How long does it take to lose weight? As a Certified Nutritionist, this is a question I get asked all the time. Of course, most clients want to lose weight as fast as possible. The pace of weight loss is unpredictable and there are a lot of different variables.
In order to set realistic expectations, you may want to know what a healthy weight loss rate is.
This article answers the question of “How long does it take to lose weight?” by examining the factors that determine how fast you will lose weight.
Your pace of weight loss is determined by many different factors. The basic rule is that weight loss occurs when you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn each day. Conversely, weight gain happens when you consistently eat more calories than you burn. Any food or beverage you consume that has calories counts toward your overall calorie intake.
That said, the number of calories you burn each day, which is known as energy or calorie expenditure, is a bit more complicated.
Calorie expenditure is composed of the following three major components:
- Resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is the number of calories your body needs to maintain normal bodily functions, such as breathing and pumping blood.
- Thermic effect of food (TEF). This refers to the calories used to digest, absorb, and metabolize food.
- Thermic effect of activity (TEA). These are the calories you use during exercise. TEA can also include non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which accounts for the calories used for activities like yard work and fidgeting.
If the number of calories you consume equals the number of calories you burn, you maintain your body weight.
If you want to lose weight, you must create a negative calorie balance by consuming fewer calories than you burn or burning more calories through increased activity.
Several factors affect the rate at which you lose weight. Many of them are out of your control.
Your fat-to-muscle ratio greatly affects your ability to lose weight.
Because women typically have a greater fat-to-muscle ratio than men, they have a 5–10% lower RMR than men of the same height.
This means that women generally burn 5–10% fewer calories than men at rest. Thus, men tend to lose weight quicker than women following a diet equal in calories.
For example, an 8-week study including over 2,000 participants on an 800-calorie diet found that men lost 16% more weight than women, with relative weight loss of 11.8% in men and 10.3% in women.
One of the many bodily changes that occur with aging is alterations in body composition — fat mass increases and muscle mass decreases.
This change, along with other factors like the declining calorie needs of your major organs, contributes to a lower RMR.
In fact, adults over age 70 can have RMRs that are 20–25% lower than those of younger adults.
This decrease in RMR can make weight loss increasingly difficult with age.
- Starting point
Your initial body mass and composition may also affect how quickly you can expect to lose weight.
It’s important to understand that different absolute weight losses (in pounds) can correspond to the same relative (%) weight loss in different individuals. Ultimately, weight loss is a complex process.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Body Weight Planner is a useful guide to how much you can lose based on your initial weight, age, sex, and how many calories you take in and expend.
Although a heavier person may lose double the amount of weight, a person with less weight may lose an equal percentage of their body weight (10/250 = 4% versus 5/125 = 4%).
For example, a person weighing 300 pounds (136 kg) may lose 10 pounds (4.5 kg) after reducing their daily intake by 1,000 calories and increasing physical activity for 2 weeks.
- Calorie deficit
You must create a negative calorie balance to lose weight. The extent of this calorie deficit affects how quickly you lose weight.
For example, consuming 500 fewer calories per day for 8 weeks will likely result in greater weight loss than eating 200 fewer calories per day.
However, be sure not to make your calorie deficit too large.
Doing so would not only be unsustainable but also put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies. What’s more, it might make you more likely to lose weight in the form of muscle mass rather than fat mass.
Sleep tends to be an overlooked yet crucial component of weight loss.
Chronic sleep loss can significantly hinder weight loss and the speed at which you shed pounds.
Just one night of sleep deprivation has been shown to increase your desire for high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, such as cookies, cakes, sugary beverages, and chips.
One 2-week study randomized participants on a calorie-restricted diet to sleep either 5.5 or 8.5 hours each night.
Those who slept 5.5 hours lost 55% less body fat and 60% more lean body mass than those who slept 8.5 hours per night.
Consequently, chronic sleep deprivation is strongly linked to type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and certain cancers.
Other factors that Influence Weight Loss
Several other factors can affect your weight loss rate, including:
- Medications. Many medications, such as antidepressants and other antipsychotics, can promote weight gain or hinder weight loss.
- Medical conditions. Illnesses, including depression and hypothyroidism, a condition in which your thyroid gland produces too few metabolism-regulating hormones, can slow weight loss and encourage weight gain.
- Family history and genes. There is a well-established genetic component associated with people who have overweight or obesity, and it may affect weight loss.
- Yo-yo dieting. This pattern of losing and regaining weight can make weight loss increasingly difficult with each attempt, due to a decrease in RMR.
Age, gender, and sleep are just a few of the many factors that affect weight loss. Others include some medical conditions, your genetics, and the use of certain medications.
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