Why those last five pounds are so hard to lose

By Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, Nutritional Data
SELF magazine

Q. I would like to lose about 5 pounds. I've entered my data into the Caloric Needs tool on the Nutrition Data site, and it says I need 2050 calories to maintain my current weight. For the last month, I have been either eating 400-600 calories less than this, or working out to create a deficit, or a combination of the two. I have seen no fluctuation in either the scale or my body or the fit of my clothes. I don't know what else to do! I would greatly appreciate your advice.

A. As anyone who has ever lost a lot of weight (like twenty pounds or more) will tell you, the first five come off so easily and the last five are the toughest! Here are some ideas on ways to break through that last plateau.

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Be patient
The closer you are to your goal weight, the slower the weight tends to come off. Although this is frustrating, think of it as coming in for a soft landing. If you're losing weight very quickly, chances are good that the pounds will come right back on the minute you stop dieting.

By losing those last few pounds gradually, you're actually making a gradual transition into your maintenance phase. If it takes you six months to lose that last three pounds, you've got a much better chance of stabilizing at your goal weight--because you'll have six more months of controlled eating habits under your belt.

Cut out a few more calories--but not everyday
Even though our Daily Needs calculator takes into account your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level, it can still only give you an estimate of your calorie needs. Your actual calorie needs may be slightly higher or lower.

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It may be that you need to cut back a little more to create enough of a calorie deficit to nudge those last couple of pounds. But eating fewer calories can backfire by signaling your body to conserve energy. There's a way to outsmart this: If you're currently consuming about 1800 calories a day, try alternating 1800 calories days with 1300 calorie days. Over the source of a week, you'll trim an extra 1500 calories or so. But the calorie cycling should help keep your metabolism from adjusting--and your will power from flagging.

Mix up your workouts

Your body craves efficiency. If you always do the same workout routine, your muscles will learn to perform that workout using less energy--and you'll burn fewer calories. (Also, remember that the "calories burned" displays on gym cardio equipment are notoriously inaccurate!)

Bonus: Don't know your BMI? Calculate it here!

To maximize the calorie burn from your exercise sessions, try some new classes, a different piece of cardio, or even a different program on the cardio equipment you favor. Best program for fat-burning? Interval training! If you favor low-tech exercise, like walking or jogging, try to find a new route that involves some extra hills, or work some 60-second sprints into your routine.

Double-check your goals

Finally, consider whether you really need to lose that extra five pounds. I'm certainly not suggesting that you give up on your goals or settle for something less than your best self! But in your note (which I edited a bit for length) you mentioned that you're not overweight. You sound as if you're working out and disciplined about your diet. Is this last five pounds a matter of fitting into a certain dress size or measuring up to the unrealistic standards of thinness that we see in the media? That's something only you can say for sure. But it could be that your body is sending you a message: Maybe you're at your happy weight!

For more, see SELF's Happy Weight Handbook

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