Diet Guides

How To Break a Weight Loss Plateau – Without Starving Yourself

It is not uncommon to experience a weight loss plateau after a few months of consistently losing weight.

I’ve been there and I know you have too.

You tried your best. You lost weight. You gave it everything and it hurt.

And then it all stopped.

You still went out there and exercised harder. You watched everything you ate.

Nothing happened.

Adaption is the Main Cause of a Plateau

The human body is incredibly adaptive and will do its level best to maintain equilibrium (homeostasis).

If you are eating the same amount day in a day out, the body will eventually adapt.

The plateauing effect is the biggest motivation-killer there is.

Unfortunately, many popular diet books are strangely quiet on the issue — weight loss plateaus don’t make good testimonials.

Yet they happen to most people.

6 Ways to Break a Weight Loss Plateau

The best single word of advice is to make a change.

Change something. Anything. Do it now.

Don’t make the mistake of doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result (Ben Franklin’s definition of insanity).

You have to switch things up and counteract the adaption that your body has made to your way of eating or your way of exercising.

1. Alter Your Macro-nutrient Intake: Flexible Dieting

squirrel_peanuts

Although it sounds complicated, once again, the idea is to change what you are eating.

If (for example) you are eating a moderate diet that is higher in carbohydrates – try eating less carbs and more protein. There is no need to get super-technical over the whole thing.

If you have a carbohydrate snack every day at morning tea time – change it to a protein snack.

This is known as flexible dieting or If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM), which tracks macros instead of just calories. People like it because it isn’t restrictive and encourages people to eat according to what their body needs instead of just a generic calorie amount such as 1200 or 1500.

Eating too little can actually stall your weight loss. If you have been eating only 1200 calories for a long time, start eating more for a few weeks as a way to “reset things”.

Some examples:

  • Instead of eating a fruit snack, eat a handful of nuts.
  • If your diet is heavily bread-based, try reducing this and increasing the protein (say a tin of tuna, or chicken.)
  • Don’t be afraid to eat fat, it’s not the enemy.

Whatever you are doing consistently – try mixing it up a bit. However, if you want to get technical, use our macronutrient weight loss calculator here.

2. Zig-Zag Calorie Intake

frukt

Zig-zagging or calorie cycling is the process of varying daily calorie intake while maintaining the same weekly intake.

Instead of consuming (for example) precisely 1800 calories each day – you can mix it up.

Eat 1500 calories one day, and 2100 calories the next. This can be as simple as halving then doubling a portion size, or adding a post-workout shake into the plan.

Here’s something a little more technical, from the Zig-zag calculator.

If your daily calories for fat loss is 1860, a weekly zig-zag would look like this:

Daily Calories
Monday 1861
Tuesday 1489
Wednesday 2233
Thursday 1861
Friday 1675
Saturday 2047
Sunday 1861

This keeps your body guessing and helps keep adaption at bay.

3. Add Strength Training

barbells

Many people follow a basic and fairly repetitive routine of walking. This is a great start, but it’s time to add some resistance into the mix.

If you are not doing this as part of your program or lifestyle, then it’s time to start.

Working your muscles will help to strengthen bone tissue, increase lean mass, and ultimately boost metabolic rate.

Many people have increased success with HIIT training.

There are so many things you can do:

4. Change Your Exercise Routine

runner-bw

Flowing on from the previous point: You must change something in your exercise routine.

The more you do a particular activity the greater your body adapts and this efficiency equates to less calorie burn.

If you walk a lot, then try jogging, or swimming, or cycling — anything that will change the way your body is working.

If you are doing low-intensity cardio work, then try some high intensity (short duration) exercise.

For example: instead of your normal slow jog – run as fast as you can for 30 seconds then walk for 30 seconds. Do this 4 times in the middle of your jog.

Need More Exercise Ideas?

  • Try an Exercise DVD
    Some of us happen to like dancing around the room knocking over coffee tables and other assorted furniture.
  • Gym Class
    Yoga, Pilates, or Zumba to name a few.
  • HIIT
    High Intensity Interval Training
  • Social sports
    Join a Volleyball team.
  • Meet your friend for a walk
    Instead of meeting for coffee.
  • Go hiking.
  • Yoga
    Maybe it’ll help you to relax.
  • Get a cool bicycle
    And don’t leave it in the garage gathering dust.
  • Got Kids? Get on the playground with them instead of sitting on the side.
  • Video Games with Movement
    Get a Nintendo Wii (or even Xbox with Kinect) and get some good fitness games. Just don’t do the tennis or you’ll end up with tendonitis.
  • Prancercise
    I’m kidding.

