your buck in the movement category is through your non-exercising activity since exercise usually accounts for only an hour or so of your day. Set yourself a higher step goal. Incorporate activities like parking further away, going for a morning walk, using the bathroom on a different level (office building or house), and pacing while you’re on the phone.

The problem with dieting is you can’t simply reduce calories ad infinitum. If you’re not losing weight at 1,200–1,500 calories, it can be dangerous to cut further. The healthier alternative is to try burning more calories through activity.

3. Eat More Fiber

Fiber helps keep you feeling full, and foods high in fiber (like vegetables) are low in calories, so you can eat a lot of them without going over your caloric target.

Dr. Susan Kleiner explains in her book The New Power Eating,

Fiber works to control your weight and keep you from gaining. Higher-fiber foods take longer to eat and they expand in your stomach, resulting in a full, satisfying feeling. Second, they lower levels of insulin, a hormone that stimulates appetite.
Third, more calories are burned during the digestion and absorption of high-fiber foods. And fourth, high-fiber diets are naturally lower in calories and help you manage your weight.

Some of the best sources are beans of any kind, sweet potatoes, mixed vegetables, dates, pumpkin, spinach, bananas, oranges, broccoli, dates, blackberries, and raspberries. Also — add one or two tablespoons of flaxseed meal each day.

4. Drink More Water

Drink more water feels like Weight Watchers' advice from the early 2000s, but alas, it’s true. Hunger and thirst are often mixed in the brain. If you’re dehydrated, your body can send hunger signals instead.

One study found that drinking 500 ml (16 ounces) of water increased metabolic rate by 30% for 30–40 minutes after. The researchers also found drinking 2 liters (67 ounces) of water per day augmented daily calories burned by approximately 100 calories.

5. Get More Sleep

Research shows that if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you can lower your metabolism. A clinical paper titled Metabolic consequences of Sleep and Circadian Disorders explains how sleep deficiencies (regardless of whether it's insomnia, shift work, or self-inflicted) are associated with metabolic dysregulation.

The other issue is a lack of sleep can make you hungrier in general. When we don’t get enough sleep, hormones that regulate appetite get off-kilter. The brain produces less leptin, which tells us when to eat and, perhaps more importantly when to stop eating.

If your weight loss stalls and you’re regularly getting less than 7–8 hours of sleep each night, make this your top priority. I’ve seen clients wake up 1–2 pounds lighter after an excellent night’s sleep.

6. Reduce Stress

Yes, stress is a way of life, and there are times when there isn’t much you can do about it. But stress produces cortisol, and too much of it wreaks havoc on your efforts.

According to Healthline,

Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” While it helps your body respond to stress, it can also increase belly fat storage. What’s more, this effect seems to be stronger in women).
Therefore, producing too much cortisol can make weight loss very difficult.
It may seem as though you have little control over the stress in your life, but research has shown that learning to manage stress can help promote weight loss.
In one eight-week study of 34 overweight and obese women, a stress-management program that included muscle relaxation and deep breathing led to an average weight loss of 9.7 pounds (4.4 kg)

Remember, exercise is also a type of stress, and too much of it without enough recovery time can also produce cortisol. If you find yourself constantly sore, tired, and feeling beat up, lighten up the exercise load or take an additional rest day per week. It seems counterintuitive (especially since step 2 is to move more) to do less to get bodyweight to move, but it’s more about avoiding so much stress your body cannot recover from it before your next workout.

7. Track Your Food

There are many effective ways to lose weight, and not all of them include keeping track of every morsel you consume. However, if you find yourself up against a brick wall, commit to weighing and measuring everything you eat for a week. If you were already tracking, go back and make sure your entries are accurate. Popular food logging apps like My Fitness Pal rely on user-entered data and aren’t always correct.

It’s easy to underestimate the calories you’re consuming. One study showed even registered dieticians underreport their food intake by an average of around 200 calories. And tracking your food for a period can make you more mindful of what you’re consuming.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to think you’re “broken” when you’re doing everything right to lose weight, and nothing’s happening. However, I can assure you that you can’t break your metabolism, and no one is beyond help.

There are reasons our biology fights against weight loss. Sometimes we have to provide a kickstart to get the scale moving again. Next time you’re stuck, try one or all of the following:

  • Increase your protein
  • Move more
  • Eat more fiber
  • Drink more water
  • Sleep more
  • Reduce your stress
  • Track your food

If none of the above works, try normalizing your calories for a period of time. Basically, stop dieting and slowly reverse out of a deficit. Add around 300–400 calories and weigh yourself frequently. See how much you can eat without gaining for a period. I recommend at least 6–8 weeks or longer (solely from experience). Then, you can cut calories again and hopefully break through your plateau.

Photo credit: By Cathy Yeulet

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I'm a reporter covering the Douglas County School District in Colorado.

Denver, CO

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