There’s no shortage of dramatic weight loss transformations on the web, which makes losing five pounds a week seem pretty easy. But losing that kind of weight in just seven days can be unhealthy, and even impossible, for some people.
Everyone wants to know the amount of weight they can lose in a week—and everyone wants that to be a big number. But nobody can say exactly how much, because many different factors have an effect on how quickly you shed pounds, including how much you weigh when you start a weight loss plan.
According to Konstantinos Spaniolas, M.D., associate director of the Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center at Stony Brook University, losing one percent of your body weight per week is considered rapid, but within reason.
There’s a caveat: Those quick results, Dr. Spaniolas says, come at the price of muscle loss—definitely not what you want (more on that later). This is why experts recommend taking a little longer to lose weight with a plan that’s easy to sustain, and taking a moment to understand the seven factors that determine how much weight you can lose in a week:
Your starting point determines how much you can lose in a week
The more excess weight you have to lose, the larger the percentage of lost weight will come from fat, says Kevin Hall, Ph.D., a researcher at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Say you start at 300 pounds—a goal of one percent fat loss per week means you’ll shed three pounds in a week. But if you’re just looking to drop 10 pounds from a relatively lean frame, you’ll probably have a harder time retaining muscle mass.
Your workout helps determine weight loss
You’ve heard us say it before: Resistance training is key to keeping muscle while burning fat. One Columbia University study showed just how much it matters. For this research, scientists had people cut calories and then either do strength training or cardio workouts three times a week. After eight weeks, everyone lost more than 9 percent of their body weight. But in the aerobic group, 20 percent of that came from lean tissue (mostly muscle), while the resistance group limited lean-tissue loss to 8 percent, while still trimming down overall.
Your protein intake shapes body composition
Protein provides essential amino acids that your body uses to make muscle. Skimp and you’ll lose more muscle. Dr. Spaniolas recommends eating about .8 to 1 gram of protein for every pound you weigh in order to retain muscle. There are plenty of ways to get that protein, including from these hearty vegan meals with more protein than a burger.
Your sleep habits affect weight loss
Not getting enough shut-eye throws hunger and metabolism hormones like leptin and ghrelin out of whack. In a small study published last year in Annals of Internal Medicine, volunteers on a reduced-calorie diet slept either 5.5 or 8.5 hours a night. In two weeks, they both lost a little more than 6.5 pounds—but those who slept more lost twice as much of that from fat. Sleep is so critical to everything that Men’s Health even put together the best sleep strategies and products to help you do it better.
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How much you’ve already lost sets the tone
The smaller you are, the fewer calories you’ll burn, says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., author of Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work. But there are even more complex hormonal and metabolic shifts at work, making it harder to burn fat the longer you’ve been losing. Scientists are still working to understand the mechanisms, but research has shown that people who have lost weight burn fewer calories than people who never dieted. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It just means you tend to lose weight faster at first.
How well your diet fits you affects how much you can lose
“Not every plan fits every patient,” Dr. Spaniolas says. If you prefer to eat high-fat foods, then the trendy keto diet may work for you. However, this doesn’t mean carb lovers need to forego pasta to see results.
How many calories you cut affects rate of weight loss
Dr. Spaniolas says correctly estimating how many calories your body needs is complicated, but recommends using a chart or calculator from the National Institute of Health. From there, you can omit about 500 calories per day to lose weight, but shouldn’t go much lower to begin with. And even then, he says it may not be easy to sustain this reduction in calories if you’re already lean and need fewer calories to begin with.
How much alcohol you drink affects weight loss
Alcohol can easily increase your daily calorie intake if you don’t monitor those calories. Men consume an extra 433 calories on days they consume alcohol when they have a “moderate” amount of drinks, according to one study. You need to factor in calories from alcohol in any weight loss plan.
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