You step on the scale, look down, and your heart sinks.
It’s that same damn number staring back at you again. Taunting you. Mocking you.
Why? Why won’t it budge? Why doesn’t it reward you for your hard work anymore?
Maybe this is it, you despair. The ride is over. Your imagination was bigger than your metabolism. Your eyes too demanding of your genetics.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. In fact, I hear from–and help–hundreds of people just like you every month.
Fortunately, the reasons you’ve stopped losing weight are likely very simple. The solutions are equally simple as well.
Before we get into the technicalities, you should know that weight loss isn’t always a linear process.
That is, you don’t always lose weight in a consistent, predictable way. You may lose a pound one week, lose nothing over the next two weeks, suddenly lose three pounds the following week, gain a pound back, lose it a few days later, and so forth.
This is why I recommend people weigh themselves daily and take an average every 7 to 10 days. This way you can stop worrying about the daily weigh-ins and watch just the averages. If they’re moving down, all is good.
You can run into problems that you can’t solve, though. For example, just because your weight hasn’t changed in a week or two doesn’t mean you haven’t lost fat. In fact, it’s common for women in particular to lose fat steadily but fail to see any change on the scale for several weeks. There are simple, scientific reasons for these “oddities,” of course, which we’ll get into in a minute.
Before we do, however, let’s talk about the more common scenario–the one that inspired this article: your fat loss has completely stalled for 10+ days. (No discernible changes in body fat percentage in 10+ days.)
The good news here is this is completely normal.
In fact, you should expect and even plan to hit weight loss plateaus, and especially if you’re looking to lose a lot of fat or get really lean (sub-10% for men and sub-20% for women).
Contrary to popular belief, these “sticking points” aren’t barricaded road blocks that put an end to all the fun. They’re just speed bumps you roll over almost without noticing.
So, now that you’re in the right frame of mind, let’s talk about why you stop losing weight and then what you should do about it.
When you’re dieting for fat loss and the scale hasn’t changed in a couple of weeks, it’s for one of two reasons:
Breaking down number one is going to take longer than number two, so let’s start with the short and sweet.
The most common reason people lose fat and not weight is fluid retention.
This is particularly true for women, who are hormonally inclined to retain fluids and who also have to deal with large fluctuations due to menstrual cycles.
What happens is very simple: you lose a pound of fat in a week but you “pick up” an additional pound of water along the way. Obviously it’s not always 1:1 so, when it comes time to weigh in, it can look like you only lost a negligible amount of fat that week or even gained some.
If you want to see how much water retention can affect your weight, double your sodium intake for a few days and watch the scale. You can easily gain 1 to 2 pounds per day for several days.
Fortunately, water retention issues are fairly easy to fix. It usually requires little more than balancing sodium and potassium intake, drinking enough water every day, and keeping your cortisol levels under control.
Once these things are in–when your electrolytes are balanced, you’re properly hydrated, and your cortisol levels are normal…and you’re not about to get your period…you can rest assured that your fluid retention levels are stable.
Another common reason why people lose fat but not weight is they’re new to weightlifting.
This matters because when you’re new, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time, and building muscle means adding weight, of course.
Furthermore, when you first start training your muscles intensively, they soak up and hold quite a bit of additional glycogen and water. This too adds weight.
Sure, keep track of your weight, but your waist measurement is a more reliable indicator of fat loss progress during this period. If your waist is shrinking, you’re losing fat regardless of what the scale says.
Now, if you have any real amount of fat to lose, you eventually need to see your weight go down. Unfortunately the joyride does come to an end and your body simply can’t continue building muscle as quickly as it can lose fat (and eventually you can only do one or the other).
That said, I have seen people properly train and diet for 2 to 3 months and come out only ~5 to 6 pounds lighter but with dramatically improved physiques. Depending on your genetics and compliance to your exercise and diet programs, you can build quite a bit of muscle and lose quite a bit of fat in the beginning.
Alright, now that we have the “low-hanging fruit” out of the way, let’s tackle the trickier reason why people have stopped losing weight.
A true fat loss plateau is no fat lost for 10+ days. This can be seen in the mirror and scale and with a caliper and waist measurement.
This baffles many people because there they were, following their nice little meal plan, patiently chipping away at their fat stores, and then…the brakes locked down for no damn reason.
