How To Break a Weight Loss Plateau

It doesn’t matter how perfect you think your weight loss program is. It doesn’t matter how many people have had success using it. It doesn’t even matter if it’s been time tested and grounded in sound nutritional science.  At least not for long. You see, as long as you’ve correctly established a caloric deficit in your diet, you will lose weight. The method or dieting strategy you use is of less importance to this fundamental fact. The problem is that after  you’ve lost some weight, your progress will eventually slow down or come to a screeching halt altogether.

There are many reasons why people plateau like this. It certainly isn’t just a problem for weight loss but also for just about anything you want to accomplish in life. We’re going to focus here on why weight loss plateaus happen and what you can do to get your progress back on track.

“I had a client come to me once with a goal to lose 90 lbs. I was surprised when she told me that she had lost 90 lbs last year. She then admitted to me that  it was actually the same 10 lbs lost 9 times”.

This is a common example of the typical person going about weight loss all wrong. I don’t believe that this is an example of  someone who had hit a plateau after losing 10 lbs, but rather, of someone losing it too fast or who have succumbed to the social and emotional pressures that got them off track. Maybe they feel they don’t deserve success, maybe they haven’t attained the right mindset or maybe they lack the right support to get them past the first few weeks of a diet. While there are many factors that bring about plateaus I want to zero in on the diet itself.

For any diet to work you must understand energy balance. If your diet has stopped working,  you are no longer in a negative energy balance or calorie deficit. This is pretty obvious, but do you know how to determine what a calorie deficit for you is? Some people use trial and error and it works for them, but I prefer a more scientific approach. First you need to establish the number of calories necessary to maintain your current weight before you start lowering your energy balance. Here’s the most accurate formula available for determining this maintenance energy balance  (if you don’t know your bodyfat%) :

Harris-Benedict formula

First we need to find your basal metabolic rate (BMR) which is the amount of energy you require for normal body functions at rest (does not include activity).

nerd girl with calculatorBMR Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 X wt in kg) + (5 X ht in cm) – (6.8 X age in years)
Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 X wt in kg) + (1.8 X ht in cm) – (4.7 X age in years)
Note: 1 inch = 2.54 cm.
1 kilogram = 2.2 lbs.

You are female
You are 50 yrs old
You are 5′ 4 ” tall (162.5 cm)
You weigh 140 lbs. (63.6kilos)
Your BMR = 655 + 611 + 292.5 – 235 = 1324 calories/day

Now that you know your BMR, you can calculate your maintenance level, (also known as total daily energy expenditure or TDEE), by multiplying your BMR by your activity multiplier from the chart below:

Activity Multiplier:
Sedentary = BMR X 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
Lightly active = BMR X 1.375 (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/wk)
Mod. active = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/wk)
Very active = BMR X 1.725 (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/wk)
Extr. active = BMR X 1.9 (hard daily exercise/sports & physical job
Or 2X day training, i.e marathon, competition etc.)

Your BMR is 1324 calories per day
Your activity level is moderately active (I assume your already hitting the gym to work out 3-4 times per week)
Your activity factor is 1.55
Your TDEE = 1.55 X 1324 = 2051 calories/day

To lose bodyfat you’ll need to create a 20-30% caloric deficit to your TDEE which in this case is 1436 calories at the most extreme. If you do happen to know your bodyfat% then you should use the  Katch-McArdle method  for even better results. Here’s the formula:

To calculate your BMR (men and women) = 370 + (21.6 X lean mass in kg). You’ll also need a deficit of 20-30% from this number as well. Whatever method you choose, you really need to understand what this number means and how  to apply it to a long term weight loss plan.

Now that the boring math is done, we can answer the big question. “Why have you stopped losing weight”? The quick answer is because you are no longer in a calorie deficit. How can that be? You’ve calculated your maintenance energy expenditure and reduced it by 20-30% so you should be good to go right? Not exactly. Let me explain.

Just like any bodily process, energy balance is dynamic. This means that it is constantly changing based on the parameters you set for it. As your body changes, so does your BMR. You will actually require less energy to maintain your body weight as you get leaner. Failure to adjust to these new parameters is hands down the #1 reason for plateauing on the diet. It’s natural to want to keep using the methods that got you the great results initially, but you need to develop results-based-thinking to keep things going long term. This is done when you constantly measure and track your progress, this way you can see a plateau coming before it even happens.

The best defense against weight loss plateaus are avoiding them in the first place, but what if you’ve already hit one and you can’t seem to break out of it?

1. Confirm Your Compliance
frustrated women standing on a scale

You should be using as many tracking and accountability tools that you can to boost your accountability to the program.  Keeping detailed journals that record your food intake, bodyweight/bodyfat trends, and exercise program results, will let you know if you’ve actually been following the program correctly or not. It’s pointless to get frustrated that you’re not losing weight if you see that your compliance has been less than optimal. Bottom line:  Record everything and if the answer isn’t there move on to strategy #2.

2. Re-calculate Caloric Deficit

As I mentioned before, your energy needs are dynamic. If you used to weigh 150 lbs and now you weigh 130lbs, you BMR is now lower to the tune of around 250 calories less/day, essentially taking you back to maintenance energy balance. This means you’ll need to burn an extra 250 calories to re-create the deficit that had you losing fat before the plateau. I recommend to start increasing your activity level. Add an extra workout day or an extra 15 minutes to your current workout days, if it’s viable for you.

If these options don’t appeal to you or you’re already working out 5-6x/week, you’ll need to reduce the calories from your diet. Start with food that offers little in the way of nutrition or benefit to your health. Reduce or eliminate starches and excess sugar first. Then get rid of any excess fat sources. You won’t have to restrict too much, especially if you stick to a diet that’s lean, green and marine.

3. Take a Break

Once you’ve exhausted the previous strategies and hit another plateau where you simply cannot exercise or restrict your calories any further without compromising your health; it’s probably time for a break. Most people hate to do this, fearing that they will lose momentum and gain all the weight back. This couldn’t be further from reality, unless you start mindlessly binging on calorie dense food. You shouldn’t even hit this point until after you’ve been losing weight for about 3-4 months and employing strategies 1 and 2 for as long as you can. When you do, and you will, plan for it. Take a vacation or just enjoy a week or rest, you’ve earned it. The psychological benefits alone are worth it. You may gain a little water weight back as your body recovers from you rigors of exercise but this is a good thing. After your break you should begin to enjoy the kind of the results you got when you first started the program. It’s like a program reboot!

Just remember that as you get leaner and closer to your goal weight, fat loss slows and this is perfectly natural. Plateaus are an inevitable part of any weight loss program.  Now you know why they occur and how to break a weight loss plateau when/if it happens to you.  Keep your expectations reasonable, use a little critical thinking along the way and enjoy steady, sustainable results for a long time to come.

If you enjoyed this article, please quickly do me a favor and share with others and comment below.

Craig Simms

Craig Simms

Craig Simms is a personal trainer and weight loss coach in Vancouver, B.C. Craig has been a fitness leader for over 21 years and has amassed over 25,000 hours of personal training experience in that span. He specializes in personalized weight management programs.
Craig Simms
Craig Simms

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