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How to overcome a weight-loss plateau

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In our guide that explored what a weight-loss plateau is, we explained that periods of weight maintenance, or plateaus, are actually very important for sustainable, long-term weight loss.

We also discussed ‘set-point theory’, which explains why some people reach a ‘stalemate’ situation on their weight loss journey, despite continually practising healthy habits.

Everyone has a unique set-point weight, which needs time to adjust in order to lose weight after a period of maintenance.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how to identify the reason why your weight loss is stalling and how to push through a weight-loss plateau and achieve your weight loss goal, if you have weight to lose.

Identifying the cause of your plateau

There’s a big difference between:

a) a weight loss plateau because your body needs to adjust to a new set-point weight

and

b) difficulty losing further weight due to other reasons.

Here are some signs that you might be experiencing a) a set-point plateau:

  • You’ve already lost between 5-10% of your body weight (although remember some people have a much smaller or larger set point range)
  • You’re starting to feel more hungry even though you haven’t changed your portion sizes or the types of foods you’re eating
  • You’re running out of energy and feel more tired compared to usual
  • You feel a large amount of your mental energy is focused on your weight

If you think you might be experiencing a) a set-point plateau, we’d strongly recommend focusing on keeping up healthy habits and maintaining your weight for a period of time. Remember, it can take eight to twelve weeks to adjust to a new set-point before you can start losing weight again without resistance from your body.

If you feel that you’re b) struggling to lose further weight for other reasons, then keep reading this guide to understand why you might be struggling to lose weight and strategies to help kick start your weight loss. These strategies can also help you maintain weight loss if you think you fit into b).

Key points:

  • There’s a big difference between a weight loss plateau because your body needs to adjust to a new set-point weight and difficulty losing further weight due to other reasons
  • Either way, focusing on healthy habits will help to maintain or kickstart weight loss.

Why we might struggle to lose weight

Hormones

Our hormones play in our weight, appetite, and how much fat our body stores.

Alongside the role of insulin in reducing our blood sugar levels, insulin is also the main fat storage hormone in our body. So a state of insulin resistance means our body is pumping out more insulin to lower blood sugar levels, which then leads to our body storing more and more fat.

We know that eating high amounts of refined carbohydrates and added sugar can drive a state of insulin resistance in the body.

Similarly, our hunger (ghrelin) and satiety (leptin) hormones, can play a part. Research suggests that signalling from ghrelin in the stomach to the brain is impaired in overweight individuals. This can result in overeating as we don’t feel as full as we should.

On top of this, overweight individuals may be less sensitive to the effects of leptin, which results in increased appetite.

These are just some of the many hormones that can have an impact on our weight. Others include oestrogen, thyroid hormone, and cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone). Being overweight or obese can influence these hormones and make it challenging to lose weight.

Key points:

  • Being overweight or obese can influence certain hormones and make it challenging to lose weight, it’s not just a case of willpower
  • These include insulin, leptin, ghrelin, oestrogen, thyroid hormone, and cortisol.

The scales don’t tell us the whole truth

When we stand on the scales, the number that we see measures our total body weight. It has no idea about changes in our body fat or muscle, and it doesn’t tell us where the fat is stored. This is known as our body composition.

Our body is made up of tissues, bones, blood, muscles, organs, and fat. To optimise our long term health, the main measure we should be focusing on reducing is our fat mass and increasing our muscle. Research has consistently shown that this is the best way to prevent many chronic and age-related diseases, while also increasing our longevity and quality of life.

It’s important to remember that muscle is denser than fat, which means it takes up less volume compared to an equal amount of fat. So even though you might be making positive progress towards your overall health by burning fat and building muscle, you might not see a decrease on the scales.

So, although the scales might tell us that we’re struggling to lose weight, measuring our body in other ways will provide a more accurate picture. Consider measuring your waist size, checking how your clothes fit you, keeping track of your energy levels, or looking at old photos of yourself to compare.

