It can be extremely frustrating to see that number on the scale freeze, especially if you can’t think of any changes you’ve made that could have caused the weight loss plateau. But no matter how strictly you’ve kept your weight loss program up, there’s always some reason you’ve hit a roadblock—and the frustrating truth is, it usually points back to your own habits.
“There’s no magical barrier that’s going to cause you to stop making progress,” says Lawrence Cheskin, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. “If it feels like something has happened, take a step back and look at what you’re doing.”
The key is to pinpoint why exactly you’ve hit a weight loss plateau and to tackle the problem head on. Here are some of the most common reasons people stop losing weight and how to overcome them.
The problem: You’re bored
Just like every other aspect of life, if you’re eating the same three meals every day or doing the exact same exercise routine every morning, chances are, you’re going to get bored. And when you’re bored, you’re more likely to spice things up by, say, eating a heaping pile of ice cream after your otherwise healthy dinner.
And if you’re not loving your exercise routine? You’ll probably just end up exercising less overall—meaning you’ll be burning fewer calories than you take in, causing the number on the scale to hit a halt.
✔️ Weight loss fix: Allow yourself the freedom to treat yourself and stay open to trying new things—but in healthy portions. “Sometimes you have to mix it up by changing the pattern or giving yourself a time to go out and have a restaurant meal or change the type of food you’re eating,” says Dr. Cheskin.
“You can add something different than what you’ve been eating that’s still reasonably consistent with the diet plan you’re trying to follow,” he explains. For instance, instead of your typical chicken and veggies dish, branch out and try new flavours.
If it’s exercise boredom that’s hanging you up, try incorporating new exercise styles into your workout plan. If you’re usually a treadmill bunny, for example, try mixing in some strength training. “Our bodies get used to certain activities and become more efficient doing them overtime,” says Liz Weinandy, MPH, RD, a dietitian specializing in weight management at The Ohio State University Medical Center Nutrition Services.
The key is to find enjoyment in your routine. If you try out a new exercise and find you don’t like it, then go back to what you know you enjoy. “If I tell a swimmer to go running to vary it up, but they really love swimming and running is just “OK,” they probably will end up exercising less overall,” says Weinandy, which will perpetuate the plateau.
The problem: You’re snacking too often
This is especially true late at night or even after workouts. “If you go to the snack bar at the gym as soon as you’ve gotten off the treadmill, you might actually not lose weight,” says Dr. Cheskin. “You might gain weight because you’re taking in more calories than you just burned.”
It’s common for people to think they’re doing well with their regime and for old habits like snacking to start slowly creeping their way back in, which can halt—or even reverse—your weight loss progress, says Weinandy.
This goes for healthy snacks, too. While they can be a great weight loss tool, that guacamole can backfire if you end up eating the whole bowl. Another example: even though almonds are satiating and full of healthy fats, doubling your serving size can mean downing 328 calories instead of 165.
✔️ Weight loss fix: To avoid falling prey to snacking, don’t focus on completely eliminating “trigger foods” like potato chips or ice cream from your diet. Instead, focus on portion control and eating them within a healthy amount. “Allowing them occasionally is a good idea, like 1 cup of ice cream once a week or 2 small single-serving bags of potato chips weekly,” says Weinandy. That way, you avoid mindlessly eating them while satisfying those cravings.
Another important thing to keep in mind? “It’s OK to have periods of hunger, like before going to bed,” says Weinandy. But remember that a healthy level of hunger is different than starvation. “Some people have to nearly starve themselves to lose weight and at that point, one really needs to examine what to do differently,” says Weinandy. A doctor or registered dietitian can help steer you in the right direction here.
The problem: You’re not keeping track of what you’re eating
This seemingly simple task is often one of the first to fall by the wayside during weight loss, but not keeping track of the food you are downing can be a huge downfall for your success with shedding pounds. Tracking includes not just keeping count of your calories, but also accurately measuring out your serving sizes.
“We tend to sometimes, after a while, start ‘eyeballing’ our portions and being a little more generous with our servings,” says Vijaya Surampudi, MD, assistant director of the UCLA Weight Management Program.
Even an extra 200 calories a day adds up quickly—that’s an extra 1,400 calories per week, or about a whole extra day’s worth for many women trying to lose weight.
