Are my weight loss expectations realistic?

realistic weight loss expectations

One of the most common statements I hear is “why is it taking me so long to lose weight?” I am working so hard and “only” losing 1 lb or ½ per week.

What can I do to make this process shorter?

Conventional weight loss wisdom suggests that 3500 calories is equal to 1 lb of body weight. A decrease in 500 calories each day which would result in 1 lb of weight lost per week (500 calorie deficit x 7 days per week = 3500 calories). This could be achieved by either eating less calories less per day, increasing the calories you use by working out, or a combination of eating less and moving more.

In general, the higher your starting weight the quicker the weight loss would be. For example:

  • 5 foot 4 woman weighing 150 lbs/sedentary needs 1700 calories to stay at her current weight
  • 5 foot 4 woman weighing 250 lbs/sedentary needs 2200 calories to stay at her current weight

If each of these women start following a 1200 calorie meal plan to lose weight:  The 150 lb woman could lose 1 lb per week (1700-1200 = 500 calorie deficit per day x 7 days) vs. the 250 woman who could lose 2 lbs per week (2200-1200 = 1000 calorie deficit per day x 7 days).

This wisdom suggests that:

  1. If you have more to lose and you restrict your daily calories you will lose weight faster.
  2. If you lose weight and you weight less, you will need to consume less calories per day
  3. As you continue to lose weight, you will continue to lose 1-2 lbs of weight each week

Sounds simple right? But is this simple equation realistic? No, according to Kevin Hall, PhD, a senior investigator in the mathematical biology section of the NIH. This is because the 3500 calorie equation may lead to overestimation of what is actually possible to lose and can lead to a decrease in motivation when you have not achieved this goal. Hall has developed this realistic tool to see how long weight loss truly takes. Check out his Body Weight Simulator.

Obesity researchers suggest that this age old adage may work in the short term or if you only have a little weight to lose but is less sustainable in the long term or for those who have more to lose. This is because it fails to take into account any adaptive or physiologic changes our body may go through during a calorie restriction phase. This is seen when, despite eating the same food and exercising the same every day, it may not result in as significant a weight loss as we experienced when we first started.

The CDC recommends a reasonable weight loss goal of 1-2 lbs per week for healthy weight loss. It is suggested that losing weight gradually may help make create ongoing habits necessary to keep the weight off for the long term . The goal is to create consistent lifestyle changes that can lead to consistent lifestyle results

What does this mean for you?

  • Going on a crazy diet or fast and trying to lose 20 lbs in a  month is probably not going to happen
  • Setting a goal of trying to lose 30 lbs in a few months before the summer arrives is not realistic
  • Weight loss happens at a much slower pace than we want or expect it to take
  • You may lose 1 or 2 lbs per week when you first start to lose weight, but this will likely slow down as you continue to lose weight over time
  • Consistent behavior change counts

This flaw in the weight loss calculations will let you have the freedom to know that you have NOT failed at weight loss. It is not a perfect process. You will have weeks when it is so much harder to stay focused and motivated and other weeks where it is seemingly easier to stay focused. This is a NORMAL part of the process.

Being realistic about what you can lose will help you stay motivated for the long term.

Do not discount the effort and sacrifice you make to yourself each week by making a conscious effort to do what’s right for your body. Every single decision you make time after time will pay off in the long run. It means something. You achieved something great, no matter what the number on the scale says.  

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