What the hell? How can something working so well suddenly go to complete shit? And how do you get the train back on the rails?
Well, it’s quite a bit simpler than many people think. And it starts with this…
If you’ve stopped losing fat, it’s because you’re no longer in a large enough calorie deficit.
This is what it all boils down to.
The only way to reduce total fat mass is to burn more energy than you eat, and once that falls apart–once your energy intake is equal to or greater than expenditure–nothing you do will move the needle until you fix it.
Basically, you’ve stopped losing weight because you’re eating too much food and/or moving your body too little. That said, just eating less and moving more isn’t necessarily the answer. In fact, doing this may cause a whole new host of problems like muscle loss, overtraining, hormonal disruptions, and, well, just generally feeling like shit. I know that sounds paradoxical, but I’ll explain myself in a minute.
Now, I’ve written extensively on why energy balance is the cornerstone of all weight loss and how to use this knowledge to safely and healthily lose fat and not muscle, so I won’t regurgitate the details here.
If you’re not so sure about those “claims”–if you think calorie counting doesn’t work, that losing fat is more about “eating clean” or “unclogging hormones,” or anything else besides regulating calorie intake and expenditure and balancing macronutrients, take a break from this article, read the following, and come back:
Okay, now that we’re on the same page regarding the fundamentals of weight loss, let’s get to the nitty gritty of why you can “inexplicably” stop losing weight despite changing nothing in your diet and exercise routine.
Again, let’s start with the easy stuff.
You’re Being Sloppy With Your Food Intake
If you’re not accurately planning or tracking your food intake every day, you’re only going to get so far with losing fat.
The reason for this is simple: if left to its own devices, your appetite is going to do its best to keep you a state of neutral energy balance. This is physiological homeostasis in action. Your body doesn’t want to gain or lose weight. It wants to remain exactly as it currently is.
Remember that when you restrict your calories to lose fat, you’re subjecting your body to a mild form of starvation.
When done right, it’s not unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean your body likes it and won’t fight back. In a primitive, alarmist sense, a negative energy balance is dangerous because if it continues too long, you’ll die.
Thus, your body sure as hell doesn’t like you underfeeding it and will take measures to close the gap between energy in and energy out and thus stop the weight loss.
One of those measures is using hormones that regulate hunger and appetite to coax you eat more.
People with a lot of weight to lose and poor dietary habits can start shedding pounds by just “cleaning up” their diets, but eventually eating by instinct will fail to produce meaningful weight loss. Our bodies want to reach and maintain a certain “set point,” and, alas, this is usually fatter than we’d like to be.
The easiest way to neutralize this defense mechanism is to follow a meal plan. This allows you to eat foods you like while also keeping your calorie intake tightly regulated.
Another common mistake people make with food intake is the coveted “cheat” meals and, worse, days.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with “cheating” on your diet…if you do it correctly. In fact, I recommend it.
The problem many people don’t do it correctly. Moderation goes out the window and what starts with “just a few bites” of something delicious devolves into a gut-busting binge.
A day of “cheating,” especially when it involves alcohol and fatty foods, can easily undo a week’s worth of fat loss. That is, thousands of excess calories from dietary fat plus alcohol is a recipe for rapid fat gain.
You’re Not Exercising Enough
No, you don’t have to exercise to lose weight, but you do if you want to lose fat and not muscle and want to lose it as quickly and healthily as possible.
You see, research clearly shows that the most effective way to burn fat and preserve, or even build, muscle is to restrict calories and engage in regular resistance training and aerobic exercise.
Where the literature isn’t so clear, however, is how much exercise you can do while dieting before it becomes unhealthy and counter-productive.
Well, I’d like to offer something of an answer based on my research and experience working with thousands of people of all ages and circumstances:
Most people will find that 4 to 5 hours of weightlifting and 1.5 to 2 hours of high-intensity cardio per week is ideal for maximizing fat loss and minimizing muscle loss and other negative effects of calorie restriction.
That’s quite a bit more exercise than many people struggling to lose weight do. When that’s the case, increasing total weekly exercise time is all it takes to start losing fat again. (And increasing exercise is always preferred over reducing calorie intake.)
