Q: How do I break my weight loss plateau?
A: The dreaded plateau. Inevitably, it happens to everybody. Fortunately, many people have found that by staying on course, the moment passes. The first key to success is to not give up. Next, consider if there are some tweaks you can still make. Here are three possible fixes that can help give you the metabolic boost you need to keep seeing change.
This is the moment we all dread, including your health coach. You've increased your physical activity, you've cut your calories, and you have been seeing steady progress. You've been doing all the right things, but then your progress stalls. You consider your choices:
Choice #1: Eat less? If you cut any more calories you'll be left with air.
Choice #2: Work out more? You'd need Hermione's time turner.
Choice #3: Give up? Never!
Clearly, Choice #3 is your only answer. But there might still be some tweaks you can make without having to cut out more food or completely neglect your family. Here are a few questions to consider.
1. Are you eating enough protein?
One of the most common quirks I see in dieting is over-restriction. Many dieters cut their portions too small or avoid certain types of food. When the balance is off or the portions are not enough, the body misses key nutrients for proper function. The three main nutrients to balance when trying to lose weight is carbs for energy, fat to help you feel full, and protein to maintain your metabolism. While all three are important, we'll focus on protein for this article.
In order to lose weight, you need to eat less calories than what you burn. When you are burning more than what your are eating, your body will start using its energy stores (fat) for fuel. However, fat does not provide the building blocks needed to produce muscle, hormones, and other structural components in your body. Those building blocks are amino acids, which come from protein. If you do not eat enough protein, your body will have to take it from somewhere else--namely, your own muscle proteins.
Muscle does our heavy lifting throughout the day, so it is a large consumer of calories. If we lose muscle, then we lose some of our calorie burning ability. In other words, our metabolism slows down.
Thus, while reducing calories is key in weight loss, maintaining enough protein in your diet will help keep your metabolism from slowing, and help minimize or prevent the big plateau.
For most women trying to lose weight, about 75g of protein per day is sufficient; for most men, about 100g per day will do the trick.
If your diet is well balanced, it should not be difficult to meet your protein needs from food alone. Here's an example:
1 slice whole grain toast with 2 tbsp peanut butter, 1 cup of milk, 1 orange = 18g protein
2 cup vegetable salad topped with 1/2 cup black beans, 1/4 cup reduced fat shredded cheddar, and 1 hardboiled egg = 25g protein
1 apple = 0g protein
4 oz salmon with a 1/2 cup roasted potatoes and 1 cup sautéed spinach and a cup of milk = 42g
Total protein = 85g protein
For more information about how much protein is in food, check out this protein list from Today's Dietitian.
These protein recommendations are appropriate for most people who are following the general guideline of physical activity for weight loss, which is 40-60 minutes of moderate or vigorous cardiovascular activity three or four times a week plus strength training twice a week. If your physical activity exceeds these recommendations, your protein needs may increase as well.
Which leads us to the next question...
2. Are you including enough strength training?
Strength training addresses the same issue as dietary protein--muscle and metabolism. In order to maintain or build your muscles, you need to use them.
Strength training ranges from body weight exercises (no equipment necessary) to resistance training (using inexpensive resistance bands) to lifting (using weights or weight machines).
If you are new to strength training, or if the thought of going to the gym has you breaking out in a sweat before you even step inside, check out this resistance training packet from the Physical Activity Resource Center for Public Health. The packet illustrates a variety of exercises using body weight, resistance bands and light weights--all things you can do in the privacy of your own home. It also includes sample workout schedules.
3. Are you getting enough variety?
To keep your body both well nourished and challenged, variety is key--and this applies to both food and physical activity.
Dietitians are always asked questions like "which fruits are the best choices," or "what foods will burn more fat" or "what is more important--fat, protein or carbs?" The answer is variety. Different foods contain different vitamins, minerals and nutrients, and our bodies need all the right nuts, bolts and screws to keep the machine working properly. The more variety you get in plant foods, protein and fats, the more likely you will feed your body what it needs to work smoothly and efficiently. The better your body is working, the better you will feel. The better you feel, the more energized you will be to keep up with your physical activity.
Variety in physical activity can also help keep your metabolism revved up. If you stick with the same routine every week, it will become less challenging, and your body won't have to work as hard to do it. If it isn't working hard, it is not burning as much calories as it did when you got started.
Mix up your routine. If you are a walker, find new routes with more hills, or increase the incline on your treadmill. If you've been using the same cardio machine for weeks, try a different one. If you've been focused on cardio, add in some strength training. Conversely, if you have been focused on strength training, add in more aerobic activity. Keep your body on it's toes. Not only will this keep your metabolism up, but it will keep your routine from feeling old and tired.
One more time: Don't give up.
A weight loss plateau does not necessarily lead to weight regain. But how you react might. Keep making healthy choices and the benefits will be worth it, regardless of the weight on the scale. Maintaining a moderate amount of healthy weight loss can make significant improvements to blood sugar, blood pressure, joint pain and inflammation, overall energy, and so much more. If you are feeling and seeing these benefits, keep doing what you're doing so you can feel good longer.