Weight loss is a very personal process, and no two weight loss journeys look the same. The challenges of weight loss can be daunting, given how complex the body's metabolism is and how it responds to different stages of losing weight.
What are the 3 stages of weight loss?
While the timeline and experience of a weight loss journey differs from person to person, there are typically three stages of weight loss. These stages are: rapid weight loss, slow weight loss, and a plateau phase.
Each stage presents different challenges, physiologically and emotionally. The key to successful weight loss and maintenance is knowing what to expect and having a plan when you hit bumps in the road.
1. Rapid weight loss
During this initial stage of weight loss, people often experience a rapid drop in weight, usually within the first week or two of starting a new weight loss plan.
The dramatic weight reduction is mostly due to losing your “water weight.” When starting a new weight loss plan, your body will inititally tap in to its energy reserves to keep you fueled — in other words, it first utilizes glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored in hydrated form, meaning that it’s bound to water. As you use and deplete glycogen stores from your muscles and liver, this water is released from your body, leading to a quick reduction in weight . If part of your weight loss program involves going keto or eating fewer carbs, this may also lead to lower insulin levels, causing your kidneys to excrete excess sodium and even more water, which further adds to the initial drop in weight [1, 3].
This stage can feel very rewarding when weight loss is your goal — the rapid weight change is motivating and provides a psychological boost, reinforcing commitment to the weight loss plan. However, the speed of loss can create unrealistic expectations. It's essential to recognize that this rapid weight loss stage is short-term, typically lasting one to two weeks.
2. Slow weight loss
After the initial rapid weight loss, your body starts to shift to using fat stores for energy, and the rate of weight loss slows down and becomes more gradual .
The reason for this reduction in weight loss is that your body becomes more efficient at conserving energy. Your body transitions from utilizing glycogen to burning fat stores, which is a more complex — and much slower — process.
This means your body requires fewer calories for energy and maintenance, which in turn slows the rate of weight loss . Your body continues to adapt by conserving energy and reducing muscle mass if you don’t eat enough protein [3, 5].
The slowing down of weight loss may lead you to feel disappointment, discouragement, and frustration. It’s key to remember that this stage can last for several months, depending on the individual approach, so it’s important to adjust your mindset to more realistic expectations and focus on your long-term weight loss strategy. People who stick to their weight loss plan through this stage, for around 6 months, are more likely to have successful weight loss and maintain a healthy weight long-term . Focusing on nutritionally dense, whole foods helps in maintaining stable energy levels while building muscle mass can support metabolism, helping maintain a steady weight loss pace .
3. Weight loss plateau
Eventually, the metabolic adaptation we’ve discussed leads to a stall in weight loss despite continued efforts — which is often called a weight loss plateau .
A weight loss plateau is the final stage of slow weight loss, where your metabolism has adapted to your new weight, and the number of calories your body needs to survive more or less equals the calorie deficit you’ve been maintaining.
To continue to lose weight, you’d need to restrict your calories even further or increase the number of calories you burn — a vicious and ultimately unsustainable cycle. During a plateau, any attempts to continue losing weight are often stymied by your body’s own mechanisms, which include increasing the production of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) — which is why it’s common for people to regain some of the weight they previously lost .
The plateau stage can last indefinitely and is often where people give up, feeling defeated — and is one reason why only 20% of people who try to lose weight are able to do so long-term . Many people may even turn to drastic or unhealthy measures to break the plateau, including crash dieting (or very-low-calorie/semi-starvation dieting), diet pills, or over-exercising. Instead of these potentially harmful habits, you may need to reevaluate your strategies and goals, recognizing that body composition and health are more critical than weight.
To overcome a weight loss plateau, it’s important to shift the focus away from calories alone and look at metabolic health at large. Here are four tips for breaking a weight loss plateau:
- Target nutrient-dense foods — especially ones high in fiber and protein — to improve satiety and reduce extreme blood glucose fluctuations, which can help you feel full for longer and minimize cravings.
- Focus on building muscle mass, which burns more calories than fat as well as improves insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake.
