Does the following scenario sound familiar? For a while now, you’ve been trucking along, doing your weight loss thing. Food is getting easier to manage, you’re steadily losing weight, and you finally feel like you’re getting real traction. Woohoo!
And then, for no reason at all, your weight loss just…stops. It’s stuck on the same number for so long that you wonder if something’s wrong with the scale. You try weighing your cat, become a little alarmed by the readout and wonder if you should put him on a kitty diet, and then swap out the scale’s batteries, just in case. Nope, your weight’s still the same.
It starts to drive you crazy. You were doing everything right! Okay, maybe not perfectly, but definitely good enough to still see some results. What gives?
No worries — you’ve just hit a plateau.
Not only is this completely normal, it’ll happen to you with depressing regularity as you continue to lose weight. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong, but it’s still a great opportunity to check in and see if there’s anything in your process that you can improve.
Here’s what might be happening inside your body.
What causes a plateau?
A weight loss plateau is often what happens when your body retains water. You can thank your fat cells for that. See, the number of fat cells in your body doesn’t really change after puberty. For the most part, when you gain weight, you don’t gain more fat cells. Your fat cells just get bigger. And when you lose weight, they shrink.
But your fat cells don’t want to get smaller. They like the size they are, thanks. So when you lose fat, the fat cells will replace the lost fat with water. Think of them as girls who are stuffing their bras. They’re pretending they have a lot more than is actually there, if you know what I mean. In fact, they’re hoping you’ll fall for their bluff and start stuffing your face with deep fried Oreos sometime soon so that they can dump the water and refill themselves with fat. But if you don’t let up, they’ll be forced to say uncle, release the extra water they’ve been holding on to, and shrink a little more. You’ll know it’s happened when you see a sudden, dramatic drop in your weight one day — which, by the way, is called a “whoosh.”
So, sure, the number on your scale represents your weight. But your scale isn’t sophisticated enough to know how much of that weight is water, muscle, fat, or bone. And if you do use a scale that claims to, it’s not going to be accurate. So while it can be discouraging to see the same weight on the scale, that doesn’t mean you haven’t been losing fat; it might be that your body is just retaining water. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, and your weight will eventually go down.
There are some other reasons your body might be retaining water besides just your fat cells holding on to some, so ask yourself some questions to see if the culprit might be something else.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Have I been exercising more lately?
Hands up if you’ve ever stepped on the scale the day after an intense workout, anticipating a huge drop, and saw…that absolutely nothing changed. Except that now you’re so sore that if you drop anything on the floor, it’s dead to you.
Feeling sore the day after your workout has a fancy name, DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). It just means that because of the way you exercised, microtears have developed in your muscles. It’s normal and not a big deal, but it does cause inflammation, and as a result, your muscles hold on to water to repair the damage. Once your body gets used to the new workout, your weight will go back to normal.
Am I drinking enough water?
Sometimes your body retains water because you aren’t drinking enough. You don’t need a full eight glasses a day — most of us get plenty of water from our food — but if you don’t drink enough, your body gets nervous and starts to hoard it. Reassure it by drinking some more water.
(For women only) Is my period is due soon?
About a week before your period, you might see your weight suddenly spike upward, then stay way up there until after your period is over. Remember how bloated you feel around then? You can thank your hormones for that. Keep your cool, stay the course, and your weight will go back down when it’s all over.
How Long Is Too Long For a Plateau
If your plateau has been going on for more than a month, it might be time to pause and reassess what you’ve been doing. Even a handful of mistakes can stall your progress, so check in with yourself and see if there’s any place where you should be making a few changes.
Am I “cheating” so much that it’s affecting my weight loss?
To be clear, I really, really hate the terms “cheat,” “cheat meal,” and “cheat day.” I think a planned “cheat day” or “cheat meal” is perfectly valid, and to use the term “cheat” is to imply that you’re doing something you’re not supposed to — which is not the case. But they’re common terms that everyone recognizes, so let’s go with it for now. A cheat meal is, as I’m using the term here, a day where you’re free to eat as much as you want, and you don’t track how many calories you’re consuming.
A really big cheat day can wipe out your progress for the entire week. And a cheat meal can sometimes extend past that one meal into some extra treats the next day, and the day after that — you see my point. All those little things can sneak up on you and cancel out your deficit for too many days in a row. If you’re doing a cheat day or meal regularly and it gets a little out of control, stop for a while and see if that helps.
Am I counting and measuring absolutely everything?
Calorie counting is done using the honor system, so you have to be honest with yourself. So, can you swear that you’ve been counting everything you’ve been eating and measuring as accurately as you can? Cross your heart? If there’s a chance one or two things slipped under the radar recently, see if capturing everything is enough to give the scale a nudge. If you really have been counting everything that goes into your mouth, then keep going! And also, if you use a food scale, check to make sure the batteries are still going strong and that it’s calibrated correctly. Just in case.
Am I eating too few calories?
On the other hand, if you’ve been really, really strict about your calories, you might be hitting a plateau because your metabolism is slowing down. Your body doesn’t want to lose weight, so it’ll slow everything down in an attempt to hold on to as much weight as it can. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but try eating a little more. Eat at maintenance for a few days, then switch back to eating at a deficit. Getting some extra calories can reassure your body into believing that it isn’t going to starve to death, and it’ll drop some weight.
The most important weapon in your arsenal against a plateau is patience. Losing weight by counting calories relies on science, so you just have to wait it out and let science work its magic. If you wait, it will happen. It’s really unlikely that your body will break the laws of physics, but if it does, the upside is that you’ll be a medical miracle! Either way, you can’t lose.
What About You?
When was the last time you experienced a plateau? What got you out of it?