As a Registered Dietitian specializing in weight loss and bariatric nutrition, a week doesn’t go by where a client doesn’t ask me why his weight loss has plateaued. The client tells me he is exercising, watching his portions, avoiding sweets, and tracking his diet, so what gives? Why won’t the scale budge?

How We Lose, Maintain, and re(Gain) Weight

A highly sophisticated system involving a feedback loop between your brain, digestive tract, muscles, fat tissue, and organs is used to regulate your food intake and balance your weight. However, this system can be overridden by what’s called the “pleasure pathway” where we seek out energy-rich foods that stimulate the reward centre in our brain, even when we are physiologically not hungry (1). Combine this with an obesogenic environment that favours low activity, calorie-rich foods, high stress and inadequate sleep and it’s unsurprising that so many people struggle to maintain their weight!

So, what happens to these systems when you lose weight?

Essentially, your body does what it does best and tries to stop (and reverse) the weight loss. Hormones that make you feel hungry increase, while those that make you feel full decrease; your metabolism drops from a lower calorie intake, more energy-efficient workouts, and a loss of body weight; your ability to burn fat may decline; and your appetite or desire to eat may increase (1). These physiological changes are often greater and more pronounced with more rapid weight loss, so when it comes to losing weight, slow and steady really does win the race.

Is it My Thyroid?

Maybe. But likely not.

The thyroid gland is a small organ at the base of your neck that regulates some pretty important body functions, including breathing, heart rate, temperature, and body weight. In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland is underactive and not producing enough thyroid hormone. As a result, rapid weight gain can occur. However, once hypothyroidism is treated (using medication), the weight gain should stop with your metabolism returning to normal. Nonetheless, it may be worthwhile to have your thyroid checked and to ensure your iodine and selenium intake is adequate (but not excessive, since this can lead to thyroid issues).

Diet and Exercise

The physiological changes that occur as you lose weight will have an impact on your rate of weight loss, but it doesn’t mean you will stop losing weight (provided you continue to burn more calories than you consume). However, I often find that after a few successful weeks or months of exercising and eating better, people start getting a little more relaxed with the behaviours that helped them be successful in the beginning.

It’s also important to consider if your environment has changed in any way. Are you in a new relationship where there is more social eating? Have you switched jobs? Are you under more stress at work or home? Was a holiday or vacation recently enjoyed? All these situations have the potential to sabotage your weight loss efforts, so pay attention to the environment in which you work, live, and play.

Overcoming your Weight Plateau

Track your diet in Cronometer

Before we can fix an issue, we need to know where it is. Spend a few weeks carefully recording your food intake to see if you spot any problem areas. Are your new favourite snacks a calorie bomb? Are you not eating frequently enough during the day and overeating at night? Are you lacking protein and fibre at meals and snacks?

Weigh yourself less often

The scale can be a useful tool on your weight loss journey, provided you are interpreting the data correctly. In my practice, I aim for a weight loss target of 1 lb per week and suggest clients only weigh themselves every 7-10 days. In general, the more weight you lose, the slower the rate of weight loss will be. And keep in mind that time of day, time of month, urine, stool, clothing, and water retention can all influence what the number on the scale says. Finally, it’s important to remember that you are not your weight. Do not let the number on the scale take away from any of the positive changes you have made.

Does your fitness routine need upgrading?

As mentioned, our body does a great job of regulating body weight (or at least underweight). If you have been doing the exact same fitness routine week-to-week, your body might have figured you out and adjusted its systems to compensate for this new energy expenditure. If this is you, it might be time to spice things up by incorporating different types of activity at varying intensities.

Practice intuitive eating

Being an intuitive eater means listening to, and respecting, your cues for hunger and fullness. It also means avoiding restriction and deprivation as well as choosing foods that are nourishing to your body, while allowing for the occasional, planned indulgence. At meals and snacks, sit down at the table, with no distractions, and focus on how the food looks, smells, sounds, feels, and tastes. Give yourself time to relax and truly enjoy your meal. Take your time. Slow down.

This practice can increase the amount of satisfaction you derive from your meal, which is different than the physiological feeling of fullness. You may even notice that after practicing intuitive eating, your cravings are reduced and you feel satiated more quickly.

References

Greenway, FL. Physiological adaptations to weight loss and factors favouring weight regain. Int J Obes (Lond). 2015 Aug;39(8):1188-1196. Available from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f8db/6d0e743f65d3b90573cc2570e0f11519d6af.pdf