It's been a long and sometimes difficult road. You've been sensible, taking off just a pound or so per week with more exercise, careful meal planning, and calorie counting. And now, you're just a few pounds from your goal weight.
Why then, has the effort become so much harder? You're hungry more often. You're not losing weight as quickly as you've been accustomed to. Frustration mounts. It seems you've hit some kind of wall, physical and emotional, that threatens to keep you from your goal.
You're in the dreaded "last 10 pounds" zone (though in reality it may be more like 12, or 8, or 5). And it's dreaded for good reason. Many dieters find this stage of weight loss the most difficult of all -- even harder, in some cases, than the transition from weight loss to long-term weight maintenance.
"We cannot precisely say that it is the last 10 pounds," says Werner W. K. Hoeger, EdD, director of the Human Performance Laboratory and professor of kinesiology at Boise State University in Idaho. "In general, weight loss is faster during the initial phases of a diet plan, while the last few pounds are more difficult to lose."
Power Your Way Through a Plateau
To keep focused and motivated, it may help to know what's going on inside your body, says Hoeger, author of Lifetime Physical Fitness and Wellness.
When you're dieting, you may lose weight faster at first because of an initial loss of lean body mass. When the loss of this lean component stabilizes -- because your body needs lean body mass to perform the activities of daily living -- your weight loss becomes much more gradual.
"But when a moderate diet (1,200 to 1,500 calories) is combined with exercise, a much greater amount of weight loss is in the form of fat [rather than lean muscle mass] because the body requires the lean tissue to perform the exercise program," says Hoeger.
So if you haven't been exercising, now is the time to start. If you've been working out all along, consider stepping it up a bit.
"Exercise helps you maintain lean muscle mass while you are dieting, and it helps with appetite control," says Judy Giusti, MS, RD, coordinator of the "Fit 'N Healthy" program at the Joslin Diabetes Center.
Your exercise program should include strength or resistance training as well as an aerobic component, the experts say.
A good strength-training program should include about 10 exercises that include the major muscle groups, says Hoeger, who recommends that you do three to four sets of eight to 12 repetitions to near fatigue.
And make sure you're working hard enough, Hoeger says.
"When most people strength train, they perform several sets but seldom max out during a set," he says. "They may perform 10 repetitions in a set, but could still perform another 10 because the resistance (weight) used is not high enough to cause muscle fatigue at 8 to 12 repetitions."
To make your strength-training program more time-effective, Hoeger suggests, alternate different exercises that use different muscle groups. For example, do squats to work your lower body, followed by pushups for the upper body. "In this manner, the person will not have to wait the required two to three minutes between sets for adequate muscle recovery," he says.
Maintain Your Motivation
Guisti says this is also a good time a time to make sure you're using your food diary religiously. You may find that your portion sizes have crept upward, or that you're making more high-calorie food choices as you have neared your goal.
"Keeping food records -- writing down everything that you eat -- can help to pinpoint problems and make one more aware of what is being eaten. Then any lapses can be nipped in the bud," Guisti says. "Keep in mind that no one is perfect, and everyone will have days when they eat more than they wished. Then it is important to think positively and get back on track the next day."
To stay focused on their goals,"people need to progressively add new behavioral change strategies as they go through the weight loss program," says Hoeger. So figure out what's working, and what isn't, and adjust your strategies accordingly.
"They also have to keep in mind the long term health and fitness benefits of weight loss instead of the instant gratification provided by unhealthy eating habits," Hoeger says. In other words, focus on better health, not fewer pounds and don't forget to congratulate yourself for how far you've already come.
It may also help to remember that "weight loss is not usually a straight line on a graph," says Giusti. ""People can go through periods of 'plateau-ing' or even of small weight gain. This may be a time to relook at your weight loss goals. It is important to be sure that weight loss goals are realistic and achievable."
The best way to see if you are being realistic may be to talk to a dietitian or fitness expert, suggests Molly Kimball, LDN, RD, a sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans.
If you have questions about your goal, visit the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Ask the Dietitian or Exercise and Fitness message boards.
Tips for the Last 10
Kimball offers some more suggestions to help you get to your goal.
- Eat every three to four hours throughout the day. If you've been sticking to three meals a day, try revving your metabolism by eating more often. This can be a light meal or a small snack such as 15 nuts, an ounce of cheese, or a slice of whole grain bread with peanut butter.
- Cut the carbs in the evening. Lots of people fill up on carbs at night. But you don't need excess carbs then -- carbs give you quick energy, and most people are winding down in the evenings. Try limiting your high-carb choices at dinner and afterward, including breads, rice, potatoes, corn, peas, crackers, pretzels, and other snacks. Instead, dine on salads with a little dressing, lean proteins, and non-starchy vegetables. If you want a nighttime snack, try a spoonful of peanut butter, a few nuts, or a few slices of turkey rolled up with a thin slice of cheese.
- Limit carbs before cardio. If your goal with cardiovascular exercise is performance -- to run as fast as you can, for example -- you'll want to eat carbs beforehand to fuel your performance. But if your goal is to burn fat, try protein instead. Carbs trigger an insulin release, which may inhibit the body's ability to burn body fat as a fuel source during exercise, Kimball says. So instead of fruit or bagel, grab a hard-boiled egg, a slice or two of turkey, cottage cheese with sunflower seeds, or a protein drink.
- Try interval training. Incorporate short intervals of higher-intensity training into your cardio workouts. For example, if you're now walking or jogging 45 minutes, add a 60-90 second burst of higher-speed walking or running every 5 minutes. If you work out on a machine, try increasing the incline or resistance during the intervals. Interval training will help you to burn more calories in the same amount of time.