The Real Reasons Why You've Hit the Dreaded Weight Loss Plateau

02/16/2016 08:13 am ET | Updated Feb 16, 2016
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It's February, and for many people, that means halfway through winter, and most likely all the way through the cessation of your well thought out New Year's weight loss plan. Yes, it happened again. You promised yourself that this year, you'd finally lose the weight. That this year, you'd improve your eating habits and that this year, you'd start training for that marathon you always dreamed about completing.

Yet here you are, just like last year, with only a few pounds to get excited about. Here's the scary truth. Maybe you did all of those things, but the weight loss just stopped. For many of my patients, it's not the big behavior changes that kept them from achieving their goals. In fact, many people make significant changes on January 1st that impact their weight and their health, like adding more vegetables to their diet and cutting down on snacking and eating out. But it's the little (and what many people think insignificant) actions that actually make all the difference.

There's still hope! After all, it's only February, and recognizing these little, yet very impactful habits, could get you back on track with your "healthy by summer" initiative. Here are the top 5 mistakes that can halt even the most effective weight loss approaches.

1. Eating to Exercise
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to live longer and better. But when it comes to weight loss, it turns out that cutting calories is actually much more important than adding reps. Studies show that if you're using exercise, and only exercise to shed pounds; you may be disappointed with the number on the scale. A 2015 study found that exercise alone didn't actually deliver weight loss. Researchers discovered that as you increase activity, your appetite goes up as well, and you consume more calories to satisfy that appetite. The "more" is important here because if you eat more calories than you actually burn, then you may still struggle to shed pounds. Further, a 2016 study found that as we exercise at even higher levels, our bodies adapt to this activity and don't necessarily burn more calories. In fact, people that engaged in higher levels of physical activity to lose weight often saw a decline in weight loss after a few months. The advice here is by no means to stop exercising. The point is that you'll need to continue to control calorie intake despite this very healthy habit. A daily run or a weight lifting session is not insurance to overindulge later on. Keep exercise in, but don't add calories to compensate once you've started an exercise routine.

2. Starting the Day off with Sugar
The sugary cereal, the syrupy coffee creamer, and that danish you chomp on in the car on the way to work - they are all killing your diet. Sure, it's obvious that these foods are not on any "weight loss miracle" lists. But it's more than that. Having a lot of sugar early on in the day means you're not having something else - protein. Study after study has shown that starting your day with protein makes it easier to lose weight, and then resist cravings later in the day. Protein and fat also have minimal impact on blood sugar and insulin, two things that you don't want up first thing in the morning. Try some eggs and avocado, a high protein shake, or a low fat plain yogurt with nuts a small amount of low glycemic deeply hued berries instead of a bagel and jelly or even a big bowl of oatmeal.

3. Being too hungry to diet
Being hungry does not feel good. It's uncomfortable, it's scary for some, and for the majority of individuals that have put themselves on restrictive diets where deprivation is the norm, hunger can be downright detrimental. Hunger, on a day-to-day basis, works against you in terms of regulating weight loss. In the end, you'll end up eating what you need, and then some, to compensate. A 2015 study that researched the "discomfort when hungry" phenomenon found that specific neurons that fire during energy deficits lead individuals to search for, and consume, food. They found in mice that eating was much more than a simple choice based solely on taste, but more driven by the desire to offset the negative feelings associated hunger--what we humans may refer to as "pangs." As more and more weight is lost, these signals become stronger and, along with them, the desire to eat. Eventually, the body's mission to fill the depleted calories is stronger than our quest to get into skinny jeans.
Similar findings were demonstrated in a 2011 study as well.

So, hunger is more powerful than just being hungry. It has a neurological aspect. The solution is to essentially trick your body into not feeling hunger. First (and this one is obvious), don't eat when you're not hungry. Less obvious strategies, include adding to your diet more fat and protein, two macronutrients that fill you up without surges of insulin. Second, ditch any distractions (like the TV or your phone) when eating, so that you can better sense when you've actually had enough. Finally, fill yourself up with water, and other calorie free drinks, and focus on high volume, low calorie foods like cruciferous vegetables. Starving yourself will backfire - the studies, your brain, and the scale have all shown that to be true. I advise my patients to never have a moment in the day when they are hungry. Rather, eat in a manner that provides moments where you can say "I think I need to refuel."

Keep in mind that 7 days a week of deprivation is not the same thing as intermittent fasting, a weight loss approach that puts the body into a fasting state two days a week. Intermittent fasting has actually been very effective for many of my
patients due to its ability to "rewire" the brain to have less cravings and hunger.

4. Ignoring Your Stress
If you're human, you experience stress from time to time, and if you're diet savvy, you know you have to find ways of dealing with that stress. An animal study found that stress not only increases cortisol (a weight loss nightmare) but it also releases a protein called Betatrophin that inhibits a critical enzyme needed for fat metabolism. In turn, it reduces your chances to break down fat, making you more of a fat storer rather than a fat burner. Need more evidence of how impactful a lack of stress management can be? Consider this: a study from Yale found that even normal weight individuals had increases in abdominal fat when cortisol levels were high. High stress can also impact sleep. While getting a few too little zzz's may seem like no big deal, it's a very big deal to your digestive hormones. Ghrelin and leptin get confused when they're not rested enough, making you hungrier, and less likely to satisfy that hunger. If you've ever had a ravenous appetite the day after an all nighter, you know exactly what I mean. To get back on track with weight loss, get plenty of sleep, and find a way to manage chronic stress. This could be through yoga, meditation, guided imagery or simply taking a walk around the block.

5. Too Happy About Happy Hour
For many of my patients, drinking alcohol can be one of the most difficult habits to break. Many can cut down their drinking, but not enough to sustain weight loss. Moderate alcohol has benefits to your health and most people know this. But when it comes to managing or losing weight, it has no redeeming value. A glass of red wine sets you back about 120 calories, a can of regular beer is 150 calories and a shot of vodka about 100. That may not seem like a lot, but if you're pouring yourself, chances are you aren't staying within what's considered a portion and the calories are more than you think. Further, once you start feeling the effects of alcohol, you're more likely to throw the diet out the fast food window for the night. Five nights of this at regular happy hours can lead to a major detour on your weight loss highway. So forget about the French drinking and staying thin. You're probably drinking like an American, and throwing the whole "alcohol can fit within my diet" way off course. Of course, if you're indulging in margaritas or daiquiris, forget about it! Even "normal" portions of those drinks pack serious calories. The solution, cut the happy hour that's making your weight very unhappy and stick to only 1-2 measured drinks a week. That's 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits.

Weight loss is not easy, and there are plenty of obstacles that can get in the way of our goals. Hopefully, knowing some not-so-obvious ways to cut more weight can start today!