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Back to Basics: How Fast to Lose Weight


Updated February 15, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

I always hear you should only lose one or two pounds a week. But I often hear about diets that work much quicker than that and I've seen people on television who lose ten or more pounds a week. Can you tell me how fast to lose weight?

Although rapid weight loss is often seen on those reality shows, you need to understand how that happens and how unrealistic it would be to expect the same results.

Yes, in the most extreme cases, those people can lose into the double digits per week. But extreme is the key word here. The people on those shows go to extraordinary measures to lose a lot of weight in a limited amount of time. Look at the numbers: One pound of fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories. When that weigh-in happens that means they have cut or burned a minimum of 35,000 calories (if they have lost ten pounds) in seven days.

Sound super-human? It should. The people on those shows are monitored by physicians, they exercise intensely with trainers for as many as eight hours a day and they follow a very strict, calorie-controlled diet. That's not something that many of us can do, but that's okay since it's not really something we should do.

The problem with this kind of weight-loss rate is that these extreme weight-loss efforts can simply not be sustained over any significant amount of time. If you have more than a few pounds to lose, an extremely strict, low-calorie diet is not going to be palatable for long and it will not provide the nutrients or energy you need to live; exercising too much, too soon, will lead to fatigue, if not serious injury.

One of the reasons you hear one to two pounds recommended so often is that what experts have found to be realistic as a doable rate at which to lose, and perhaps more importantly, keep it off. Losing weight in a rational manner comes down to permanent, long-term lifestyle changes that you make in both your diet and your exercise habits. If the changes are too extreme to stick to, it just won't work.


Fad Diets Fail

When you hear about your friends losing weight quickly on their latest diet plan, they are probably following fad diets. Much of what is lost in those few weeks of a fad diet is water weight. That means little actual fat has gone. Fad diets can also result in the loss of lean muscle, something that you need more of, not less, to maintain a healthy weight. Additionally, losing and re-gaining weight quickly (known as weight-cycling) can lead to increased risk of certain health problems, including gallstones. Weight lost during a fad diet -- or any other extreme weight-loss method -- almost always returns, often with extra pounds in tow.


When is Rapid Weight Loss Acceptable?

In a few situations, rapid weight-loss results can be acceptable in the short term. One popular diet, The South Beach Diet, results in a quick initial loss. This "phase" of the plan, however, is time-limited and should not be followed long-term. Some people following this plan lose up to 14 pounds in two weeks. After this introductory period, the weight loss tapers off to around two pounds per week.

People following a very low calorie diet (VLCD), which is supervised by a doctor, will experience a much more rapid weight loss than a typical dieter should (or could) experience.

Those who have had weight-loss surgery, such as gastric bypass, experience weight loss at a much higher rate than one or two pounds per week, but eventually their rate of loss will slow down, too.


How to Lose Weight at a Healthy Rate

Remember: The rule of thumb is that one pound contains 3,500 calories. If you want to lose a pound a week (500 calories x 7 days = 3,500 calories) you will need to either cut 500 calories from your diet each day by counting calories or burn 500 calories more than you consume by exercising. Most people find it most comfortable and realistic to do a combination of the two (e.g., burning 250 calories with exercise and cutting 250 calories from the diet). The key to success is to find what works for you and to do it consistently.


Where to Start

About.com's Calorie Count offers many tools to help you learn how to lose weight by controlling your caloric intake and increasing physical activity. The site will help you assess how many calories you need, how many you burn each day and track your caloric intake using its expansive online database of foods and beverages. Start there and you will be on your way to that slow, steady and healthy weight loss of one to two pounds per week!

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