What to do when you hit the weight loss wall, and how to get over it.
One of the most common frustrations in weight loss is when all progress halts despite the fact that you are diligently following your plan. Such plateaus are predictable and explainable. Basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the energy required to keep the heart pumping, lungs expanding, kidneys filtering, and all other vital bodily functions going when the body is at rest—accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the calories you burn and depends, for the most part, on body mass. When weight loss occurs, body mass goes down; so does BMR.
Consider an example: You weigh 162 pounds and eat 1,900 calories a day. To lose a pound a week, you've got to cut between 500 and 600 calories per day. So you restrict yourself to 1,400 calories, and the weight comes off. But suddenly, after week six, the scale refuses to budge. This is because with the weight loss, your BMR has also declined (say, from 0.95 to 0.75 calories per minute), and where your body used to burn 1,368 calories per day, now it's using only 1,080. At this weight, there's also less of you to move around, so you burn fewer calories working out and waste fewer calories as heat. All in all, your daily calorie expenditure is now pretty close to what you're taking in. You've hit a new—and probably very annoying—equilibrium. Now that you know why it happens, here's what to do:
1. Hang in there. You may feel stuck, but you're probably still losing weight—just not enough to register on the scale. But even dropping a third of a pound per week means that in a year, you'll be down a whole 17 pounds.
2. Avoid fuzzy math. It's common to overestimate calories burned and underestimate calories eaten. Look for places where calories may hide—dressings, spreads, sauces, croutons, and condiments. Are you tasting a lot while cooking? Finishing what the kids leave on their plates? Absentmindedly grabbing handfuls of nuts, chips, or candy? You might try keeping a detailed food diary. Remember that for each pound you want to lose, you need to cut at least 3,500 calories—and if you don't want to eat less, to lose the same pound you'll have to add about ten extra hours of brisk walking or the equivalent.
3. Put up some resistance. Increasing physical activity is particularly useful for moving beyond a plateau because exercise both uses calories and builds muscle. The more muscle you have, the higher your BMR, which is why working out with light weights or doing some kind of resistance training can be especially helpful. In fact, increasing your muscle mass as you lose body fat can compensate for the decline in BMR induced by weight loss.
4. Up your protein quotient. There is some evidence that shifting fat and carbohydrate calories to protein calories may help preserve BMR during weight loss. But don't overdo it—20 percent of daily calories from protein is as high as you should go.
5. Shake it up. Many fitness gurus claim that surprising your body with a change in diet, workout, or both can jostle you out of a weight loss rut. The science is pretty thin here, but the advice is reasonable because variety can keep you interested. Instead of constant dieting, you might try alternating calorie-cutting days, for example, with less-restrictive maintenance days. Switch to a new type of exercise. Alternate aerobic workouts with light weight training. A change may be just what you need to get the progress rolling again.
6. Recharge your drive: If your motivation is flagging, write down all the reasons you originally wanted, and still want, to lose weight. Look at the list every day. Also let friends and family know what you're up to, and ask for their support.
7. Reconsider the skin you're in: A plateau is an opportunity to reassess whether further weight loss is worth all the work it will take—and to reconsider whether you may, in truth, now be at a perfectly healthy weight and don't need to go any lower. If you do choose to stop where you are, turn your focus toward maintaining what you've achieved and keeping your body in good shape. Remember, eating well and being physically active are good for you. Do a little of both every day, and you will be a total success.