If you’re struggling with weight loss, you’re not alone. Losing weight is a challenge for many people. Experiences of weight loss, including the amount and rate of weight loss vary from person to person and even within an individual's journey. When trying to lose weight, many people experience periods of steady weight loss, followed by periods of stability, and even weight plateaus. In a 1 year study of people with type 2 diabetes following a low carb diet —the average participant experienced 9 months of rapid weight loss and 3 months of weight stability (Hallberg 2018), while following the same nutritional approach for the entire year. Over time, most people who sustain a low carb or ketogenic diet find a new stable weight after a period of significant weight loss.
So when does a period of weight stability (which is expected) after weight loss become a weight loss plateau? Plateaus are a normal, yet frustrating, part of the weight loss process. If you’re stuck in a true weight loss plateau while following a low carb or ketogenic nutritional approach there may be a few reasons why. But before we get to those, let's first distinguish between a true weight loss plateau or simply a period of weight stability.
Weight can vary day to day—as much as several pounds—due to normal fluctuations in how much water your body is holding. So looking at your weight from one day to the next, or even one week to the next, does not always accurately reflect your progress. What you eat is just one of the many factors that impacts the number on the scale, whether a true weight change or just normal day-to-day fluctuations. Some medications, hormones, exercise, and body composition changes also influence weight. It’s important to ask yourself if what you’re experiencing is a true plateau. Are the day to day fluctuations actually showing a lower number on the scale over time? If so, you're actually losing weight! It just might be a little slower than you'd like.
Follow these steps to determine whether or not you are stuck in a weight loss plateau:
If you’ve identified that you are indeed in a weight loss plateau, now what? In order to break the plateau, it’s important to identify what may be standing in the way of further weight loss..
The many benefits of carbohydrate restriction, including weight loss, can be achieved when carbohydrate intake is maintained under your tolerance (or carb threshold) to control blood sugar and insulin levels. There are plenty of ways for total carb intake to creep up. Some are obvious, but others aren’t.
The obvious sources of overconsumption of carbs:
The not-so-obvious sources of overconsumption of carbs:
What to do to avoid a weight loss plateau from too many carbs:
Portion size matters and it’s easy to fall into the habit of overeating or underestimating protein portions. An extra egg for breakfast, an additional ounce of nuts as a snack, or perhaps one more ounce of cheese on your salad–it all adds up. Too much dietary protein can drive down ketone production (Marliss 1978) when consumed in excess of your body’s needs. Read more about this in our deep dive on protein.Protein can be measured in ounces of protein-containing food, which typically contain about 7 grams of protein per ounce.
Here’s a guide to how much protein you should aim for:
How to avoid a weight loss plateau from too much protein:
If you’re not eating the right amount of fat, it may be preventing your body from relying on its own body fat for energy; thus, weight loss stalls. The goal is to add enough fat (butter, oil, cream, etc) to your protein and vegetable sources at meals to ensure you’re not hungry between meals. However, fat is not a ‘free’ food, and calories still matter. Perhaps you might be consuming too much fat because you’re trying to raise your ketones, but pump the brakes! In addition to potentially contributing too many calories, sources of fat like coconut oil (including concentrated supplements) contain medium chain triglycerides (MCT). These cannot be stored in body fat, meaning that whatever is consumed has to be promptly burned for energy. So you’re adding these sources on top of your dietary fat consumption for satiety, this type of fat takes priority. People will often fall into the trap of adding supplements of coconut oil or straight up MCT oil and it ends up adding extra calories. Yes, it may raise your ketones a bit, and the overall cost may impact your weight loss.
How to avoid a weight loss plateau from too much fat
For some people, as little as one or two drinks can impact weight loss. Beyond just contributing calories (and sometimes carbohydrates), alcohol interferes with the digestion and utilization of other nutrients, including fat. If you’re hitting a weight plateau and drink alcohol, take a look at your alcohol intake. Consider the type and the volume of alcohol you’re consuming. The carbohydrates and calories can add up quickly, and we sometimes tend to reach for food when drinking - whether we’re hungry or not!
How to avoid a weight loss plateau from alcohol:
It’s helpful to examine the emotions, behaviors and triggers driving your eating habits. Do any of these sound familiar?
You’re bored with your foods. There should be pleasure in the foods you eat and over time, you may find yourself in a bit of a rut and bored with what you’re eating. This may lead to eating more food to chase satisfaction.
You’re eating out of habit, stress, or emotions. It’s all too easy to grab food for reasons other than hunger–out of habit or by the clock, when stressed, when overcome with emotion (strong or subtle), or when we want to avoid something (including our emotions). The procrastination of going to the refrigerator rather than answering a work email or leaning into our emotions can take a bit of practice to break. Practice mindful eating (being aware and present when you are eating) to ensure you’re not eating out of habit, boredom, or emotions rather than hunger.
You’re still relying on counting calories instead of letting true hunger guide you. What does true hunger feel like to you? Work on increasing or decreasing your fat to focus on the sensations of true hunger. Try to consume fat at different times of the day so that your hunger is controlled. Strengthening your self-awareness surrounding hunger can reduce the frequency of eating when you are not hungry.
The bottom line: celebrate your wins
There is more to your metabolic health and quality of life than the number on the scale.
If you have been weight stable for a period of time and you feel energetic and strong, it may be time to revisit your goals, or at least your timeline. For now, focus on the rediscovered metabolically healthy you, feeling well and functioning well. You’ll be amazed at what can happen when you stop letting weight, especially a specific weight, be the marker of your success.
1. Hallberg SJ, McKenzie AL, Williams P, et al. Effectiveness and Safety of a Novel Care Model for the Management of Type 2 Diabetes at One Year: An Open Label, Non-Randomized, Controlled Study. Diabetes Ther. 2018. DOI: 10.1007/s13300-018-0373-9
2. Marliss EB, Murray FT, Nakhooda AF. The Metabolic Response to Hypocaloric Protein Diets in Obese Man. J Clin Invest. 1978; 62:468-479. doi:10.1172/JCI109148.
3. McKenzie AL, Hallberg SJ, Creighton BC, et al. A Novel Intervention Including Individualized Nutritional Recommendations Reduces Hemoglobin A1c Level, Medication Use, and Weight in Type 2 Diabetes. JMIR Diabetes 2017;2(1):e5 doi:10.2196/diabetes.6981