Okay, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcore, these activities probably won’t cut it for you. Especially if you are already quite the fitness fanatic.

The issue here is that you MUST change what you are doing. Keep your body guessing. Notice how quickly you can adapt to a certain exercise.

I used to bicycle a lot, but I’m a lousy swimmer, panting after an embarrassingly small amount of lengths. My body is efficient at one but appalling at the other.

5. Change Meal Frequency

2ndbreakfast

This is contentious and some would argue that it doesn’t matter. But, it has worked for some.

It’s been a technique for bodybuilders: they eat 5+ meals per day. They claim the thermic effect of eating helps to burn fat. There is energy expenditure involved in the body processing food (particularly protein).

Some claim this is myth, yet there is research showing that the Thermic Affect of Food (TEF) is very real. A recent study of gastric bypass patients showed enhanced TEF after surgery.

Gastric bypass patients can only eat small amounts at a time (leading them to a pattern of little and often)

What You Can Do

  • If you are eating three square meals a day – start adding snacks in between (which may mean reducing the portion size of the main meals).
  • If skipping breakfast has been your thing – maybe it’s time to change that.
  • Be careful this doesn’t backfire.
    I did this and ended up eating all the time thinking I was being healthy. You still need to make wise choices and not overeat.

6. Some Extra Things To Try

Still not working? Here are some more things that have worked for some people:

  • Get more sleep, or figure out what’s affecting your sleep quality.
  • Overeat – Might sound counter-intuitive, but after a period of sustained restricted eating, a day or two of big eating might be just the ticket. However, if you are a person that has problems with binging this could backfire – be careful.
  • Change your goals – obsessed with the scales? Think about focusing on something else like being able to run 5km or getting stronger.
  • Intermittent fasting: Increase your daily fasting window to 12-16 hours and shorten your eating window. Fasting periods burn fat reserves to keep your body going. Here’s an intermittent fasting calculator that can help you get started right.

What Happened to Me…

Some of us seem to have more adaptive bodies than others.

I remember when I was eating a fairly rigid diet. I had meal plans stuck to the fridge. I counted everything I ate.

I was doing three strength training sessions per week, and as much as seven (often intense) cardio sessions a week.

After 3-4 weeks – the fat simply stopped coming off.

The frustration was enough to make me take my meal plans, screw them up and throw them away in disgust. I was furious and disappointed. I felt that I was doing everything “right”.

So what was the answer?

Chill out and back off… I was becoming obsessional. I started eating more, and gradually reduced my cardio levels. I gave my body and mind a break. In the process, I have learned to eat more intuitively.

The funny thing is, even though I went onto lose a bit more fat, I found I no longer cared.  It all seemed like vanity to me.

Every person is unique, and we must learn how our individual body responds – and how to work with that.

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Photos: frukt, Wolfnowl, bobolink, Ulfbodin,

Ted Kallmyer is an ISSA certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition, is an expert macros coach, and the author of The Macro Solution. If you need personal help reaching your weight loss/fitness goals see his nutrition & macros coaching options. Follow Ted on Instagram
Last Updated: December 1, 2020

116 Comments

  1. Latricia Orns 1 month ago

    Hi Ted, I’m almost 57. I started a 1200 calorie diet and walking at the beginning of January 2021. I have lost around 40 lb I averaged about 6 pounds a month weight loss but for the last month or so I haven’t really lost anything, maybe a pound or two. And my weight goes up by a pound or two within a couple days and then back down but I can’t seem to break the plateau. I can’t exercise a lot or do any intensive exercise as I have fibromyalgia. What should I do?

