“Weight-loss plateaus happen when there is a balance between calories burned and calories consumed,” says Maya Feller, R.D. “When a person loses weight, their metabolic rate slows because of the loss of muscle and fat. And because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, there’s lower calorie burn at the lower weight.”
Your brain can also be to blame for weight-loss plateaus. “The body has a ‘set point’ for weight, and you might notice that no matter what you try, you are always within 2.5 to 5kg of a baseline weight,” says Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., an instructor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “When you attempt to lose weight, the body aims to defend its set point, via the brain, to keep you in a certain range.” Biology or not, that can be super frustrating.
That doesn’t mean a weight-loss plateau should derail your weight-loss journey. In fact, if you’re diligent and strategic about tracking your plan and adjusting it as needed, you might even be able to head off weight-loss plateaus entirely. Keep an eye out for these early warning signs, and learn how to course-correct if one of them is holding you back.
1. You're tired
If you’re experiencing exhaustion while trying to lose weight, that could be a sign that you're getting less and less out of your weight-loss workouts. “Often, people try to ramp up their physical activity to levels that are not easy to maintain," says Stanford. "While they may get some short-term benefit with regards to weight loss, this may be difficult to maintain which will lead to weight regain.” One study published in the journal Current Biology found that more exercise does not equal more calories burned; instead, those who exercised moderately used the same amount of energy as those who slaved away at the gym.
Avoid a plateau: Stick to the Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation of least two and a half hours (or 150 minutes) per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, plus strength training at least two days per week.
2. You're hungry
Hunger may definitely be a sign of weight-loss plateau, says Stanford. “Remember the ‘set point’ that we spoke of earlier? That’s the brain's way of trying to keep your weight stable,” she explains. “When you lose weight, the brain and body compensate by making you hungry, which causes you to eat or store more.” Researchers from the National Institutes of Health actually found that when they gave over 150 adults a placebo or weight loss-triggering Type 2 diabetes drug and then monitored their weight loss and food intake for a year, the people who lost weight from took the pills actually ate 100 more calories per day for every 1kg they lost—indicating that weight loss does, in fact, make you hungrier.
Avoid a plateau: Make sure that if you're craving food, you’re opting for healthier fare like lean protein, vegetables, whole grains, and fruits, says Stanford.
3. You're irritable AF
If you’re reached the point in your weight-loss journey where literally everyone is pissing you off, it might be time to reassess your food intake and exercise output in order to keep losing weight without losing your mind. Women who followed a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet, according to a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, produced more cortisol, the stress hormone, and reported higher levels of stress. And a study published in the journal Obesity found that prolonged exposure to cortisol (of several months) can actually lead to weight gain.
Avoid a plateau: So if you’re super stressed out, it might be time to employ some stress-management tools—and even up your calorie intake while balancing that out with even more exercise.
4. You've loosened up on healthy eating
“In the initial stages of weight loss, people may see that weight comes off rapidly because they are creating a caloric and exercise deficit their body hasn’t experienced before,” says Feller. After some time, however, it can be easy to slip back into bad eating or sedentary habits. “Relaxing the reins around portion sizes can stall weight loss,” she says. It’s a simple as the fact that increasing calories promotes weight maintenance, for example adding an extra snack here or there can add up to a whole meal or more.
Avoid a plateau: Try keeping a food journal to keep your diet plan on track. People who kept daily food records lost about twice as much as people who didn’t, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
5. You're too focused on cardio
It’s easy to think that endless cardio is the quickest way to weight loss, but “don’t skimp on strength training!” says Feller. “Cardio will result in weight loss, but you will lose lean body mass in addition to fat. And losing lean body mass will reduce your metabolic rate and can precipitate a plateau.”
Avoid a plateau: Remember: Make sure you’re strength training at least two days a week. “Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning that the more lean body mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest,” explains Feller.
6. You rarely move outside of the gym
It’s great if you’re getting your 150 minutes of exercise in per week, but adults spend more than 12 hours out of a 16-hour waking day sitting, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. If you sit too much, your body can actually stop producing lipase, a fat-inhibiting enzyme, research published in the journal Diabetes found.
Avoid a plateau: Being active isn’t something that just happens in the gym, so make sure you keep moving to keep those weight-loss goals moving forward. Even just standing can boost your calorie burn by almost double per minute, reports the Journal of International Obesity.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US.