Almost everyone who’s tried to lose weight knows the struggle of seeing progress for a while and then feeling like the results screech to a halt just a few pounds shy of that goal number. That last bit of body fat seems to really cling to our bodies—but why?
Here’s the full breakdown of what goes on in our bodies when we’re trying to lose weight—and what to do if you find yourself in that last-five-pounds rut.
First Things First: Weight-Loss Basics
We all need a unique number of calories in order to function—called our basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how much energy our body needs to maintain basic daily functions like breathing and digesting food, says William Yancy, M.D., Director of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. (Basically, this is the number of calories you’d burn just lying in bed all day.)
Your gender and size play a role in determining your BMR, but so do other factors, like your lifestyle. Someone who hits the gym regularly needs more calories than someone who spends most of their time sitting—not only because they burn extra calories when they exercise, but because they might also have more muscle mass, which requires extra calories to maintain, says Yancy.
To lose body fat, you need to create a ‘calorie deficit,’ which means you need to use more calories than you consume, says Yancy. That means either eating less and/or upping your physical activity so you have more calories going out than coming in.
When you’re in a calorie deficit, your body needs to tap into a new energy source, so it turns to glycogen, energy you store in your muscles and liver from carbohydrates. Next, it’ll turn to stored body fat, Yancy says. Your body will also break down some muscle into amino acids to make more glucose, which is why most people lose some lean mass—along with fat—when they lose weight, he says.
When you’re cutting calories or exercising more to create a calorie deficit, it’s safe to shed about a pound or two per week, Yancy says. People with higher BMIs tend to lose weight faster because their larger bodies require more calories, making it easier to create a calorie deficit—hence why guys shed pounds faster than women. But weight loss can be a toss-up beyond that. Some people lose weight nonstop at a slow and steady rate. Others don’t lose a lot at first but then lose more later on (or the opposite). Still others lose weight in steps, with plateaus in between, says Yancy.
Why Those Last Five Pounds Just Won’t Scram…
As individual as weight loss may be, those last five pounds are notoriously difficult to shed. “I call it ‘high alert mode’,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., author of Eating in Color. “It’s easier to shed large amounts of weight because you can do big things, like cut out soda or eat less overall,” she says. When you’re close to the finish line, though, not-so-fun little tweaks (like turning down after-work drinks) make a difference. Eventually, the level of discipline required to keep shedding pounds can become exhausting. Plus, as you lose weight, your smaller body needs fewer calories to function and your metabolism slows down, says Yancy. Meaning you’d have to start eating even fewer calories. Talk about fighting an uphill battle.
Same goes for exercise. You might be able to kick into high gear for a while, but busy schedules and burnout make rigorous gym routines hard to maintain, Largeman-Roth says. And there’s only so much sweating you can reasonably do!
How much weight we’re able to lose changes with age, too. Around age 20, our BMR naturally begins to decrease, dropping about one to two percent per year until about 45, when it really declines, Largeman-Roth says. So the goal weight that may have been realistic for you at 25 may not be realistic at 35 or 40. As women enter perimenopause in their 30s or 40s, changing estrogen levels can also make weight loss harder, she says. For guys, it’s the declining levels of the muscle-supporting hormone testosterone (which starts to drop around age 40) that lead to a metabolism slowdown.
The icing on the cake? Stress increases our body’s production of the hormone cortisol, which can also spur weight gain in the long-run. And elevated cortisol levels do us dirty by leading us toward foods higher in fat and calories, according to a paper published in Nutrition.
What You CAN Do When The Scale Won’t Budge
Keep a food diary. Jotting down every single bite and sip you put into your mouth for a week (including the weekend) can be eye-opening, says Yancy. You can even snap photos of all your eats. “You might realize you’re eating and drinking more than you thought,” says Largeman-Roth. You may suddenly realize those extra snacks add up!
