People strive to lose weight for myriad reasons, and many fall into the fad diet trap promising real results fast. While there are certainly ways to accelerate your weight loss efforts, it’s important to understand that shedding pounds too quickly can actually backfire.
Like so many parts of life, safe, successful and sustainable weight loss is more about the journey and less about a scale-based destination and rapidly approaching deadline. Read on for expert advice on the best ways to lose weight—and keep it off.
Though the allure of the “lose 5 pounds in a week” diet myth is strong, there are many reasons why speedy shedding may actually work against your best weight loss efforts.
First, when people lose weight rapidly, especially via fad or crash diets, they are typically unable to maintain it because the weight they lose is often more muscle mass and water and less fat mass compared to people who lose weight gradually.
“Maintaining lean muscle is important in weight loss because it plays a key role in metabolism,” says certified health coach and author of Sugar Shock and Beyond Sugar Shock Connie Bennett. “Muscle helps you burn more calories. But when you lose weight too quickly, you lose muscle and your body slows down calorie burning. Fast weight loss can even cause permanent slowing of metabolism.”
Rapid weight loss often leads to the dreaded yo-yo weight cycling many chronic dieters experience. In fact, a study of former contestants on NBC’s weight loss television show “The Biggest Loser” found the more pounds dropped quickly, the more the participant’s metabolism slowed. The study also found that the contestants regained a substantial amount of their lost weight in the six years following the competition.
Another Australian study of 200 participants in The Lancet found that while dieters in the study lost the same amount of weight, the group that lost weight slowly lost 10% more body fat and 50% less lean muscle than the rapid weight loss group.
Further compounding the issue, when people lose weight rapidly, appetite often increases as metabolism decreases, making it almost impossible to keep the pounds off. A study in Obesity reports our bodies prompt us to eat 100 calories more per day for every pound lost.
Popular fad diets also very often result in nutrient deficiencies. “And rapid weight loss—especially when you cut carbs—is often largely water,” says registered dietitian Ellen Albertson, Ph.D., author of Rock Your Midlife. “What’s more, if daily calories are low, the body may also use muscle mass as fuel, further reducing metabolism, as muscle mass is metabolically active.”
The bottom line: Shedding weight sensibly is the way to go. Experts usually say a safe rate is losing around half a pound to 2 pounds a week. With that goal in mind, here are some tried-and-true ways to drop pounds and keep them off for good.
When trying to lose weight, ban the word “diet,” suggests Albertson. Dieting can be unpleasant and make you hungry, so you constantly think about food, which is exactly what you don’t want when trying to lose weight. Instead, she recommends thinking of weight loss as a part of getting healthier and concentrating on taking care of your body first.
“Weight loss is complicated and you don’t have total control over the number on the scale, but you do have control over what you eat, how much you move and other factors that impact weight, such as stress and sleep,” says Albertson. She suggests setting SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-sensitive—goals and rewarding yourself when you hit them.
Instead of saying, “I need to lose 25 pounds,” and overwhelming yourself with what seems like an impossible goal, look toward the health benefits that can come from even modest weight loss.
“Set smaller, achievable targets,” suggests Bennett. “Losing only 5% to 10% of your total body weight (TBW) can greatly improve your health and lower your risk for illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.”
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals what you eat is most important for weight loss. The pounds will come off more quickly if you improve the quality of the foods you ingest.
“One of the healthiest ways to shed weight is to reduce your intake of sugar and rapidly metabolized carbohydrates,” says Bennett. “In particular, you want to cut out or drastically curtail your intake of high-glycemic-load foods, such as sugary snacks, processed carbs and soft drinks. When you avoid or cut back on French fries, chips, crackers and the like, you’ll speed up your weight loss.”
Research shows a plant-based diet not only promotes weight loss, but is also easier to stick to than a low-calorie diet. Plus, it’s nutrient dense and has numerous health benefits.
“Produce supports weight loss because it’s rich in fiber and water, which are both calorie-free yet take up space in your stomach so you feel full,” says Albertson. In fact, a Brazilian study found a direct correlation between increased fruit and vegetable consumption and enhanced weight loss.
Albertson suggests aiming to consume five daily servings of produce to start and working up to seven to nine servings a day. “Start your day with a green smoothie, have a salad or cut up vegetables with your lunch and eat fruit for snacks and desserts,” she says. “For supper, have more stir frys, incorporate veggies into your pasta dishes and stir them into soups.”