What happens when you exceed those numbers, you wonder?
Well, some people’s bodies are particularly resilient and they do fine with more weekly exercise, but in my experience, most don’t. Hunger and cravings kick into overdrive. Sleep quality declines. Energy levels plummet and mood sours.
If your weight is stuck and you’re currently exercising less than I prescribe above, I recommend you make that change before anything else. Don’t be surprised if you can get another 4 to 6 weeks of steady fat loss out of it before having to make another adjustment.
So, those are the simple fixes.
What about the people that have stopped losing weight despite meticulously planning and tracking intake and doing as much exercise as their bodies will allow? What’s happening to them and what can they do?
Read on. 🙂
You’re Burning Less Energy and Need to Adjust
We’ve now come to the big payoff of the article…the answer to the “great mystery” of weight loss that frustrates so many people, even those relatively well informed. And it’s simple:
As you reduce your body weight, you burn less and less energy. Eventually this erases your calorie deficit and necessitates adjustment.
What this means is even when you have everything with your diet and training on point, eventually you’re going to stop losing fat. Guaranteed. The question isn’t if but when. Some people’s metabolisms “hold up” longer than others’ and some people are genetically wired to burn more energy on a daily basis, but everyone hits a wall at some point.
1. When you restrict your calories and feed your body less energy than it burns, your metabolism naturally begins slowing down (burning less energy).
And the more you restrict your calories, the faster and greater the down-regulation.
2. Dieting also reduces the amount of spontaneous activity you naturally engage in, which can result in a marked reduction in total energy expenditure.
This activity is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, and research shows that it can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among many individuals.
These two mechanisms allow your body to slowly undermine your calorie deficit without you even realizing it until, eventually, it’s completely negated. The solution is simple, however, and goes back to the beginning of this article: you need to widen the gap between energy in and energy out.
You now know how to use exercise to help do this, but you also know you can only take that so far and it may or may not be enough to get you to your ultimate goal.
Once you’ve “maxed out” on exercise, the next tool for kickstarting your fat loss is further calorie reduction.
Yeah, we had to go there. There is a point where you just have to start eating less because what was once a 20 to 25% calorie deficit (where you want to start when you want to lose fat) becomes something closer to maintenance calories.
That said, I always save this for last. I would rather exercise more and use effective fat loss supplements before reducing my food intake. But eventually it’s all that’s left. And, like just about everything health and fitness, there are right and wrong ways to go about cutting calories.
The wrong way is drastically reducing your intake to the level of a starvation diet. This is how you wreck your metabolism and lose muscle. Instead, you want to gradually reduce your calories over time.
And to be clear, I’m not advocating “slow cutting” here. When you start dieting for fat loss, you want your initial calorie reduction to be significant–again, about 75 to 80% of your total daily energy expenditure. Any further reductions should be small and gradual.
When I need to further reduce my daily calories, I cut them by 100 to 150 calories (and pull all from my carbs), which usually “buys” me renewed fat loss for about a week. Then, a week later, I reduce my total daily intake again by the same amount, which again keeps the fat loss going for about a week (and again, all these calories come from my carbs–I don’t touch my protein or fat intake). I repeat this process weekly.
How long can you continue cutting calories, you wonder?
As a rule of thumb, you don’t want to drop your intake below your basal metabolic rate (BMR). I may drop 5 to 10% lower on my last week of cutting but I don’t go lower and I don’t maintain this intake for long periods of time.
And what do you do if you reach your BMR but haven’t reached your desired weight/body fat percentage yet?
You reverse diet to speed your metabolism back up, which when done properly results in little-to-no fat gained, and then go back into a calorie deficit to continue losing the fat you haven’t gotten rid of yet.
You now have all the insight necessary to lose as much fat as you’d like as painlessly and quickly as possible.
You may be replacing the weight of the fat you’re losing with muscle, glycogen, or water, or a combination of the three. This is especially true, and even likely, if you’re new to weightlifting.
This is completely normal and not a reason for worry or despair. It simply means it’s time to exercise more, eat less, or reverse diet (if you can’t move more without overtraining or eat less without dropping below your BMR).
I hope this helps clarify why weight loss grinds to a halt and what to do about it. Happy shredding. 🙂 (HATE that word…)