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 1 month ago

      Hi Latricia, Weight fluctuation is normal but it seems like you do need to take a break from a calorie deficit. Eat at your maintenance amount for about a month and then go into a 20% deficit to resume weight loss. Use my calculator here: Macro Calculator for Accurate Daily Macronutrients and Calories

      Reply
      • Latricia 1 month ago

        Thank you but im kinda scared to do that. I’ve worked so hard and im afraid I’ll gain a lot of it back in a month…

        Reply
        • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 1 month ago

          You can only gain fat if you are in a calorie surplus during a 24-hour energy cycle. Your maintenance numbers are calculated to keep you at a balanced energy level. You can create a small buffer by entering your goal weight instead of your current weight when calculating your maintenance. The most important thing is to eat more and give your body a break from always being in a deficit.

          Reply
          • Latricia 3 weeks ago

            Well, just like I was afraid of I have been eating between 1500 and 1650 calories. Those are the maintenance for my current weight and the weight I want. And now my weight is higher than it’s been in the last 6 weeks. I know my body is not typical I’ve always had weight issues even as an active child. I don’t generally eat lots of food. I don’t always make the best choices, but I don’t make the worst choices either. Do you have any more advice?

          • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 3 weeks ago

            If you had been undereating, it’s pretty typical for your weight to increase slightly while you wait for your metabolism to catch up and get to where it should be. Your metabolism didn’t slow overnight and it won’t increase overnight either. Be patient with the process, focus on fueling your body with nutritious foods and using the extra nutrition to help push you a little harder during your exercise.

  2. Suzanne Bilodeau 5 months ago

    This is very refreshing this morning, thank you!
    5 weeks of plateau, eating clean and exercising, and nothing.
    I will try to switch things up and maybe back off for a while.
    I’ve gain 20 lbs during COVID, but my body shed only 4… wtf?!

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 5 months ago

      Hi Suzanne, Are you tracking your nutrition?

      Reply
  3. Jill DeFelice 5 months ago

    Hi Ted,
    I’m 60. I lost 100 pounds on low carb, non-processed food ten years ago (but the battle has been lifelong – I just finally found what works). I ate about 2300 cals a day, weight trained 4 days a week, did pilates, and some swimming and lots of walking. Life happened and I regained about 50. This past year, I took off that 50 off at 1600 – 1800 cals eating low carb and unprocessed foods (I am older now and need work harder at it than ten years ago) with weight training 4x a week and lots of walking, but then got stuck–FOR MONTHS! I decided to chill thru the holidays and regained 10 pounds in the blink of an eye. Am trying to get back on track. I have resumed weight training, can’t power walk (bad knee) but still put in 10K steps a day. Cals at 1500-1600 but I zig zag a bit. Been back on track for 8 weeks. Losing a few inches, but the scale has not budged. Any advice?

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 5 months ago

      Hi Jill, it seems like based on your exercise description that you aren’t eating enough. Try a balanced approach and shoot to be in no more than a 20% deficit on your exercise days.

      Reply
  4. Yessenia 7 months ago

    Hi Ted! I have been on my weight loss journey for 4 months now. I have lost 40 pounds. However, I’ve hit a plateau. I haven’t lost weight in about 3 weeks and I’m feeling discouraged. I have been tracking my macros. I have been eating 90-100 grams of protein daily, around 50 grams of carbs, and around 30 grams of fat. I exercise 4-5 times a week for about 30-45 minutes a day. Any advice is appreciated!

    Reply
    • Yessenia 7 months ago

      I also should mention when tracking my macros this way by calorie intake ranges 700-900 calories a day.

      Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach) 7 months ago

      Hi Yessenia, Great job on your efforts so far. You are undereating. This works fine at first but then it slows your metabolism and causes plateau. This is pretty common. I’ve written more about this here: If You Want to Lose Weight, You Have to Start Eating!

      Reply
  5. Karissa Sernas

    Hi Ted, I’m Karissa! Ive been on a calorie deficit for about 3 months and have lost 28 pounds now i feel like i’ve hit a weight plateau, I haven’t been eating more then 1,241 calories and now i’m not sure what to do because I know decreasing my calories even more would be very bad, please help me break this plateau 🙁 !

    Reply
    • Ted Kallmyer (Certified Macro Coach)

      Hi Karissa, Great job on your efforts! This is a pretty common problem and it happens because you are exercising and not eating enough to support that and your metabolism. You need to be eating more on days you exercise. You can use my macro calculator to help or I can calculate things for you via my coaching services.

      Reply