- Try meal-timing or intermittent fasting, which can promote stable glucose levels and help you lose fat rather than muscle.
- Eat a wide array of probiotic-rich foods like kefir, kimchi, and miso to encourage a healthy microbiome, which plays a key role in weight loss.
What is considered a healthy weight?
Healthy weight isn't one-size-fits-all — it depends on factors like age, gender, muscle mass, and individual metabolic rate. A healthy weight, while important for your health, will vary from person to person. On top of that, body composition is a critical and often neglected part of the equation, as two people who are the same "healthy" weight may have very different metabolic health profiles. Muscle mass, abdominal fat, and waist circumference are all factors that play into what a healthy body looks and feels like.
Factors that affect weight loss
It’s true that your genetics impact your metabolic rate and your body's response to dieting, but there are several lifestyle factors that can influence weight gain and loss much more . Taking these factors into account and incorporating personalized, healthy habits into your everyday life is important for anyone trying to lose weight.
- Your starting point. The weight you start your journey at can impact how much and how fast you lose weight. Those with higher weight, especially in body fat, are likely to lose more weight more quickly.
- Diet, calorie intake, and macros. The types and quality of foods you consume play a vital role. Whole, nutrient-dense foods support metabolism, while processed foods may hinder weight loss.
- Physical activity. Regular exercise not only burns calories but also builds muscle, which can increase your resting metabolic rate.
- Lifestyle factors, like sleep and stress. Lack of sleep can affect hormones like ghrelin and leptin, influencing hunger and metabolism. Chronic stress may lead to hormonal imbalances (impacting weight loss), disrupt motivation, and trigger cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Metabolic health. Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome (which includes a cluster of conditions like high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels), can make weight loss more challenging.
- Medical conditions and medications. Chronic health conditions, such as PCOS or heart disease, can make weight loss more complex. Certain medications can cause weight gain or make weight loss more difficult, requiring specific strategies.
How can you maintain sustainable weight loss?
To overcome these stages of weight loss and maintain a sustainable weight, focusing on the Four Pillars of metabolic health is essential.
- Nutrition: Focus on satiety, fiber, and a metabolically balanced plate. Focus on more than just calories-in-calories-out. Consuming fewer calories than the body burns does lead to weight loss. However, too drastic a caloric deficit can reduce metabolic rate and hinder progress. Prioritizing complex carbohydrates and protein can be beneficial during weight loss .
- Exercise: Building muscle mass and engaging in regular physical activity can not only help with weight loss but can help decrease your risk of metabolic diseases.
- Sleep: Ensure you are getting quality sleep to support metabolic health. Poor sleep or not enough sleep can can lead to dysregulated glucose and insulin responses, making it easy to gain weight and harder to lose weight.
- Stress management: High levels of stress or chronic stress, just like bad sleep, can negatively impacy your glucose regulation and insulin sensitivity, making weight loss more challenging. Practicing mindfulness or other stress-reducing techniques can greatly impact your metabolic health.
Using a CGM can help in weight loss efforts, because it lets you see how diet and lifestyle are affecting your metabolic health.
Think of your metabolism like an engine, changing the fuel you use can help, but fixing the engine by incorporating all four pillars will improve your health. Improved body composition is a natural result of that.
In the end, weight loss is not just about dropping numbers on the scale – it’s about building a healthy relationship with your body, forming long-lasting habits for metabolic health, and embracing a balanced, sustainable lifestyle. Understanding the different phases, and how personal this journey can be, can allow you to approach weight loss with more realistic and healthy expectations.
- Weight loss consists of three stages, each with unique physiological and psychological aspects: an initial rapid stage, a slow stage, and a plateau stage.
- Recognize that every body is different and requires a personalized approach to weight loss.
- Forming healthy metabolic habits plays a crucial role in sustaining weight loss, going beyond mere calorie counting to a holistic approach to well-being. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management are fundamental to sustainable weight loss.
- Persevering through weight loss plateaus is essential for long-term success. Building strong habits ensures a balanced and sustained approach to weight management.