Slow progress is real progress.
And often, I could put it the other way around: real progress tends to be slow (read on to learn more about what I consider to be “real” weight loss progress).
For most people, a real change in lifestyle that is:
- Mentally healthy
- Physically healthy
… is going to produce slower progress than a diet/workout plan that is:
But this isn’t a bad thing. And in today’s post, I’m going to give it to you straight, just like I do with my clients, and you’ll learn why “slow progress” (and frequently dealing with plateaus) is not a big deal… and can actually be a good thing!
Real fat loss is slow
First of all, I try to give my clients a better idea that fat loss isn’t necessarily easy for your body. Granted, the more body fat you have available to lose, the more easily your body will let go of it. But if you are just feeling “a little fluffy” or just want your shorts to fit better, your body isn’t going to be keen on dropping that little bit of extra weight.
So I always tell people: “real” fat loss is slow. And by “real,” I mean losing weight from fat, not from water weight and not from muscle weight.
Let’s take my two most recent client highlights as an example. My client Kelly dropped 80 pounds in six months. My client Sarah, on the other hand, lost about 20 pounds in four months. Both reached a weight that is a healthy/happy place for them individually, but because of the difference in starting point, Sarah’s rate of loss was much slower.
This is because if you are already pretty close to your goal weight (i.e. 20 pounds or less), your body isn’t going to be excited about weight loss. You can’t compare yourself to someone who has more to lose. And if you want to keep it off, you also can’t compare yourself to someone doing a crash diet, who’s likely losing a lot of water weight and eating into muscle mass.
Keep in mind that if you really want to lose fat, that’s a tall order for your body. You’re asking your body to dig into energy reserves that it biologically wants to hold onto for famine/safety. You’re changing the literal composition of your body – and that is a process that doesn’t happen overnight.
Muscle weighs more than fat, and that’s a good thing
Speaking of muscle vs. fat…
Picture a one-pound dumbbell vs. a one-pound feather pillow. The dumbbell is much smaller, right?
That’s very much how muscle and fat can be compared. Muscle is dense and heavy and small, while fat is bigger and fluffier at the same weight.
The problem is that if someone doesn’t have a lot of weight to lose, their bodies are more likely to eat into muscle for energy instead of fat when they diet – especially if they’re over-exercising with cardio.
The result is that someone may be losing weight on the scale by little bits, but they’re not getting the visual results that they want – a leaner, tighter, healthier body. It’s because they’re losing the small, dense, metabolically-healthy muscle, rather than the big, fluffy, less-metabolically-healthy fat. This makes for slow progress on the scale, but visually noticeable progress in terms of clothing fit and appearance.
The only way to prevent muscle loss and prioritize fat loss instead is to:
- Keep the caloric deficit really reasonable (i.e., don’t diet too hard… literally just enough to lose weight)
- Don’t cut carbs super low – this causes your water weight to drop in a way that might excite you at first, but it comes right back on once you eat a normal amount of carbs again
- Keep strength training consistently, at least 2-3x/week
- Eat lots of protein – at least 100 g per day
The emphasis is on protein and strength training helps to preserve muscle mass – it short-circuits your body’s tendency to eat away at muscle during weight loss. This turns your body’s attention to fat loss. By keeping the caloric deficit somewhat small and continuing to eat a sufficient amount of carbohydrates, you also reduce the physical and mental stress of dieting, which helps keep your body out of red-alarm-store-fat-for-the-famine mode.
The result of this approach is a leaner, more “toned” appearance because your body is maintaining that good-looking (and functional!) muscle while stripping fat away. The scale changes may not be huge, but it’s because muscle does have scale weight… but we don’t want to lose that weight!!!
But let’s step away from biology/physiology, and more into the realm of psychology…
Slower weight loss encourages habit development
What I’m about to say may sound obvious.
If you do easy things to lose weight slowly, it’s easier to keep doing those things, and you’re more likely to maintain them as habits and keep weight off.
