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Ep. 13 – Why does a weight loss plateau happen? (And how to break through it!)

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Here’s the thirteenth podcast of Vegetarian Health and Longevity from Hurry The Food Up and Sports Nutritionist James LeBaigue.

You’ve set yourself a goal to lose weight and so far, you’re doing brilliantly. Your weight is going down, you’re super motivated and things are all going smoothly. 

Then suddenly, for no specific reason that you can work out, you stop losing weight. 

This is super frustrating and, unfortunately, not an uncommon event when someone is trying to lose weight.

It’s called a weight loss plateau and it can be super tricky to deal with because they can ruin your motivation and stop you reaching your goals.

For some people they can even spell the end of their efforts to lose weight, or cause them to regain weight because they stop following their plans and let things slide.

It doesn’t need to be that way though and there are absolutely things you can do to get back on track.

In today’s episode I’ll run you through what a weight loss plateau is and my top strategies on how to break through it so you can continue losing weight.

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Introduction

Weight loss plateaus can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you’ve been putting in the effort and seeing progress, only for the scale to stubbornly refuse to budge. 

I had a client who was facing this exact scenario.

She had been doing fantastically well, losing weight at a slow, steady rate, making great decisions and generally just doing awesome.

But then her weight loss stopped and she, understandably, felt upset and had what I would affectionately refer to as a wobble.

We’ll pick this back up again later because we were able to find out what was causing it and get her back on track, but for now let’s go through what a weight loss plateau is and why it might happen to you.

Why Do Plateaus Happen?

I think it’s important to preface this and say that there’s no single reason why you might hit a plateau, and it’s probably different for each person.

However, from my experience working with 1:1 clients and from our Hurry The Food Up membership groups there are some common themes which I see which can cause it to occur.

More often than not, it’s also a combination of these which contribute to it, but by carefully examining these areas most people can get back on track with their weight loss goals.

Metabolic Adaptation

There’s an incredibly interesting thing that happens when you lose weight. Your body views weight loss as starvation, or at least that you’re consuming less energy than it requires, so it starts to decrease its metabolism to conserve energy. 

If this occurs over a long period of time then your metabolic rate can drop significantly, which can make it harder to lose weight.

Essentially, your body is reducing its metabolism as much as possible by shutting off the parts which aren’t absolutely crucial, conserving energy. 

So this metabolic adaptation is actually a negative, and I’ll talk you through how to get around this later on, and it might not be the answer that you’re expecting.

Reduced Caloric Burn

As you lose weight, your body requires fewer calories to perform the same activities because moving a lighter body demands less energy.

This reduction in calorie expenditure can lead to a plateau if your calorie intake remains unchanged. 

Adjusting your physical activity level or dietary intake in response to this can help overcome this, although it’s fair to say that the overall magnitude of this is not likely to be large by itself, but when combined with the next problem, this reduced calorie burn can be important.

Muscle Loss

It’s very difficult to lose fat and not lose muscle, simply because of the way your body works. When you lose weight your body usually breaks down muscle tissue to free protein for your body to use.

Because muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, losing muscle can decrease your overall metabolic rate.

This decrease makes it harder to continue losing weight, especially when combined with the previous problem of your metabolic rate decreasing simply by you being in a calorie deficit. 

This is actually the whole concept why a high protein diet is important for weight loss, because it helps you to hold onto more muscle as you lose weight, and this is why we strive for high protein recipes as part of our vegetarian weight loss meal plans.

You can download a free week’s meal plan, complete with grocery list by visiting htfu.com/try t r y, and get started today.

Before we move onto the next challenge, I’d also really encourage you to do strength training if you don’t already, because it has so many benefits.

I’ve gone into this in way more detail and it’s one of our most popular episodes, so check out episode 3, why resistance training can help you to live longer, for more info on this topic.

Hormonal Changes

Weight loss can affect hormone levels, including those that regulate hunger and metabolism.

For example, a decrease in leptin, a hormone that helps regulate energy balance, can increase appetite and decrease energy expenditure. 

The big thing here for me is to again encourage high protein meals because it helps to regular some of the hunger hormones.

Protein is a super satiating nutrient, which means if you eat food with a high amount of protein in you will feel fuller and more satisfied with eating, which can reduce the risk of overeating.

Caloric Miscalculation

At the start of this podcast I mentioned about my client who had been losing weight and then hit a plateau. To start with we were both confused by it, because nothing had really changed.

Of course, it could have been one of the more undetectable changes such as her metabolic rate slower, but this time, it wasn’t actually the cause.

I decided to take it back to the basics with her, talk through her diet and asked her to take photos of her meals for me. Throughout this process, she sheepishly confessed that she thought she knew what had happened.

By taking the food photos, she had started paying more attention to her food and starting to portion properly.

Heating Up – Cooling Down

Previously, she had been really hot on this, but by her own admission she had been way more lax and realised she had been adding more food than before.

So she made a change herself, started tightening up and getting back with her plan. Within a week or two the scales were moving back down again and she was successfully losing weight.

When you’ve been following a weight loss diet for a while, and especially if things are going well, it’s easy to let your focus slip and this bigger portion size is a prime example.

