Realistic weight-loss expectations and targets

By Roger Tsen

Realistic weight-loss expectations and targets

Key Takeaways

  1. Rapid weight-loss of 3-5lbs/week is common in the first few weeks, due to excess water-weight being flushed out. Don't expect the same rate afterwards as there is less water-weight to lose.
  2. In most cases, a healthy and sustainable weekly target to shoot for is losing 1-2lbs and 0.25-0.33" off the waist.
  3. There are severe health consequences from pushing for fast, drastic weight loss.
  4. A weight-loss journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistent weekly gains add up to surprisingly awesome results.

We’ve all seen and heard the claims before: “Lose 30 pounds in a month!”, “Three sizes in three weeks!”, and so on and so forth. The grocery store magazine rack, social media, and even self proclaimed experts frequently make these exaggerated promises in order to sell their products and services to unsuspecting hopeful consumers. In this article we’ll talk about:

  • Realistic weight-loss targets
  • Sustainability
  • Scientific strategies for rapid weight loss

One of the top ways to sabotage your diet is to wreck your morale by starting with unrealistic expectations of how much weight you’ll lose in X amount of time. You could be doing very well by professional standards, but because you originally had an unrealistic expectation--whether set by an advertisement claim or yourself--you’ll feel like you’ve failed. Low morale over time can kill any motivation, even if you’re doing well. So, let’s set realistic targets.

A good weight loss standard for the average person is about 0.5-1% of bodyweight a week. Above that and you run an increasing risk of your body cannibalizing its own muscle to use as energy, leading to a shapeless, not-toned skinny-fat physique. That’s not what you want, right? A lean, toned physique requires both sufficient muscle development plus a lower body fat %. A lot of people are happy to just be skinnier, but I recommend taking a long-term big-picture view. Losing muscle is bad for your health, it’s bad for your physique, and it makes you weaker.

Speaking of getting weaker, lose more than 1% of your bodyweight a week and you’ll soon run into issues of having low energy, lacking motivation in life or to even move because your body wants to conserve energy by convincing you to move less. This not only means feeling hangry and tired all the time, but also having poor exercise and training performance, leading to fewer calories burned.

Losing weight really doesn’t have to be a miserable experience.

While the 1%-per-week rule is a nice average target to shoot for, it’s common to lose a lot more weight the first couple weeks due to loss of water weight. This effect can be pretty major. I’ve seen anywhere from 2-7 pounds disappear from a client’s first week. I myself can even drop 3-5 pounds overnight when I start my diet! But, eventually, it slows down and should settle into a 0.5-1% loss each week--provided that you’re sticking to the correct daily calorie target.

When crunching numbers, the outrageous claims we see make even less sense. Each pound of fat in your body contains about 3500 calories. Meaning, if you are looking to lose two pounds of fat a week (7000 calories), you’d have to be in a 1000 calorie deficit through all seven days of the week! To put this into perspective, a relatively average sized woman burns about 1800 calories a day, and a little over 2000 if they’re on the heavier side. To lose two pounds a fat a week (or eight pounds a month), they’d be eating only 800-1000 calories a day. That’s about the caloric equivalent of two 5oz chicken breasts, salad, a protein shake, and a 4.5oz serving of plain potatoes. Think you could handle that day in and day out and still function like a normal healthy human being? I know I sure can’t!

Still believe those Lose-30-in-a-month ads?

Don’t get me wrong. I love fast and easy results just like anyone else, but we have to be realistic here. Healthy, sustainable weight loss is a marathon not a sprint. That’s the totally unsexy, uncool, and unmarketable truth that the industry doesn’t tell you because it doesn’t sell. People don't’ want to hear it. But, it’s the truth. People’s expectations have just been skewed after being bombarded for years by false advertising and ridiculous claims. The good news is, though, losing 0.5-1% of your weight each week really adds up over time. Check me out at 200 pounds dropping to 175, losing 25 pounds in 14 weeks. 

And here’s my client Ariel after 12 weeks at about -1lbs/week: 

Weight loss should be treated as a marathon, not a sprint. It’s all about consistency of correct actions taken over time. Your diet protocol should be dictated by science and driven by data such as knowing your daily calorie target required to lose meaningful weight and a record of your body measurements (weight, waist) so you know if you’ve hit a plateau.

As an aside, most people aren’t measuring their body weight or waist measurement correctly to track or gauge their progress. A quick guide:

  1. Hop on the scale the first thing in the morning after using the restroom for best consistency.
  2. Weigh yourself every day so you have lots of data points for #3, and don’t freak out over sudden overnight weight spikes--it’s just water weight fluctuation.
  3. Keep a written or digital record so you can see weekly trends. Bonus points if you use an app that graphs the data for you. If the trend shows little or no progress, then you know something has to change--eat less and/or move more.

All that being said, there are ways to create larger than usual amounts of weight loss--at least in the short term. By manipulating your water weight and flushing it out, you can make jaw-dropping effects on the scale in 1-2 weeks.

The first method should only be done under professional supervision, and I won’t detail it here so you’re not tempted to try it by yourself. It’s an intense protocol that involves high water intake and manipulating your diet to minimize water retention before a water fast and flushing all that water through sweat in a short amount of time. Dramatic results brought by dramatic means.

The second is actually quite simple and something you can apply even in when not dieting to keep water bloating to a minimum. Eat a high protein, low carb, and medium fat diet that is low in sodium and high in potassium. (For the number-crunchers who know your daily calorie targets, that’s 1.2g protein per pound bodyweight, 30-35% calories from fat, and the rest as carbs.) Don’t forget to stay well-hydrated too!

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