Recalculate your burn. You might be hitting the gym harder than ever, but it’s possible that you’re overestimating how many calories you’re burning. Plus, that extra-hungry feeling you get after a bout of cardio might lead you to nosh on more than you actually need in order to to refuel, effectively canceling out your workout. “It’s quite easy to eat a couple hundred extra calories, but it takes a whole lot longer to burn that many,” says Yancy. Double check the average calories burned for the exercises you’re doing—Harvard Health Publications has a guide—and keep that number in mind when picking your post-workout grub.
Watch what you drink. An extra three or four beers or glasses of wine can add up to 500 calories to your total caloric intake for the week, says Largeman-Roth. Try to cut back on a glass or two per week, and swap sugary, calorie-loaded cocktails like mojitos for wine or vodka soda with a splash of lime.
Find a lighter way to satisfy your sweet tooth. If you can’t pass up something sweet after dinner, Largeman-Roth suggests swapping that bowl of rocky road ice cream for Greek yogurt topped with naturally sweet blueberries and a few chopped walnuts. The protein and healthy fats will satisfy your belly without the sugar high (and crash) that comes with sugary desserts.
Don’t go crazy cutting calories. While losing weight is all about that calorie deficit, cutting back too much can eventually backfire and eventually slow down your metabolism because your body adapts to function on less energy than usual. For most people, 1200 calories per day should be the absolute bare minimum, says Largeman-Roth. But your baseline may be higher, depending on your size and activity level.
If you’ve been slashing hundreds of calories to no avail, try adding 200 calories a day back into your diet for a couple weeks. Largeman-Roth also suggests adding strength-training to your routine, which helps boost your metabolism by supporting muscle growth, meaning you can take in more calories and still reach your goals.
Go lower-carb. Research suggests that a low-carb diet may be beneficial for weight loss, says Yancy. One study, published in JAMA, for example, found that a low-carb diet (more than a low-fat or low-glycemic index diet) effectively prevented the metabolic slowdown that often comes with weight loss. The low-carb dieters consumed just 10 percent of their daily calories from carbs, with 30 percent from protein and 60 percent from fat. You can also read more about cutting back on refined carbs here.)
Make sleep a priority. Missing out on sleep can throw your hunger hormones out of whack, leaving you hungrier and more likely to reach for higher-calorie foods, says Yancy. In fact, a study published in Sleep found that four nights of restricted sleep (four and a half hours per night) influenced circulating levels of the hunger-related chemicals,and that sleep-deprived participants reported feeling hungrier and less able to turn down snacks.
To help keep your appetite in check, make seven to nine hours of sleep per night a priority, says Yancy.
Try HIIT. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to boost your body’s fat-burning ability better than lower-intensity exercise. “If you’re already dieting and exercising, but can’t lose those last five pounds, HIIT may be just the final push you need,” says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness Podcast and adjunct professor of exercise science at San Diego State University. For best results, McCall recommends two to three sessions per week. And since you can bang out an efficient HIIT workout in about 30 minutes or less, it’s a great exercise option when you’re crunched for time. Plus, you can do interval workouts on just about any cardio machine—even while using bodyweight exercises.
Switch up your workouts—and don’t forget to rest. Athletes take time off now and then to allow their bodies to rest—and so should you. “The biggest mistake people make is thinking they have to exercise all the time,” says McCall. But that’s a recipe for poor recovery and burnout. If you notice you haven’t been able to lift more weight or run faster in a few weeks, it’s time to either take a week or so off, or switch up your routine, McCall says.
Reality Check: Should You Reevaluate Your Goals?
Ultimately, the scale isn’t the end-all-be-all indicator of your health. After all, one pound of muscle takes up less space than one pound of fat, and boosts your calorie burn by four to seven calories per day, says McCall. “If you gain five pounds of muscle, you’ll burn 30 more calories a day,” he says. That’s like walking an extra mile a week—without actually doing the extra exercise.
Losing that last five pounds isn’t a health concern. For many of us, that goal number may just be unrealistic or more about aesthetics. When your laser-beam focus on hitting a certain number is stressing you out, think instead about how your clothes fit, or how strong or energetic you feel. You might just realize you don’t need to lose five more pounds after all.