And what to do if you hit a (true) weight loss plateau
‘How long does it take to lose weight?’ is a common Q amongst British adults. And it’s showing no signs of fading into the background. According to research from Kantar (an insights business whose job it is to research the UK population) the proportion of adults who agree with the statement “most of the time I’m trying to lose weight” has risen every year for the past five years. Telling.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Looking after our physical health (which includes movement, diet, stress, sleep and healthy weight management) is important and, as long as you work from a place of health and self-compassion, trying to lose weight well (or reach a healthy body fat percentage) isn’t a goal to be ashamed of.
A common question when people are trying to lose weight or lose body fat is “how long does it take to lose weight?” Outside of trying to make sure you lose weight at a safe and sustainable pace, it’s understandable to want a provisional timeframe for how long it’ll take you to lose weight.
Now, a little thing called life can sometimes get in the way of the best-laid plans and hinder the process. Add to that, our bodies are not robotic – hormonal changes can also play a part in how you lose weight, too. Basically, it’s possible to work towards your healthy goals whilst still being nice to yourself and we’re here to help you do just that.
For now, though, let’s get into the science behind how long it takes to lose weight and what to do if you hit a weight loss plateau.
How does weight loss work? Why weight loss is not the same as fat loss
First of all, let’s set the record straight about the differences between weight loss and fat loss
Weight loss, as the term implies, is far broader and encompasses everything that goes into the number on the scale going down each week which can include water weight and muscle loss. Whilst this is a good place to start for beginners, it can be disheartening to lose weight but not feel as if you’re closer to the lean, muscular aesthetic you’re chasing. This is because weight loss does not necessarily equal fat loss.
Fat loss refers to intentionally trying to lose body fat only, whilst retaining muscle tissue. This is also known as changing your body composition – the ratio of body fat to muscle you have. (Find out more about a healthy body fat percentage to aim for.)
How your body loses weight
There are multiple elements that play into weight loss, only some of which are in our immediate control. Understanding the science behind how to lose weight can ensure you’re not one of the one-third to two-thirds of people who regain lost weight (and a little more) within four to five years of reaching their target.
Ultimately, weight loss occurs when you are in a calorie deficit, meaning you expend more calories than you take in. Creating a calorie deficit forces your body to use fat instead of food as fuel but it’s not about drastically slashing how many calories you eat. It’s about creating a sustainable deficit using a UK calorie deficit calculator (no more than 500 calories below what your body needs), prioritising nutrient-dense foods and creating healthy habits in other areas (sleep hygiene. and stress management) too.
However, there are some differences in how your body loses weight with the beginning of your journey likely to show bigger weight loss drops: ‘At first, you’ll be shedding water and decreasing inflammation and toxins in the body,’ says Mark Bohannon, manager and head personal trainer of Ultimate Performance Manchester. ‘It won’t necessarily just be fat.’
9 factors that contribute to how long it takes you to lose weight
‘Successful weight loss isn’t just a question of calorie deficit,’ says The Naked Nutritionist, Daniel O’Shaughnessy. ‘There are more factors at play that’ll differ from person to person.’ These include:
Refined sugar consumption
Psychological factors such as depression, motivation or self-esteem
Stress, one of the most common weight loss hindrances, is a key area to manage if you’re trying to lose weight.
‘Chronic stress interferes with your cortisol production. Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and is the hormone you release in response to a threat,’ explains Tim Andrews, head of fitness product at Fitness First. ‘Effectively it shuts down non-essential functions like metabolism, saving that energy so you can escape whatever danger you’re in. The obvious solution is to remove the stress, but it’s not always that easy. My top two tips are to do whatever you need to do to ensure really deep sleep and to meditate a couple of times a week.’
How much weight can you lose in a week (in a healthy way)?
Now, down to the brass tacks – what’s a safe rate of weight loss to aim for each week? The answer to this really does largely depends on the individual, but there is a standard quantity most professionals suggest using as a guideline.
‘A safe weight loss is 1-2 lb or 0.5-1kg per week,’ explains Fleet Street Clinic GP Dr Belinda Griffiths. ‘This is usually achieved by consuming no more than 1,800 calories per day.’
‘Initial weight loss may be more than the above in this regime, as water-bound to glycogen (sugar) gives the impression of greater weight loss, but after the first week it should stabilise at 1-2 lb or 0.5-1kg per week. Greater weight loss than this per week can lead to malnutrition, exhaustion, increased risk of gout and gallstones.’
O’Shaughnessy breaks down why you shouldn’t be trying to lose weight fast further: ‘Rapid fat loss can cause imbalances of hunger hormones which make you crave more and want to eat. The key to healthy and sustainable weight loss is to not starve yourself. Eating too few calories can lead to a reduced metabolic rate so your weight loss will slow. Then, if you binge eat, your body will store the calories as a protective mechanism and this can lead to the ‘yoyo effect’.’ Not ideal.
How long does it take to lose weight?
So, down to the question at the root of all this. How long it takes you to lose weight will depend on how much weight you lose each week multiplied by how many weeks it takes you to reach your goal.
For example, if you lose 1lb per week (a more conservative but more steady goal) and you have a goal weight loss of 12lbs, it will take you anywhere from 12+ weeks to hit your goal depending on hormonal changes, life events and how much you adhere to your nutrition and exercise schedule. If you really want to know the answer to “how much weight can you lose in a month?”, look at how much weight you’re able to lose in two weeks and work out an estimate from there.
