To some extent, everyone wants immediate results — especially when it comes to weight loss (cue fad diets and “miracle” diet pills). Eating healthy, staying active and cutting calories are proven ways to lose weight, but they are part of a gradual process that’s not always easy. So, which path should we take for achieving long-term weight-loss success?
Gradual weight loss, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a loss of 1–2 pounds per week, or eating 500–1,000 fewer calories per day. Note that this is a general recommendation that doesn’t take into account individual factors. Since no two bodies are the same, an acceptable rate of weight loss will also depend on your individual health. While experts decry rapid weight loss, that term is up for contention. After all, “rapid” weight loss can range from losing 2–10 or more pounds per week! For the purpose of this article, losing more than 2 pounds per week is considered rapid. The general consensus is that slow and steady is better than rapid weight loss — but let’s examine the pros and cons of each.
Tech Tip: The MyFitnessPal app lets you choose from 0.5–2 pounds of weight loss per week. Adjust this to fit your needs by going to your “Goals” setting.
If you’ve got a lot of weight to lose and you’re under medical supervision, you may be able to get away with losing it at a rapid pace. For example, patients who have gastric bypass surgery may be prescribed extremely low-calorie diets of 300–600 calories per day. Very low-calorie diets of about 800 calories may also be prescribed to someone with a lot of weight to lose; oftentimes, these plans involve special meal replacements and supplements to meet all nutrient needs.
Let’s not forget about marathon exercise sessions, detoxes and cleanses. These drastic methods of periodic cutting and exercising are popular for dropping pounds quickly (mostly in the form of water weight), but it’s difficult to keep up with this tiresome and strict lifestyle, so the results are often short-term and not recommended.
- Motivation. Seeing the numbers drop down quickly on the scale can be highly motivating.
- Improved health (under medical supervision). For some people, the risks of continuing to live with medical issues (Think: Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.) related to obesity outweighs the risks of rapid weight loss. However, this is something that is up to you and your doctor to decide.
- Increased health risks. Without medical supervision, rapid weight loss through an extreme calorie deficit could increase your risk for nutrient deficiencies and electrolyte imbalances. Without all the nutrients needed for your body to run properly, the immune system weakens, putting you at risk for serious illnesses.
- Tired becomes the new norm. Depleting the body of the essential nutrients and calories it needs to function, especially at a fast rate and short timeframe, will decrease your energy level and make day-to-day tasks harder.
- Drains the big bucks. Being under the constant care of health-care professionals, having surgery or buying prescription diet medication are all costly.
- Mentally exhausting. Strategies to make rapid weight loss happen require extreme efforts to control diet and exercise. Those kinds of efforts can grind down your willpower, making it unsustainable in the long run so that weight regain will likely happen.
For most of us, gradual weight loss is more realistic and achievable. It doesn’t ask you to drastically cut calories or bump whole food groups off your diet. Instead, you set your own pace and instill simple healthy habits — such as swapping soda for water or taking walks after dinner — that benefit your health in the long term. There are many options and routes to get active and eat clean. Take time to explore and choose what’s most enjoyable for you. When you’re happy, your goals are easier to stick with and achieve.
- You learn the importance of healthy habits. A benefit of gradual weight loss is that you learn the hard changes that will give you the body you want. In this case, hard changes refers to adopting healthy lifestyle habits affecting the mind, body and diet. Over time, these seemingly “hard” changes get easier as they become second nature. In a 2007 review of 80 weight-loss focused studies, researchers found dieters that lost an average of 11–19 pounds in six months were able to maintain an average loss of 6.5–11 pounds, even after four years, with continued lower-energy diet and exercise. These results were consistent with the weight-loss recommendation of 1–2 pounds per week.
- You’re better nourished. Very low-calorie diets increase your risk for nutrient deficiencies since it would be difficult to obtain all essential vitamins and minerals through food alone. This is why it’s recommended that women eat at least 1,200 calories and men consume 1,500 calories.
- Better body composition. Gradual loss ensures that you’re mostly losing fat instead of muscle or water. Eating fewer calories consistently is fundamental for weight loss, but it’s a fine line to make sure you’re not overdoing it. Chronic undereating can be detrimental to your health goals because it can push your body toward starvation. (To learn why, read Why Undereating Won’t Actually Help You Lose Weight.)
- Deal with issues beyond eating habits. Gradual weight loss gives you the time to assess your behaviors or personal issues. Typically, calorie-restrictive diets lead to hunger, and hunger leads to fatigue, irritability, anger and deprivation — moods that can lead to emotional overeating. A gradual weight-loss strategy with an emphasis on mindful eating allows you to go at your own pace, eat what you like and tune into your body’s hunger signals.
- It takes time and dedication. Losing weight — and keeping it off — is hard. It requires you to try new things and make changes. It’s not easy to take what you’re used to and flip it 180 degrees. By losing weight at a slower rate, it gives you time to adjust and cultivate healthy lifestyle changes in your eating habits, physical activity and daily life. Over time, these changes get easier and less intimidating. (Get inspired by these 67 science-backed weight-loss strategies.)
What it boils down to is this: Slow and steady weight loss is more achievable, sustainable and realistic for the majority of us, compared with rapid weight loss. Quick fixes don’t last, as many people revert back into old eating and activity habits after losing weight. A gradual pace allows you to learn how to eat healthy and exercise, one step at a time. Experiment with your weight-loss strategy, consulting medical professionals as necessary, to see what works best for you.