Most of us like to think of weight loss as a nice steady elevator ride going down from “too high” to “just right.” Or at least, that’s what we wish would happen! But in the real world, that weight-loss elevator is more like a theme-park ride: it goes down, it comes jerking to a halt and then zooms back up for a while, it suddenly drops six floors overnight…and sometimes, it even stays in one place for a while: the dreaded plateau.
Nobody likes a plateau, but the first thing to remember about them is that they’re perfectly normal. After all, bodies are not machines, and they don’t always work in totally logical ways. Many people find that after a week or so at the same weight, they simply start losing again with no further effort required. They don’t know what caused the stall, but it doesn’t really matter because it passes quickly and weight loss resumes.
On the other hand, some people hit a weight that just won’t budge – and after a month or so of this, it’s time to officially dub it a plateau. This review found that people tend to hit that plateau around 6 months, and other studies have confirmed this: 6-8 months is the typical time of the first plateau (although there are exceptions).
So what causes this, and how can you fight back? Plateaus can happen for any number of reasons, but this study focuses on two of the most common: metabolic adaptation and diet creep. So take a look at what they are, which one might apply to you, and what you can do about them.
Two Potential Causes for Weight Loss Plateaus
Culprit #1: Metabolic Adaptation
The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when they’re wondering why they’ve plateaued is their metabolism. And indeed, metabolism is important! Calorie balance matters, but in real life, 3500 calories cut from your diet do not equal 1 pound of fat off your hips, because the body fights back against weight loss by lowering the metabolic rate, decreasing unconscious activity (like fidgeting), and otherwise dropping expenditure to a bare minimum. The results are easiest to understand in a chart (the left-hand numbers are calories).
This chart shows the metabolic adaptation pattern of stall and regain. A decrease in calorie intake works at first, but it’s eventually followed by a decrease in metabolism – even if exercise stays constant! At some point, the body adjusts to the new calorie intake and stops losing weight. That’s the plateau: you can see it on the graph where the orange and blue lines meet. Calorie intake and calorie expenditure are now the same, so weight loss has stopped. Discouraged, the person gives up on the diet and starts eating more, resulting in rapid weight regain.
But you’ll notice something suspiciously absent from the bottom axis of that graph: dates. That’s because the metabolic adaptation typically takes much longer than 6 months. This study found that the typical “lose weight for 6 months, stall, and regain” pattern did not appear in controlled feeding studies (studies were the researchers have total control over subjects’ food and can measure things themselves instead of depending on unreliable self-reporting). In these studies, the metabolic adaptation didn’t kick in for several years after the subjects started losing weight.
So if you’re stalling after several years, this could be your problem. It definitely happens, and it’s the reason why extreme crash diets don’t work in the long run. But for the 6-month stall, metabolism just isn’t cutting it!
Culprit #2: Diet Creep
Since the metabolic adaptation doesn’t explain the 6-month stall, that leaves us with the other explanation from the study above: diet creep. This is what happens when people go on a diet they can’t stand: they white-knuckle it for a few months, but then start cheating more and more because it’s just not sustainable. It’s not a big moment of “I give up;” it’s a hundred smaller moments of “well, I’m still losing weight, and I’m sick of eating steamed spinach all the time, so I deserve this treat” – until one day, you aren’t losing weight any more.
This is what the researchers found in the typical 6-month “stall.” When subjects had to live in a lab and didn’t have the opportunity to cheat on their diet, they didn’t stall at 6 months at all. But in the real world, without professional researchers to keep them on track whether they liked it or not, 6-month stalls were common – and the reason was typically diet creep.
So what does this look like on Paleo? Keep a weather eye out for any of the following showing up in your diet with increasing regularity. It may help to write them down, since most of us are really bad at estimating food consumption in our heads (that’s why the diet creep happens in the first place):
- Nuts or Paleo baked goods made with nut flours
- Dried fruits or fruit juice
- Paleo sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, etc.)
All these are gray area foods to eat in moderation: they’re not everyday staples. If they’re starting to show up in your diet more and more, you might have found your problem.
Breaking Through Weight-Loss Plateaus
Now you know two potential reasons for a plateau: after only a few months, it’s likely to be diet creep, but if you were going strong for a year or more before you hit a wall, it could also be metabolism. So if one of these two culprits sounds like you, what can you do about it?
Basically, the trick with a stall is to change things up. What you’re doing isn’t working (otherwise, you wouldn’t have stalled!). Some suggestions:
- Cut down on the “diet creep” foods above. Do not “save your calories” for almond-flour cookies after dinner; this is a recipe for nutrient deficiency via replacing nutrient-dense foods with nutrient-poor treats. Instead, limit treats to one or two desserts per week and focus your meals on meat, vegetables, and fat. To make this happen, you will likely have to track your food intake by keeping a journal of what you eat every day.
- Adjust your carb levels. On the one hand, a very low carbohydrate intake can slow metabolism unnecessarily, so consider adding some carbs (especially if you’re active). On the other hand, some people also have success cutting down on carbs. Experiment on yourself and figure out what your body likes. Sometimes just the change from one level of carbs to the other can be enough to kick-start your body out of a stall. Here’s some more on carbs and weight loss, if you’re interested.
- Boost your NEAT. NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, and just means all the calories you burn doing things that aren’t “workouts.” Can you go in for a standing desk for at least a few hours of the day, or take quick breaks to walk around the office every hour? It’s partly psychological, but it does help offset metabolic adaptation, and it’s also just plain good for you.
- Consider increasing calories. Yes, this seems to fly in the face of everything above. But it’s true. In a surprising number of cases, cutting calories too low can hinder or stop weight loss as your body assumes there’s a famine and clings to every bit of fat it can get. It's basically a shortcut to metabolic adaptation, and that's one shortcut you don't want to take! Why not try a moderate increase in food intake for a few weeks and see how you do?
- Switch up your workouts. Working out for weight loss shouldn’t drive you into the ground, but it does mean challenging your body. The more you do any given exercise, the less challenging it gets – so if you’ve been doing the same routine for a while, try experimenting with something completely different to see how it feels. If you usually do cardio, try weights. If you usually do weights, try cardio. Or go out for a completely new sport like squash, soccer, rock climbing, or martial arts.
Possibly the biggest problem with weight-loss stalls is psychological: they’re very discouraging. And the depression can lead to a vicious cycle of “well, I’m not losing any more weight anyway; I guess I’m doomed to be fat forever, so why don’t I just eat this entire pint of ice cream?” – which of course ensures that you really won’t lose any more weight!
To combat this, remember: your body has a reason for everything it does, even if you don’t like its logic. Don’t even worry about a plateau until it’s been at least a week, maybe two. And even long-term plateau (1 month or more) is not the end of the world; it’s just your body telling you to adjust something about your weight-loss efforts. It’s a sign that something needs to change. Instead of throwing up your hands in despair, approach it like a scientist: figure out what your body is trying to tell you, and how you can respond to stay on track for meeting your long-term goals.