Setting Realistic Weight Loss Goals

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Have you ever tried a diet? Yeah, you – I’m talking to you! Have you ever tried a diet? Oh, don’t worry – you don’t have to tell me, because I already know the answer. Of course you have! We all have. So what have you tried? Atkins? Zone? South Beach? HCG? Medical Weight Loss? How about the “cookie diet” – have you tried that? Really, though, it doesn’t matter what you’ve tried, because all diets have one thing in common – THEY DON’T WORK!

If there’s one common denominator that all “diet” systems have, it’s that they’re not realistic long-term (in fact, some of them can even be dangerous long-term). How do we know this? Well, first of all, there are hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles that suggest diets don’t work (statistics show that the failure rate is somewhere around 98%). Then, there’s the rampant obesity epidemic that continues to plague our nation; apparently our 30 billion dollar per year “diet” industry hasn’t put much of a dent in that. Finally, there’s always common sense; like your mom always said, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

So does this mean that those of us who are overweight are doomed? No, certainly not – there are some good systems out there that preach subtle behavior change, conscious awareness of food consumed, and lifestyle-based eating. But, those systems aren’t sexy, so they don’t sell. There are no celebrity endorsements. No crazy before and after pictures. No outrageous claims about losing “30 pounds in 30 days for 30 dollars!” No one wants to hear “lose two pounds per week!” or “progressively lose that stubborn belly fat!” Ask yourself this: if there were two ads right next to each other in a magazine, one that said “lose 30 pounds in 30 days,” and another that said “lose 8 pounds in 30 days,” which program are you more likely to try? You probably wouldn’t be all that enticed by the 8-pound ad, but the sad fact is that the one that’s NOT lying to you.

No one wants to hear the reality of losing weight. Everyone wants it now, now, now, but that’s just not realistic. How long did it take for you to put on your weight? 6 months? 12 months? 2 years? 5 years? Your entire adult life? With that in mind, it isn’t realistic to expect the weight that took so long to be gained to magically disappear overnight. The problem, though, is that everywhere we look, we are led to believe otherwise. Look at television shows like The Biggest Loser, infomercials for P90x, and before and after ads for dietary supplements – they all make you think losing weight is fast, fun, easy, and quick. But, if that was the case, I don’t think nearly two-thirds of the American public would be classified as overweight or obese.

So, aside from ranting and raving about what DOESN’T seem to work, what is the point here? The point is that one of the primary reasons people fail to achieve their weight loss goals is because they don’t know what a realistic goal is. Any process you enter with unrealistic expectations is doomed to fail from the outset. So, if you expect to lose 10 pounds in your first two weeks of exercise (and actually keep it off), and you lose only 2 pounds, you might view yourself as having failed and lose motivation to continue exercising.

But, what if I told you that, based on existing scientific evidence, you might only lose a pound that first week (and, in fact, in some cases you might not lose any weight at all, or even gain a little weight) – what would you say then? Well, you might not be happy, but at least you’d have an honest, evidence-based expectation. And, you would understand that you did, in fact, succeed when you lost 2 pounds in the first two weeks of your exercise program. So, what can you expect in terms of weight loss and fat loss if you implement a lifestyle-based diet and exercise program? Based on data analysis conducted on our client population, as well as peer-reviewed research, here are some thoughts that might give you a little more realistic idea of how long it will take to reach your goals:

There is a difference between scale weight and body fat. Weight is comprised of both lean and fat tissue. Fat tissue is just fat, nothing more. It’s not dense, not metabolically active, and most of it is stored underneath the skin. Essentially, it’s the tissue we want to get rid of. Lean tissue is everything non-fat in the body. It includes muscles, bones, organs, hair, skin, nails, and fluids – all the living, breathing, working (non-fat) tissue of the body. It’s dense, it’s tone, it’s firm, and it’s metabolically active. This is the tissue we want to keep (or maybe even increase). In fact, when someone says they want to “tone up,” quantifiably speaking, they want to lose fat and gain lean tissue (in the form of muscle). So, when your scale weight changes, it could be because your body fat has changed or your lean mass has changed. How do you know which has happened? You get a body fat measurement done. You figure out how much fat you have on your body and how much you need to lose. From there, you can begin to set realistic goals.

Weight gain may happen initially with the onset of higher intensity exercise. Don’t worry, though: I don’t mean that you’ll gain fat; I mean that your lean tissue will increase. Within the first week of exercise, it’s not uncommon for someone to gain one or more pounds of non-muscle lean mass. This weight is generally fluid in the form of: (1) an increase in your blood plasma to make the heart pump better, (2) stored energy (carbohydrate) in your muscles, and/or (3) swelling in your muscles in response to the trauma of novel exercise. Now, don’t fear this weight gain – it is somewhat transient, and will eventually go away, but it can mask some fat pounds lost on the scale initially, so don’t be discouraged.

The average rate of change in body fat is between 1-1.5 pounds per week for women, and 1.5-2 pounds per week for men. This corresponds to somewhere between 0.5-1.5 absolute percent body fat lost per week. Although this is a great rate of change, it might be less than you expect. Unfortunately, if you try to lose fat any faster than this, you end up (1) losing a lot of muscle in the process, and (2) gaining it all back and more at the end of the day.

The average female client starts with us (at AFS) around 34% body fat; the average male at about 27%. For these “average” clients, it will normally take 12-16 weeks to get to a healthy percentage of body fat (22-25% women, 16-19% men). Then, it will take another 12-14 weeks to get to a “lean or athletic” percentage of body fat (18-20% women, 10-12% men).

Since a fair amount of behavior modification takes place to achieve and maintain weight loss, the time period above is necessary for both lasting physical and mental change. Not only do these behaviors need to be fostered, but they also need to be sustained. In other words, it will likely take a couple of months of really focusing on what helped you achieve the weight loss to solidify those behaviors.

Hopefully I haven’t discouraged you, but it is vitally important to your long-term success that you set realistic expectations. If you consider the time-frames I suggested above and do the math, you’ll see that the “average” person who begins an exercise program for weight loss will need to commit to 10-12 months before the goals are achieved. But, it’s not like a magic switch gets flipped at the one-year mark, and all of a sudden you look the way you want to. You’re going to see steady, subtle, and progressive changes throughout the process. In fact, you’ll start looking better, and your clothes will start fitting better, within the first month. But, reaching your long-term goals will take some time. Knowing this, give yourself permission to take time to achieve your weight loss goals – not only are you worth it, but it’s the only way it will work!

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