Your cutting diet plan has been going extremely well. Over the past few months, you have made significant strides towards your weight loss goal. Then everything changes and your results come to a screeching halt as you reach your first weight loss plateau.
What do you do next?
This is a common point of confusion for many. Should you eat more food, less food, do more cardio, change up your workouts or some combination?
The goal of this article is to provide tips to handle a weight loss plateau in order to break through them and continue progressing towards your weight loss goal.
If you haven’t even started on your journey towards your goal weight, start with our macro calculator!
1. Ensure you are tracking intake accurately
The first action most individuals take when a weight loss plateau occurs is to make drastic changes to their plan. However, prior to changing anything, it is important to confirm that you actually are eating the calories/macros you are targeting. If not, increasing consistency with your nutritional intake should be the first step prior to making adjustments to your plan.
Nutrition under-reporting is extremely common. A review of self-reported nutrition data from large nutrition surveys found that intake is commonly under-reported by 18 to 54 percent with certain subgroups under-reporting intake by as much as 70 percent (1).
Similarly, significant under-reporting was observed in a study of overweight middle-aged women who declared they had reached a weight loss plateau and could not lose weight on an intake of fewer than 1200 Calories daily (2).
Over the 14 days studied, the women reported an average daily intake of 1053 Calories, but measured intake was actually 2081 Calories on average. This means these women were not accounting for over 1000 Calories daily! They reached a weight loss plateau because they were eating over 2000 calories daily, not because they were a unique case.
I know what you are thinking. The data I’ve presented are from surveys of the general population and obese women, not someone who is experienced in tracking intake accurately like you. However, there is evidence that even well-educated individuals under-report intake.
In a recent study, dietitians did not account for 223 Calories on average (3). However, non-dietitians in this study under-reported intake by around twice as much (429 Calories per day on average).
What this means is that even well-trained, highly educated individuals regularly underreport intake. Therefore, it is a good idea for even the most experienced individual to double check tracking accuracy when weight loss plateaus occur.
Where do under-reported calories come from?
Non-tracked calories commonly come from a number of different places including:
- Extra Bits
- Any other unaccounted food/beverage providing calories
It is important that you are measuring portions accurately. One common source of untracked calories is measuring in weight versus volume. For example, the nutrition information on the side of an oatmeal container is listed based upon a weight measurement (e.g. 40g). The label also says this is approximately 1/2 cup.
If you were to measure out ½ cup, it may weigh 60g and provide you with an extra ½ serving of untracked calories.
Along the same lines, ½ serving of peanut butter (16g) is around 1 tablespoon. If you make that tablespoon a heaping tablespoon you could easily have 30g peanut butter or more. That is another 50-100 calories unaccounted for.
Although these small differences do not seem like much, if you are doing them multiple times daily they can add up to the large numbers of under-reported calories observed in the scientific literature. This level of underreporting could definitely contribute to a weight loss plateau.
Cross Checking Macro Entries
Additionally, many people currently track intake using a tracking app. Many of these apps allow individuals to input nutrition information for a food. As a result, some of these entries have errors and some may even have calories listed, but nothing listed for macronutrient content.
Therefore, it is important to double check that what you are entering for the nutrition value of a food is accurate. This can be done by double checking the food label of packaged food or by consulting the USDA Food Composition Database for foods that do not have a nutrition label: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list.
If you find that you have been consuming more calories than you thought, the first step is to accurately track intake prior to changing anything. In many cases, tightening up tracking accuracy will be enough to break your weight loss plateau. If it is not and all calories are accurately accounted for then you truly have hit a weight loss plateau and adjustments will be necessary.
2. Double check that you have hit a weight loss plateau
Prior to making any adjustments, it is important to check that you really have hit a weight loss plateau. At first glance, it may seem obvious. If you aren’t losing weight you have hit a weight loss plateau. However, there are a few other details to keep in mind.
How often should you weigh yourself?
Body weight commonly fluctuates a few pounds daily. This due to a combination of factors such as sleep patterns, hormones, stress, salt intake, water intake, bowel movements, sweat and a number of other factors. However, the daily changes in weight from these factors come primarily from water and intestinal food mass weight, not real tissue weight.
