The Benefits of Being a Slow Loser

You've been working hard for weeks (maybe even months) making healthy food choices and sticking to a regular exercise routine. Each week, you step on the scale hoping to see the effort pay off with big results, and each week you're rewarded with small amounts of weight loss. Something is better than nothing, but at this pace, it feels like you'll never reach your goal. 

The idea of losing weight slowly isn't necessarily appealing, especially when you are full of motivation to change your life and weight loss is a big factor. Although it can be difficult to keep your chin up and stay focused, these small losses might actually be a blessing in disguise. It's time to let you in on a little secret: Losing weight slowly actually be the key to long-term success.

Pat Barone is a professional coach and personal trainer who lost 92 pounds slowly and has kept it off for 17 years. Her first principle of weight loss is, "Don’t do anything to lose weight you can’t do forever. The minute you revert to 'normal' eating, the weight comes back." Barone says there are health consequences from losing weight too quickly and dieting repetitively. "The body’s metabolism lowers, sometimes forever, and doesn’t respond to any prodding," she explains. "I have many clients come to me in their 40s and 50s who have been rotating among every possible diet throughout their 20s and 30s, and suddenly they are gaining and no diet will work. Lowered metabolism, increased hunger and cravings, and lowered ability to make positive decisions are all a result of losing weight too quickly."

"The most common problem with rapid weight loss is damage to the metabolism," Matt Walrath, head coach and owner of nutrition coaching company Beyond Macros, goes on to explain. "There is a phenomenon we call "the curse of the biggest loser" where rapid weight loss causes the metabolism to semi-permanently drop to unsustainable levels. In the case of 'The Biggest Loser' contestants, it would take a diet of 800 calories per day coupled with hours of exercise to maintain their weight loss because of this metabolic damage." 

Jennifer Espinosa-Goswami, a health coach who has maintained a weight loss of 100 pounds for 16 years is a big fan of going slow. "Show me a single person who has lost weight quickly who hasn't gained it back within the same year," challenges Espinosa-Goswami. "According to the National Weight Control Registry (of which I am a member) keeping your weight off for at least a year makes it more likely that you will maintain the weight long term. It took me a year to lose 100 pounds, which means that I focused on only what I could change at that stage of my journey. If I had tried to change every single thing I was doing—from what I was eating to how I was exercising—I would have burned out by month three. Because it took me that long to lose the weight, I was able to maintain the small changes that lead to my success."

SparkPeople's Slow Losers Succeed

SparkPeople advocates this slow rate of weight loss, encouraging members to opt for permanent lifestyle changes versus fad diets and quick fixes. SparkPeople originally started as a goal-setting website, when founder Chris Downie (SparkGuy) realized most people who joined set weight-loss goals. Knowing there were plenty of "diets" out there, many of which focus on deprivation and quick fixes, he created a different kind of program to help people adopt healthy habits that can last a lifetime. Since then, there have been thousands of SparkPeople members who've lost slowly, but are keeping the weight off permanently.

It took 11 months for Eileen (BROOKLYN_BORN) to lose the extra 25 pounds she'd been carrying for 25 years. "I didn’t want to feel deprived, hurt myself or burn out, so I intended to go slowly," Eileen explains.  By maintaining her already active lifestyle and deciding to take on an approachable 250-calorie deficit, she says she never feared a weight-loss plateau. "As long as I wasn’t gaining, I was okay. I considered it my body’s preparation for the ultimate plateau—maintenance. That’s where I wanted to stay forever."

Eileen credits the slow loss for making her now seven-year maintenance much easier. "I don’t think my body even noticed the gradual changes and therefore didn’t rebel against what I was doing." 

Diane (POINDEXTRA) went into the weight-loss process with the mindset that she was making a permanent life change, rather than a temporary diet. One year later, she was 47 pounds lighter and on track to maintain her new figure and new life for years to come. "I had used financial budgeting to get and stay out of debt, so I made the connection that logging my food intake and staying within a points or calorie 'budget' was really the same process," she explains. "I'm glad I had a doctor who emphasized that losing quickly was not important. I've not kept the weight off for almost 14 years, so I really believe that it's true!"

How Fast is Too Fast?

A healthy rate of weight loss is typically one to two pounds per week. This ensures you're minimizing muscle loss, maximizing fat loss and creating habits you can live with forever. It's normal to lose quickly in the beginning (especially if you have a lot to lose), because most of that is water weight. After a month or so, though, your weight loss should slow to the desired one to two pound range weekly. Keep in mind that this range will vary depending on how much weight you have to lose. If you're within 20 or so pounds of your goal, your average weight loss might be a half a pound per week. If you've got over 100 pounds to lose, three to four pounds might be average. But if you're consistently losing 10 pounds a week, it's very likely that this rapid weight loss is not healthy or sustainable and it may be time to reevaluate your strategy.

Staying Motivated When the Scale Isn't Moving

It's hard to keep the momentum going when results aren't what you'd hoped for. But how you deal with those feelings and the plan you make going forward will determine your success or failure. Walrath recognizes that it can be challenging to stay motivated when the scale isn't showing fast progress. "We often see that clients' weight will fluctuate by one to three pounds daily, which is discouraging when that fluctuation [happens to be] a three pound rise in weight," he says. "To help them stay motivated, we give them a spreadsheet that looks at a 10-day average of their weight which [also] shows the trend of the scale. We also set expectations right off the bat to make sure they understand what slow, average and fast progress is. We keep them motivated by focusing on the frequency with which they perform the behaviors that we want to become a habit. This shift of focus away from the scale as a single metric has really helped our clients."

When the scale isn't showing the results of all of your hard work, staying focused can be a challenge. Use other methods besides the scale—such as inches lost or how well your clothes fit—to measure progress, instead. Create an incremental reward system so that you don't have to wait until you reach a big milestone to pat yourself on the back.  By staying consistent with your diet and exercise routine, regardless of the number on the scale, every day you take one step closer to reaching and maintaining your ultimate health and fitness goals.