If you’re working towards a weight loss goal, progress is rarely (read: never) linear, and you’ll inevitably encounter a weight loss plateau. This period of time can be confusing.
Is it really a weight loss plateau? If not, why has the scale stopped moving? If so, what can you do about it?
Breaking the plateau in your weight loss requires you to analyze your metrics (spoiler alert: weight isn’t the only thing to look at!) and behavior so you can make intentional changes based on what you discover.
These four tips will help mitigate doubt and keep you feeling confident that you’re working towards your goals.
What is a Weight Loss Plateau?
At WAG, we consider a weight loss plateau four or more weeks with no progress toward a weight loss goal. As coaches, we are patient when adjusting a nutrition plan to ensure we see a true plateau. Sometimes, weight may stall for a week or two and then begin trending down again, so waiting a full four weeks before making changes is important.
This is also why managing your own nutrition and weight loss can be trickier—getting impatient and jumping the gun is common. Cutting your macros or calories too quickly can cause unnecessary hunger and even stall weight loss further.
How to Break the Plateau in Weight Loss
Now that we’ve defined a weight loss plateau let’s dive into four things to try if you’re frustrated with the scale.
1. Ensure it is a real plateau.
This goes beyond waiting the full four weeks. You need to ensure that you’re:
- Measuring weight loss correctly
- Taking body composition change into account
- Actually following your nutrition program
- Considering changes in lifestyle or routine
Measure Weight Loss Correctly
Many things impact the number you see on the scale—sleep quality, meal timing, stress, hydration status, workouts and recovery, and more. To mitigate these variables as much as possible, weigh yourself every morning to the nearest tenth before eating or drinking anything with minimal (and consistent) clothing.
From there, average your daily weights each week and compare your weekly averages. Here’s an example:
Week One Weights:
- Monday: 146.2
- Tuesday: 147.0
- Wednesday: 146.5
- Thursday: 146.6
- Friday: 145.8
- Saturday: 147.1
- Sunday: 145.2
- Week One Average Weight: 146.3lbs
Week Two Weights:
- Monday: 145.5
- Tuesday: 147.1
- Wednesday: 145.4
- Thursday: 146.2
- Friday: 145.7
- Saturday: 146.1
- Sunday: 145.0
- Week One Average Weight: 145.8lbs
Change in average weight: 0.5lbs
If you were only considering single weekly points (ex, Tuesdays), it would look like there was no change in your weight, and you may make unnecessary (and ultimately damaging) changes to your program.
An average change of 0.5 lbs is right on track for where we’d like to see it at WAG—it is fast enough that we know the plan is working but not so fast that we’re worried about adverse dieting effects.
If there was no or very little (~0.1-0.2lbs) average weekly change for four or more weeks, that is when you may need to consider making changes to your program to break through your plateau.
Consider Body Composition Change
You’ve likely heard someone say, “Muscle weighs more than fat,” which is true. Your body composition (aka the ratio of fat mass to muscle mass) may change even if your weight doesn’t. If this is the case, it means you’re likely losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, and this isn’t considered a weight loss plateau.
We cover some ways to measure body fat percentage here, but the easiest and most accessible way to assess changes in body composition is to take weekly pictures and measurements. Much like taking your weight, this should be done early in the morning before eating or drinking anything.
Learn more body measurement best practices here.
Are You Actually Following Your Nutrition Program?
It is common to confuse having a nutrition program with following a nutrition program. You wouldn’t buy a workout program, sit on the couch, and expect to get fitter. So, why would you buy or create a nutrition program and expect it to work if you’re not following it consistently?
At WAG, we consider optimal consistency, ending each day within five grams of your protein and carb targets and within two grams of your fat target.
If you regularly fall outside of these ranges, eat out at restaurants frequently, or allocate many calories to alcohol, it may not be a true weight plateau—you could be eating above calorie levels that would otherwise encourage weight loss. We recommend dialing in consistency before changing your macros. If you need help with accountability, that is what we do best.
Have You Undergone Any Big Changes?
Outside of macro consistency, take other changes into consideration like:
- Have you recently returned from a vacation?
- Have you experienced any major changes to your stress level?
- Any big lifestyle changes like a move to a new city or home?
- Have you adjusted your workout routine?
- Are you working through an injury?
- Are you going through any major hormonal changes (ex, postpartum or menopause)
If any of the above is true, you may not be in a weight loss plateau, and you need to give your body time to adjust to the recent changes.
2. Change Your Macros & Movement
Adjusting your nutrition program is the first step if you’ve determined that you’re experiencing a real weight loss plateau. Depending on your starting weight and calorie deficit, you may have room to drop your macros (and, therefore, calories) to encourage weight loss to pick back up.
How to Adjust Your Macros
When it comes to adjusting your macros, there are a few options:
Use our free Macro Calculator to determine your calorie and macro needs. After four weeks with no movement, you can adjust your calories down by about 10% if your workout performance and recovery aren’t suffering. If you want to prioritize performance alongside weight loss, you may need to experiment with meal timing and macro ratios. This brings us to option number two.
Work with a coach with years of experience helping clients adjust macros while considering performance and recovery. Stop worrying about your macros and offload those decisions to a pro! Then, focus on healthy food choices and enjoy your workouts.
Should You Exercise More to Lose Weight?
Just like macro changes, the answer is nuanced and completely individualized. If you’re not getting much movement in right now, breaking through a weight loss plateau may be as easy as increasing your NEAT (learn more about non-exercise activity thermogenesis here!) or hitting the gym more frequently.
But, if you’re already training hard, more exercise may not be the answer and could adversely affect your weight loss goals.
It is important to consider that you may not need to exercise more, but you could play around with exercise style and stimulus. For example, if you’re primarily running, adding strength training exercises to your workout routine could kickstart weight loss and body composition change. On the flip side, if you’ve been avoiding cardio, it could be the thing standing between you and scale movement.
3. Take a Diet Break
It may be time for a diet break if you’re already eating at a low-calorie intake and can’t increase your daily movement without experiencing negative side effects.
A diet break is an intentional period of time at a calorie level at or above maintenance levels and usually lasts between two to four weeks. It could also mean putting your tracker away altogether.
With each of these options, it is possible that you could regain some weight. This is normal, and it can be helpful to think about this in the context of the bigger picture: regaining a small percentage of total weight loss while increasing calories is a step in the right direction. Increasing calories helps increase your Basal Metabolic Rate and ultimately offers more room to start another dieting phase.
4. Get A WAG Nutrition Coach
At WAG Nutrition, our coaches work closely with their clients to examine anything and everything that could contribute to what can be a frustrating time in a weight loss journey.
When the scale seems stuck, a coach can provide valuable insights and motivation. We’ll help you analyze your current diet and exercise regimen and make necessary adjustments based on your individual needs and goals. A coach can help you identify hidden sources of excess calories (refined sugars and alcohol!) and recommend healthier alternatives. Your coach may also suggest new workout routines to break the monotony and boost your metabolism.
Most importantly, a nutrition coach provides emotional support, helping you stay focused and confident during this challenging phase. With their expertise and personalized guidance, a WAG nutrition coach will help you overcome plateaus and continue your weight-loss journey.