How long does it take to lose weight?
You’re eating more veggies, hitting the gym, and counting Points. So, naturally, you’re excited to see results and reach your weight loss goal ASAP. But don’t be so quick to guess exactly when you’re going to get there. “It’s hard to put a time frame on how long it takes to lose weight,” says Angela Goscilo, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian and senior manager of nutrition at WeightWatchers®.
Your age, lifestyle, biological sex, and even medical history can affect how quickly or slowly you’ll lose weight. Understanding these factors can help you have realistic expectations for your journey and sidestep any frustration when it feels like it’s taking longer than you thought it would. Read on to learn about what might impact the speed of your weight loss — and why slow and steady really does win the race.
How long does it actually take to start losing weight?
You’ve probably heard that weight loss is simple math: Burn more calories than you take in, and you’ll subtract pounds. But the reality is a little more complicated, which means you might lose more in the first few weeks, than the next few. That said, it’s likely because you’re losing water weight in those early days — especially if you’re cutting back on high-sodium processed foods.
But while some people may notice a difference right away it can take longer for others, says Dr. Vivek Gupta, M.D., a board-certified obesity medicine doctor in Redondo Beach, California. And weight loss usually doesn’t follow a steady, straight line. “There are ups and downs,” says Goscilo. “Some weeks, you may stay the same or even gain weight.” Even if you follow your plan relatively closely, you can still expect to hit a weight loss plateau between 6 and 12 months, according to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Frustrating, we know.)
“That’s why it’s important not to laser focus on the number the scale shows,” Goscilo says. Instead, acknowledge other milestones, such as how you can walk a lot farther, chase your kids, or lift more weight.
How fast can you lose weight?
Sure, watching the numbers tick down is exciting, but don’t try to lose too much too fast. “A healthy rate is an average of one or two pounds a week,” says Dr. Rohit Soans, M.D., medical director of bariatric surgery at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Dropping pounds too quickly can actually set you up for failure because it’s too hard to keep up with the changes (cutting out entire food groups or living on one meal a day, for example) that result in drastic weight loss. “Plus, you’re more likely to regain the weight,” says Soans.
What’s more, extreme diets are often unhealthy, says Soans. “You risk dehydration and nutritional deficiencies.” To keep the pounds off over the long run and to stay healthy, you need small, sustainable changes that fit into your lifestyle, like the kind encouraged by the WeightWatchers program.
What factors affect weight loss?
Everybody (and every body) is different, so people lose weight at different speeds, says Gupta. “There are thousands of factors that affect weight loss.” Some of the most common include:
There’s no question that what you eat controls how quickly or slowly you lose weight. When it comes to weight loss, calories are key, says Goscilo. But all calories are not created equally, and the nutrients in the foods you eat can also impact the speed of weight loss. For example, fiber and protein take longer to digest, which can help you feel more satisfied throughout the day. The result: You take in fewer calories, which can help you lose more weight more quickly.
Your level of physical activity
Exercise is a mainstay of weight loss and maintenance. It burns calories, relieves stress, and encourages better sleep. One research review found that people who exercised regularly and changed what they ate lost 20% more at the 1-year mark, compared to those who only dieted — and they were more likely to keep the weight off. Find ways to work movement into your daily routine. Aim to get both aerobic exercise (to get your heart pumping), and resistance exercise (to build muscle) — something Gupta says burns more calories when you’re at rest, another way to encourage weight loss.
Your starting weight
People with more weight to lose tend to have faster weight loss at first, says Soans. He explains that small changes may have a bigger impact when you have a larger amount of excess weight. But as your body size decreases, so does the number of calories it needs, which can naturally slow down your pace.
Your biological sex
“Men may lose more weight at the beginning of their weight loss journey,” says Goscilo. (Unfair, we know.) One study in the journal Obesity found that men lose more weight than women during their first three years — something that might be due to burning more calories when they exercise.
Some research indicates that adults between the ages of 45 and 55 may lose more weight than those who fall outside that age range. This may be for a variety of reasons, such as having fewer cravings and an increased likelihood of following a dietary and exercise program, say the researchers. In general, though, weight loss can become more challenging as you get older. “Our metabolism tends to slow down with age,” says Soans.
“It’s estimated that there are 50 to 60 genes that control obesity and how fat is metabolized,” says Soans. These can impact how quickly you lose weight. But a family history of obesity doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed. Like other chronic diseases, such as heart disease or cancer, genes can put you at increased risk for obesity, says Soans. But, ultimately, your lifestyle choices and environment determine your health — and weight loss — outcome.
Your sleep habits
Ever notice your weight loss stalling after a really hectic month? You’re not dreaming. Falling short on sleep can make losing weight trickier, says Soans. For starters, dipping below seven hours a night raises levels of ghrelin, a hormone tied with hunger, and lowers leptin, another hormone that can help you feel full, according to a review of research. Feeling exhausted may also leave you with less energy to exercise — and make healthy decisions about food, says Gupta.
Your stress level
Research shows that stress can lead to weight gain, and people who are under more pressure are at greater risk of higher body weight and obesity. When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones like cortisol that set the stage for weight gain. Cortisol triggers your body to store more belly fat, along with ramping up your appetite. “Stress eating is real,” says Soans. Studies show that you’re more likely to crave calorie-dense foods to soothe your nerves. Stress can also interrupt sleep, which can make matters even worse.
Your medical history
Certain medications and medical conditions affect weight loss, says Gupta. Weight gain is included in the list of side effects of many drugs, such as antihistamines and beta blockers (often prescribed for hypertension). Meanwhile, certain conditions like insulin resistance and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), can make weight loss more difficult. This might be a good time to have a conversation with your healthcare provider about any conditions or medicines that may affect your weight loss.
Where do you lose weight first?
Despite what infomercials may claim, there’s no way of targeting weight loss in a specific part of your body. Everyone is different, and you can’t pinpoint exactly where you’ll lose weight first. That said, people tend to lose visceral fat (the kind found around your organs deep in the belly) first, says Soans. “Visceral fat is like a checking account, with fat moving in and out easily, while peripheral fat (the kind around your hips and thighs) is more like a savings account.” Men tend to carry more visceral fat, so they may notice a change in their waistline first, but it varies from person to person, says Soans.
What’s the best diet for fast weight loss?
There’s no magic diet for speedy weight loss, so instead the goal should be finding a pattern of healthy eating that works for your lifestyle. “There are so many ways to lose weight, and research shows that a variety of approaches are effective,” says Goscilo. This is why it’s important to go with something that feels do-able. “You have to stick with these habits consistently over the long run,” Goscilo says. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats can deliver the nutrients you need to feel full and satisfied. Although you may backslide or hit plateaus at times, relying on this eating style can help you reach your end goal — and stay with it. As for that end goal, remember that you should be working towards better weight health, which is finding the weight where you feel your best and healthy, not fitting into a certain size of jeans.
The bottom line
It’s important to understand that weight loss isn’t a simple equation. People lose weight at different speeds — and the journey usually isn’t straightforward. “A plateau of one to two weeks is very normal,” says Goscilo. But if you’re not losing — or start gaining weight — for longer than that, it may help to do an audit of your habits. “Reflect and go back to what worked for you in the beginning, such as tracking meals and measuring out portions.” By adjusting for these setbacks, you can get back on track.