When trying to lose weight, you likely have some type of goal in mind. Research shows the most successful goals are SMART — specific, measureable, achievable, realistic and timely. Though this strategy might feel like old news, it’s highly applicable to setting a weight-loss goal you can actually achieve, and more importantly, sustain for the long term. This five-step framework can help set you up for success:
It’s not always easy to estimate how much weight you can actually lose, but there’s one key requirement to keep in mind: “I always encourage clients to set realistic health goals,” says Laura Krebs-Holm, RD. “If you have never weighed a certain number in your entire adult life, you’re not likely to hit that goal now,” says Krebs-Holm. Of course, there are always exceptions, but it’s best to start conservative.
Overall, experts recommend setting specific short-term goals to maintain motivation. “If you’ve got a nebulous goal, like ‘I want to lose weight,’ or a long-term goal, like losing 60 pounds, then your efforts seem like an endless mission,” explains Dan DeFigio, a certified personal trainer and sports nutrition counselor.
DeFigio doesn’t generally recommend setting a specific weight goal tied to the scale. That’s because your weight is affected by lots of variables, including how much muscle you have, how much fluid you’re retaining and how depleted your carbohydrate stores are. “But people are going to weigh themselves anyway, so a number you can use as a metric is losing 10% of your current weight,” DeFigio says. “That’s when many health benefits start to kick in. So if you’re weighing in at 300 pounds (136kg), your first goal on the scale should be to lose 30 pounds (13.6kg).”
That said, if you have less than 20 pounds (9kg) to lose, the 10% formula might be overshooting. In that case, DeFigio recommends trying to lose 4–5 pounds (1.8–2.2kg), then reevaluating from there.
Experts agree that losing 0.5–2 pounds (0.23–1kg) per week is a realistic expectation. “You can lose a lot of scale weight fast with a crash diet. But that’s not fat loss, and it’s definitely not permanent,” DiFigio points out. “If we look at the calorie numbers, a small decrease in food intake (250 calories) and a small increase in activity (250 extra calories burned) should yield about 1 pound (0.45kg) of weight loss per week.”
It’s also important to consider you may gain muscle while losing fat, especially if you’re strength training. “This can skew the amount of total weight loss and highlights the importance of not taking what the scale says as the holy grail,” says Stephen Klagholz, a fitness and nutrition coach. Because of this, it’s important to look at weight trends over time, and focus on comparing average weights over the course of several months rather than across days or weeks. (One way to do that would be to utilize the Progress feature in MyFitnessPal, which produces a line graph that makes weight trends easy to see.)
This potential for variation factors into setting your timeline: “If I’m working with a person who says they want to lose a certain amount, I generally take a standard deviation of 5–10 pounds (2.3–4.5kg) and calculate a corresponding week range, assuming around 2 pounds (1kg) of weight loss per week,” says Klagholz. “For example, if someone is attempting to lose 30 pounds (13.6kg), I might estimate a fat-loss range of 20–40 pounds (9–18kg), which should take roughly 10–20 weeks.”
Aside from scale weight, it’s important to have other ways to see if you’re getting closer to your goals. “When talking about weight loss, we really are talking about fat loss,” notes Jonathan Jordan, a certified personal trainer. “So I don’t go off scale weight so much as body fat percentage.” If you don’t have access to a body fat scanner, using the fit of your clothes and taking tape measurements can be good fat-loss indicators. It’s important to note, though, that the clothes you use to gauge progress should be ones you already own. It’s not helpful to choose a generic goal clothing size, since sizes vary so much from brand to brand.
Jordan also recommends what he calls the “mirror test.” This involves looking in the mirror when you are about to hop in the shower in the morning and asking yourself what you see? “Often people will tell me, ‘I like the way I look in a towel, but the scale says I’m too fat or too skinny,” notes Jordan. “I point out that if they are happy with the way they look, they shouldn’t let a scale number bother them.”
Progress photos can also be a great option. “I often suggest people take pictures of themselves, head-to-toe, in minimal clothing, from various angles and repeat that every week or few weeks,” says Klagholz. “If a person is comfortable with this, these pictures can be useful tracking tools for seeing progress. Rather than setting a goal look, comparing pictures taken several weeks or months apart is both more reasonable and reinforcing.”
Setting non-weight loss goals may also help speed your progress. “In my experience, people who have health-related goals tend to succeed faster than those who have aesthetic-related goals,” says Jordan. There are always exceptions, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but Jordan finds it’s easier to maintain motivation long term when your health is on the line.
That’s one of the reasons DeFigio encourages multiple goals when trying to lose fat. “If you’re only focused on the number on the scale, you’ll miss out on all the other benefits of exercise and healthy eating,” he points out. Some additional goals you might consider include:
- Improving sleep
- Improving posture
- Increasing strength
- Reducing blood pressure
- Building better confidence and self-esteem
Considering what you can maintain long term is also an important part of setting a realistic weight-loss goal. “For most people, the notion of losing weight is daunting. It’s also largely something many of us have considered but not been able to sustain, for a variety of reasons,” says Klagholz.
One thought exercise that can be illuminating is evaluating your lifestyle as a whole. “Think about what factors impact your goals, like the time you have available to cook, meal plan and exercise,” suggests Krebs-Holm. Then, try to implement workarounds where you can.
“Approaching weight loss from a more comprehensive perspective enables you to really get in tune with the aspects that have contributed to weight gain in the first place,” says Klagholz. “Changing your diet will always be a great step in the right direction but in order to truly optimize well-being, attention needs to be given to other areas, too. Things like physical activity, stress management, sleep quality and supportive relationships all influence the way our bodies function.”
Meet your weight loss goals with recipes from our Under 300 Calories collection, featuring meals, desserts, and snacks. Simply tap “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.