Finally, the pounds are melting away! Okay, they’re melting a little more slowly now… and suddenly the scale seems frozen.
What in the WORLD is going on?
The slowing of weight loss is not uncommon, in fact, it’s a hurdle many of us face. Although frustrating, there are natural body stages of weight loss, and when you have a complete understanding of what’s happening physiologically, it’s easier to encourage yourself to stick to your goals.
Weight loss can be broken down into four easy-to-digest stages. But first, we need to clarify one important detail.
Fat loss vs. weight loss
One important thing to note is that the number on the scale – your weight – is not just a measure of fat. Your body is composed of fat tissue, muscle, bone, and blood as well as the last meal you ate. Changes in any of these can cause a change in the number staring back at you on the scale.
Weight loss gets most of the attention, but it is really fat loss that you are looking for. That can happen at the same time that you’re gaining muscle; this might mean that the number on the scale might feel stuck, even though you are actually making progress on your health journey. That’s why it is important to pay attention to more than one measure of progress, not just the scale (we’ll explain – keep reading).
Early on in your weight loss journey, the numbers on the scales may drop quickly. This is caused by the loss of carbohydrate stores, proteins, and largely, water in your tissues – not fat loss. Why does this happen? Let’s zoom in and look at what’s happening inside your cells.
Stage 1: rapid weight loss
When you eat carbohydrates, your body packs away the excess as glycogen and saves it for future use. When you eat fewer calories than you use, your body starts to use glycogen (stored as sugar in the muscles and liver) as its’ first fuel source. For every gram of glycogen in your body, there are 3 grams of water stored with it. Simply put, when you use glycogen, water exits your body, too.
Approximately 70% of the weight loss in the first few weeks is actually water weight being shed as glycogen is being used, according to Nick Clayton, C.S.C.S., the personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (1).
So remember to keep drinking water: being dehydrated will actually make your body retain water.
Remember the toilet paper shortage in 2020? Yep, just like those crazy shoppers who feared running out of TP, your cells recognize water is in short supply, and the cells cling to it for future use. But, if you keep your body fully hydrated, your cells won’t need to retain as much H2O, which decreases your overall water weight.
Plus, studies have shown drinking water increases your metabolic rate by 30% within 10 minutes of drinking 500 ml (2). So, drink up!
Stage 2: slow weight loss
After roughly 6 weeks of burning more calories than you consume, your body shifts to a new energy source to burn – fat. At this point, overall weight loss slows, but now you’re burning fat versus stored sugars.
At this stage, you’ll feel natural hunger before meals – not starvation – as you continue to take in fewer calories than you burn. You might even feel more rested and have a better mood. One study showed increased sleep quality and improved mood after losing at least 5% of your body weight (3).
Even with a healthy diet and regular exercise, the numbers on the scale can hit a plateau. This is normal and you’re not alone. Try not to get discouraged! At this point, you’ll have to make a few changes to your routine.
Stage 3: plateau
You’re watching what you eat and sticking to your exercise routine, but the scale just won’t budge. As you lose weight, you’ll likely lose some muscle too. Muscle is responsible for increasing your metabolism, so if some is lost you’ll have to change your routine slightly to account for the metabolism decrease. Here are a few ways you can go about this:
Audit your intake
Has your calorie intake slowly increased without you noticing? It can be easy to forget about those snacks between meals, or nibbles as you’re cooking dinner. We get it! Reassess your intake and make sure that you’re not eating more than you need to.
On the other hand, you also want to make sure that you’re not eating too little. Your body’s metabolism slows when muscle mass is lost and it can be helpful to decrease your intake. However, it’s important to avoid eating too few calories, which can lead to fatigue and actually slow your fat loss (4). Calorie intake varies from person to person, so we recommend using this calorie calculator to estimate the minimum calories you should consume and aim to eat more than this (5).
Increase your exercise load
We see you working your butt off on the treadmill! Cardio has excellent benefits, but it may be time to incorporate resistance training to boost your exercise load and build muscle.
