It’s very common for those of us on a weight loss journey to notice that our weight loss has slowed down or stopped.
For those of us sustainably building healthy habits around diet, exercise, sleep, and stress, it can be confusing to see our weight going down steadily for a period of time and then remaining the same or slightly increasing.
This is what’s known as a weight-loss plateau, and it can be incredibly demotivating. It’s important to understand the science behind why this happens and how we can get past a weight-loss plateau so that we can reach our health goals.
If you’ve ever tried dieting in the past, you know how hard it is to continue losing weight and keep it off in the long run.
The ideal weight loss journey will be phased with periods of weight loss and weight maintenance until we reach our goal weight. Let’s recap the dieting journey many of us have taken in the past: big initial weight loss, then progress stalls, then progress continues to plateau, and finally, we get angry and quit.
Yet, the stalling part, or the ‘plateau’, is so important – the scales aren’t moving because our body is adjusting to change.
In the first few weeks after making lifestyle changes, we tend to lose weight very quickly. However, after a few weeks, we might notice the scales come to a complete standstill or the numbers even start to creep back up.
Often when we embark on a weight-loss journey, we assume it’s going to be a linear one. We think we can keep losing weight at the same rate as we did when we first started. But this simply isn’t the case.
Below we can see a graph representing our ‘expectations’ vs the ‘reality’ of a typical weight loss journey. In the graph on the right, we can see intermittent periods of weight loss and weight plateaus.
Although this might not look ideal, the journey on the right is representative of a more sustainable way to lose weight. It’s worth noting that our weight is still trending downwards overall, but we experience fluctuations and plateaus along the way.
- A weight-loss plateau is a period of ‘stalling’ or even weight gain on our weight loss journey
- No healthy, sustainable weight loss journey is linear and the plateaus are important for long-term weight loss.
The weight-loss plateaus are important to allow time for our body to ‘reset’ before we can continue losing weight again. This is explained through a theory called the ‘set-point theory’.
To better explain ‘set-point theory’, here’s a useful analogy: think of it as our core body temperature. Our body’s normal temperature is 37 degrees. If we go above or below that, the body will do everything in its power to get us back to that normal temperature – it’ll sweat to cool down or shiver to keep warm. ‘Homeostasis’ is the process by which our body maintains itself in a stable condition, whether it’s temperature or weight.
Everyone has a natural ‘set point’ which is the weight that our body hovers at when we’re eating healthily. Our set point is determined by our DNA and the environment around us.
Slow, gradual weight gain over many years can trick our body into thinking its set point is higher than it should be, which causes our body to resettle at a new, higher weight.
Scientists estimate that the average person will have a set-point range of 5-10% of their body weight, which means that at any given time, our body can lose or gain between that amount without much resistance.
For example, if your current ‘set point’ is 12 stone (76kg), this means your body could lose or gain between ~8-17lbs (4-8kg) without too much resistance.
However, going below this range would be extremely challenging. Our body is programmed to function optimally within our set-point range and it will do everything to maintain it.
It’s important to remember that everyone is unique, so some people might have a different set-point range, meaning their body allows a much smaller or larger weight loss before meeting resistance.
- ‘Set-point theory’ explains why it’s important to allow time for our body to ‘reset’ before we can continue losing weight again
- Everyone has a unique set-point weight and going below this weight is extremely challenging.
Set-point theory explains why some people reach a ‘stalemate’ situation when losing weight naturally, despite continually practising healthy habits around diet, exercise, sleep, and stress.
Our own natural set point might not be what we want it to be, or even what society thinks it should be. Some of us will naturally have a higher weight set point, and some of us will have a lower one.
It’s important to take this into account when making lifestyle changes. If our goal is unrealistic it can be demotivating when it’s not realised quickly enough, resulting in us giving up and returning to unhealthy habits.
- Set-point theory explains why some people reach a ‘stalemate’ situation when losing weight naturally, despite continually practising healthy habits
- Some of us will naturally have a higher weight set point, and some of us will have a lower one.
A weight-loss plateau doesn’t mean our healthy lifestyle changes aren’t working. If they’re a result of reaching our set-point weight, it’s a necessary part of the process that our body needs to take to readjust and reset.
Research shows two-thirds of people regain all the weight they lost and then some following a strict diet, so we need to keep in mind that maintaining the weight we’ve already lost is a big achievement.
