Wondering How Much Weight You Can Lose In a Month? You’re Asking the Wrong Question.

A headshot picture of Christine Byrne.

Before Christine became a dietitian, she spent nine years working as a journalist and recipe developer, first as a food editor at BuzzFeed, then as the features editor for Self, then as a freelancer for over four dozen media outlets. She’s written thousands of articles and hundreds of recipes. She’s also appeared as a guest on Good Morning America, New York One, and the Meredith Vieira Show. You can learn more about her work here.

At Way, we’re all about creating a healthy relationship with food and making peace with your body. We’re not about diets or having a disordered relationship with weight loss.

Which is a hot topic right about now – as Winter begins winding down and the Spring rolls in, the Summer that seemed so far away is upon us. Enjoying the warm breeze on a shoreline is calling you right about now, and so is the diet culture messaging around the “Summer body”.

Image that captures the nuanced emotional journey of weight loss failure for two women

As a registered dietitian, I take the same approach as Way in my work with clients. We focus on creating sustainable eating habits that work for each person’s body, preferences, schedule, and values. We don’t focus on food rules or weight goals.

Still, we live in diet culture, which means many people are fixated on the idea of losing weight, and convinced that doing so is what will make them happy and healthy. (We know that isn’t really true, but we’ll get to that later.) Because diet culture is so relentless, lots of folks also want to lose weight as quickly as possible.

How much weight can you lose in a month?

If you’ve ever typed that question into Google, you probably found an answer. Most likely, it was in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guideline that “healthy” weight loss is about 1 to 2 pounds per week. Do some math, and you’d come to the conclusion that it’s possible to lose up to 8 pounds in a month.

How does that initial weight loss happen? By eating fewer calories. You may have also heard of the 3500 calorie rule: That a deficit of 3,500 calories equals one pound of weight loss. By that logic, you could lose 1 pound a week by eating 500 fewer calories than you need each day, and 2 pounds a week by eating 1,000 calories below your needs daily.

Actually, weight and energy needs are much more complex than this. An article by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) debunks the 3,500 calorie rule, basically by explaining how and why our bodies aren’t machines. Our energy needs and metabolisms are dynamic; plus, it’s practically impossible to know exactly how many calories you eat or use each day.

Can you really lose weight every month and keep that weight off?

As it turns out, there’s truth to the idea that you can lose a certain amount of weight in a month by eating fewer calories than your body uses each day. There’s mounds of evidence to show that being in a calorie deficit (AKA, dieting) will lead to weight loss for several months. That’s partially what the above recommendations are based on.

The thing is, there’s also mounds of evidence to show that after a number of months of dieting, weight loss stops. In the vast majority of cases, the weight comes back. In some cases, people regain even more weight than they lost in those first months. (Of course, the diets and guidelines don’t tell you that this is the norm!)

Let’s look at the science on — or rather, against — long-term weight loss.

For one review, the researchers looked at a bunch of existing studies on calorie restriction and long-term weight loss. Based on the data from those studies, they concluded that while dieting may work in the short-term, it doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss.

They also found that anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of people actually regain more weight than they initially lost in the years after starting the diet.

Another review published a few years later came to the same conclusion — that dieting didn’t actually lead to long-term weight loss.

The researchers also found that health improvements like lowered blood pressure, better blood sugar control, an lowered cholesterol were pretty minimal for dieters in the long-term, and they suggested that any positive changes in these health markers was probably due to things like increased exercise and a more nutritious diet — both things that you can do without diets and weight loss (and that Way helps you do in a way that feels good to you).

Image that captures the essence of body positivity and the journey away from diet culture and weight loss stigma

One very comprehensive meta-analysis published a few years ago looked at existing research on a whole bunch of different diets (like calorie restriction, low-carb, low-fat, and macro counting). They found that while all of the diets led to weight loss in the first 6 months or so — and the low-carb diets often led to a bit more than the others — pretty much all dieters had regained the lost weight by the 12-month mark. And, although some dieters saw improvements in things like blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the first months, those improvements were also practically gone at the year mark.

