Losing weight too quickly could jeopardize your chances of long-term success, not to mention that it could lead to a host of side effects. Here’s why it’s best to take a different approach.
For many of us the scale may look like the speedometer of a racing car, accelerating rapidly in moments without warning. But gaining weight doesn’t happen overnight, even if it sometimes seems like it. To make matters worse, we often expect weight loss to happen quickly. We think that as soon as we make up our minds to cut back on snacking, the pounds should magically disappear, and we get impatient if our pants are still too tight after the first week. While we all wish weight loss was as quick as a drain, there are reasons the slow, steady approach is better, safer, and more effective.
How fast can you safely lose weight?
The first and perhaps the best reason to take it easy when it comes to weight loss is that keeping the pounds off is usually more effective. Fad diets or crash diets that promise quick results are usually not diets that the average person can follow for months or years. Experts estimate that 95% of people who diet regain weight. If you’re trying to avoid the dreaded yo-yo effect of dieting, which is regaining lost weight (and possibly gaining more of it), it’s good to take it easy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who lose weight at a rate of around 0.5 to 1 kg per week are better at maintaining their progress than those who lose at a faster rate.
This claim is supported by a systematic review and meta-analysis published in December 2020 in the British Journal of Nutrition, which found that even when the amount of weight loss was similar, dieters who lost weight gradually rather that quickly saw greater reductions in body fat percentage and fat mass. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, if you lose weight quickly, you’re much more likely to lose water weight, muscle, or even bone mass.
Good weight loss is about losing fat. Bad weight loss is losing muscle. You want to maintain muscle mass for many reasons, but in the sense of weight loss, muscle boosts metabolism by helping you burn more calories even at rest. You would have to be on a crash diet for about a month for these health issues to show up. The extreme forms of this phenomenon are anorexia or bulimia, but the milder forms are probably much more common than people realize.
Why Rapid Weight Loss Can Be Dangerous
Many fad diets promise rapid weight loss by eliminating whole foods or food groups, or by drastically restricting calories, but in doing so they also eliminate important sources of nutrition. Losing more than 2 kg per week for several weeks is considered rapid weight loss, and it’s usually the result of eating too low in calories, according to MedlinePlus. This practice is generally not recommended unless you are under the supervision of a medical professional.
It depends on your starting weight and your age, but people weighing between 70-110kg should lose no more than 1-2kg per week at any one time. Anything above that on a lasting basis is not healthy.
Losing weight quickly can stress the body and change your hormonal response. The hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, which tell your body when you’re full and when you’re hungry, respectively, can get out of sync, making you want to eat more often. Losing 5 pounds during the first week of a new diet, for example, may seem like a big success, but the weight loss will likely slow down and you may even gain that weight back as soon as you stop or ease off the diet.
Your metabolism can also get out of whack. Your body adapts to the drop in caloric intake by slowing the rate at which it burns calories, in order to guard against starvation. It’s called “metabolic adaptation,” and it happens whenever you burn more calories than you take in, according to research published in May 2018 in Obesity. Once you start eating regularly again, your body won’t know what to do with the extra calories, and that’s when the weight gain sets in again.
Rapid weight loss can have other unhealthy side effects as well. Besides loss of muscle mass, water, and bone density, it can introduce health problems including gallstones, gout, fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea.
Losing weight too quickly can be especially dangerous for people with underlying health conditions, including diabetes or kidney or gastric disease. Rapid weight loss can alter appropriate drug dosages, so it’s important to work closely with a doctor to adjust your regimen if you see big changes on the scale.
The Best Approach to Gradual (and Lasting) Weight Loss
You get it: a measured approach to weight loss can help you avoid potential health complications and increase your chances of successfully maintaining a healthy weight over the long term. But what is the best way to achieve this?
Unlike short-term fad diets that lead to drastic changes, healthy weight loss usually involves implementing lifestyle changes that you can sustain for the long term. If you don’t make lasting lifestyle changes, you simply won’t be able to maintain the health benefits of weight loss.
Developing healthy habits like eating a nutritious diet, moving often, managing stress, and sleeping well can really pay off in the long run. These elements are essential components of weight loss. These habits don’t have to go away once you reach your goal weight. The idea is that by introducing habits that you can maintain for the long term, a healthy lifestyle will become second nature, helping you keep the weight off.
A systematic review of multiple weight loss registries, published February 2020 in Obesity Reviews, identified the most effective strategies for weight loss and maintenance. These included making healthy foods available at home, eating breakfast regularly, eating more vegetables and fewer sugary and fatty foods, and increasing physical activity.
Don’t worry if you don’t see results quickly, they will come. Keep an eye on the long term, you have nothing to gain from short term weight loss. Trying to do too much too soon can be overwhelming and one that many people give up on when they feel like this. Instead, make small but permanent changes to achieve her goal.
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