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How quickly will my weight change when making healthy changes to my diet?

Learn to manage expectations about what is healthy and not when making changes to your diet.

How quickly should I lose weight? 

“How quickly should I lose weight?” is a question I’m asked frequently, and there’s no simple answer. When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to obsess over how quickly the numbers on the scale are changing. Right up front, I want to stress that any weight-loss effort should focus first and foremost on your health, because your health and well-being always take precedence over a goal weight or target pants size.

Losing weight quickly can be very appealing! But dropping pounds too fast can backfire, leaving you feeling weak from deprivation. You could find yourself at the start of a bingeing cycle. Or, with the radical changes required by rapid weight-loss programs, you might simply give up almost as soon as you get started. On the other hand, if your progress is slow and you feel like you’re seeing barely any change at all, you’re not likely to stick with it.

So what’s the happy medium for healthy weight loss?

How Many Pounds Per Week Should I Lose?

Every body is different, and there’s no perfect program or guidance that will fit everyone. This applies to everything from workout routines to the speed of weight loss. Developing healthier habits is always a more constructive goal than focusing on body weight, but given how many people feel driven to try to lose too much weight too quickly, let’s dive into what the experts have to say.

According to Mayo Clinic, a realistic initial goal may be to lose five-percent of your current weight, which can help to reduce your risk of chronic health problems. The best approach is to aim for dropping one to two pounds per week — which means burning 500-1,000 more calories per day than you consume — to support long-term weight management.

"Rapid weight loss doesn’t allow your body to adjust its set point — the weight your body is programmed to be."

Many people will look at losing one to two pounds per week and think, “that’s way too slow!” But faster weight loss actually increases the likelihood that you’ll put that weight back on again, and then some. Rapid weight loss doesn’t allow your body to adjust its set point — the weight your body is programmed to be. Your set point is determined by multiple factors, including hormones, genetics, behavior, and environment. No fad diet can change your body’s set point, but some experts believe gradual weight loss, with persistent maintenance, can result in a lower set point. Going slow makes it easier to adopt long-term healthy changes, versus an extreme, quick-fix remedy that’s more like a shock to the system. Not to mention that with severely restricted calories — and the added hunger, cravings, and obsession over food that comes with it — fad or crash diets can make your life miserable.

If you’ve had temporary success with restrictive diets, it can be tempting to give it another try after you’ve put the weight back on, but then you’re in a cycle of yo-yo dieting — which isn’t fun, and isn’t healthy, either. Worse, the impact of yo-yo dieting on slowing your metabolism can make weight maintenance that much harder even years later. One study of 183 people in a year-long program found that losing more weight early translated to less weight lost over the long haul. Another study of “Biggest Loser” contestants found that six years later, all but one person had regained most of the weight they lost on the show.

Yo-you dieting can be a sign that problematic mindsets or behavior may be at work, and you might benefit from working with a professional to define and meet your health goals.

Why Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Rapid weight loss can bring both frustration and health problems — not to mention that regaining the weight seems to be the rule and not the exception. It’s just not a recipe for lifelong success. Going slow requires more patience, but it makes it easier to maintain your weight loss, because you’re establishing good habits to support your health — and because going slow helps to maintain your metabolism’s efficiency. You’ll be less likely to experience health issues associated with rapid weight loss, and you won’t be losing muscle mass the way you would with a crash diet.One study found that people following a slower pace lost ten-percent more body fat and fifty-percent less muscle than those on a rapid weight-loss plan — even though both groups lost the same amount of weight overall.

"Going slow requires more patience, but it makes it easier to maintain your weight loss, because you’re establishing good habits to support your health."

Other slow and steady benefits include healthier hair — versus hair loss when losing weight too quickly. And you’ll likely avoid the crushing fatigue and loosened skin that are common when your body doesn’t have time to adjust to rapid weight loss. Because crash diets trigger your body’s mechanisms to prevent starvation — like making you feel hungrier more often — a slow and steady approach is more likely to produce good results. And when you include exercise, better sleep habits, and stress reduction, you’re on a better track for success.

Setting realistic goals and managing expectations is key to sustainable weight loss. Each small step in your plan should be achievable — to guide your progress and boost your spirits and confidence along the way.

The Psychological Reasons Slow Weight Loss Is Better

Slow and steady changes might not look as appealing as the crash-diet promise of rapid weight loss, but going slow has the added benefit of easing into a new lifestyle as you learn better habits to support your health. Basically, you’re learning how to weigh less. Instead of reverting to unhealthy behaviors after a restrictive diet — and also regaining the weight — the small steps and gradual changes of the slow and steady approach help you create permanent and sustainable change.

The calorie deprivation of rapid weight loss can make you more preoccupied with food — meaning you spend a lot of time thinking and talking about food — and this effect can be felt for years after the diet ends. You might also end up beating yourself up about failing, or lacking willpower or self-control, when neither may be true.

"When you build a healthy lifestyle and follow better habits, you can be healthy at almost any weight."

The good news is that when you build a healthy lifestyle and follow better habits, you can be healthy at almost any weight. Studies show that when you actively engage in healthy behaviors — like eating more fruits and vegetables and getting sufficient exercise — there’s little difference in mortality between weight categories. Even when you have days when you feel like quitting, you can shift your focus to the positive lifestyle changes you’re building and know that you’re acting today to create a better and healthier future.

Why the Numbers Don’t Actually Matter

Remember that these are all guidelines, rather than strict rules for success. For instance, a one to two-pound average loss per week may in reality look more like a two-pound loss one week, then a one-pound gain the next week, followed by a three-pound loss. And so on.

In other words, your body weight fluctuates naturally, due to factors like hydration, food consumption, exercise, and hormones, and these fluctuations vary from one person to the next. Instead of weighing yourself multiple times of day and putting too much emphasis on the results, you can learn your body’s unique rhythms and pay attention to changes over weeks and months instead of hours and days. Plus, the number on the scale doesn’t automatically translate to good health and well-being, and focusing too much on weigh-ins can lead to preoccupation with food and body image, cycles of gaining and losing weight, and lower self-esteem.

There are other ways besides pounds or kilograms to track your progress. You can pay attention to how your clothes fit, or use a measuring tape on your waist, hips, arms, and thighs. You can focus on improvements in fitness — for instance, how long and how far you can hike this month versus last month. And don’t forget to look for changes in other important measurements like blood pressure, cholesterol, and body-fat percentage.

"Your primary focus should be on your health and well-being."

As with any big shift, your primary focus should be on your health and well-being. Making any change requires hard work, but with patience and persistence, you might discover that the real transformation you’re yearning for has nothing to do with weight.  Improving your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol numbers can make a big difference to your physical and mental health, as can improvements to your sleep habits and developing a sustainable and enjoyable exercise routine.

Here’s the bottom line: losing weight too quickly can cause real problems. Setting goals that focus on your health — instead of your weight — can yield more positive results anyway. You’ll be creating healthy and sustainable habits for a lifetime of improved physical and mental well-being. And you don’t need a bathroom scale to measure that.

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.

Bea is almost here!
We'll let you know when she's ready to help you
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Bea is almost here!
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