It might not seem like much, but these extra calories can add up if it’s happens regularly, and counteract your weight loss efforts.

Often, this is a gradual process where a bite here and a nibble there might seem insignificant but collectively can lead to a plateau. 

As I mentioned with my client, going back to the basics, tracking or logging her food in some way and being critical led to the answer to her plateau as she was able to change her eating habits.

Psychological Factors

Have you ever started out on a new project and felt so excited? I can think of a number of them when it’s basically been all I’ve thought about, and I’m just itching to make progress.

Some people feel like this when they start with a weight loss plan – they’re making positive changes to get to where they want to be, they’re set up strategies and they’ve told someone to hold themselves accountable.

This motivation is fantastic and super beneficial, but like anything it can wane over time. When this happens, it can change your adherence to your diet and exercise plan.

You might not be completing all your planned workouts, you might be a little more lax in what ingredients you add to your recipes. 

Don’t Blame Yourself

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it might be the cause of why you plateau.

But as well as your direct motivation there are other factors that could contribute to this, such as stress, lack of sleep, and emotional factors.

Addressing these psychological aspects is crucial for maintaining long-term success in your weight loss journey because they all link to your ability to maintain a calorie deficit over time.

This is actually a huge one I talk about with clients. It requires some introspection and really being honest with yourself, but if you do it properly, it’s absolutely worth it.

You can understand what’s changed and take practical strategies to overcome this hurdle.

How to Break a Weight Loss Plateau

And really, this is the crucial thing with weight loss plateaus in general. You now know a little about why they happen, you’ve got to come up with ways to break through them. 

To be able to do this, you do need to understand what is causing it, I’d encourage you to listen back through this podcast and consider which might be applicable to your situation.

But I’m going to talk through some of the main strategies I work on with my clients because they’re the ones that make the most difference, and I suspect the final one might seem a bit confusing to you at first.

Increase Your Activity Level

One of the key strategies to break a plateau is to increase your activity level. 

Now I need to make a key point here and say I am not suggesting that you specifically exercise more and more until you lose weight, because that’s not the aim.

What I want you to do is check in with your previous activity levels and see if anything has changed. Are you doing less exercise than before?

Have you dropped that pesky early morning gym session because you’ve been doing well generally and it’s a bit of a chore?

Or are you working from home a bit more, or have you started driving more places because the weather has turned colder?

Checking in on your activity level and being honest about whether it has dropped is an important part of breaking through a weight loss plateau.

And while some of these things might seem minor, when combined or repeated everyday, they can have a significant impact on your ability to lose weight.

If you have reduced your activity levels then it is time to add some back in, both because it will help you lose weight and it’s healthier to move more!

Add Some Calories Back In!

If there hasn’t been a change in your exercise or activity levels that accounts for your weight loss plateau, it might be time to add some calories back in. 

Yep, you heard that right – more calories, not less!

I’m really aware this might sound super alien for people, but it can be so important so stick with me.

As I mentioned earlier, when you’re losing weight, your metabolism gradually slows down. It can slow to the point where you’re at an equilibrium, meaning you’re no longer losing weight.

By adding calories back in, the aim is to increase your metabolism from the depressed state it was in, allowing you to start losing weight again at a sensible calorie intake. 

Simply dropping your calories further can put your body under more stress and make you way more at risk of nutrient deficiencies and energy depleted states, which isn’t healthy.

Two Ways To Do It Right

There are mixed opinions and research on how best to add calories back in, with two main strategies:

The first is a short-term calorie increase, where you increase your calories by about 500 calories for 1-2 weeks, then return to the calorie level that was working for you before the plateau.

This method should be enough for your body to start increasing it’s metabolism and getting back to your standard levels.

The second option is reverse dieting, and this involves gradually increasing your calorie intake over 4-10 weeks.

This approach is more gradual and reduces the likelihood of overeating or gaining excess weight. It requires a more structured approach to meal sizes and calorie counting can be super helpful in this scenario.

Personally, the choice between these methods depends on your preference. Reverse dieting requires more you to be more thorough and strict, but can be incredibly effective. 

On the other hand, a short-term calorie increase of 500 extra calories a day – effectively an extra meal or slightly more food at each meal – is easier and might be preferable for some people.

Regardless of the method, adding calories back in and allowing your body to adjust is crucial for those who have been losing weight for some time and hit a plateau without a clear reason.

With both of these approaches, and weight loss in general, it’s important to set expectations beforehand.

It’s highly likely that you will plateau at some point, or even put weight on at some points. This is part of the journey and why you have to see the bigger picture.

Conclusion

Hitting a weight loss plateau is a common experience and doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Stay patient, stay consistent, and most importantly, be kind to yourself.

Look through your diet, your lifestyle and consider what might have changed, and then take actions to get yourself back on track.

And Finally

If you found this episode useful then I’d really appreciate it if you could leave a quick review on whatever platform you’re listening on.

It’ll only take a moment but it makes a huge difference and helps the podcast spread to more like-minded people like you.

And finally, the easiest way to sign up to try our meal plans (free).

And a list of our vegetarian meal plans (all also free).

And finally: More vegetarian podcasts this way!

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