Why Does Weight Loss Stall?

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It’s incredibly frustrating and disheartening when you’re doing all the right things but your weight isn’t budging. Unfortunately, stalls and plateaus are a normal part of weight loss that you can expect to happen at some point. Sometimes, a stall can be the result of something you’re doing or not doing. Other times, a stall is just par for the course. To help you diagnose what may (or may not) be going wrong, here are six of the most common reasons why you may not be losing weight.

1. You’re eating too many calories

Choosing more nutritious foods is a great first step toward achieving your health and fitness goals. Often, this alone spontaneously reduces caloric intake. But just because you’re making healthier choices doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re eating the right number of calories for your goal.

Another potential source of excess calories is if you’re overly restricting calories or food choices during the week, then losing control on the weekends and overeating or even bingeing. When you’re stuck in this cycle, you’ll sabotage your efforts because regardless of whether your calories are under control on weekdays, the weekend binges can easily bump you into a caloric surplus for the week.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Try keeping a food journal for a week to identify potential sources of excess calories. If you’re eating a lot of calorie-dense foods, that could be the culprit. Or perhaps your portions are too big for your calorie needs.

If you’re already logging what you eat, check in with yourself. Are you being accurate with your tracking? Are you being honest with yourself about what you’re actually eating compared to what you’re tracking?

2. Your body has become smaller

You’re able to lose weight on a certain number of calories initially, as that number of calories puts you at a deficit for your current weight range. Eventually, however, your body will equilibrium. In other words, the number of calories that used to put you into a deficit will become your maintenance calories. Unfortunately, less body mass means less calories required. This is why we often need to reduce our caloric intake at some point during fat loss.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

The first step is to avoid having a knee jerk reaction and pulling food out right away. I’m a big fan of losing weight on as many calories as you can while still making progress, so I don’t like to arbitrarily cut calories at the first sign of a stall.

Having said that, if you’ve been losing weight for a long time on the same number of calories, it may be time to eat a bit less. And while eating less is a bummer, this is actually a good thing as it means you’re getting closer to your goal.

3. You’re unintentionally moving around less

When in a caloric deficit, your body conserves energy by reducing your activity level in ways that you may not even be aware of. The reduced activity happens through a type of energy expenditure called non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT. NEAT encompasses most of the things you do that aren’t eating, sleeping or exercising.

Some examples of NEAT are: walking, doing chores, working, gardening, and even things we aren’t necessarily aware of such as fidgeting and gesturing with our hands. When you’re in a deficit, even though your exercise program may not have changed, you’ll tend to do all of these other things to a lesser degree.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

You can mitigate the reduction in NEAT somewhat by working on increasing your conscious energy expenditure. One simple but effective way to do this is to use an activity tracker and shoot for a minimum number of daily steps. With your step count held constant, you have one less variable to worry about.

4. You’re retaining water

Water weight can definitely mask fat loss. So what makes us retain water? There are a lot of potential reasons, but a few of the most common ones are stress, fluctuations in reproductive hormones, and changes in diet. Let’s start with stress and hormones.

When we’re stressed, our bodies respond by releasing certain hormones such as cortisol as part of the “fight or flight” response. Unfortunately, the influx of stress hormones can result in water retention. Even if you don’t feel psychologically stressed, keep in mind that being in a calorie deficit for a prolonged period of time is still perceived by the body as stress.

Another potential cause of water retention is a change in your reproductive hormones or diet. The female menstrual cycle, eating more sodium than usual, consuming more carbohydrates than usual, and not getting enough water can all potentially result in transient water weight gain.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Regardless of whether you’re retaining water, stress management is important. Try to find a way that works for you to reduce stress. Some ideas for things you could try are: meditation, yoga, leisurely walks, reaching out to a friend or counselor, and working on time management.

If you’re female and you experience large swings in fluid balance during your cycle, it may help to adjust the way you analyze your weight trends. Instead of comparing your weight from week-to-week, perhaps try comparing it to the same week in a previous cycle. For example, compare week 1 to week 1, week 2 to week 2, and so forth.

If you’ve recently made a temporary change to your sodium, carbohydrate or fluid intake (for example, if you had a special meal out), you don’t need to do anything. You can expect that your scale weight will smooth out by itself within a few days.

On the other hand, if you’ve made a permanent change to your diet (such as going from low carb to moderate or high carb) the added water weight might just be your new normal. This is because your body stores carbohydrates for fuel as glycogen, and with stored glycogen comes water.

If you’re fairly lean and you’ve been in a deficit for a long time, it might be time for a diet break. A diet break is a period of time (say, a week or two) in which you bring calories back up to maintenance. This not only gives your body a break from the deficit, but it also provides a psychological break from dieting. It’s not uncommon to see weight loss immediately following a diet break.

5. You’ve gained muscle mass

While gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time probably isn’t a realistic goal for advanced trainees, it does happen frequently with beginners. So if you’re new to strength training or you’ve recently gotten back into the gym after a lot of time off, you could be gaining muscle.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Gaining muscle is a great thing, as it will will give your body shape and make you look fit. It may also help you burn a few more calories throughout the day. So how do you know if you’re gaining muscle?

If the scale isn’t going down but your waist measurement is, you’re probably gaining muscle. If the scale isn’t going down but your clothes are fitting better, you’re probably gaining muscle. If the scale isn’t going down but you’re getting stronger in the gym, you’re probably gaining muscle. If the scale isn’t going down but you look significantly leaner in pictures, you’re probably gaining muscle.

6. You need to give it more time

Fat loss isn’t a short process, nor is it a linear one. It takes time, it happens in fits and starts, and you won’t lose weight every week. While you may have lost quickly in the beginning, the reality of fat loss is the rate of progress will slow down at some point. And once that honeymoon period is over, it starts to feel more like a grind. This is when it becomes critical to remember your “why.”

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Review the five reasons for weight stalls above, as you’re likely to find your answer in one of those. But if none of those feel like they fit, you may just need to give it time. Try not to make too many changes too quickly. Give the body time to adjust.

If you’re certain that you’re ticking all the right boxes–in other words, you’re in a calorie deficit, you’re getting enough protein, you’re eating mostly whole foods, you’re strength training regularly in a progressive manner, you’re sleeping enough, and you’re managing stress as best you can–give it several weeks and see what happens.

It may also help to mentally re-frame the experience as “maintenance practice.” I learned this concept from nutrition researcher and educator Alan Aragon. Weight maintenance is a skill of its own–one that is often harder than the fat loss itself. But since maintaining your weight is something you’ll need to do for a long time once you’ve reached your goal, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have the chance to practice doing it.

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