If you do hard things to lose weight quickly, it’s harder to keep doing those thing, and you’re more likely to ditch those behaviors when life gets tough. This means it’s easy for weight to come back on.
The goal is that you build one set of consistent habits that are balanced, sustainable, and reasonably easy for normal life. Then, you can really hit the gas on those behaviors during seasons of life when things are calm and easy (i.e., summer vacation) but put them on cruise control when things get chaotic/busy.
If your weight loss strategies are only meal prepping, walking, and two 30-minute strength sessions per week, yes, you’re going to have slower progress in two months than your friend who is 60-minute workouts seven days a week and dieting hard. But… what happens when each of you has a busy week at work, or a kid gets sick? The great likelihood is that you’re still going to do your meal prepping, walking, and two 30-minute strength sessions, while that person’s plan – which was dependent on intensity and focus and high commitment – could totally de-rail.
In general, the behaviors that people use to lose fat gradually are the behaviors that stick around – strategies like sensible portion control, eating out less, daily activity, and meal prep. The behaviors that people use to lose 10 pounds in two weeks typically aren’t sustainable, and don’t translate into habits… which means the results aren’t sustainable, either.
And finally, let’s talk about the peskiest part of slow progress…
Water weight isn’t a big deal
Seriously. It’s not.
I just have to include a section on it because it is one of the most annoying parts of weight loss.
Remember when I said that “real” fat loss is slow?
This is important to point out because of how fast water weight comes on and off. It’s distracting, and can be one day exciting, and another day discouraging.
We tend to picture “water weight” as being some extra weight hanging around that needs to go – but the reality is that when our bodies are hydrated and fueled and healthy, we store water in our cells. And it’s not just in fat cells – we also store water in our muscles as part of fuel/energy storage.
In other words, some water weight is not the enemy. It’s a normal part of life.
When people go on sudden, extreme diets, they tend to lose a lot of water quickly. But it’s not real fat loss. For my clients, I’m generally not concerned if they are “holding onto water weight” – because most of the time that just means that you’re hydrated and healthy (including your muscles).
The exception would be unhealthy water retention – it’s one thing if your weight is jumping around on the scale but you feel and look fine. It’s another thing if you have issues with puffiness in your hands, feet, face, etc. Edema can be caused by a high-sodium diet (among other things), but I would recommend talking to your doctor about your water retention if it consistently makes you uncomfortable or causing huge swings in your weight (i.e., more than five pounds day to day).
Keep an eye on the big picture
I advise my clients to look for an average of about one pound of scale weight lost per week during a “dieting” phase (i.e., when they’re in a caloric deficit). This isn’t slow progress – this is good progress. Plus, I give them the additional advice to focus on 2-4 week blocks rather than literal week-by-week progress, and to expect that the scale is going to jump around.
When you’re feeling frustrated about slow progress, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I really experiencing slow progress, or am I just annoyed that I’m not losing more than one pound per week, or even a half pound per week?
- Am I active every day? Can I fit in an extra 30-minute walk, if possible?
- Am I exercising at a more vigorous level at least 2-3 times per week for 30 minutes each time?
- Am I being honest with myself about my eating? Am I using any strategies to moderate/observe food intake, like measuring and/or tracking?
- How do my weekends compare with my weekdays? Do I have any blind spots in this area?
- Does my lifestyle line up with my expectations? (Keeping in mind that “exceptional” results stem from exceptional action).
- (And most importantly)… is this a “plateau,” or is this my new healthy weight where my body is most happy?
Making peace with slow progress is important, because you are investing in the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle. You can always dial in more intensity on certain weeks that favor a higher amount of focus. But the baselines should be nice and consistent and regular, even on “bad” weeks.
Do your best to zoom out, look at the big picture, stay realistic, and figure out how to enjoy the process, and trust me – you’ll enjoy the results for a long, long time.