What is healthy weight loss?
Washington, D.C. – It’s natural for anyone trying to lose weight to want to lose it very quickly. But evidence shows that people who lose weight gradually and steadily (about 1 to 2 pounds per week) are more successful at keeping weight off. Healthy weight loss isn’t just about a “diet” or “program”. It’s about an ongoing lifestyle that includes long-term changes in daily eating and exercise habits.
To lose weight, you must use up more calories than you take in. Since one pound equals 3,500 calories, you need to reduce your caloric intake by 500—1000 calories per day to lose about 1 to 2 pounds per week.1
Once you’ve achieved a healthy weight, by relying on healthful eating and physical activity most days of the week (about 60—90 minutes, moderate intensity), you are more likely to be successful at keeping the weight off over the long term.
Losing weight is not easy, and it takes commitment. But if you’re ready to get started, we’ve got a step-by-step guide to help get you on the road to weight loss and better health.
Even Modest Weight Loss Can Mean Big Benefits
The good news is that no matter what your weight loss goal is, even a modest weight loss, such as 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight, is likely to produce health benefits, such as improvements in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugars.2
For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, a 5 percent weight loss equals 10 pounds, bringing your weight down to 190 pounds. While this weight may still be in the “overweight” or “obese” range, this modest weight loss can decrease your risk factors for chronic diseases related to obesity.
So even if the overall goal seems large, see it as a journey rather than just a final destination. You’ll learn new eating and physical activity habits that will help you live a healthier lifestyle. These habits may help you maintain your weight loss over time.
In addition to improving your health, maintaining a weight loss is likely to improve your life in other ways. For example, a study of participants in the National Weight Control Registry* found that those who had maintained a significant weight loss reported improvements in not only their physical health, but also their energy levels, physical mobility, general mood, and self-confidence.
Losing weight takes more than desire. It takes commitment and a well-thought-out plan. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started.
- Step 1: Make a commitment.
- Step 2: Take stock of where you are.
- Step 3: Set realistic goals.
- Step 4: Identify resources for information and support.
- Step 5: Continually “check in” with yourself to monitor your progress.
Step 1: Make a commitment
Making the decision to lose weight, change your lifestyle, and become healthier is a big step to take. Start simply by making a commitment to yourself. Many people find it helpful to sign a written contract committing to the process. This contract may include things like the amount of weight you want to lose, the date you’d like to lose the weight by, the dietary changes you’ll make to establish healthy eating habits, and a plan for getting regular physical activity.
Writing down the reasons why you want to lose weight can also help. It might be because you have a family history of heart disease, or because you want to see your kids get married, or simply because you want to feel better in your clothes. Post these reasons where they serve as a daily reminder of why you want to make this change.
Step 2: Take stock of where you are
Consider talking to your health care provider. He or she can evaluate your height, weight, and explore other weight-related risk factors you may have. Ask for a follow-up appointment to monitor changes in your weight or any related health conditions.
Keep a “food diary” for a few days, in which you write down everything you eat. By doing this, you become more aware of what you are eating and when you are eating. This awareness can help you avoid mindless eating.
Next, examine your current lifestyle. Identify things that might pose challenges to your weight loss efforts. For example, does your work or travel schedule make it difficult to get enough physical activity? Do you find yourself eating sugary foods because that’s what you buy for your kids? Do your coworkers frequently bring high-calorie items, such as doughnuts, to the workplace to share with everyone? Think through things you can do to help overcome these challenges.
Finally, think about aspects of your lifestyle that can help you lose weight. For example, is there an area near your workplace where you and some coworkers can take a walk at lunchtime? Is there a place in your community, such as a YMCA, with exercise facilities for you and child care for your kids?
Step 3: Set realistic goals
Set some short-term goals and reward your efforts along the way. If your long-term goal is to lose 40 pounds and to control your high blood pressure, some short-term eating and physical activity goals might be to start eating breakfast, taking a 15 minute walk in the evenings, or having a salad or vegetable with supper.
Focus on two or three goals at a time. Great, effective goals are:
- Forgiving (less than perfect)
For example, “Exercise More” is not a specific goal. But if you say, “I will walk 15 minutes, 3 days a week for the first week,” you are setting a specific and realistic goal for the first week.
Remember, small changes every day can lead to big results in the long run. Also remember that realistic goals are achievable goals. By achieving your short-term goals day-by-day, you’ll feel good about your progress and be motivated to continue. Setting unrealistic goals, such as losing 20 pounds in 2 weeks, can leave you feeling defeated and frustrated.
Being realistic also means expecting occasional setbacks. Setbacks happen when you get away from your plan for whatever reason – maybe the holidays, longer work hours, or another life change. When setbacks happen, get back on track as quickly as possible. Also take some time to think about what you would do differently if a similar situation happens, to prevent setbacks.
Keep in mind everyone is different – what works for someone else might not be right for you. Just because your neighbor lost weight by taking up running, doesn’t mean running is the best option for you. Try a variety of activities – walking, swimming, tennis, or group exercise classes to see what you enjoy most and can fit into your life. These activities will be easier to stick with over the long term.
Step 4: Identify resources for information and support
Find family members or friends who will support your weight loss efforts. Making lifestyle changes can feel easier when you have others you can talk to and rely on for support. You might have coworkers or neighbors with similar goals, and together you can share healthful recipes and plan group exercise.
Joining a weight loss group or visiting a health care professional such as a registered dietitian, can help.
Step 5: Continually “check in” with yourself
Monitor your progress
Revisit the goals you set for yourself (in Step 3) and evaluate your progress regularly. If you set a goal to walk each morning but are having trouble fitting it in before work, see if you can shift your work hours or if you can get your walk in at lunchtime or after work. Evaluate which parts of your plan are working well and which ones need tweaking. Then rewrite your goals and plan accordingly.
If you are consistently achieving a particular goal, add a new goal to help you continue on your pathway to success.
Reward yourself for your successes! Recognize when you’re meeting your goals and be proud of your progress. Use non-food rewards, such as a bouquet of freshly picked flowers, a sports outing with friends, or a relaxing bath. Rewards help keep you motivated on the path to better health.
1DHHS, AIM for a Healthy Weight, page 5. Available online:
2Reference for 5%: Blackburn G. (1995). Effect of degree of weight loss on health benefits. Obesity Research 3: 211S-216S. 2 Reference for 10%: NIH, NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative. Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults. Available online: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/ob_gdlns.pdf (PDF-1.25Mb)