Therefore, it is important to look at averages and trends over time rather than an individual weigh-in when assessing progress. If you weigh-in on Wednesday each week and your weight doesn’t change, it could be due to random daily fluctuation. In this situation, it is entirely possible your weight is trending down on average and you have not hit a weight loss plateau.
However, if you weighed daily and don’t see any loss when comparing weekly averages that is much more indicative of a weight loss plateau.
When are you weighing?
Body weight fluctuates throughout the course of the day. Most individuals find they weigh more at night when they go to bed than when they wake up in the morning. Similarly, I could drink a significant amount of water during a workout and weigh more post-workout than when I arrived at the gym. However, this doesn’t mean I’ve gained body fat as a result of working out.
The rate at which weight is lost should be a balance between quickly enough to keep progress moving so that you don’t drag your cut out indefinitely, but not too fast that you are dieting away excess muscle mass.
For these reasons, it is important that you weigh-in under the same conditions each time you weigh. The easiest way to do this is to weigh-in first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything on the same scale.
Females – where are you in your cycle?
It is common for a woman’s body weight to fluctuate throughout the course of their monthly cycle. Some women see an increase in body weight due to fluid retention the week prior to their monthly cycle, others see it the week of their cycle and some see no large fluctuation throughout the month. Oftentimes this increase is mistaken as a weight loss plateau.
However, if you are someone who sees an increase in scale weight due to fluid retention at a certain time each month it is important to keep that in mind when assessing progress. For example, if your weight is up on average, but it is the week of your cycle where you typically see an increase you likely have not hit a weight loss plateau.
It will be important to wait until after your monthly cycle to assess progress rather than jumping to potentially unnecessary adjustments since you likely have not reached a weight loss plateau.
Have you consistently hit your nutrition targets?
This is something I discussed in detail above; however, it is important enough I felt it should be mentioned again. If you are eating above your calorie/macro numbers on a regular basis and not losing weight, it is not because you have hit a weight loss plateau on your current plan.
Prior to making any adjustments, it will be key that you accurately account for everything you are consuming and hit your numbers consistently. In many cases, increasing consistency will be enough to get a break through your weight loss plateau and get weight loss moving again.
Are you adding muscle?
When starting a weight loss journey, it is common to begin incorporating resistance training. If an individual is new to resistance training, it may be possible to add a meaningful amount of muscle while decreasing a meaningful amount of body fat at the same time (4). As an individual becomes a more advanced weightlifter, this may still occur, but not to the same extent as in a beginner.
For those who are lifting weights (especially those new to lifting weights), it is important to use the scale in combination with progress pictures, strength in the gym and how clothes are fitting when evaluating progress.
If you are someone who is new to lifting who is seeing increases in strength, visual change and notice your clothes are fitting differently you likely are seeing changes in body composition due to added muscle. We see this often with our clients and make it apparent that this may be what’s causing their weight to remain constant.
3. Reduce calorie intake
You have ensured you are tracking accurately and your morning weight is not trending down on average. This means you have hit a weight loss plateau and adjustments will be needed in order to get your weight trending down again.
Since energy balance is the difference between the calories you eat and the calories you are expending, one easy way to create a negative energy balance is to reduce calorie intake.
Size of Calorie Adjustment
A calorie adjustment typically does not have to be extremely large to break through a weight loss plateau. Oftentimes, a reduction of 50 – 150 Calories daily may be enough to get loss moving again. If you’re still having trouble with your diet plan, our coaches will dial in your approach with a Custom Macro Blueprint.
For those tracking macros, this will primarily be achieved through a reduction in carbohydrate and fat because an adequate protein intake is important to prevent muscle loss in a fat loss phase (5). Ideally, adjustments should be made until the target rate of weight loss is achieved once again.
Target Rate of Weight Loss
The rate at which weight is lost should be a balance between quickly enough to keep progress moving so that you don’t drag your cut out indefinitely, but not too fast that you are dieting away excess muscle mass. Even if you are not lifting weights, your goal during a fat loss phase should be to retain muscle mass because this will result in the greatest change in body composition.
