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Why losing weight too quickly may backfire in the long run

Yes, I've only lost 25 pounds in 26 weeks. Here's why that's a good thing.
Man on bathroom scale
Most experts agree that losing 1 to 2 pounds per week is the recipe for long-term weight management.M.Poehlman / Getty Images/Evok Images

“I’m surprised you’re not losing more weight.”

“Why do you think you’re struggling so much?”

“Really, only 25 pounds?”

“Aren’t you disappointed?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of this line of questioning in recent weeks. As I passed the halfway point of my year-long project to adhere to the federal Physical Activity Guidelines and Dietary Guidelines, with the support of the American Council on Exercise, many friends and family members were checking in on my progress.

“So, how are you doing so far?” they ask.

“I’m feeling great,” I say. “I’ve never done this much exercise without suffering an injury before. I’ve never eaten this healthfully in my life.”

“But how much weight have you lost?” they ask, as if that’s all that matters.

“I’ve lost 25 pounds,” I say happily.

That’s when I see the tight-lipped smile, a subtle tilt of the head and then one of the questions listed above.

It’s as if losing 25 pounds in 26 weeks is a sign that I’m not doing enough.

Combatting a Culture of Quick Fixes

People have grown so accustomed to quick-fix weight-loss plans that losing a pound a week is viewed as “too slow” or somehow disappointing. Most experts agree that losing 1 to 2 pounds per week is the recipe for long-term weight management. Anything faster than that seems to increase the potential for weight re-gain, with many people gaining even more weight than they lost.

The problem lies in the types of lifestyle changes people need to make in order to lose weight quickly. Consider the Whole30 plan, which is essentially an elimination diet that calls for a month-long commitment — no cheat meals, no indulgences. People following the Whole30 plan avoid grains, sugar, dairy, alcohol and legumes in an effort to focus on whole, simple foods. (I’m not sure why grains and legumes are not considered “whole” or “simple!”).

Most experts agree that losing 1 to 2 pounds per week is the recipe for long-term weight management.

One night at a local brew pub, I was sitting with my friend, who was somewhere around day 10 of the Whole30. Meanwhile, I was in the early weeks of The Lifestyle Project. As I enjoyed the house-made lager and a grilled chicken sandwich from the food truck parked outside, he was sipping a glass of water and eating a salad with no dressing that the food truck owner threw together at his request.

He was giving me some grief about how I’m never going to lose any weight eating sandwiches and drinking beer instead of doing something extreme like the Whole30. In the same breath, he was grumbling about how miserable he was and explaining that he and his wife do the Whole30 for one month each year in an effort to improve their health and lose weight. He typically loses between 20 and 30 pounds during the month.

“What happens the other 11 months?” I asked.

“I don’t follow any plan at all,” he said proudly. “I always gain the weight back in the month or two after we do it, but it’s an opportunity to test ourselves and live clean for a month.”

I’m not a nutritionist, dietitian or health coach, but this seems absurd. My friend enters this month every spring fully aware of the fact that the change in his lifestyle is going to make him miserable, is completely unsustainable and will not drive long-lasting results. Meanwhile, he’s telling me that my plan is inadequate because it allows me to commit the sin of drinking a beer or two and eating a sandwich on a night out with friends.

I don’t mean to single out the Whole30 plan, which has thousands of devoted fans. It’s just that any eating plan that is based on the elimination of certain foods (particularly foods you love) is, in my opinion, not practical as a means of lifelong lifestyle change.

People who struggle with their weight, myself included, are often desperate for help and willing to grab onto anything that promises results — especially quick results. The truth is, I could lose weight more quickly if I pushed myself to eliminate all “extra” calories from my diet. I also know that I don’t want to live that way for the long-term. What I’m working so hard to do is learn how to live a healthier, more well-rounded lifestyle that I can sustain even after The Lifestyle Project is over.

Other Ways to Measure Progress

In the first six months, I lost 25 pounds, down from 245 to 220. That said, as I’ve explained in previous posts, measuring progress isn’t just about the numbers on the scale. In addition to eating a healthy diet and performing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio-respiratory exercise each week, I’m lifting weights twice a week.

As a result of all of these efforts, my overall health has improved. My body-fat percentage has gone down by either 2.3 percent or 3.8 percent, depending on whether you believe the skinfold calipers or the FitBit scale, respectively.

My waist circumference has gone down by 5.7 inches. This decrease should yield tremendous health benefits, including reductions in blood pressure, total blood cholesterol, triglycerides and the risk of metabolic syndrome. My abdominal circumference (taken at the belly button) has gone down 4.7 inches, and this trend of shrinking circumferences continues from my thighs to my chest.

My blood pressure went down from 124/82 to 122/70 mmHg. I no longer have stage 1 hypertension and am now considered to have “elevated” blood pressure. If that top number (the systolic blood pressure) goes below 120, I will have moved to the “normal” blood pressure category. Stated simply, a year ago my doctor was considering prescribing blood pressure medication, but now that I’m at the brink of “normal,” he is no longer concerned.

My total cholesterol has also gone down, from 205 to 195 mg/dL. I also saw improvements in my triglyceride level, fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1C.

Finally, and this can’t be stated emphatically enough, I feel great.

So when someone asks me with a hint of sympathy in their voice if I’m happy with how much weight I’ve lost from all the effort I’ve made, I answer them honestly, “I’m thrilled!”

Focus on the process of lifestyle change, rather than on the small piece of the puzzle represented by the bathroom scale.

Stay the Course

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m excited about this process, and my progress, each and every day. There are days I’m down on myself and ready to throw in the towel. But there are many more days when I’m hiking with friends and can feel myself powering up hills that used to be a struggle, or when I go to bed satisfied, knowing I hit my daily nutrition goals. Yes, it can be difficult, but I challenge you to focus on the process of lifestyle change, rather than on the small piece of the puzzle represented by the bathroom scale. If you make sustainable improvements to your lifestyle, the results you’re looking for — whether that’s weight loss, better health or improved performance — will absolutely follow.

I’m proud that NBC News BETTER invited me to share my journey with you through the completion of The Lifestyle Project and beyond, and now I want to hear from you. Do you have any tips to share? Tell me about them. Have questions about my journey? Ask me on Twitter or follow me on Instagram.


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