All of this begs the question: Who cares how much weight you can lose in a month!?

When a diet promises you that you’ll lose X number of pounds in a month, or 3 months, or 6 months, it might sound appealing. And chances are, they’re telling you the truth! (In fact, legal regulations require that claims like this be backed up by research.)

But have you ever seen a diet advertisement that tells you how much weight you can lose in 2 years, or 10, or 20? No. Because they’re not allowed to promise you that. Because even the research that diet companies conduct themselves doesn’t provide evidence for these claims. 

A more accurate diet advertisement might read: “Lose up to 20 pounds in 3 months! And then gain it all back plus a little more in 3 years!” But that wouldn’t sell many diet books, supplements, apps, or frozen meals, would it?

It can be hard to accept that diets don’t work and intentional weight loss probably isn’t sustainable long-term.

Listen, I understand that all of this information might seem disheartening, even infuriating, if you’re reading it for the first time. Some of you might slam your computers shut after reading and start another diet, just to try and prove me wrong.

But if you’ve been around the block with diets — if you’ve tried everything from calorie counting to keto to intermittent fasting, only to be left in the same place you started, or worse — it might actually feel validating to read that it’s not your fault the diet didn’t work. You’re not broken or lacking willpower, you just keep buying faulty products and blaming yourself when they don’t do what they’re supposed to.

If not weight loss, then what?

The good news is that you don’t actually need to diet and lose weight to be happier and healthier. (Say it again for the people in the back!)

Diet culture is constantly shoving food rules and ridiculous body standards down our throats. But the truth is that the road to better health and a happier life is different for everyone, and it can look an infinite number of different ways.

Yes, it’s true that moving your body and getting the nutrients you need from a wide variety of foods is good for your physical and mental health. But you don’t need a diet or a weight loss program to show you how to do that. I’d argue that these kinds of programs actually take you further from a sustainable, healthy relationship with food and movement, because they don’t leave much room for flexibility.

A better approach? Learning to tune into your body’s cues and needs, and then finding ways to honor them that feel good for you. The beauty of Way is that it doesn’t tell you what or how much to eat, nor does it tell you how or when to move your body. Instead, it empowers you to figure those things out for yourself. This way, you’re able to do things that are good for your overall health, but that also feel good. As it turns out, eating nutritious foods and moving your body is actually pretty fun when you’re the one who gets to decide exactly how to do it.

Instead of focusing on weight loss, try focusing on making food and movement choices that make you feel good.

You’d be amazed at how much wisdom your body has to share with you. If you’ve been dieting for years and years, you’ve probably learned to tune out that wisdom. (Maybe you told yourself you couldn’t eat when your body told you it was hungry, or you wouldn’t let yourself have the food you actually wanted, or you forced yourself to go for a run when you barely had the energy to walk out of the house.)

But listening to your body and tuning into its needs is something you can absolutely re-learn. It takes time, and plenty of trial and error. You might start by asking yourself if you’re hungry every few hours, then eating something if the answer is yes. Or, you might make a list of physical activities that you actually enjoy — and it doesn’t have to be things like long runs or HIIT classes; it can be things like walking your dog or planting flowers in your garden — and then trying a few of them out over the next couple weeks. 

No matter where you choose to start in your journey of healing your relationship with food and body, you’ll be on the right track. Choosing to start listening to yourself, instead of a diet, is the best way to learn how to make choices that honor your body and your health.

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At Way, we combine both Intuitive Eating and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approaches to actively create an interactive experience. This experience naturally arises from exploring questions with the focused goal of helping Way members listen to their bodies and align their way of living and eating to their values. Our app uniquely blends these deep qualities in short, sweet, and easy 2-8 minute Sessions in three Pathways, including mindful breathing techniques and other behavioral science approaches in Way. We eagerly anticipate continuing our mission to help everyone find balance in their lives, enabling them to enjoy their journey through life.