However, as we’ve tried to (nicely) hammer home, the rate at which you lose weight doesn’t necessarily follow a linear pattern and will be different for everyone. Try to view your weight loss journey through a wider lens – two-week and four-week averages rather than frantically googling “how much weight can you lose in a week?” or “how to lose weight in a week”. Longer time frames are a much more accurate reflection of what’s happening with your body than arbitrary daily changes.
‘It is important to note, that bodyweight can fluctuate for a huge number of reasons, not just a change in body fat. These could be because you had a larger meal, didn’t sleep as well, consumed more carbs or salt or even your menstrual cycle. As a result, I encourage people to look at weight over the course of weeks and months, not just days,’ advises founder of the FPF collective, personal trainer and nutritionist Flo Seabright.
How to track your weight loss journey
Between bathroom scales, tape measures, callipers, anecdotal evidence (trying your clothes on to see how the fit has changed) and using the high-tech devices your gym has, there are a number of ways to track your weight loss.
Get up to speed on the best way to measure your weight and fat loss with our handy guide to the most popular methods. Most people will err towards a smart scale as it can be used at home and provide consistent readings but, it’s best to clue up on all available options.
5 things to do if you hit a (true) weight loss plateau
If you’ve hit a plateau – and that means a true plateau which means your nutrition, movement, NEAT exercise, sleep and hydration are dialled in – there are a number of steps you can take to bring your weight loss journey back into line.
One thing to caveat: If your weight loss has slowed/stalled because your body is at the lowest weight it considers to be healthy, don’t push it further. In fact, there are some clear signs your body has been in deficit mode too long to watch out for:
Unshakeable brain fog
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, increase your calories for a few weeks and see if it lifts. Your body functions best when it’s being listened to, ok?
If your weight loss plateau is down to your body becoming bored with your routine, here’s some tip-top expert advice from Ultimate Performance personal trainer Aroosha Nekonam on how to overcome it.
1. Recalculate and track
‘If you’ve hit a plateau at the very early stages of your program, you may have overestimated the number of calories you need to lose weight – this is very easy to do as the first week or two will be a bit of trial and error. In this case, you need to recalculate your calorie target to put you in a calorie deficit, then monitor this. If you’ve hit a plateau later on in your programme, again you may need to adjust your targets. The number of calories you will need to maintain a deficit will change as the weeks go on due to metabolic adaptation.’
2. Move more
‘How active you are outside of the gym can have a real impact on fat loss, especially if you’ve been in a calorie deficit for a significant period of time, you will start to expend less energy, so adding in extra movement where possible could make all the difference.’
3. Look at how stressed you are
‘Stress management plays an important role in fat loss. When we are physically and mentally stressed this negatively impacts our performance levels, our food choices, recovery, motivation, and adherence to your training program so pay attention to how you are feeling in general.’
4. Give yourself a performance goal
‘It can be mentally draining to focus just on fat loss alone especially when it’s a very up-and-down battle. To keep that sense of achievement and feel-good factor, it is important to set mini performance goals along your journey. Things like improving your deadlift or working towards a bodyweight pull up. Set yourself mini-goals that will lead you to your ultimate goal of losing body fat.’
5. Accept that you’re human
‘Sometimes you are going to have a bad week and you feel like you have made zero progress. But remember this doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you human. Push through those slow weeks as they will be the ones that are the making of you!’
An important note on crash dieting: why it won’t help you lose weight
‘Much of the weight loss from crash diets is fluid,’ says Dr Adam Collins, senior tutor in nutrition at the University of Surrey. ‘But you’re also at risk of losing body protein as your body tries to maintain blood glucose levels by gluconeogenesis – basically melting your muscles into sugar.’
And it gets worse from there. A crash diet, although it may produce results in the short term, could actually end up making you gain fat.
‘The shrinking of your fat cells during a crash diet actually drives the production of new fat cells – think of it like a petrol shortage: people fill their tanks with petrol as well as Jerri cans so they’ve got a reserve,’ Dr Collins says.
Couple this with changes to your energy levels (you’ll have less of it) and appetite (you’ll be hungrier) from consuming fewer calories and you’re looking at your body’s attempt to better prepare itself for the next ‘crisis’. ‘The propensity for weight gain remains even one year after weight loss.’
‘Crash diets also lead to nutritional deficiencies,’ says Harley Street nutritionist and author of Re-Nourish (£18.99, Yellow Kite) Rhiannon Lambert.
‘Which, if left unchecked for a progressive amount of time, may result in poor health and side effects such as heart palpitations, dehydration and cardiac stress.’
What to do instead of crash dieting
GP Dr Jane Leonard has some tips when it comes to dialling in your nutrition whilst eating in a safe calorie deficit.
‘Skipping meals, leaving out food groups such as fats and carbohydrates, may speed up weight loss but will be detrimental to your health,’ Leonard says. ‘It’s important to keep your diet varied to provide your body with vitamins and minerals it needs. Reducing saturated fats such as butter, cheese and bacon and replacing them with healthy fats, such oily fish, avocados, nuts is a good start.’
‘Then, reducing high GI carbohydrates like white bread and replacing them with pulses, grains and low GI carbohydrates will keep your nutrients and energy levels up whilst helping to keep your calories down.’
Remember, with all of this: slow and steady wins the race. So work on developing those smaller healthy habits that’ll add up to large life-changing wins. We believe in you!