Expectations and Plateaus

Expectations about how much weight can be lost as well as the speed with which it can be lost affect the weight-loss process.
Expectations and Plateaus
Keep Expectations Reasonable
There is no question that a weight loss of 5% to 10% of initial body weight improves health, reducing the risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.1 Despite this, research has found that overweight individuals often desire weight losses 2 to 3 times more than this amount.2 In one study that included obese women, a 17% weight loss was viewed as "disappointing" by the participants and it took a 25% weight loss for the rating to be "acceptable." 3

The gap between realistic and desired weight goals can lead to a "discounting" of the results that are achieved. Some studies suggest that having unrealistic weight-loss goals can undermine work against consistently making the behavior changes needed for lasting weight loss.4 Moderating expectations, particularly as they relate to the speed with which weight-loss is achieved, may help keep weight-loss efforts on track.

Refocus Weight Goals
Experts agree that a 10% weight loss of initial weight over a period of six months is both realistic and attainable.1 When calories are reduced 500 to 1,000 calories per day, weight is lost at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week. After six months, however, it is common for weight loss to plateau.

There are several factors that contribute to weight-loss plateaus. For example, familiarity with a weight-loss plan often leads to a relaxed adherence in eating or exercise regimens. In addition, the number of calories needed for metabolism is reduced as weight is lost. To counteract this and resume the recommended rate of weight loss, a further decrease in food calories and/or increase in calories burned in physical activity are needed.

If weight loss plateaus after six months of active dieting, experts often recommend a reassessment of weight-loss goals. For many, a refocusing of efforts to maintain the weight that has been lost as opposed to continuing active weight loss may be desirable. After a few months of weight maintenance, a return to active weight loss is reasonable.

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated June 25, 2012.

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Other Science Library Topics:

Are You Ready: Introduction to Behavior Change

Mind Skills for Lasting Weight Loss


1 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report: Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; 1998.

2 Foster GD, Wadden TA, Phelan S, Sarwer DB, Sanderson RS. Obese patients' perceptions of treatment outcomes and the factors that influence them. Arch Intern Med. 2001 Sep 24;161(17):2133-9.

3 Foster GD, Wadden TA, Vogt RA, Brewer G. What is a reasonable weight loss? Patients' expectations and evaluations of obesity treatment outcomes. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1997 Feb;65(1):79-85.

4 Linde JA, Jeffery RW, Levy RL, Pronk NP, Boyle RG. Weight loss goals and treatment outcomes among overweight men and women enrolled in a weight loss trial. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 Aug;29(8):1002-5.