11 Ways to Break Out of a Weight Loss Plateau

You’re eating right, exercising, and yet you are no longer losing weight. You’ve hit a plateau. Plateaus are common to anybody who’s been on the same diet and exercise plan for a while. In this article, you’ll read about the techniques professionals use to break free of a plateau, find resources and tips to help you, and learn how to cope with the changes.

If you’ve been eating right and exercising, chances are you’ve been losing weight at a rate of one or two pounds a week. However, as you get closer to your optimum weight, it usually gets harder to lose those last few pounds. “You know you’ve hit a plateau when more than two weeks have gone by without any further change in your weight,” says Nicole Hudson, a nutrition consultant in private practice in New York City. “Many times, people slip out of plateaus on their own, but it can get discouraging to wait it out.”

What do you do then? Although it’s tempting to slip into crash diets, the best way to break the plateau is to review your current weight-loss program and try to find where the problem is.

Keep a Food Diary

As you get comfortable with your diet, it’s easy to stop paying attention and fall back into old habits. A nibble here, a slightly larger snack, an extra glass of wine… It’s usually the little things that make all the difference. Starting a food diary will help you become more aware of what you’re eating. Most people underestimate amounts by up to 20 per cent. “I think journaling is a good idea,” says Karen Sullivan, a health coach and AFPA Certified Personal Trainer. “It helps you stay honest with yourself […]. As long as you are in denial, you will never reach your goals. Seeing it in black and white is the best way to break that plateau.”

To keep a food diary, start with a blank notebook and for a week, record everything you eat (down to a piece of gum or cup of coffee) when you ate it, how much, and how hungry you were before and after. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a food diary must contain not only the food you ate but also what were you doing and who you were with when you ate. “It will make you aware of any negative patterns,” says Hudson.

It’s important to be truthful to yourself and not change your eating habits while keeping the diary. Also, remember to be specific –A baked potato is not the same as a baked potato with gravy and butter.

Need a little inspiration? Check Diet Diaries, an online journal of people tracking their food intake in public! You can start your food diary for free, or browse the website to see how others are dealing with the diet woes.

Break Up Your Meals

If you’re eating three times a day, eat five. If you’re already eating five times, upgrade to six or seven. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be eating more food; you’d just be breaking it into more meals. Eating frequently stabilises your blood sugar, controls appetite, and keeps your energy up. Ideally, you shouldn’t go more than three or four hours without eating something. Doing so slows down your metabolism and makes your body burn fat at a slower rate. Instead of going for a second serving, stick to one plate and then eat a small snack two hours later.

Always eat before you’re hungry. A feeling of hunger indicates your blood sugar is going down, which makes you prone to simple craving sugars. “Your body has no idea that there is plenty of food around, only what is coming in,” says Susan Lee Ottevanger, a motivational speaker and the author of Running On Premium Fuel. “You need to reach a sense of well being for your body to feel free to burn up some storage.”

Eat More

A big mistake many people make is to cut down on calories so much that they starve their bodies. “When you eat too little, your metabolism goes down,” says Ottevanger. “The body goes yikes, metabolism drops, frustration rises, moods drop, motivation dies. You start overeating and gain weight. Every time you go thru this cycle, the less successful.”

If you’re consuming less than 1,200 calories a day (1,500 for a man), your body may react by slowing down as a self-preservation measure. It means you’ll be storing fat even if you’re working out consistently.

Rely on a Friend

If you’re having a hard time finding the motivation to step up your program, then find a like-minded buddy, either real or virtual. Join a support group, find an appropriate chat room, or sign up with a motivational website.

A recent study by the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences of The University of Vermont found that web-based support programs are as effective as traditional face-to-face meetings when it comes to helping people maintain weight loss. The study followed 250 overweight adults through an initial six-month weight loss program and then set them up with either in-person or internet support. Surprisingly, both groups did remarkably well. “The internet can be a very effective weight-loss tool if used well,” says Hudson. “Many people can’t or don’t want to attend face-to-face meetings. Having access to virtual support, while no substitute for one-on-one counselling, it’s still a step-up from going at it alone.”

Watch Your Carbs

You don’t have to go on a low carb diet (in fact, low-carb and exercise don’t mix well), but do watch out for the extra refined carbohydrates that tend to slip into everybody’s diet. Be mindful not only of white flour and sugars, but also look for hidden carbs in foods such as ketchup, salad dressings, dairy products, and even soups. Read labels –Many low-fat products, including fruit juices and energy bars, are high in sugars. Avoid carbs at dinnertime, and opt for a more substantial salad as a side dish. When you do eat carbs, stick to whole grains.