5. Pump up Your Protein
Increasing your protein consumption can help reduce appetite and help prevent the loss of muscle mass.
You May Also Be Interested In Protein Powders Available On Amazon
“Eating around 25 to 30 grams of protein—two scoops of protein powder or 4 ounces of chicken breast—per meal can improve appetite control and manage your body weight,” says Dr. Albertson. “The best way to do it is to make sure you have one serving of high-quality protein per meal.”
Albertson also says women older than 50 need significantly more protein (1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight daily) than men and younger women (who require .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily). “Women need more protein after 50, especially as they approach menopause, because decreases in the hormone estrogen result in a loss of skeletal muscle mass, strength and regenerative capacity,” she explains.
6. Drink More Water
Research shows drinking more water is associated with weight loss independent of diet and exercise. Ample water intake can help increase satiety and combat sugar cravings. Water is also necessary for lipolysis, the body’s process of burning fat for energy.
“I suggest following the eight by eight rule—8 ounces of water eight times throughout the day—for a minimum water intake recommendation,” says Florida-based celebrity trainer Jordan Morello who works for the fitness platform Sweat Factor. “My clients are usually surprised once they add this [rule] into their own routine [by] how much this simple thing can curb cravings and leave you more satiated throughout the day.”
Another water trick? Try drinking two cups of water before each meal. Studies have shown this simple move can increase weight loss as well.
7. Eat a Well-Rounded Breakfast
Breakfast skippers, listen up. If you’re trying to lose weight, skimping on morning fuel is not the way to go. In fact, studies consistently show skipping breakfast is associated with overweight and obesity.
Additionally, a study in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society found people who don’t eat breakfast tend to have poorer quality diets overall, and they skimp on nutrients, such as vitamin D, calcium and iron.
But not just any breakfast will do. “To think more clearly, perform more efficiently and be in better moods, you want a well-rounded, blood-sugar-balanced first meal of the day with ample protein, healthy fats and what I call quality carbs like fresh berries,” says Bennett.
8. Stand Up and Move More
One of the easiest ways to shed weight is to up your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)—the energy expended for everything you do outside of eating, sleeping or exercising. Little changes like carrying your groceries instead of pushing a cart, parking farther away from the entrance to the mall, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or even tapping your toe can lead to hundreds of extra calories burned.
Or try to stand more than you sit. Studies show that simply replacing sitting with standing leads to a greater daily energy expenditure, which directly translates into more calories burned and ultimately pounds shed.
For example, if you weigh 160 pounds and alternate sitting and standing, you can burn approximately 35 additional calories an hour—an extra 280 calories a day, 1,400 calories a week and about 70,000 calories a year.
“Set a timer on your phone, Fitbit or computer to remind you to get up and move around every hour,” says Albertson. “You’ll burn more calories and may lower your blood sugar and risk of heart disease.”
9. Hit the Weights
Muscle burns more calories than fat. So how do you build more muscle? Strength training.
Adding resistance training to your weight loss plan is a smart idea not only because of the calories you’ll burn while working out, but also because of the “after burn effect.”
Known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, EPOC reflects how long oxygen uptake remains elevated after exercise in order to help muscles recover. This elevation boosts metabolism both during and after strength training sessions.
And the more muscle you add to your frame, the higher you’re resting metabolic rate (RMR). Your RMR determines how many calories your body needs to function at rest. The greater you’re RMR, the more you can eat and not gain weight.
“While cardiovascular exercise is often emphasized, strength training is key for dropping pounds and maintaining weight loss, especially after age 50 because muscle mass—which burns calories—declines at a rate of 1% to 2% per year,” says Albertson. “Strength training can slow down muscle mass decline.”
10. Don’t Go Overboard
Cutting calories too drastically or working out 24/7 may actually backfire when it comes to weight loss. Most people think shedding pounds requires draconian measures to get results, but allowing yourself adequate recovery time is more productive.
“Many people, when they get frustrated that they haven’t lost weight, will double down on the stressor (i.e. catabolic phase) that they are doing,” says certified personal trainer Rob Darnbrough, CEO and co-founder of The Smart Fit Method in California. “For example, they’ll run extra miles, double up on the amount of time they spend at the gym and/or eat less food. However, all of the results we desire from doing the above things actually occur during the anabolic recovery phase.”
