Almost everyone who has lost weight eventually experiences a weight loss “plateau” or a moment where the weight stalls and doesn’t seem to move anymore.
It can lead to frustration, especially if you’re still eating carefully and exercising regularly.
Why does this happen?
Let’s look at three things that might be causing you to be stuck at a certain weight.
1. Change in metabolism
Weight loss occurs when there’s a caloric deficit – that means when the body burns more calories than what you’re providing to it through the calories of foods and beverages. During the initial weeks of weight loss, many people experience a rapid drop in weight.
This rapid drop in weight happens mainly because the body is trying to compensate for the lack of calories by releasing the energy stored in the form of a carbohydrate called glycogen.
Glycogen is stored primarily in muscles and some in the liver. Glycogen is partly made of water, so when glycogen is burned for energy, it releases water, resulting in weight loss that's mostly water.
But this is temporary. As you continue to lose weight, you also lose muscle and fat. Muscle helps keep up your metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories). So with a decrease in muscle mass and body size, there is a decrease in the amount of energy needed to be burned.
This is particularly common in women over 40 because they are more prone to losing muscle mass.
Losing weight too quickly can cause you to lose a lot of muscle and lower your metabolism.
Remember, metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you ingest (from foods and beverages) into energy so you can live.
Your slower metabolism will slow your weight loss, even if you eat the same number of calories that helped you lose weight initially. When the calories you burn equal the calories you eat, you reach a plateau.
So that brings us to the second reason you could be stuck in a weight-plateau which is:
2. Your caloric intake and your caloric expenditure are balancing each other off
We can actually calculate our metabolism. There are two measurements for that: Resting Metabolic Rate, also known as RMR, and Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR.
They are very similar to each other, and for simplicity’s sake, I'll use one of them to illustrate how to measure our metabolism in terms of daily calorie needs.
There’s a formula that considers your height, weight, age, and gender to find your BMR.
So from those variables, the only one that changes is your weight. It makes sense that if you lose weight, your BMR goes down.
Let’s look into an example:
Mary lost 30 lbs in 3 months. She went from 180lbs to 150 lbs.
The formula for BMR for women is:
BMR = 655.1 + (4.35 × weight in pounds) + (4.7 × height in inches) − (4.7 × age in years)
For Mary, before the weight loss, that would be:
655.1 + (4.35 × 180) + (4.7 × 67) − (4.7 × 48) = 1,528 calories – which is her caloric need for a day – without exercise.
And after the loss of 30 lbs:
655.1 + (4.35 × 150) + (4.7 × 67) − (4.7 × 48) = 1,397 calories - She needs less calories for the day than she did before.
And even though these numbers are not exact, they give us an idea of how caloric needs can change by changing our weight.
So, in summary, if Mary is consuming the same amount of calories as before, she won’t lose weight, but rather maintain her weight and reach a plateau
Now, the third reason you could be stuck in a weight plateau is:
3. You gained muscle mass
This is not the most common reason among women over 40, but I have seen it happen.
You are eating a balanced diet and working out consistently, and you even incorporated strength training exercises.
And, if you’re lucky to have the genetics of building muscles in combination with a good strength training program – voila! You might be losing fat and gaining muscle.
And although 1 lb of fat = 1 lb of muscle, muscle is more dense than fat and occupies less space. It also stores glycogen and water, which might increase your weight in the long run.
Now, here’s when you need to reconsider what’s best for you: to focus on an arbitrary number on a scale or your fitness level?
If you are indeed building muscle – which is harder to do after the age of 40 – wouldn’t this be a remarkable result from your hard work of striving for a healthy lifestyle?
Overcoming a weight-loss plateau
When you come to a weight-loss plateau, you have two options:
1. Try to overcome it and keep losing weight
2. Reassess your initial weight goals and where you are at
I wish I could give you a miracle solution for overcoming a weight-loss plateau that didn’t involve calories – in other words, to lose more weight, you need to increase your physical activity, so you can increase your caloric needs or decrease the calories you eat.
Here are some additional strategies that might result in a more efficient caloric burn, increase in metabolism, or better caloric management:
1. Incorporate High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) exercises
2. Incorporate Strength Training exercises
3. Be very specific in tracking the calories you eat
If you’re motivated to keep losing weight, try following the above recommendations.
Now, if these suggestions sounded like complete torture, let’s move on to the next topic.
Don’t let a weight-loss plateau lead to a negative mindset
A weight-loss plateau can become a mental affliction, where you can get stressed, hopeless, or feel like a failure. On the other hand, you can look back at your efforts so far and appreciate the weight you have lost and celebrate your commitment to improving your health.
It can also be an opportunity to reassess your weight-loss journey.
Let me ask you some very crucial questions:
Are you focused on a specific number on a scale you want to reach?
If so, is that number realistic?
Have you considered other outcomes on your weight-loss journey that are not dependent on numbers (or extrinsic values)?
Have you considered achieving a comfortable weight that won’t require that you restrict or even focus on your calories every day of your life?
Take time to answer these questions. Put some thought into where you are in your weight-loss journey and where you want to go.
Think about WHY did you want to lose weight in the first place. Even if you started out doing it for aesthetic reasons, you could realize that you’ve accomplished much more and that it can expand to other areas of your life, including improving your physical and mental health.
Taking care of yourself (as a whole) is the best way to show yourself you're worth it.
And remember to be kind to yourself in the process.