For a lot of us — especially during the pandemic — the scale can feel a bit like the speedometer of a race car, accelerating rapidly in mere moments without warning. But weight gain doesn’t happen overnight, even if it sometimes feels that way.
To make matters worse, we often expect weight loss to happen quickly. We believe that as soon as we make up our mind to cut back on snacking, the pounds should magically melt away, and we get impatient if our pants are still fitting snugly after the first week.
“People make the decision that they want to start losing weight, and they want to see something in real, substantial numbers, so they go on to this crazy diet,” says Kuldeep Singh, MD, director of the Maryland Bariatric Center at Mercy in Baltimore. “But the fact of the matter is that this is a problem and a concern that has been there for some time. It didn’t develop in a day, and it should not go away in a day.”
While we’d all love weight loss to be as speedy as as an oil change, there are reasons the slow and steady approach is better, safer, and more effective.
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How Fast Can You Lose Weight Safely?
The first — and perhaps best — reason to pace yourself when it comes to weight loss is that it tends to be more effective at keeping the pounds off. Fad or crash diets that promise fast results aren’t usually something the average dieter can sustain over months or years. Experts believe that as many as 95 percent of dieters regain weight, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If you’re trying to avoid the dreaded yo-yo dieting effect of regaining the weight you’ve shed (and maybe packing on more), taking it slow is a good idea. People who lose weight at a rate of about 1 to 2 pounds per week are more successful at maintaining their progress than those who lose at a faster rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This assertion is backed up by a systematic review and meta-analysis published in December 2020 in the British Journal of Nutrition, which found that, even when the amount of weight loss was similar, dieters who lost the weight gradually as opposed to rapidly saw greater reductions in body fat percentage and fat mass. When rapid weight loss occurs, you’re far more likely to lose water weight, muscle, or even bone mass, reports the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Good weight loss is losing fat,” says Dr. Singh. “Bad weight loss is losing muscle.” You want to maintain your muscle mass for many reasons, but in a weight loss sense, muscle boosts metabolism by helping you burn more calories even when at rest, according to the Mayo Clinic. Singh adds that you’d likely need to be following a crash diet for a month or so for those health issues to take effect. Extreme forms of this are anorexia or bulimia, but milder forms are probably much more common than people think, he says.
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Why Quick Weight Loss Can Be Dangerous
Plenty of fad diets promise rapid weight loss by eliminating foods or entire food groups, or drastically restricting calories, but in doing so, they also eliminate important sources of nutrition, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Losing more than 2 pounds a week over several weeks is considered rapid weight loss, and it is generally the result of eating too few calories, according to MedlinePlus. That practice is not usually recommended unless you’re under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
“It depends on what weight you’re starting at, and your age, but people between 150 and 300 pounds should not be losing more than 2 to 5 pounds a week at any given time,” says Singh. “Anything more than that on a sustained basis is not healthy.”
Losing weight quickly can put stress on the body and alter your hormonal response, according to MedlinePlus. The hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, which tell your body when you’re full and when you’re hungry, respectively, can get out of sync, making you want to eat more often, according to Northwestern Medicine. Dropping 10 pounds during the first week of a new diet, for example, may seem like a huge success, but the weight loss will likely slow down and you may even gain that weight right back once you stop or relax the diet, according to MedlinePlus.
Your metabolism may get out of whack as well. According to the Cleveland Clinic, your body adjusts to the lower calorie intake by slowing down the rate at which it burns calories, in an effort to guard against starvation. This is called “metabolic adaptation,” and it happens whenever you burn more calories than you take in, according to research published in May 2018 in Obesity. Once you go back to eating regularly, your body won’t know what to do with the extra calories, and that’s where weight gain sets back in. Linda Anegawa, MD, a Honolulu-based double-board-certified physician in internal medicine and obesity medicine, and medical director with PlushCare, a virtual health platform, says that when you regain weight, you mostly regain fat.
Rapid weight loss can have other unhealthy side effects too. In addition to losing muscle mass, water, and bone density, it can introduce health issues, including gallstones, gout, fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea, according to MedlinePlus.
Losing weight too quickly may be especially dangerous for people with underlying health conditions, especially diabetes or kidney or stomach diseases, Singh says. Dr. Anegawa adds that quick weight loss could alter the appropriate dosages of medications, so it’s important to work closely with a doctor to adjust your regimen if you’re seeing big changes on the scale.
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The Best Approach for Gradual (and Lasting) Weight Loss
So, there you have it — approaching weight loss in a measured way can help you avoid potential health complications, and it raises the odds of long-term success at maintaining a healthy weight. But what’s the best way to go about it?
Unlike short-term fad diets that make drastic changes, healthy weight loss usually involves implementing lifestyle changes that you can stick with far into the future. “Without sustainable lifestyle changes that you can continue for the long term, you won’t be able to keep the health benefits of weight loss, plain and simple,” Anegawa says.
Developing healthy habits like eating a nutritious diet, moving often, managing stress, and sleeping well really can pay off over time, Singh says. “Those things are essential components of the weight loss picture,” he says.
These habits shouldn’t go out the window once your goal weight is achieved. The idea is that by introducing habits you can stick with in the long run, a healthy lifestyle will become second nature, which will help you keep the weight off.
A systematic review of several weight loss registries published in February 2020 in Obesity Reviewsidentified the most successful strategies for weight loss and maintenance. These included making healthy foods available at home, eating breakfast regularly, eating more vegetables and fewer sugary and fatty foods, and increasing physical activity.
Don’t worry if you’re not seeing results quickly — they will come. “Keep an eye on the long term — there’s nothing you’re going to gain out of short-term weight loss,” Singh says. He says trying to do too much too quickly can be overwhelming, and many people quit when they feel that way. Instead, Singh says to make small but permanent changes toward your goal. “You want to have a long, sustained weight loss program,” he says. “You want to take baby steps and enjoy those small goals that you achieve, and then set a new goal and move forward.”