You believe that you're eating well. You're exercising consistently. For a while, you're cruising along toward a healthy weight — and then, suddenly, the scale refuses to budge for a few days or a couple of weeks ... or even longer. Why?
"You've reached a plateau, which is a normal part of weight loss," says Hâle Deniz-Venturi, MS, ATC-L, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at Rush University Medical Center. "Be patient, not discouraged. Most people don't lose weight consistently. They may lose it in spurts."
The following eight tips can help you break through a plateau and continue your healthy weight-loss progress.
1. Play detective.
Keep a food and habits diary for seven to 10 days: Write down everything you eat and drink — that means every taste, bite and sip! — along with what you were doing when you ate, what your mood was like and how much physical activity was part of your day.
Then, look for patterns that might give a clue about why your weight loss has stalled.
After your initial weight-loss success, your portion sizes might have inched back up. Maybe you’re more relaxed about what you eat (e.g., eating high-calorie foods more often). When you write everything down, you can see the big picture more clearly.
"Have you slipped back into old habits, such as eating your toddler's leftover food or skipping breakfast and overeating later?" Deniz-Venturi asks. "Were you eating because you were hungry, or because you were feeling mad, sad or anxious?
"We may use food for all kinds of things, including socializing and managing our moods. It can be really helpful to identify your own tendencies."
2. Eat more ...
It might seem counterintuitive, but eating too few calories can stall your weight loss by slowing your metabolism. Generally, men need at least 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day and women need 1,200 to 1,500.
"When your calorie intake is too low, not only does your metabolism suffer, but you risk depriving yourself of essential nutrients, which is risky for your overall health," Deniz-Venturi says.
If you've been a three-meal-a-day eater, it might help to divide your food intake into five small meals each day, especially if you're over 40.
"Research has showed that we just don't metabolize large meals well as we get older," says Deniz-Venturi. "Eat every four to five hours to keep your engine running and your metabolic rate steady."
3. ... but make sure you're eating smart.
Some weight-loss programs claim that eating only high-calorie, high-energy-density foods like meat and cheese will help you feel sated and jump-start weight loss — but balance is always going to be the key to losing weight and keeping it off for the long term, Deniz-Venturi says.
"You're shooting for a quality distribution of fuels: proteins, carbs and fats," she explains. "It's never a good idea to cut out a whole food group like carbs. If you look at the success stories of people who maintain their weight losses, you see that they consistently eat lower-fat but well balanced diets."
4. Change up your exercise.
"If you stick to the same workout, your muscles become very efficient at performing it," Deniz-Venturi says. "Eventually, you'll burn fewer calories."
So vary your routine every few weeks.
For instance, try swapping out your daily walk for the same amount of time spent swimming or biking. Or add intervals to your walk: Walk at your normal exercise pace for three minutes, then push yourself to increase the pace for three minutes. Repeat for 30 minutes or more of walking.
Everyone's body is different, she adds, so it might take a bit of exploration to find the best way for you to challenge different muscle groups.
"The best way to do that is to get input from somebody who's qualified to help, like a certified personal trainer. And always follow guidelines for exercising safely."
Taking care of yourself and making positive changes for the long term are things that define you, not the number on the scale.
5. Get stronger to get leaner.
Work out with weights or resistance bands at least twice a week to build muscle. Because muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does, adding muscle is another way to boost your metabolism.
In a Tufts University study, subjects who strength-trained three times a week for three months added 3.1 pounds of muscle, lost four pounds of fat and increased their resting metabolic rates by almost seven percent.
6. Look beyond the numbers.
Give yourself a mental boost by giving yourself credit for the successes you've already achieved — those jeans that are no longer a struggle to button, the surprising distance you're now able to walk or run, that amazing amount of weight you can now lift.
"Taking care of yourself and making positive changes for the long term are things that define you," says Deniz-Venturi, "not the number on the scale."
7. Keep calm and forget fad diets.
"Don't let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that there’s a magic bullet," Deniz-Venturi says, "because there's no such thing."
Cleanses, diet pills, fat-burning corsets — none of them works and many of them are downright dangerous.
8. Seek support.
If you're stuck at the same weight for a month or more and nothing seems to help, consider consulting a registered dietitian. He or she can review your lifestyle habits and help get you off your plateau.
"People get all worked up about weight loss, thinking it should be fast and easy," says Deniz-Venturi. "But weight management is complex. A registered dietician can help you formulate a plan to begin losing again. Don't spin your wheels."
If you are overweight or obese, treatment can help. The doctors, nurses, dietitians and psychologists at the Rush Center for Weight Loss & Bariatric Surgery can help you lose weight, improve your health and live longer.