You've been doing all the right things to get fit: eating clean and mindfully, counting calories and steps, busting your hump at the gym. And it worked for a while, as pounds steadily melted away. But now the number on the scale just won’t budge. You’ve hit the dreaded weight loss plateau.
It can be a normal part of the process, says obesity expert Caroline Cederquist, MD, medical director of Cederquist Medical Wellness Center in Naples, Florida. "When you lose weight, you’re shedding fat but also lean muscle. When your muscle mass declines, so does your metabolism," she explains.
The good news? A tweak to your routine may be all you need to jump-start your slimdown. "Even small changes—like lifting weights or eating more protein—can get you back on track," says Dr. Cederquist. Read on for five expert-recommended ways to modify a weight-loss plan so you can push past that lull and keep moving closer to your goal.
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Do more strength training
You love spin class because it torches a bajillion calories—but odds are you leave the studio feeling famished. "High-intensity cardio workouts burn a large percentage of calories from carbohydrates, so afterward, that tends to be what you seek out to replace the energy," says Jennifer McDaniel, RD, founder of McDaniel Nutrition Therapy in St. Louis. What’s more, a killer sweat session seems to beg for a reward, she adds: "There’s this perceived feeling of working out so hard, you’re allowed to now eat way more than you normally would."
Try alternating your cardio workouts with resistance training, says Steve Moyer, a celebrity trainer in Los Angeles. A 2014 study published in the journal Obesity found that strength training actually helped people shed more fat (specifically belly fat) than cardio. It also builds lean muscle, of course—and the more lean body mass you have, the higher your metabolism. “As you gain muscle, your rate of weight loss in pounds may be slower, but your rate of fat loss will be greater,” says Moyer, whose clients include Zoe Saldana and Nina Dobrev. For lasting results, he recommends doing at least two strength workouts a week.
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Start measuring your portions
Keeping a food journal can be a key step toward more mindful eating. In fact, a study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that dieters who recorded their meals and snacks daily shed twice as much weight as those who didn’t. But when you hit a plateau, it may be worth taking an even closer look at what you eat in a day—specifically, how much you’re eating.
"I think it’s important to occasionally spend a week weighing and measuring your food," says Janet Brill, PhD, professor of health and wellness at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. "You may be surprised by your portion sizes. It’s easy to forget what a three-ounce serving of steak or half a cup of pasta looks like."
The idea isn’t to obsess over every bite but rather to give yourself a serving-size refresher course.
For one week, use your smartphone to take photos of the proper portions of your dietary staples. That way, you can refer to the pics for a quick reminder anytime you need to. This tactic is easier than visualizing a cut of meat the size of a deck of cards, says Brill, or noodles in the shape of a tennis ball
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Try eating more
Yes, it’s true you need to create a calorie deficit to shed weight. But there’s a caveat: If you’ve been tearing it up at the gym in full-on beast mode—and you notice you feel hungrier than usual—you may actually need to eat more food to keep burning calories.
"If your calorie intake is too low or you get too hungry, you start to lose metabolism-boosting muscle as well as fat mass," explains Brill. "To lose weight while still preserving muscle mass, you might need to increase your calories."
That doesn’t mean hitting Olive Garden for a never-ending pasta bowl, of course. The trick is choosing the right foods, says Brill, and sprinkling them in throughout the day to stay nourished. She recommends filling up on lean protein, whole grains, fruits, veggies, and healthy fats. Try turkey slices, plant-based proteins (like edamame and lentils), farro, bananas, carrots, nuts, and avocados.
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Add lean protein to every meal and snack
Weight-loss experts have always encouraged us to fill our plates with produce as a way to reap the benefits of its hunger-busting fiber, along with its antioxidants and other nutrients. But if you’ve been laser-focused on loading up on fruits and vegetables, your diet may need more lean protein. You should have a serving every few hours, says Brill. Nuts, eggs, and meat are more caloric than an apple or a pile of power greens—but the protein will keep you full longer and can lower your overall calorie intake for the day.
Moreover, a 2015 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that incorporating protein into every meal and snack—starting with breakfast—helps control appetite and manage body weight. "A balanced diet that includes some protein helps fuel your muscles," explains Brill. And as you already know, the more lean body mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate will be. Not to mention, your body has to work harder to digest protein, and through that process you burn even more calories.
Don’t protein-load. But do try making a more conscious effort to get small, regular doses: Eat eggs or almond butter in the a.m., for example. Make meat, fish, or legumes (like beans and peas) a key component of your lunch and dinner. And snack on hummus, nuts, kefir, or roasted chickpeas—all protein-packed picks to fuel your way to fit.
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Switch to shorter, daily workouts
Here’s good news for the time-crunched: Shorter workouts might actually be better for weight loss, as long as you do them regularly. And it gets better: Research done at the University of Copenhagen in 2012 found that study participants who worked out for 30 minutes every day lost just as much fat mass as those who worked out for 60 minutes a day.
The researchers suspect that the people who did shorter workouts were left with extra energy to be active throughout the rest of their day. Maybe they chose to take the stairs rather than the elevator, for example, or ride their bike rather than drive. Those little activities add up, helping burn more fuel as the day goes on.
Another perk of short-but-intense sweat sessions: greater excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (a.k.a. EPOC or afterburn) than you get from, say, an hour-long easy run. So make sure you go all out during a shorter routine, says celebrity master trainer Ashley Borden, creator of The Body Foundation program: "A challenging high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, workout that leaves you breathless—even if it’s short—gives you a consistent calorie burn for the next 36 hours."
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Is it a plateau or your ideal weight?
It’s possible your slimdown has stalled because you’re shooting for the wrong goal, says Brill. “Scientists have a set point theory—basically, your body has a ‘happy weight’ that it likes to be at," she explains. "If you try to maintain a weight much lower than that set point, your physiology is going to work against you."