By Rachel Hosie
This story is a part of Insider’s Working It Out series.
I have had the unfortunate experience of losing weight and then gaining it all back, so I’d love to know if it’s better to lose weight fast or slowly to avoid regain. I thought it would be doable to lose weight quite slowly (like two pounds a month) and keep that up, but I have found that it is quite hard to keep up motivation. I have also read that it’s more effective to do a more drastic calorie deficit and lose more weight more quickly, but I wanted to know if the experts have more to say on that.
As with most questions on health and fitness, the answer is: it depends. We are all unique and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.
Generally, fat loss experts tend to champion slow weight loss because it’s a lot more sustainable, but as you point out, there can be something really motivating about seeing quick results.
While in an ideal world, your motivation would be intrinsic (eg. performance or health-related) rather than extrinsic (based on aesthetic change), we all know how encouraging it is when you physically see a change in your appearance.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it’s much better to take photos to assess your progress rather than going solely by scale weight, because that can fluctuate massively from day to day and the changes don’t necessarily reflect fat loss or gain.
If you regained the weight, a diet didn’t ‘work’
To lose weight, you need to be in an energy deficit ie. consuming less energy than you’re expending. Energy is measured in calories (technically kilocalories).
Any diet or eating plan — keto, intermittent fasting, carnivore — that puts you in a calorie deficit should result in weight loss, but if you can’t keep it up, go back to your old eating habits, and regain the weight, that diet did not “work.”
People who’ve lost and regained weight often look back at previous diets through rose-tinted glasses and think they worked, until they quit. But if you’re quitting, not just living a lifestyle you enjoy, the diet will never be successful.
When I lost a lot of weight about two years ago, I took my time with it and didn’t do anything drastic (after trying many fad diets in the past). I’m pleased to say that now, although there have been minor fluctuations, I’ve stayed around the same weight and dress size.
On the whole, slow weight loss is much more sustainable
Regaining weight you’ve previously lost can be really demoralizing, but, as I mentioned in a previous column on the matter, you shouldn’t beat yourself up. You simply learn from the experience.
To avoid regain, making small tweaks with your diet and eating in a small deficit is generally advisable, and that’s what worked for me.
“From a motivation perspective, it could be really exciting to make substantial changes to your eating and watch the scale drop quickly. It might even motivate you to keep going for a few weeks,” registered dietitian Alix Turoff told Insider. “But when your plan is very rigid, this motivation typically lasts only a few weeks before you’re burnt out and wanting to quit.”
Slow dietary tweaks, combined with work to change your mindset, should lead to lasting results.
“When you focus on changing the behaviors that led to gaining (or regaining) the weight in the first place, you’ll see the weight come off slower (for the most part) but if you’re truly changing your habits and behaviors, you don’t have to worry about the inevitable weight gain that comes from doing something drastic that you can only keep up for a short period of time,” Turoff said.
Losing weight in a small calorie deficit also means you’ll hold on to more muscle while losing fat, which means you actually change your body composition — when people say they want to lose weight, what they usually mean is they want to lose fat.
Equally, research suggests that maintaining strength while aging could lead to a three times lower risk of developing a physical impairments.
There are situations where brief, larger calorie deficits can help
Despite the above, for some people in certain situations, there can be a case for losing weight quickly with a larger calorie deficit, although only for a brief period.
“If we’re talking about someone seriously obese, not someone who has 10–30 pounds to lose, there’s a considerable amount of research suggesting that more rapid weight loss in the initial stages, the first one to three months, can be very beneficial, both physically because obviously you can help remove a lot of extra stress on the joints, but more importantly, mentally and emotionally,” personal trainer and fat loss coach Jordan Syatt told Insider.
He continued: “More often than not, people who are severely overweight do not believe in their ability to succeed at all. They just don’t think it’s possible. So for them to lose weight relatively quickly at the beginning is often a way to show them it is possible.”
Indeed, a study by the University of Florida suggests that the more weight you lose in the first few weeks of a diet, the more you’ll lose in the long-run, and the more successful you will be keeping it off.
However, Syatt stresses that if you do start with a large calorie deficit, it’s then crucial to transfer into a more sustainable weight loss approach of around 2–6 pounds a month.
Equally, the leaner you get, the slower your progress will need to be in order to be both sustainable and enjoyable.
“If you’re relatively lean and you’re losing weight too quickly, you’re putting yourself at a greater risk of losing muscle mass and developing disordered relationships with food. So the leaner you are the slower it should be,” Syatt said, adding that around 2–4 pounds a month is optimal, but this will vary month to month and person to person.
You can’t wait for motivation
You say you find it hard to stay motivated losing weight at a rate of around two pounds a month, but this actually sounds great — two pounds a month should mean you’re enjoying your lifestyle, not restricting yourself too severely, and are still losing weight.
The thing about motivation is that people always wait for it to strike before they take action. But the reality is, as I discussed in the very first Working It Out column, the action has to come first, and the motivation will follow.
For weight loss to be sustainable, ultimately it does need to be slow (even if there’s an initial rapid burst for those with lots of weight to lose). And when weight loss is slow, the aesthetic changes you desire will also be slow.
So again, it’s really helpful to set yourself some performance-based goals, such as achieving a pull-up, running 5K in under 30 minutes, or drinking eight glasses of water a day.
“When you’re focusing on what your body can do, rather than trying to lose weight, often it’s easier to stay motivated because you can see progress day after day and week after week,” Syatt said.
Wishing you well,
As a senior lifestyle reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.
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