Weight loss doesn’t happen overnight. But here’s the thing: We really want it to.
And while experts have traditionally recommended losing no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week, many popular plans promote losses of 5-plus pounds in the first week. Bariatric surgeries and medically supervised weight-loss programs often yield even faster results.
So what’s a dieter to do? Hit the accelerator or pump the breaks? Well, research suggests the answer is very individual. Choosing the right strategy for you not only determines how quickly you hit your weight-loss goal – it determines if you’ll regain the weight. Research from the University of California at Los Angeles shows that after losing weight, about two-thirds of dieters not only gain everything back, but they end up weighing more than they did pre-diet.
Don’t let your weight-loss journey end in regain. Here are four things you need to know to lose weight at the right rate for you – and keep it off.
1. Sustainable changes lead to slower weight loss.
Over the long term, making small changes to your lifestyle – hitting 10,000 steps per day, eating more vegetables or cutting back on soda, for instance – is way more sustainable than completely overhauling your routine, says New York City-based registered dietitian Justine Roth. And, research shows that they really add up. For example, a study out of the University of Massachusetts Medical School shows that simply increasing your fiber intake can be as effective at helping you lose weight as following a full-fledged diet.
However, when you’re making small changes, the results don’t necessarily come quickly. For example, nixing your daily soda habit might only decrease your daily caloric intake by a couple hundred calories per day. So, if you change nothing else, you can expect to lose about a half pound per week. That’s not a lot – but it is pretty darn doable, Roth says. And in one comprehensive review from the University of Toronto, researchers concluded that, in the end, the weight-loss strategy that you can stick with for the longest yields the best results.
2. Fast weight loss (at least in the beginning) can help you stick to your plan.
Still, choosing a slow and steady weight-loss strategy isn’t the only way to keep you consistent. In fact, research in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that the people who lost the most weight during the first month of their journeys were 5.1 times more likely to reach their weight-loss goals compared to those who lost the least amount of weight during their first month.
“Losing a significant amount of weight early on in a diet can help people buy into the plan and increase the likelihood that they will stick with it over the long term,” explains Dr. Craig Primack, a member of the national board of directors for the Obesity Medicine Association. After all, if you lose a significant amount of weight early on, you’re going to feel like your diet is working and that you should keep at it. But, if your scale is barely budging, it can be incredibly difficult not to throw in the towel.
However, it’s worth noting that the study participants who lost the fastest weight only lost about 1.5 pounds per week. That’s significant, but still adds up to far less than the 12 to 18 pounds of weight that some people lose per month in medically supervised weight-loss clinics.
3. Fast weight loss can hinder your metabolism.
“If you lose weight slowly, it’s a sign that you’re losing mainly body fat,” says Denver-based registered dietitian Jessica Crandall, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “However, if you lose weight quickly, you are likely also losing weight from lean muscle.”
That lean muscle is a primary determiner of your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn per day without factoring in exercise and other activities). So when you lose weight from muscle, you can drastically hinder your metabolic rate and make further weight loss more difficult and regain incredibly likely, she says.
For example, one examination of 14 people who lost significant (and speedy) amounts of weight on “The Biggest Loser” found that their daily resting metabolic rates were about 500 calories lower than they should have been – which explains why 13 of those people regained everything.
4. Sometimes, your health depends on losing weight fast.
“For those who are significantly obese or have obesity-related illnesses, the pros of losing weight as quickly as possible outweigh the risks associated with fast weight loss,” Primack explains.
After all, in one recent landmark study, U.K. researchers found that losing weight can cause people with Type 2 diabetes to go into remission. Losing weight can also reduce the amount of work placed on the heart, reduce blood pressure levels, improve sleep apnea, decrease inflammation and even cut the risk of cancer, he says.
The sooner those things can happen, the better. That’s why, as a general rule of thumb, only people who have a body mass index of 40 or more, or have a BMI between 35 and 40 and have at least one weight-related medical condition like heart disease, qualify for bariatric surgery, Primack says. During the first months following surgery, weight-loss procedures can result in roughly three to four pounds of weekly weight loss – a rate that, if you don’t carry imminent health risks, may not be worth it.
However, it’s important to realize that when patients need to lose weight at such increased rates, whether with or without surgery, they should do so with medical supervision to make sure that they are still getting the nutrients they need to minimize muscle losses and reduce metabolic declines, he says.