✔️ Weight loss fix: The trouble is, tracking calories and monitoring your food intake can be boring, so it’s common for people to forego this step in their weight loss journeys. “Some people get bored with it and they’d rather have their teeth pulled than track their calories, and that’s fine,” says Dr. Cheskin. “If you’re somebody who just wants general, ‘Am I doing well? Am I not doing well?’, then probably the only data you need is what the scale says on a daily basis.”
But if you are trying to stay the course with tracking and are having a hard time sticking to it, Dr. Cheskin recommends only tracking on the days you’re most prone to straying. “So maybe just do it on the weekends, when you’re more social and eating out,” he says.
The problem: You’re feeling stressed or emotional
We’ve all done it: we had a bad day at work or got into an argument with our significant other, and we turn to a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. For a lot of us, we use food as a way to combat the negative emotions or stress we might be feeling.
“It’s part of our culture,” says Dr. Cheskin. “One of the ways we deal with things is to go into the kitchen and eat something that tastes good, feels good. And yet it’s not all that different from going and having an alcoholic drink or taking a shot of cocaine or something. It’s potentially addicting and feels good for the moment, but it’s not so good for you in the long run. It doesn’t solve the problem that you’re using it for.”
✔️ Weight loss fix: If you notice yourself digging into a pile of Godiva every time a new project is assigned to you at work or you’re having a rough week, try to realise that problem for what it is: stress, sadness, or anger—not hunger. “Be conscious of not letting other people determine what you eat, and not using food as a substitute for dealing with hard things in life,” says Dr. Cheskin.
Plus, the more you emotionally eat, the more likely you are to gain back weight, which will create yet another stressor in your life. “One of the best ways to combat this is to work with a therapist while trying to lose weight,” says Weinandy. “There are many reasons we eat other than for fuel and health. When the reasons become numerous and tied to emotions, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to lose weight.”
The problem: You’re losing muscle
One of the downsides of weight loss is that as we burn fat, we also start to lose muscle. That can create a snowball effect. “If we lose muscle, it affects our metabolism, and we are burning less calories than we previously were,” says Dr. Surampudi. That’s because muscle is metabolically active tissue, which simply means it helps you burn more calories at rest.
✔️ Weight loss fix: “Make sure you are getting enough protein so you stay fuller longer,” says Dr. Surampudi. “It also may help rebuild some muscle while you’re working out to help boost your metabolism.” High protein foods are a good place to start. Then, try to incorporate more strength training into your routine three days per week.
If you’re trying to lose weight with your partner, realise that the process might look different for the two of you—when it comes to protein, calories, and really everything that you do.
“Women typically have a harder time losing weight compared to men because they generally have less muscle mass and lower calorie requirements,” says Weinandy. “This can be seen as a roadblock, but really what it means is women need to know that weight loss will be slower and more of a process. Women should definitely not compare themselves to men when trying to lose weight.”
The problem: You’re retaining water
This plateau is especially true for pre-menopausal women, who tend to retain fluid pre-menstruation, says Dr. Cheskin. But salt—and especially salty foods—can also be a huge contributor to retaining fluid.
“You could eat a tablespoon of salt, and it’s got zero calories, but you’d hold onto that fluid, and you’d gain a pound of weight an hour later as soon as you’ve had something to drink,” says Dr. Cheskin. “You hold onto that fluid.”
Other things like running in hot weather or standing in the same position for too long can also cause you to retain fluid, says Dr. Cheskin, so if you notice that your “plateau” is really just a fluctuation of a couple pounds, it’s nothing to sweat over yet. “Most people know what their averages are,” he explains. “If you know you’re gaining 2 pounds or whatever, hopefully you’ll ignore that and not assume that it’s because your diet’s not working.”
✔️ Weight loss fix: Check out these eight expert-backed ways to lose water weight, which includes reducing your salt and carb intake, drinking more water to prevent dehydration, getting enough potassium, simply going for more walks, and more.
The bottom line: Weight loss success will look different for everyone, whether you’re trying to lose kg or 25. “During a weight loss journey, plateaus can be normal and be part of the process,” says Dr. Surampudi. “It is important not to get frustrated and to take stock of what is going on.”
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.