Sometimes those “last five pounds” aren’t the issue.
Setting a bigger weight-loss goal, like losing 20 pounds, may feel overwhelming at times. You may get impatient and feel desperate to finally hit the finish line. But sustainable weight loss requires creating healthy habits, like making gradual dietary changes and incorporating consistent fitness into your weekly schedule.
Weight loss ultimately requires the same approaches whether you want to lose a few pounds or 20, says Angela Fitch, MD, vice president of the Obesity Medicine Association, associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center, and faculty at Harvard Medical School. However, she acknowledges that the tools you will have to employ may be a little different if you’re looking to lose a higher amount of weight.
“The more weight or percentage of weight you want to lose, the harder it is, and the more you need to employ tools that give you a metabolic advantage,” Dr. Fitch says. Losing more weight will require more from you, such as giving up most of the processed foods in your diet, or working with a professional like a dietitian or weight-loss expert.
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Losing weight is an individual journey, and how fast you lose it depends on factors like genetics, the way you time your eating and your body’s metabolism, as well as underlying health conditions. But there are a few ways to make sure you’re on the right track.
Here’s some expert guidance for how to safely and sustainably lose 20 pounds.
In general, how long does it take to lose 20 pounds?
It all depends on your body, says Dr. Fitch: “Twenty pounds is not the same for everyone—the issue is what percent of your total weight is 20 pounds.”
If 20 pounds is a smaller percentage of your bodyweight, the less difficult it will be to lose it. For example, if someone is 200 pounds, then 20 pounds is 10 percent of their bodyweight—and it will be easier for them to lose weight than for someone who is 150 pounds, she explains.
Safely losing 20 pounds with fitness and diet alone will take a few months, at least. “On average, if you are able to lose half a pound to a pound each week, you are doing an amazing job and ‘bucking’ your biology,” says Dr. Fitch.
The problem, though, is many people get disappointed with losing 2 to 4 pounds in a month and become discouraged, she says. “The key is to stay motivated and stay the course.” Here’s how.
- Strategize a long-term plan.
“Substantial weight loss is not a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. It’s the rest of your life,” says Janet Hamilton, CSCS, an exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta, Georgia. “It is your new normal.”
When you’re trying to lose a sizable amount of weight, it’s critical to find a weight-loss approach that you can envision yourself using, well, forever. After all, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the best diet is one that you can stick with over the long term.
Adopting a “new normal” always feels a bit challenging at first. A few useful guidelines when it comes to finding a sustainable long-term plan (though, remember, it depends on your personality!):
It shouldn’t include deprivation.
It shouldn’t involve blacklisting entire food groups.
It shouldn’t force you to miss social events or avoid eating out entirely.
- Master the big stuff.
“I always look at trying to lose a large amount of weight like making a sculpture,” says Albert Matheny, RD, CSCS, and trainer with SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. When you sculpt something, you have to build a base before you get into details, he explains.
Translation: Start with general changes, like integrating more veggies into your meals or eating a nutritious breakfast every day, as opposed to the nit-picky stuff like switching up the creamer in your coffee. You can work on the finer points after you get the big stuff down pat.
- But create small goals for yourself, too.
Losing 20 pounds isn’t the same as just dropping a little extra weight. You won’t get there in days, and for some, not even months. And if you’re trying to drop a substantial amount, that timeline can seriously delay your goal-weight gratification.
Safely losing 20 pounds with fitness and diet alone will take a few months, at least.
So instead of getting hung up on the scale number or waist measurements, zone in on other payoffs associated with your new and improved lifestyle. Maybe it’s sleeping better, having more energy, or being able to run a mile, says Baltimore-based trainer Erica Suter, CSCS. These are all signs that you’re making huge progress and getting healthier—which is the point of losing weight in the first place.
- Start weight loss-boosting habits.
The silver lining of having a greater amount of weight to lose is that you can achieve a healthy caloric deficit with relatively small changes to your overall eating habits and exercise routine.
Don’t underestimate the benefits of taking your conference calls standing, parking farther from the supermarket’s entrance, cutting soda or sweetened bevs, or having a refillable water bottle on you at all times. Sure, those things are not the same as a solid sweat session or eating salads every day, but they add up and will make a dent in your calorie burn.
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- Progressively cut calories.
To lose weight, at the most basic level, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn per day. But as you drop pounds, your body doesn’t need as many calories to subsist as it did before.
Here’s why: Calories are energy. And the smaller your body is, the less energy you burn through each day. Plus, through the process of slimming down, you’ll probably lose some muscle, the furnace fueling your metabolism. Finally, the more weight you lose, the harder your body works to hold onto every calorie you consume, a phenomenon known as starvation mode, says Hamilton.
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“Basically, you require fewer calories to maintain your new weight than someone of the same weight who was never overweight,” she says. This side effect frequently happens to people who lose 10 percent or more of their body weight.
For that reason, staggering the amount of calories you cut as you lose weight can help your body adjust to its new energy intake. Try cutting 500 calories from your daily food intake when you first start out. If a month or two in you start plateauing for two weeks or more, you might need to cut another 100 calories, says Matheny. Still, it’s important to make sure you never get below 1,200 calories per day.
- Add more plants and veggies to your diet.
Whole foods, like plants and veggies, will do more for your calorie burn than processed meals. “The less processed the food is, the more energy it takes for your body to break it down,” says Dr. Fitch. “So in effect, the more energy it takes to break it down the more calories it burns to eat it. This is called the thermic effect of food.”
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Processed foods, like white bread for example, take little energy to process resulting in your body absorbing more of its calories. Plants and veggies also tends to have higher amounts of fiber, which does wonders for keeping you feeling full for longer.
- Eat more protein.
Protein has the highest thermic effect of any food, meaning it takes a lot of energy to process and break down protein, Dr. Fitch says. This is a good thing for your net calorie balance, as it speeds up your metabolism. Dr. Fitch also notes that protein is needed to build strong muscles and the more muscle you have the better you’re able to effectively burn calories, even when you’re at rest.
- Lift something heavy.
When it comes to weight loss, more strength training equals more fat loss. As you lose weight, your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn day to day just living and breathing) drops, along with your lean muscle mass.
Strength training is your best bet to combat both issues, adds Suter. Aim to hit the weight room three to five days per week, depending on your resistance training experience and how hard you plan to work out during each session.
Strength training will help you meet your weight loss goal faster. “Strength training and adequate protein intake can build muscle. Muscle is what burns calories. More muscle [means] higher energy burning even at rest and during sleep,” Dr. Fitch says.
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- Get more sleep.
Not getting enough sleep can trigger you to make unhealthy food choices, says Dr. Fitch, who recommends getting at least seven and a half hours a night. “When you don’t sleep well you increase your appetite. The next day you are hungrier, and usually, for carbohydrates and fat,” she says. “When you are tired your body wants to eat processed carbohydrates and sugar to stay awake.”
Dr. Fitch also adds that the sleep cycle promotes calorie-burning. “REM sleep burns a lot of calories,” she says. “When you don’t sleep well you store more energy as fat as you become more insulin resistant and these higher insulin levels promote fat storage.”
- Find ways to manage your stress.
Dr. Fitch recommends meditating for stress reduction. Stress can cause your body to produce hormones like cortisol, which cause the body to store fat. It’s impossible to get rid of stress completely, but you should find your own personal methods to help minimize it.