The Dreaded Weight Plateau

Many people who have tried to lose weight know the frustration of hitting a weight plateau.

If you are monitoring your dietary intake and exercise and meeting your planned goals but the scale has not budged for weeks, then you have hit a plateau.

    Most of us reach a weight plateau because we:
  1. Underestimate how much we eat or drink.
  2. Overestimate how much we exercise.

To move beyond the plateau and meet your weight goal, think carefully about where you might be making mistakes in your measurements. Also, consider reading my article on Planning Weight & Calories for basic information about calorie balance and how to set calorie intake and expenditure goals.

Measuring Calorie Intake

Consider where extra calorie intake might be coming from: pay extra attention to portion size, calories from beverages, and frequency of dining out. One of the biggest challenges to controlling calorie intake is dining out. Dining out typically means much higher fat content (and therefore calorie content), as well as very large portion sizes. Try to limit how often you dine out or order take out food. This applies to all types of restaurants, not just fast food. For more information on recording food intake, please read my article on Measuring and Estimating Portion Size.

Quick Tips

  • Do you measure foods and drinks consumed rather than just eyeballing portion size?
  • Constant underestimation of portion size means a constant underestimation of calorie intake. It could be just enough to keep you in energy or calorie balance, and therefore, result in weight stabilization rather than weight loss.
  • Do you log everything that goes into your mouth every day? Unrecorded nibbling can add enough calories to prevent you from losing weight.
  • Gaps in recording "bad days." Try to record your intake and activity every day so that you can see the "big picture" - your average calorie intake vs. calorie expenditure over time.

Measuring Calorie Burning

Be a good calorie burner! Move as much as you can, as mobility permits. Even people without the use of their legs can get exercise. If you need help in this area, then please seek the expertise of a physical therapist.

Try to get 30 - 60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily (e.g. walking briskly, swimming, gardening, raking, running, and cycling) IN ADDITION to basic living activities such as walking to the bathroom, brushing your teeth, showering, cooking, doing laundry, and climbing stairs to get to another room. The more you move, the more you burn calories!

Quick Tips

  • Only enter the actual time moving in a particular activity - do not include break time and stops.
  • Most activities are stop-and-go: e.g. team sports, dancing, downhill skiing, and weight lifting.

Are you using a device to estimate calorie expenditure rather than relying on MyNetDiary's activity catalog?

  • Your heart rate monitor could be overestimating your actual calorie burning. Does the product provide information about its accuracy?
  • The Bodybugg reports that it is more accurate in estimating calorie expenditure than either heart rate monitors or pedometers. However, this device also has measurement error. For detailed information about the accuracy of this product, please read their website article.
  • Pedometers have varying levels of accuracy - does yours report accuracy?
  • If you are not losing weight and you suspect that your device is overestimating calorie expenditure, then you might want to consider using the lower (or more conservative) calorie estimation of the activity recorded (which is likely to be MyNetDiary's activity catalog).

Basal Metabolism

The rock bottom calorie intake needed to sustain basic bodily functions (like organ function) at rest without food intake or physical activity is the basal metabolic rate. Resting energy expenditure (REE) is often used interchangeably with basal energy expenditure (BEE), but technically, REE is about 3% higher than BEE as it includes the energy cost of being awake. Please do not worry too much about this slight discrepancy.

When people chronically consume less than their BEE, eventually the body adapts to conserve energy and lowers its metabolic rate. To allow the body to reach a balance, typically lean body mass (muscle) is lost along with body fat. Loss of muscle allows for lower turnover of protein (and therefore protein needs) as well as a decrease in metabolic rate. Although this allows us to survive famine for an extended period of time (given adequate fluid intake), but it is not a great strategy for dieters. For healthful weight loss, it is better to maximize calorie burning!

You can find your calculated metabolic rate by checking that as a measurement option in Measurements in your Daily section.

In addition to BEE, there are two other major components to energy expenditure: Thermic Effect of Food and Physical Activity. About 7 - 10% of our total energy expenditure is spent on digestion, absorption, and storage of ingested protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Put another way, it takes energy to eat, digest, and process food.

Physical activity is the component that is most under our control and can vary the most. The more we move the more calories we burn. Even fidgeting burns calories! Of course, exercise is a very effective way to burn calories since the intensity of work is high enough to burn a fair amount of calories within 30-60 minutes.

Remember that your BEE is NOT your total energy expenditure required to maintain body weight, it is one component out of three in total energy expenditure. Please be careful to avoid getting into the trap of restrictive eating that eventually serves to thwart your weight loss goals. If you are eating less than your calculated BEE, then please adjust your calorie intake so that you (at the very least) are meeting your BEE.

Measuring Body Weight

Body weight can change a lot, even during the course of the day. Hydration status (fluid balance) will affect your weight more strongly than anything else.

Do yourself a favor and limit the amount of "noise" when you weigh yourself:

  • Weigh yourself first thing in the morning after going to the bathroom, without any clothes on, before eating breakfast or drinking your tea/coffee.
  • Check that your scale is reliable. If you weigh yourself 3 - 5 times in a row, do you get the same weight measurement? If not, then you might want to consider getting another scale.

If you experience large weight changes day to day despite measuring yourself as recommended, then you might want to show your weight measurements to your doctor. This is especially important for those of you who have congestive heart failure, kidney disease, or are on medications that can affect sodium in the blood.


Sometimes people gain weight or are unable to lose weight despite Herculean efforts because their thyroid no longer produces enough thyroid hormone. You might want to ask your physician about this possibility, especially if you are also chronically fatigued, experience hair loss, cold intolerance, and brittle nails, feel weak, have a puffy face, and have flaky skin. Also, if you are on thyroid medication, be sure to follow your doctor's recommendation for timely follow-ups as medication dosage might change over time.

Final Notes

  • The closer you are to your weight goal, the harder it could be to lose weight. You might find a weight loss goal of 1-2 lbs per month a bit more practical once you are within 10 lbs of your weight goal.
  • Be sure to enter your current weight so that the system can update the recommended calorie intake. When you lose weight, your total calorie requirement will also go down, as well as calories burned during activity.
  • If your physician approves, then you might want to include some higher intensity spikes in your work-out to boost energy expenditure. Because high intensity exercise means that your heart rate could spike to its maximum, please check with your physician before adding this to your routine.
  • Be sure to include some form of weight training in your exercise routine. This will not only prevent muscle loss with weight loss, but it will actually encourage muscle growth as well. The greater the lean body mass, the higher the metabolic rate - what a nice caloric advantage!

Good luck. Please remember that you can ask questions about this topic in the Community Forum area.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE
Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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