During the anabolic phase, the body builds muscle mass and loses fat mass while recovering from the stressor, explains Darnbrough. So, instead of pushing yourself to a breaking point, which ends up leading to overtraining and diminished results, put as much energy into rest and nutrition as you do into workouts. “To create sustainable results, try to balance your ratio of stress to recovery,” says Darnbrough.
11. Check in With an Accountability Partner
Sometimes losing weight can feel lonely, but you don’t have to do it all by yourself.
Research shows being accountable works. In one study, two-thirds of participants who joined a weight loss program with friends maintained their weight loss for six months after the meetings ended, compared to just a quarter of those who attended on their own. Of course, many organizations also suggest having a sponsor or champion on your path to weight loss.
“One of the best ways to consistently eat better and shed weight steadily is to check in every day with an accountability partner,” suggests Bennett. “Your accountability partner doesn’t need to be your bestie, favorite co-worker or partner. Just find someone with similar weight loss goals. You don’t need to talk every day, either. Just text each other to share that you’re eating healthy foods and staying on track. If you’re tempted by junk foods, you can lean on your partner, too. That’s when you may want to call them.”
12. Watch less Television
Couch surfers wanting to lose weight should turn off the TV—in fact, the more television people watch, the more weight they gain.
One study that collected data from more than 50,000 middle-aged women over six years found that for every two hours the participants spent watching television each day, they had a 23% higher risk of obesity and a 14% higher risk of developing diabetes.
Excess television watching is correlated with extra pounds primarily because it’s a sedentary activity that often also leads to mindless eating. So, turn it off or maybe change the channel to an exercise program instead.
13. Reconnect with Your Satiety Cues
Speaking of mindless eating, you can reprogram your brain for weight loss by tuning back into your body’s natural “I’m hungry” and “I’m full” cues.
“Dieting combined with eating on the run or while multitasking—driving, watching TV, playing with your phone—can really disconnect you from your natural signals of hunger and satiety,” says Albertson. “Plus, as children, we also learned to clean our plates rather than eat until satisfied.” Add the fact that portion sizes have grown significantly—as much as 60% for things like snack foods— and the result is consistent overeating.
“Instead, try to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you are satisfied rather than stuffed,” says Albertson. “Instead of tracking your food, try tracking how hungry you are before, during and after meals to get back in touch with these signals.”
14. Get More Sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do to maintain a healthy weight and overall health. Studies show that poor sleep is associated with weight gain and other health disorders. When researchers analyzed 16 years’ worth of data on 68,183 middle-aged American women, they found those who slept no more than five hours per night were 15% more likely to have obesity compared to those who slept seven hours a night.
Insufficient sleep may also affect the production of appetite-regulating hormones ghrelin and leptin, which can lead people to feel hungrier throughout the day. Additionally, poor sleep increases cortisol and can result in harder-to-lose body and belly fat.
“Most of us can’t control what time we have to get up, but we can control when we go to bed, so counting back seven to nine hours from the time you have to wake up is a great tip,” says Darnbrough. “I also encourage the 3-2-1 rule, which means stop working three hours before bed, stop eating two hours before bed and stop digital stimuli one hour before bed to improve your deep sleep and REM.”
15. Find Non-Edible Substitutes for Self-Soothing
There’s a reason it’s called “comfort food.” However, emotional eating can quickly derail all weight loss efforts.
“When you feel stressed, which raises cortisol levels, rather than reaching for food to feel better—since eating triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine—raise levels of oxytocin, the love hormone, either by soothing touch, playing with a pet or getting a hug,” suggests Albertson.
Animal studies have found oxytocin reduces calories consumed and has positive effects on metabolism. A small human study also found that giving men oxytocin over an eight-week period promoted weight loss.
“While more research is needed to understand exactly how increasing oxytocin can impact weight and appetite, if you’re experiencing difficult emotions, a self-compassion break will allow you to give yourself the care you need so you will be less likely to eat,” says Albertson. “Remember the acronym ‘HALT,’ which stands for hungry, angry/anxious, lonely and tired. If you are physiologically hungry, eat. If you are experiencing difficult emotions, ask, ‘What do I need?’ and give yourself what you truly need. If you’re not hungry, it isn’t food.”