Key points:

  • The number on the scales doesn’t account for where fat is stored or our muscle mass
  • Although the scales might tell us that we’re struggling to lose weight, measuring our body in other ways (such as waist size) may provide a more accurate picture.

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Strategies to kick start weight loss

Whether you’re experiencing a weight loss plateau because your body needs to adjust to a new set-point weight or you’re struggling to lose further weight for other reasons, here are some strategies to maintain or kickstart your weight loss.

1) Check your portions

Rather than monitoring your calorie intake, which can be unsustainable, make sure you’re building balanced meals with a portion of protein, healthy fats, and plenty of non-starchy vegetables. If you’re adding some carbohydrate, aim to choose complex carbs (e.g. oats, rye bread, or brown pasta) over refined carbs (e.g. white bread, white rice, or sugary cereals)

An example of a balanced plate for a carbohydrate-containing meal, including a chicken breast, ½ a baked sweet potato and 2 large handfuls of steamed non-starchy vegetables.

2) Manage your carb intake

Evidence suggests that the best diet for weight loss is a lower-carbohydrate approach. Reducing our intake of refined carbohydrates can help kickstart weight loss and prevent our chances of developing chronic lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

For more information and practical tips, take a look at our guide on lower-carb diets.

3) Stay hydrated

Our body can mistake this thirst signal for hunger. This is why staying well hydrated can help to manage your hunger levels.

Interestingly, water intake has also been found to be beneficial for weight loss. One study took a sample of 48 adults and assigned them into one of two groups: 1) low-calorie diet with 500ml of water prior to each daily meal (1.5L/day), and 2) low-calorie diet alone. After 12 weeks, researchers found that the water group showed a 44% greater decrease in weight compared to the non-water group.

Researchers believe this weight loss was due to water intake reducing sensations of hunger and increasing satiety.

Consider setting a reminder on your phone every hour to have a glass of water, or having a glass of water before each meal.

4) Consider when you’re eating

In the last few years, researchers have started to investigate the impact of when we eat and the timing of our meals, and how this might affect how well our body processes food.

Time-restricted feeding (TRF) is still an emerging area of research but initial findings suggest that keeping our eating window to ten hours or less (e.g. 9am-7pm, or 8am-6pm) could promote weight loss and provide a number of metabolic health benefits. Larger, well-controlled studies are needed to draw solid conclusions, but narrowing our eating window may help some of us feel better and kickstart our weight loss.

Although it may seem that by skipping breakfast you end up consuming less overall, research suggests that eating breakfast can help us better manage our blood sugar levels throughout the day. In addition to this, having a balanced breakfast meal can also help to curb our cravings for sweet foods.

If it suits your lifestyle, you might like to experiment with narrowing your eating window to 10 hours. Although more evidence is needed, early research suggests that this could promote weight loss and improve your metabolic health.

5) Vary your exercise routine

Exercise is one of the most effective tools we have to help us push past a weight loss plateau. The good news is, to get the benefits of physical activity we don’t necessarily need to be exercising ‘harder’. Instead, it’s about looking at the type and frequency of our exercise.

Aerobic exercise, even lower intensity cardio, such as walking, swimming, or jogging, can reduce the amount of fat around our organs (visceral fat). We might not notice this difference on the scales but high amounts of visceral fat have been shown to be an independent predictor of increased blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and insulin resistance.

Anaerobic exercises, such as strength training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), can positively impact our resting metabolism and be more effective at reducing total fat than aerobic exercise.

Changing up the type of exercise we do regularly is a good way to build up different types of muscles in our body and continue optimising the amount of fat we burn. Consider trying some new exercises at home or fitting in small bursts of exercise into your daily routine.

6) Manage stress and sleep

When experiencing a weight loss plateau, we usually jump straight to addressing what we’re eating. However, often a plateau can have absolutely nothing to do with what we’re eating at all.

For many of us, it can be difficult to see the value in addressing our stress and sleep levels, as we don’t necessarily see the rewards of doing this straight away.

But this area has significant indirect impacts on both our weight and overall health. If we’re determined to lose weight, keep it off in the long term, and improve our overall health, managing our stress and sleep is absolutely vital.