If you’re already incorporating weights into your workout, consider gradually increasing the weight to up the resistance.
Up your day-to-day activity
Every little movement burns calories, so think about taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking further from a building to get some extra steps in, or getting some fresh air and going on short walks during your lunch break instead of scrolling on your phone.
These tips will help you to continue on your fat-loss journey until – hooray – you have reached your goal. Now what?
Stage 4: maintenance
- Keep a Food Journal: Keeping a daily food journal is helpful for losing and maintaining weight loss. A Harvard research team revealed those who journal lose twice as much weight as those who don’t. Write out what you’re eating right after you eat it. Keep track of what, how much, and what time to better understand your habits (6).
- Prioritize the Good Stuff: Give your body healthy food first! You’re less likely to crave sugary treats when you eat nutrient-rich foods like fruit, whole grains, or eggs (7).
- Keep Exercising: Find an activity you truly enjoy and do it often. Burning excess energy won’t feel like a chore if you enjoy what you’re doing!
- Find Accountability Partners: Some prefer a solo gym session, but having a community of people who inspire you to live a healthier life can make your fitness journey “fun”.
- Stock Your Cupboards with Healthy Food. It’s easy to give into temptation when you’re surrounded by sugary sweets, but you can help yourself out by making sure you have nutritious snacks at home to keep you going.
Not all changes change the scale
When you exercise regularly, you’ll inevitably gain muscle (woo hoo!) and lose fat simultaneously. This can leave you scratching your head when you look at the scale because the numbers might not seem like they’re changing.
Remember to pay attention to other factors like how you feel, changes in your energy, and how your clothes fit compared to a few months ago. Progress pictures can also help you see the difference. Always keep in mind the numbers on the scale aren’t the only way of measuring success on your journey!
As you work toward a healthier life remember the 4 natural body stages of weight loss. After rapid weight loss, which is mainly water weight, you’ll encounter slow weight loss – the shift to burning fat for fuel.
It’s not uncommon for the decrease in weight to level off, but try your best not to get discouraged! You’ve come this far, now it’s time to make some minor changes to your routine. Whether it’s decreasing your caloric intake, or upping the ante in the gym, you’re still on track to reach your goals. If you’re wondering how to refine your gym routine, taking an expert’s advice can be the missing piece to the puzzle.
Once you’ve gotten in the groove with your fitness routine and are happy with your newfound strength and healthy diet, keep at it. Track your progress, surround yourself with nutrient-rich foods, and connect with like-minded friends who can support you on your journey. Need some help to get you started on your journey? Check out our free e-guide here so you can dive in with 10 recipes and a week of at-home workouts!
- Bellefonds, Colleen de, and Melissa Matthews. “This Is How You Actually Lose Water Weight.” Men’s Health, Men’s Health, 2 Nov. 2021, https://www.menshealth.com/health/a26361054/water-weight/.
- Boschmann, Michael, et al. “Water-Induced Thermogenesis.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, vol. 88, no. 12, 2003, pp. 6015–6019., https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2003-030780.
- DerSarkissian, Carol. “What a 5% Weight Loss Can Do for Your Health.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-five-percent-weight-loss.
- Katherine D. McManus, MS. “Why Keep a Food Diary?” Harvard Health, 31 Jan. 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-keep-a-food-diary-2019013115855#:~:text=Research%20shows%20that%20for%20people,those%20who%20kept%20no%20records.
- Petre, Alina. “5 Ways Restricting Calories Can Be Harmful.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 30 Jan. 2017, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/calorie-restriction-risks#TOC_TITLE_HDR_9.
- Saff, Mayo Clinic. “Weight Loss Stalled? Move Past the Plateau.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 14 Apr. 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss-plateau/art-20044615. West, Helen. “19 Foods That Can Fight Sugar Cravings.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 8 Jan. 2018, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods-that-fight-sugar-cravings#TOC_TITLE_HDR_2.