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What to do when you hit a weight-loss plateau

Lucy Gornall
Article written by Lucy Gornall

Date published 18 June 2024

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It's a common scenario: you're watching what you eat and moving more, and in return the scales are moving in your favour. But now, for some reason, your weight loss seems to have stopped.

If this sounds familiar, you may have hit the dreaded weight-loss plateau. Here's how to get back on track, says Lucy Gornall.

🕒 5 min read

Track everything

It's easy to miss the chunk (or three!) of cheese that you eat while making dinner, or the lashings of oil that you add to the pan, but all these foods contain calories: you may be eating more than you realise.

What's more, even if you were once fastidious about calorie tracking, over time you may have let this slip.

If you really want to lose weight, it's important to know how many calories you're consuming versus the number you're burning.

Research even suggests that people tend to underestimate the amount of food they eat.

To keep a tab on your calories, try using a tracking app such as MyFitnessPal. To check the calories you burn, a smartwatch such as an Apple Watch can be helpful.

Don't drop your calories too low

But, although tracking your calories can help to avoid a stall in weight loss, it's important not to drop your intake too low.

"As a rule of thumb I wouldn't go below around 1,200 calories, and this is only while you try to lose weight," explains Healthspan Nutritionist Rob Hobson.

"Very Low Calorie Diets are used in clinical practice to help very overweight or obese individuals lose weight, but this is quite extreme and not something I would recommended for everyone."

He adds: "If you keep this very low amount of calories up for too long then the body could enter starvation mode, where it will be more difficult to lose weight. The body's adaptive response to severe caloric restriction causes it to conserve energy by slowing down the metabolic processes. It takes a while for this to happen – months rather than weeks – but the slowdown of the body's metabolic rate means the body becomes more efficient at using energy, slowing down calorie expenditure."

There are several symptoms that could indicate you're not eating enough food. This includes constant hunger, fatigue and low energy levels all the time, menstrual irregularities, dizziness and digestive issues such as constipation. If you're suffering from these, it might be time to slowly increase your calories. Ensure you stick to a primarily wholefood diet until you're feeling more satiated and your symptoms disappear.

Pack in protein

The most satiating macronutrient, protein is essential to not only keep you full (and stop you reaching for unhealthy snacks later in the day) but is also vital to help build muscle. More muscle means a faster metabolism, which means more calories burnt when you're resting.

If your diet is mainly carbs, this might not be helping with your weight loss. Have you tried tracking your macronutrients to see how much fat, protein and carbs you're eating? If not, use an app such as MyFitnessPal and track your food intake for a few days to get a rough idea of your protein intake.

Need a hand hitting your protein target? Aim to include lean sources in your diet such as chicken, fish, turkey and eggs. Dairy is a good source of protein, too; try Greek yoghurt with berries for a high-protein snack.

For extra support, try adding a scoop of Healthspan Protein Powder to porridge or a smoothie, or simply mix with water and drink as a snack in the afternoon. A protein bar is also a tasty way to add some extra to your daily diet.

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Check your sleep

According to research, poor sleep can really disrupt your weight-loss regime.

In fact, regularly getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night has been associated with a higher body mass index (BMI).

Even a couple of nights of poor sleep can have an impact. Research has found that when participants had just four hours of sleep on two consecutive nights, their levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin increased, as did their levels of self-reported hunger.

Think poor sleep might be disrupting your weight-loss efforts? Aim to get seven to nine hours every night, and make your pre-sleep routine a priority. Remove yourself from technology (that includes social media and emails) an hour before bed and, instead, wind down with a book or enjoy a relaxing, warm bath.

Reduce your stress

According to Hobson, being stressed will make it more difficult to lose weight.

"Stress triggers the release of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to increased appetite and cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods, which can impede weight-loss efforts."

What's more, cortisol can lead to muscle loss, which could be ruining all the effort you're making at the gym.

"Cortisol signals the breakdown of muscle proteins into amino acids for energy when there is not enough glucose available. This can happen when you're eating very little food and there is not enough glucose available," adds Hobson.

As well as this, Hobson explains that chronic stress can contribute to insulin resistance, making it harder for your body to process glucose and leading to increased fat storage.

"Stress can also disrupt the balance of ghrelin (hunger hormone) and leptin (satiety hormone), causing increased hunger and reduced feelings of fullness."

So, with all the negative impacts that stress can have on weight loss, it's a good idea to introduce stress-relieving activities to your day. Can you squeeze in a calming yoga or Pilates session before work? Can you go for a mindful walk at lunch without any technology and simply take in everything that's around you? Can you make sure that when you're feeling stressed, you take five minutes to breathe and lower your heart rate?

The simplest of things can make all the difference and help to overcome the frustrating weight-loss plateau.

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Lucy Gornall

About Lucy Gornall

Lucy Gornall is a level 3 personal trainer, teaching at a studio in London. She is also a freelance journalist specialising in health, fitness and wellbeing, the former editor of Woman and Home's Feel Good You magazine, and health editor of a number of women's magazines.