Is There A "Too Fast" When It Comes To Weight Loss?

January 5th 2020

Once we have decided that we would like to lose weight, the majority of people would prefer to do so in a way that will work as fast as possible. It is entirely feasible to lose weight rapidly. Extreme calorie restriction and excessive exercise are two of the most popular methods of accomplishing this. But doing so may not necessarily be the wisest path to pursue. Is there, in fact, a “too fast” when it comes to weight loss?

While many factors can influence whether or not, and the speed by which, we lose weight, (age, sex, physical and mental health, etc), it fundamentally boils down to expending more calories than we are consuming

Calories are essentially energy in food. After they are ingested, they are either used by our bodies as physical energy or, when there is an excess, they are stored for future use by the body, as fat. 

Most experts agree that in order to facilitate maintaining the weight you lose, and to avoid unnecessary and undesired side effects, losing 1-2 pounds per week, or 1% of your body weight, is a safe and healthy rate. One to two pounds may seem modest, but in order to lose one pound, your body needs to reach a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories between the energy your body uses by performing the necessary functions to keep you alive (basal metabolic rate), and the physical activities you perform. Generally speaking, cutting 500 to 1,000 calories from your diet per day would result in losing around 1-2 pounds per week. 

It’s important to note that not everyone burns the same amount of calories while performing the same physical activity. Your sex, weight, and the amount of muscle mass your body has are three factors that influence the number of calories your body burns when engaging in movement and exercise. The amount of weight we lose, especially at the beginning of a weight loss regimen, tends to be proportional to your body weight. People who have a heavier body weight will typically lose more weight than those who weigh less, but the rate of weight loss tends to be a similar percentage.

When your body is burning more calories than you are consuming, or creating a calorie deficit, you begin to dip into your stored energy supply, known as glycogen. Glycogen is bound to water, so when your body is using glycogen as its energy source, it also releases the water. That’s why when you first begin to eat less and exercise, you may initially see a significant drop on the scale. This is commonly referred to as “water weight.” Once your body uses up its stored glycogen, your weight loss will balance out to about 1-2 pounds per week. When we lose weight, we aren’t only losing fat, we usually lose a combination of fat, lean tissue, and water. 

The advantages of losing 1-2 pounds per week

Researchers have found that there are multiple advantages to losing weight slowly and steadily over time. Studies have repeatedly shown that people who spread their weight loss out to lose 1-2 pounds per week are far more likely to keep it off long term. Why? Because losing weight gradually is gentler on your body and it allows you to learn healthier habits and to create healthier lifestyle changes, as opposed to simply adding a drastic increase in exercise or deciding to dramatically drop your calorie intake. Those methods are unsustainable, and often result in people resorting back to their old habits, and gaining back the same weight, and sometimes more, than what they just lost. What’s the point of working to lose weight if you are simply going to gain it back shortly after? 

The side effects of losing weight “too quickly”

Extreme calorie restriction, along with fad and crash diets, may result in seeing a dramatic drop in the numbers on your scale, but utilizing these methods for weight loss are not likely to result in long term success. They have also been shown to result in damaging your body and affecting your overall health

Losing weight faster than 1-2 pounds per week puts you at risk for multiple serious side effects. Losing weight is not the same as losing strictly fat. Like I mentioned above, it isn’t typically just fat we are losing, we generally lose a combination of water, lean tissue, and fat. 

Researchers have found that when comparing the weight loss results of participants in a study who had eaten an extremely low-calorie diet for 5 weeks, versus those who had moderate calorie intake for 12 weeks, had lost the same amount of “weight,” but that the people on the extremely low-calorie diet had lost 6 times the muscle mass than those consuming a moderate calorie intake. 

Muscle mass is important for regulating your metabolism. The more muscle mass your body has, the higher your metabolism is, and the easier it is for you to burn calories and lose weight. Multiple studies have also shown that extreme calorie restriction may cause you to burn up to 23% less calories per day. This results from the muscle loss and the decrease in hormones that regulate your metabolism. 

Rapid weight loss may also result in nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition, which can lead to hair loss, extreme fatigue, poor immune function, and brittle bones. To avoid nutritional deficiencies, make sure you are eating a varied diet that consists of whole, unprocessed foods, and an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, whole, unprocessed foods tend to be lower in calories than processed foods, while offering higher nutritional content.  

Numerous other side effects have been linked to unsafe rates of weight loss, including: hunger, irritability, dizziness, constipation, diarrhea, muscle cramps, dehydration, and headaches. At the end of the day, the potential detrimental long and short term effects of accelerated weight loss are likely not worth the risk, when there is a healthier, safer, expert-recommended option. 

Our predisposition to desire Instant Gratification

It is a common desire to want to lose weight quickly. In fact, it is an innate inclination to want to accomplish almost everything quickly. According to the pleasure principle, a concept from Sigmound Freud’s theory of personality, it is an instinctive human urge to both seek pleasure over pain, and to immediately satisfy our most primitive needs. 

It is uncomfortable to engage in delayed gratification, or the decision to put off satisfying your immediate desires in order to gain an even better reward in the future. Yet this is something you are required to do while attempting to lose weight. This, and our instincts being driven by the desire to seize pleasure over pain, are two of the reasons that it can be difficult to lose weight.

Also, we have become conditioned as a society to receive instant gratification. While delayed gratification has always been challenging, only five years ago, most of our lives still required at least a short waiting period. But today, thanks to modern technology and social media, things that once took a minimum of a few hours, or even days, can now be accomplished or received almost instantaneously. (Digital photography, electronic communications, and Amazon’s popular one day delivery come to mind.)

Both the desire to lose weight as quickly as possible and our urge to order a pizza rather than to wait for a healthier dinner to be prepared, are prompted by our desire for instant gratification.

One way to help you overcome our predisposition to instant gratification is to break down your goals into smaller chunks. Larger, long term goals often seem difficult and insurmountable. Instead of focusing on your long term goals daily, keep them in the back of your mind as you strive to reach smaller, easier to achieve accomplishments that will eventually add up to your long term goal. For example, you may desire to ultimately lose 30 pounds. But focusing on losing 30 pounds can be overwhelming and intimidating. Instead, focus on losing 1 pound per week for 30 weeks, or concentrate on losing 5 or 10 pounds. After you achieve every small goal, reward yourself with something you enjoy (something other than food), and then strive for the next small goal. Earning a reward every month, or however long it takes you to achieve your small goals, is far more likely to entice you to continue with your weight loss regimen, and to make healthier lifestyle choices (especially on your difficult days), than a far-off future goal of losing 30 pounds. 

Losing weight in a healthy way

Losing weight faster than 1-2 pounds per week is considered unhealthy, unsustainable, and damaging by most health professionals. Losing weight can have many positive effects on your physical and mental health, but when pursuing rapid weight loss by engaging in extreme calorie restriction, excessive exercise, or in another unsafe manner, it may result in undesirable and easily preventable side effects. Studies have linked muscle loss, a drop in metabolism, and nutritional deficiencies, (along with a long list of additional side effects), to rapid weight loss. 

After you have decided that you would like to lose weight, it is most beneficial to you and your body to do so in a way that is both safe and effective. You know your body better than anyone else, so it is important for you to listen to it and to do what works and feels best for you.

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