The maximum average weekly rate of loss to minimize muscle loss will depend upon an individual’s body composition:
- Overweight – Up to 1.5% of body weight weekly
- Average Body Composition – Up to 1.0% of body weight weekly
- Extremely Lean – Up to 0.5% of body weight weekly
In addition to increasing muscle loss, large adjustments may also reduce dietary compliance if intake is adjusted too low. Ultimately, you want to achieve your target rate of loss with an energy deficit that you can sustain consistently.
As discussed above, without consistency, you likely will not see progress towards your weight loss goal.
4. Increase NEAT
Energy expenditure makes up the other side of the energy balance equation. However, energy expenditure is not as simple as energy intake.
An individual’s total daily energy expenditure is a combination of their basal metabolic rate (the energy required for basic bodily functions to stay alive), exercise activity, the thermic effect of food (roughly 10 percent of energy consumed is used to digest and absorb the food you eat) and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) (6).
What is NEAT?
NEAT is all of the movement done outside of the gym. This includes voluntary movements such as those done at work or around the house and involuntary movements such as fidgeting. The amount of energy expended from NEAT can vary by up to 2000 Calories between individuals of a similar size due to differences in occupation and daily activity (7).
Much like reductions in calorie intake, increases in cardio when a weight loss plateau occurs often times do not need to be large in order to see weight loss.
Based on these results, it is clear that staying active during daily life is key to keeping energy expenditure high.
What happens to NEAT during weight loss?
During dieting, NEAT is reduced and contributes to weight loss plateaus (8). Some of this reduction is voluntary. Oftentimes individuals feel more sluggish while dieting and in response move less; however, this reduces NEAT contributing to weight loss plateaus.
On the other hand, some of the reduction in NEAT is out of our control. For example, dieting individuals start fidgeting less without being aware that it is occurring.
Therefore, it is important to stay active outside of the gym to keep NEAT elevated and prevent weight loss plateaus. This doesn’t necessarily need to be anything extreme, but a conscious effort to be active during daily life can go a long way, especially if you are finding that you tend to be less active as your cut progresses.
How do I increase NEAT?
If you are struggling to increase NEAT, studies have shown that use of a pedometer to track steps increases physical activity levels (9). If you need more information on how to increase your NEAT then one of our experienced coaches can build your Custom Macro Blueprint.
Therefore, it may not be a bad idea to track steps and have a daily step minimum during a fat loss phase in order to keep NEAT high, especially if you find that you are not active outside of the gym.
5. Add formal cardio
In addition to increasing energy expenditure through activity outside the gym (NEAT), energy expenditure can also be increased through activity inside the gym. This is typically done by increasing the amount of cardio an individual is doing in the gym.
How much cardio?
Much like reductions in calorie intake, increases in cardio when a weight loss plateau occurs often times do not need to be large in order to see weight loss. Ultimately, the amount of formal cardio you are doing should be something you can stay consistent with and realistically fit into your schedule.
In addition, it is important to pick a type of cardio you enjoy as this will likely keep you more consistent. Our clients have found it easier to meld this addition into their current routine.
What type of cardio?
For those who lift weights, excessive amounts of cardio may interfere with muscle size and strength gains (10), especially experienced lifters (11). Higher intensities of cardio may reduce this interference because high-intensity cardio provides a more similar training stimulus to weight lifting than lower intensity forms of cardio.
However, high-intensity forms of cardio can be more difficult to recover from. Therefore, it will be best to pick a combination of high intensity and steady-state cardio that you are able to recover from and consistently perform.
Ultimately, the goal of added cardio and reductions in calorie intake are to achieve the target rate of weight loss in a way that you can stay consistent with in order to break through your weight loss plateau.
6. Take a break from dieting
I know what you are thinking. You have hit a weight loss plateau and your goal is further weight loss, why would I be telling you to take a break from dieting? However, there are a few reasons for this.