The weight maintenance phase, or weight loss plateau, is essential to allow our body time to adapt. If we ignore this maintenance phase, continuing to lose weight will be a monumental battle.
From an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. For our ancestors, periods of weight loss generally indicated a risk of starvation due to lack of food availability. Therefore, our body would try its best to hold onto the energy stores that we already have. This is achieved by lowering our basal metabolic rate (BMR).
BMR is a measurement of the amount of energy our body requires to stay functioning at rest. This is how much energy is needed to perform basic functions, like breathing, keeping our heart pumping, and our digestion.
If we lose weight, our body will then become much better at rationing what it has to make it last longer. It will reduce our body temperature, thyroid activity, and fat oxidation (or the amount of fat we burn), and help our muscles move more efficiently. All of these adjustments mean that we burn less fuel overall, which can lead to a natural plateau.
On top of this, research indicates that people who’ve lost weight have higher levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) compared to those who’ve kept the same weight for years. Higher levels of ghrelin also tell our body to conserve more of our fat stores.
A weight-loss plateau is important to allow our body’s metabolic rate and ghrelin signalling to readjust back to normal. This happens when our body ‘resets’ to a new, lower set-point weight.
- A weight-loss plateau doesn’t mean our healthy lifestyle changes aren’t working
- The weight maintenance phase, or weight loss plateau, is essential to allow our body time to adapt
- Our body can then adapt to a new lower set-point weight and we can continue losing weight.
You might be asking why you’ve seen other people lose a lot of weight and never gain it back? The good news is, changing your set point isn’t impossible. But, it takes time and patience.
Just as we can reset our set point to be higher when we gain weight, this also works in reverse when we lose weight. But we need to work alongside our body to successfully achieve this.
Increasingly more research shows that if we lose weight slowly and gradually, our set point can adjust and our body will stop battling against us.
It may be challenging, but once you’ve hit your set-point plateau, your body will need time to adjust to a new weight. Following this, you’ll have established a different set point and your body will respond like that’s the ‘new normal’, which means you can begin losing weight again if you want or need to.
A plateau can last anywhere between eight to twelve weeks, but it also varies on an individual level. After this, it’s much easier for us to recommence a period of weight loss.
Sustainable weight loss isn’t a sprint. Most of the time significant life-changing weight loss happens over 1-2 years, not in 1-2 episodes, like in the diet shows on TV. It can take many years for us to steadily gain weight, so likewise it will take time to lose it again.
Check out our guide on overcoming a weight loss plateau for further information.
- It’s possible to lower our set-point weight over time
- After reaching your set-point weight plateau, your body will respond like that’s the ‘new normal’, which means you can begin losing weight again if you want or need to
- A plateau can last anywhere between eight to twelve weeks, but it also varies on an individual level and it’s important we maintain our healthy habits during this time.
Very useful to know set point is a natural state. This has motivated me to continue with healthy meal choices
This is the most informative artical I have come across so far. I’m really struggling being stuck at the same weight after losing 60lbs. I am freezing cold and so hungrier than I’ve ever felt!! I’m 8 weeks in now and it is very disheartening. This article has definitely helped me alot. Thank you. I won’t be giving up. Life is a lot easier with lest fat and its helped my mental health more than any medication has in the past 10 years.
V interesting article,and although we had been told of this might happen ,it is encouraging to be re explained when it is happening to you.I will definitely read this again
This article needs to be shared with anyone on a weight loss journey. The way you explained the science of plateaus, and the benefits of plateaus is something I didn’t know before. I’m currently on a weight loss journey, and I was very discouraged before with working out so hard during the week with low calorie intake, and the scale numbers either stalls, or goes up. I will definitely share this article with friends and family. Thank you! 🙏🏽
This is a great and comforting explanation. I am so close to my 12%bf objective and this happened!
My question is, so now what? If I’ve been eating 1900kcal all this time, will I have to keep eating as if I was losing weight, or can I go back to 2300-2400kcal which should be maintenance for me at this weight?
Have you got the answer for this as I’m experiencing the same problem .
Thank you. So many times my weight loss has plateaued, I’ve gotten frustrated and given up. Never have I received an explanation of why my weight loss has stalled so I assumed I was doing something wrong and given up disillusioned. Now I understand that my body is “resetting”.
Thank you! I have been stuck for weeks but this article has motivated me to continue. Dinah