If you’re trying to lose weight, consistency is key, even when you feel like progress is slow. While just a week of eating in a caloric deficit (i.e., eating fewer calories than you burn) can feel like an eternity, it usually requires more time than that to notice the effects of your hard work.
Sure, we know there’s rarely instant gratification associated with a healthier lifestyle and weight loss, but how long should you expect it to take to notice you’re shedding the pounds? To answer that question, let us dig a little deeper than the number you see on the scale.
Here’s something not everyone thinks about: “The scale reflects all of you: fat, muscle, bones, organs and body fluids,” explains Alexia Lewis, a registered dietitian and personal trainer. So when your scale weight drops, you could be losing any of these elements. Most people who want to lose weight are really after fat loss, not just general weight loss, Lewis points out.
The problem is initial weight loss on the scale isn’t usually fat loss, particularly if you’re reducing carbohydrates and high-sodium processed foods. Most of the time, it’s water weight loss. “If you reduce carbs and salt, then you will probably lose quite a few pounds quickly and be less bloated,” says Lewis. “You will be able to see this type of weight loss on the scale and in how your clothes fit fairly quickly.”
Fat loss, on the other hand, takes longer to notice, since it happens at a slower rate. If you’re losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, your scale weight might not change much at all, even if your body is getting physically smaller.
“There’s no surefire way to know if you’re losing fat or water weight, but if you drop a substantial amount of weight in a few days, chances are good that it is mostly water weight,” says Lewis.
That said, losing water weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Losing excess water weight initially can actually be helpful and very motivating when you’re first starting,” says Jamie Nadeau, RD. “Although it’s important to note that if you’re trying a short-term ‘crash diet’ and you lose 5 pounds in the first week, it’s water weight, and it will come right back as soon as you go back to your normal habits.”
Day-to-day weight increases and decreases can also make it tricky to track how much weight you’re losing. “When you see fluctuation, recognize it is mostly due to things other than fat gain or loss,” says Lewis. “Many people only see a couple of pounds of fluctuation, but you may see 5 pounds or more depending on your overall weight and gender.”
In particular, women tend to notice weight fluctuation before and during the first few days of their menstrual cycle. “The average weight fluctuation during a menstrual cycle may be about 1–5 pounds. However, the weight should normalize after the first few days into the menstrual cycle,” says Nicole German Morgan, RD. High amounts of sodium can also cause your weight to spike, she notes. Plus, there are many other factors that can cause water weight gain and loss, such as post-workout soreness, stress, alcohol consumption and more.
For this reason, many experts recommend only weighing yourself once a week. “We all have a very unique weight range that fluctuates every single day, so I always encourage people to think about moving that entire weight range down versus focusing on just one number,” says Nadeau. “Everyone is completely different, and truly the only way to start to understand your own unique pattern is to weigh yourself.”
“Take an official weight at the same time of day on the same day of the week in the same clothes,” Lewis recommends. That way, you can look at the big picture of your weight changes. If you tend to indulge on the weekends, Nadaeu suggests doing your weigh-in midweek, so the scale readout isn’t influenced by any bloat from the weekend.
“If you’re interested in tracking your weight every day without driving yourself crazy, pay attention to things like your monthly cycle, sleep, stress levels, muscle soreness and the amount of salt and carbs you eat,” Lewis adds. “All of these things can show up as water weight on the scale.”
In terms of how your body looks, “it usually takes 4 weeks for your friends to notice weight loss, and 6–8 weeks for you to notice,” says Ramsey Bergeron, a certified personal trainer. “Your friends who don’t see you every day are much more likely to see a change than someone you’re around all the time,” he adds.
Instead of relying completely on the scale, nutrition and fitness pros recommend using other weight-loss tracking methods alongside your weight. That way, you can see progress that’s not reflected on the scale.
1. Take body measurements.
Keeping track of your waist circumference is a simple way to see if you’re losing fat from your midsection. “To measure waist circumference, use a measuring tape and measure right around your belly button without sucking in your abdomen,” says Morgan. “Waist circumference is an excellent indicator of health and weight changes.”
2. Gauge how your clothes feel.
“Sometimes something as subjective as how your clothes feel on you can indicate you are making progress,” notes Bergeron. “I tend to measure my clients’ circumference measurements in half inches, but even a loss of a quarter-inch around your thigh can make your pants feel much looser.”
3. Take progress photos.
“You can have significant body composition changes without much weight change at all, and sometimes that can be frustrating,” Nadeau explains. But progress photos can help you see changes in an objective way over time. Consider taking them every two weeks, and wear the same clothes each time.
4. Notice how you feel.
Bergeron also tracks subjective factors like how restful sleep is and how much energy his clients have. “It’s important to keep tabs on these things because if you are gaining muscle and the scale is not moving, that doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t getting in better shape and healthier overall.”