For those who have been dieting for a while, you may have noticed that your motivation has taken a hit from the prolonged restraint and low energy intake. If this has gotten to the point where your reduced consistency is the primary reason you have hit a weight loss plateau, a break from dieting may be the answer to increasing consistency.
This break from dieting can be approached in a number of different ways. Some individuals will incorporate a refeed day each week during a weight loss phase. During a refeed day, caloric intake is increased to around maintenance typically through an increase in carbohydrates.
Refeed days can be beneficial for a number of reasons including increased performance in the gym during a hard workout and most importantly a mental break from as much restriction for a day.
One thing to note is that if an individual is going to incorporate a refeed day, caloric intake over the rest of the week will need to be reduced in order to keep weekly energy balance constant.
For example, if an individual consumes an extra 600 calories on their refeed day, 100 calories will need to be removed from the other days of the week to keep weekly energy intake constant in order to keep weight loss to continue.
Many times, a break longer than a single day may be necessary in order to have the mental break necessary to increase consistency. In this case, an extended diet break may be the answer. During a diet break, calories are increased to around your current maintenance for a period of time (often times ranging from a week to a couple of months).
…the key to long-term sustained progress is embracing the process and rolling with the punches rather than stressing about every little thing.
This will allow you to maintain your current weight and provide you a mental break prior to dropping back into an energy deficit. For many individuals, a diet break can be very effective for increasing motivation and consistency once they are back in an energy deficit, ultimately resulting in more weight loss long-term.
In addition, metabolic adaptation occurs during an energy deficit for a number of reasons including (6):
- Lean mass loss
- Reduction in food intake / thermic effect of food
- Reduced NEAT
- Decreased hormones such as leptin, insulin, thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone
- Increased mitochondrial efficiency
- Increased gut microbe nutrient extraction
The result of these adaptations is a reduced energy expenditure and weight loss plateau.
Fortunately, these adaptations are not permanent. Once an individual increases energy intake these outcomes will trend in the opposite direction and metabolic rate will increase once again. Whether this results in additional and/or easier weight loss once an individual drops into an energy deficit again requires further research.
However, there is some evidence that incorporating a diet break in a weight loss intervention does not have an effect on the total weight lost during the intervention (12).
One important thing to note is that a diet break is not a free-for-all. It will be in your best interest to continue tracking intake during your diet break in order to prevent weight re-gain. This way you can pick back up right where you left off following your diet break rather than having to lose a significant amount of regained weight.
However, assuming body weight gain is kept in check during a diet break, it can be an effective tool to increase adherence to the diet once you go back into an energy deficit, break through your weight loss plateau and see more progress long-term.
7. Don’t stress
When the first weight loss plateau occurs, a common reaction is to stress out about the lack of progress. However, if this stress is elevated to a certain point, it may start to affect progress.
Fitness should be something that enhances your life, not takes away from it. You have chosen to lose weight and nobody should be forcing you to do so. If you are stressing about progress to the point it is taking away from your quality of life it may be important to re-evaluate why you are losing weight in the first place.
Weight loss will not fix other issues going on in your life. This is highly stressed with any of our clients that get deeper into their caloric deficit.
If you are an unhappy person, having a 6 pack will only make you an unhappy person with a 6 pack. One thing that is important to ensure is that you are losing weight for the right reasons, not as an escape from other issues going on in your life. Those issues will still be there once you have lost the weight unless they are appropriately addressed.
Additionally, if you stress about the scale to the point it makes you dislike the process you are likely going to be less consistent. As mentioned many times previously throughout this article, if you are not consistent you will not see as much progress.
Patience with the Process
Therefore, the key to long-term sustained progress is embracing the process and rolling with the punches rather than stressing about every little thing.
When a weight loss plateau occurs, stay calm, double check that your intake is tracked accurately and that you truly hit a weight loss plateau. If so, make adjustments to energy intake, formal cardio and your activity outside of the gym to achieve your target rate of loss once again.
Keep these adjustments to a place you can sustain and that isn’t incredibly stressful to do so, yet where you are seeing progress towards your goal as well. Ultimately, by taking things in stride you will not only stay more consistent and see more progress but also be a much a happier individual while doing so.