How to Break a Weight Loss Plateau

Shake it up to lose those last 5 pounds. Nutrition Diva has the scoop on calorie cycling.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #148

How to Break a Weight Loss Plateau

As anyone who has ever lost a lot of weight (like 20 pounds or more) will tell you, the first 5 come off easily and the last 5 are the toughest!  You’re still doing all the right things—eating less and moving more—but all of a sudden it stops working. The scale won’t budge. No matter where you are in the process, hitting a stubborn weight loss plateau is frustrating. But don’t let it erode your resolve.  Here are 3 ways to break through the plateau.>

Tip#1:  Calorie Cycling

In order to lose weight, you need to cut back on your calorie intake. But if you that for long enough, your body may play a nasty trick on you: It may start conserving energy by lowering your metabolic rate. The result? You don’t burn as many calories and your weight loss slows—or stops altogether. Although this feels like the worst kind of sabotage, your body is actually trying to look out for you. Your lizard brain has noticed that food supplies seem to have been scarce for an extended period of time. It’s trying to increase your chances of survival in case the famine continues. Of course, when you’re trying to lose weight, this is not very helpful.

See also: Metabolism Myths

You’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place: You could try eating even less in order to nudge off more weight, but that just confirms your lizard brain’s suspicions about the dwindling food supply. Or, you could eat more in an effort to restore a more robust metabolic rate—but that’s hardly going to help with weight loss.  There’s a way to outsmart old lizard brain: It’s called calorie cycling.

What is Calorie Cycling?

Let's say you've been eating about 1800 calories a day and steadily losing weight. Now suddenly, it’s not working anymore.  Rather than trying to eat even less every day, try alternating high and low calorie days. For example, you could alternate between 2000-calorie days and 1200-calorie days. Over the course of a week, you'd trim an extra 1400 calories but the higher calorie days should help keep your lizard brain from panicking--and your willpower from flagging.

See also: How to Eat Less without Feeling Hungry

What are the Advantages of Calorie Cycling?

First of all, the higher calorie days keep your metabolism from slowing in response to sustained calorie restriction. Secondly, many people find that this sort of regimen feels easier than constant restriction. Although you may feel hungry on your low-intake day, you’ll always have a higher intake day to look forward to. 


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.