In our tech-savvy society we’ve become even more used to getting results quickly. Demanding instant gratification is fine when you’re talking about a smartphone, but it’s not the best policy when it comes to weight loss.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Fad diets that promise large amounts of weight loss leave you hungry at best, and at their worst they leave you with unhealthy habits and returned weight gain.
So what is the magic number to lose weight and keep it off? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s 1 to 2 pounds per week. That means, on average, that aiming for 4 to 8 pounds of weight loss per month is a healthy goal.
Just because it’s possible to lose a lot more, at least in the early months of a diet, doesn’t mean it’s healthy or that the weight will stay off in the long term.
Losing the healthy way
Losing weight can be incredibly simple and incredibly challenging at the same time.
Math tells us that if we take in fewer calories than we burn, we will end in burning stored fat for fuel. One pound equals 3,500 calories. If you want to lose 1 pound per week, you’ll need to take in about 500 to 1,000 fewer calories. But life isn’t so simple. There are social events, holidays, and celebrations that all revolve around food.
When trying to lose weight, a solid eating and exercise plan with a goal of getting healthier — not just fitting into a new outfit or looking good at an event — will help you lose the weight and keep it off. It’s important to focus on both improving your eating habits and getting more physical activity.
Strength training like lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises along with some high-intensity interval training can give your metabolism the boost it needs to shed extra pounds. Steady-state aerobic exercise can also help burn off some calories.
“Exercise increases your metabolic rate and builds more muscle mass, which allows you to continue to burn calories after the exercise session,” says Dr. Amy Siegel of Austin Regional Clinic.
The good news is that you don’t have to lose a lot of weight before you start seeing positive changes in your health. According to the CDC, if you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and reduce your risk of diabetes.
Why ‘dieting’ doesn’t do it
There’s a reason it’s called “yo-yo dieting.” Depriving yourself isn’t sustainable and will eventually lead to a return in familiar eating patterns.
There’s also some science behind why we gain weight back after quick weight loss programs, according to Dr. Peter LePort, medical director of Memorial Care Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
“The body reacts quickly when you lose weight that fast and you get hungry. If you lose 1 to 2 pounds a week, the body will adjust and begin to feel this is the weight I should be at and then you won’t become extremely hungry because of a rapid weight loss,” he says.
The exception to the 1 to 2 pound recommendation is when people have gone through weight loss surgery. Dr. LePort says many of his bariatric surgery patients are 100 pounds overweight and might lose 20 pounds per month shortly after surgery, then about 10 pounds per month, and then 5 pounds per month.
“The surgery forces them to eat slowly and take in less food.”
Choosing a plan
In order to lose weight and keep it off, you’ll need a plan that you can stick to.
If you’re just starting your weight loss journey or have had struggles in the past with finding a plan to stick to, it’s a good idea to seek help. Your doctor can recommend a dietitian who can work with you to develop a healthy eating plan that’s right for your needs and long-term goals.
A dietitian can teach you healthy habits and ways to make sure you’re managing portion sizes and avoiding too much sugar, salt, and saturated fat, all of which contribute to health issues like heart disease and diabetes.
“Frequently a patient needs help and they need to get into a program. I have a program I put together in my office for patients that includes classes and dietary instruction,” says Dr. LePort.
Both Dr. LePort and Dr. Siegel recommend programs like Weight Watchers because they’re helpful for learning portion control without having to deprive yourself of certain foods.
In order to be truly successful, focus on creating a healthier lifestyle for yourself. Eating healthfully and exercising shouldn’t be a temporary means to an end — they should be regular habits.
“How long it takes for someone to get to their goal depends on how many pounds they need to lose. The weight didn’t come on overnight, and it isn’t going to come off overnight either,” says Dr. Siegel.