December 31st, 2010
08:16 AM ET

What's the best way to jump-start your metabolism?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by Jay of San Diego, California:

I'm 5-foot-8 and 26 years old and started at 247 pounds and am at 203 pounds now, in about 22 weeks. I've seemed to stop losing weight when I used to average about two pounds a week. I've tried other exercises but almost to no effect. Any suggestions?

Expert answer:

Hi, Jay. Since tomorrow is January 1, I'm sure many people will be thinking about losing weight, so I thought this was a great time to answer your question to help people work through this challenging situation rather than giving up on their weight loss goals.

Weight loss plateaus are incredibly frustrating and incredibly common. In my patients, I notice that they seem to plateau around six to eight weeks into their diets and again around four to five months, similar to your situation. Your two-pound-per-week rate of weight loss is safe and healthy, so I'm not concerned that you have lost weight too quickly, leading to a plateau. Rather, I think you need to make sure you are not falling into diet pitfalls that I see commonly in my office.

First of all, now that you weigh 44 pounds less, you need to either adjust caloric intake downward slightly or increase exercise, because overall, you are burning fewer calories because you weigh less. In addition, most people don't realize that you are burning fewer calories during exercise as well because you have less weight to carry, and you are also probably much more fit if you have been exercising all along.

To cut calories without feeling too hungry, keep a food journal for a week and try to identify eating occasions during which you could cut 50 to 100 calories without noticing much of a difference. Keeping a journal is also a good way to identify areas where an extra 50 to 100 calories may have snuck back in to your diet.

An easier way to cut calories without cutting portions is to increase the water content of foods that you eat. Try to eat non-cream-based soups, lots of non-starchy vegetables and salads (but watch the dressing and high-fat toppings), and low-fat or nonfat dairy with most meals and snacks to get adequate food volume with fewer calories. Boost the fiber content of your diet too, as fiber adds bulk with minimal calories.

I also encourage my patients to really make an effort to cut processed foods (even if they are considered "healthier," low fat, low sugar or high fiber) like baked goods, breads, desserts, crackers and packaged meals as much as possible if they hit a plateau. Stick to foods closest to their natural state like vegetables, nuts, lean protein, whole fruit, plain low-fat dairy, whole grains like barley, brown rice and quinoa, and healthy oils.

With regard to exercise, you are correct to try other exercises to boost your metabolism, but you need to make sure that the exercise is really challenging. I find that many of my patients just aren't pushing themselves enough in the gym to break through weight loss plateaus. For resistance training, the last few repetitions of each set need to be hard. And if you are doing cardio, you really need to be pushing yourself to the point that you can't easily carry on a conversation (be sure to get your doctor's clearance first) during most of your workout.

I have talked a lot about interval training in the past, and I find that it is the best way to get your overall workout to a higher intensity. A simple internal workout involves a five-minute warmup, mini sprints (30 to 60 seconds at a very challenging pace, resistance or incline followed by one or two minutes at a normal pace) for 15 to 20 minutes, and a five-minute cool-down. This allows you to work harder overall and really increase the caloric burn of each workout. If you find your energy is low during workouts, you might consider a cup of coffee (skip the cream and sugar) or green tea before your workout, as this could increase fat burning slightly and has been show to improve athletic performance.

Finally, make sure that you are getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep, as there has been considerable research in the last five years on the effect of getting too little sleep on obesity. And if the scale really refuses to budge, focus on maintaining your weight loss, as losing nearly 20% of your body weight is fantastic and will significantly improve your health in the long run.

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. MLS

    Just when I thought I have read everything there is about diet and exercise, I find that I just learned something HUGE from this article. When you lose weight, but still have more to lose, you need to decrease food intake or increase exercise because you weigh less than you did and you are therefore burning fewer calories. Consequently, you don't burn as much doing the same exercise as you did when weighted more. This is really obvious when you think about it but I've never seen it or heard it before. Explains why our weight tends to plateau. Thank you Dr. Jampolis

    December 31, 2010 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. jramos

    nice blog, I myself, need to get back into the gym. I'm trying to bulk up, get strong, and then get ripped. For me, getting ripped, I think will be challeging when it comes to eating the right foods in order to get my cutness.

    January 3, 2011 at 12:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jellia Jamb

    No mention in this entire article about how our metabolism is affected by our muscle mass, and how adding a little bit of weight-training to your exercise routine is an excellent way to get past the plateau. Awesome.

    January 28, 2011 at 11:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Michelle

    All the information may not be accurate. I began consulting with a registered dietician and she says that if you are very active, when you reach a plateau, you in fact need to INCREASE CALORIES in order to keep up with caloric demands associated with working out. As we all know if you don't eat enough, the body goes into starvation mode and your metabolism slows down, thus decreasing how many calories you burn, resulting in the ever frustrating weight loss plateau. You also run the risk of depleting muscle if you aren't eating enough to support your workouts.

    January 28, 2011 at 13:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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