Plateaus are sometimes due to water retention. Restricting salt intake and reducing carbs can give you the jumpstart and the motivation to keep going.

Move More

Be more active outside the gym. The FDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week to maintain health, and at least 60 minutes to help manage body weight. If you’re going to the gym four times a week, that leaves you with three days where you still need to be active. Walking is the best exercise for those “off” days. It’s gentle enough to allow your body to recuperate from the heavy workouts at the gym but still raises your metabolism to carry on the weight loss.

Get a pedometer and aim for at least 8,000 steps a day. You’d be surprised to learn most people barely make 4,000. Office workers sometimes stay under 3,000. “Activity is the key,” says Sullivan. “You can walk at a brisk pace, ride a bike (but be sure you are working at this little bike ride), swimming, tennis, even golf (forget the cart) are all ways to keep your body moving and increase the energy you are burning.”

Shake Up Your Workout

It takes your body only four weeks to get used to a workout. Once something becomes a routine for your metabolism, plateaus are likely.

Are you doing the treadmill for an hour every day? Give it up and enrol in a kickboxing class instead. What about doing the stationary bike? Switch to the Stairmaster. Or try playing with the intensity of the workout. Add one-minute intervals at high speed or incline (not both) followed by three or four minutes at lower power. If you’ve been working alone, it may be a good idea to enlist the help of a workout buddy or even pay for a few sessions with a personal trainer. “Whenever you change a workout routine your body will respond by dropping fat/weight,” says Sullivan.

Many people do not work hard enough. “You need to understand it isn’t only the kind of activity you are doing but the frequency, the duration of each exercise session, and the intensity during your session,” says Sullivan. “A little walk in the park is not exercised necessary to drop weight. People come to me and say, ‘I ride my bike every night with my 4-year-old, and I do not see any changes in my body.’ They need to keep the 4-year-old home while they ride hard for an hour and then come back for a cool down with their child.”

If you need help planning an exercise routine but can’t afford a personal trainer, try Free Trainers, an online program that offers pre-designed workouts to fit any goal and level. Learn exercise routines, track your progress, calculate your caloric intake, and interact with other members following the same program.

Pump It Up

A common mistake women make is skipping weights because of the fear they would look “bulky.” True is, women lack the testosterone needed to develop large muscles. When you do appropriately, weight training can break a plateau faster than any other method. According to Wikipedia, “The body’s basal metabolic rate increases with increases in muscle mass, which promotes long-term fat loss and helps dieters avoid yo-yo dieting. Moreover, intense workouts elevate the metabolism for several hours following the workout, which also promotes fat loss.”

The increase in metabolic rate is immediate, and it can be as significant as 10 per cent. “It takes more energy to maintain healthy muscle than fat,” says Sullivan. “This way you are burning calories while you sleep! Also, if all you are doing is doing cardio and dieting, you will be flabby. Skinny flab is just as unattractive as fat flab.” If you’ve never tried weights before, then start slow and light, mixing machines and free weights. Weights should be done three times a week, alternating muscle groups.

Drink Plenty of Water

Thirst is often mistaken for hunger. Every time you feel the urge to snack, drink a glass of water first and see if the call goes away. Decaf teas, calorie-free drinks, and seltzer water count towards your eight glasses of water a day, but add an extra glass for each cup of coffee you drink, as caffeine dehydrates.

A recent study by the Franz-Volhard Clinical Research Center in Germany showed a basal metabolic rate (the number of calories your body burns at rest) increase of up to 30 per cent after participants drank 16 ounces of cold water. Researchers estimate that drinking an additional 16 ounces of water over the required 60 ounces (eight glasses) a day can result in an annual weight loss of almost two pounds.

Cut Down Your Alcohol Intake

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 stress the fact that while alcoholic beverages supply excess calories, they do not provide any essential nutrients, making it difficult even for moderate drinkers to maintain a healthy weight.

Alcohol is, in fact, very dense in calories. 7kcal/gram compared to only 4 for proteins and carbs, and that’s without taking into consideration that many alcoholic drinks (such as cocktails) are high in sugars and fat. Alcohol consumption slows down the fat burning capabilities of the body, as the body focuses on using the alcohol (a toxin) as fuel, rather than burning fat for energy. Alcohol also dehydrates, which, in turn, can make you hungry.

Keep Your Chin Up

Finally, it’s essential to keep your eyes on the broad picture. “Focus on health, not fat,” says Ottevanger. “[Focus on] feeling good – looking good is just a side effect of feeling good. Forget the notion that some excess just got there by accident, that you are going to get it fixed, and go back to normal. You change your notions and thus your behaviour today, for the rest of your longer, happier life. No six weeks of torture will get you anywhere you want to go.”

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