Stress can directly influence our weight by impacting our food choices and appetite, as well as indirectly by influencing our sleep.

Sleep is incredibly important for weight loss as it can influence our food choices, hunger levels, and even our metabolic rate.

For more information and techniques, read our guides on how to manage our stress and sleep better.

Take home message

  • There’s a big difference between a weight loss plateau because your body needs to adjust to a new set-point weight and difficulty losing further weight due to other reasons
  • Either way, focusing on healthy habits will help to maintain or kickstart weight loss
  • Being overweight or obese can influence certain hormones and make it challenging to lose weight
  • These include insulin, leptin, ghrelin, oestrogen, thyroid hormone, and cortisol
  • The number on the scales doesn’t account for where fat is stored or our muscle mass
  • Although the scales might tell us that we’re struggling to lose weight, measuring our body in other ways (such as waist size) may provide a more accurate picture
  • There are many strategies we can try to kickstart weight loss again or help us maintain our weight loss if we’re experiencing a set-point weight plateau.

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Write a response

Commenter
Sharon Danley
15 January, 2022

Excellent article. Thank you so much.


Commenter
Anna
2 February, 2022

Hi Sharon,

So pleased you’ve found this guide helpful!

Our programme provides extensive learning content to help you overcome weight-loss plateaus and continue toward your weight loss goal.

If you’d like to learn more, you can take our health quiz here, or email support@secondnature.io with any questions 😊


Commenter
Anthony Graham
11 January, 2022

Fantastic theory Tamara which has remotivated me.I know your not going to advise this Tamara but I have gone down from 14st 9 to 11st 9 in 3 months,in the last few weeks I’ve been stuck at this weight I hit my plateau.My eating window is from 8am till 2pm,I exercise every day the only carbs I eat is porridge in the morning,lots of protein and protein shakes,unfortunately I ripped my Achilles tendon the other day now I’m stuck in a boot,I’ve felt like giving up but your article has refocused me.Thank you.Do you have any exercise advice please.


Commenter
Anna
2 February, 2022

Hi Anthony,

So pleased you’ve found this guide helpful and congratulations on your incredible progress 😊 Sorry to hear about your recent injury, wishing you all the best for a smooth recovery!

The following guides might be helpful:

Home exercises
Exercise

Our programme includes in-app exercise videos, extensive exercise learning content, a group activity leaderboard to help you stay motivated, and support, guidance, and motivation from a health coach.

If you’d like to learn more, you can take our health quiz here, or email support@secondnature.io with any questions 😊


Commenter
Michael
2 October, 2021

Interesting article. I changed my diet in June in order to lose weight. I was 5’8’’ and 203 lbs. Oct 1st I’m at 185. I lost 6 lbs in June, 4.4 in July, 5.2 in August, 2 lbs in Sept ( in the last 2 weeks of the month, I cut out all red meat and I think this helped). I’m hovering around 185 lbs. I have a regimen in place now (I have been tweeting since June) and based on this info, I plan to stick with the “maintenance” phase, expecting it to 8-12 weeks. My goal is to lose another 15 pounds and maintain it.

Insightful article and I want to test this theory. The weight I lost is about 9% of my original 203 lbs weight. My diet change has been the center point. I’m heating higher quality of protein and carbs, fresh vegetables and fruit in measured portions every 2 hrs from 8AM to 6PM and I walk 1-3 miles a day.

I’m interested to see if the set-point theory is applicable. Thanks for the article.


Commenter
Anna
15 October, 2021

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comment, so pleased the guide’s been helpful for you 🙂 Congratulations on your progress, and wishing you all the best as you continue toward your goal!

Our programme offers support and guidance for overcoming weight-loss plateaus. If you’re interested in learning more, you can take our health quiz here, or email support@secondnature.io with any questions.


Commenter
Cross2k
16 October, 2020

Hello,By maintaining in a setpoints plateau do u mean stay at the deficit where I stalled for 3 months or slowly reverse diet to the new maintenance and then stay there for 3 months?


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