When you're starting a new weight loss journey, it's easy for your mind to zero in on one thing: how quickly you can reach your goal weight. It's not uncommon to start doing calculations in your head, like, Can I lose this weight before that wedding that's coming up? or, How much weight can I realistically lose in three months?
But achieving any amount of weight loss in a short time span like three months requires lots of small decisions along the way, like conscious choices about what you're eating, how much exercise you want to incorporate into your week, and what you can do to effectively manage your stress, which can also affect your weight.
If you're trying to shed a few pounds in the next three months specifically (which is realistically how much time you'll need to see a big difference in your weight), here's what a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer have to say about the process—and how to figure out what your goal weight should be on that timeline.
First of all, how much weight can I lose in three months?
In order to experience weight loss that's sustainable, it's important to do it gradually, says Stephanie Carter, RDN. "According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as many other leading experts, individuals who lose weight gradually and steadily, one to two pounds per week, will be more successful at achieving lifelong weight maintenance," she says.
That one- to two-pound weight loss per week translates to about 12 to 24 pounds over the span of three months. "This means you’re aiming for four to eight pounds per month," says Dannah Eve Bollig, a trainer and creator of The DE Method. But Bollig also warns that if you're trying to shed a lot of weight, say, 50 pounds or more, it's not uncommon to lose weight at a faster pace than one to two pounds a week in the beginning of your journey, before your weight loss slows down or even plateaus for a bit. "This can be extremely frustrating and is mainly caused by a metabolism decline resulting in your body burning fewer calories than it did at its heavier weight."
The reason you lose weight more quickly in the beginning is because you're shedding a lot of water weight. "When you consume foods in excess of your metabolic needs, your body stores this energy as glycogen, the storage form of glucose, or sugar, in the liver and muscles," says Carter. So when the body isn't getting enough energy from calories, it'll start using up the stored glycogen. "Because glycogen is bound to water, any glycogen broken down for energy will also release water. This accounts for the initial significant changes in body composition when people begin to diet," adds Carter.
How can I ensure I'm actually losing fat when I lose weight?
In order to drop about one pound of fat, you'd need to burn about 3,500 calories. That means that, in a week, you'd need to consume 3,500 to 7,000 less calories than normal (or burn those calories) to drop one to two pounds.
There are several ways to safely achieve this calorie deficit, but how you should do it depends on a lot of lifestyle factors. "The best thing to do is take into account a person's age, weight, height, and goal, and decide on a proper and realistic plan for that individual. There is no magical solution that will work for everyone," says Bollig, who adds that losing weight is all about balance, not cutting out all less-nutritious food. But, mathematically speaking, if you were to cut out about 500 to 1,000 calories per day, you’d likely lose about one to two pounds per week, she notes.
Carter says she's helped her own clients lose weight by moving them towards redefining their relationship with food, instead of encouraging calorie counting. "While it does take an energy deficit of 3,500 calories per week to lose one pound, I counsel clients to look at the composition of their meals rather than the calories they provide," she explains. "Restricting foods you love because you’ve labeled them as 'bad' will only lead to unhealthy behaviors such as binge eating or overeating. If you listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues you very well may create an energy deficit."
But if you prefer a more structured diet plan and that works for you mentally, there are tons of options. One of the most popular options people turn to is a low-carb diet, or even the keto diet, which aims to get your body to use fat as a form of energy by minimizing your intake of carbs.
For others, a preferred method of weight management is intermittent fasting (IF). There are a variety of ways to try IF, but all of them require windows of eating and fasting periods. For example, the 16:8 diet recommends you eat all your meals within an eight-hour window. "Time restricted eating or intermittent fasting depletes your glycogen stores, which supports metabolic flexibility and insulin sensitivity," says Carter. "High insulin sensitivity allows the cells of the body to use blood glucose more effectively, reducing blood sugar and promoting weight management."
You can also try to meet a calorie deficit by keeping detailed logs of what you're eating, using something like a food diary app, and focusing on portion control. A nutrition app can also help you see eating patterns, so that you can make better-informed choices about what you decide to eat, and count calories.
Whichever way(s) you decide to lose weight, it's best to first consult a doctor to make sure that the diet or lifestyle change you want to make is appropriate for you.
What exercise habits can help me lose weight?
Adding an exercise program to your routine can not only help you lose weight, but it can also reduce the risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services actually recommends adults get at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity exercise.
Bollig says that cardio can definitely assist in weight loss, but that it isn't necessary if you're not into it. "It’s important to keep in mind that you do not need to do cardio to lose fat. You can lose fat by restricting caloric intake, and by doing other types of training like resistance training, weight training, HIIT, or a combination of all the above," she says. "The key to losing body fat is to consume fewer calories than you expend."
Strength training can also serve as a great way to aid weight loss, since the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn day to day. Bollig recommends incorporating strength training about two to three times per week to help build lean muscle mass, decrease body fat, and strengthen muscles, joints, and bones.
If you need help deciding on a fitness plan, first consult your doctor to make sure you're cleared to get active, and get familiar with these calorie-burning exercises.
What else should I focus on to lose weight?
Losing weight isn't just about what you're eating or how much you're exercising. Other factors like hormones and sleep can also have an impact on your metabolism.
Not getting enough sleep can throw your body out of whack. Carter recommends getting at least seven hours or more a night to make sure your diet and exercise habits have the best shot at working. "Inadequate sleep has been shown to alter glucose metabolism, decrease insulin sensitivity, and disrupt the hormones involved in regulating metabolism," says Carter. So, make sure you're getting enough Zs!
Not managing your stress levels (a.k.a. how much stress hormone, or cortisol, is flowing through your body) can also make it harder to lose weight. In fact, cortisol can cause the body to metabolize calories slower, according to a study published in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry. Keeping your stress in check by nixing the things that trigger it, or by managing your daily stress with self-care techniques, is super important for weight loss efforts to work.
It's best to look at the whole picture when you're trying to lose weight, not just your diet. "Implementing sleep, meditation, and exercise with a balanced diet is the best recipe for sustainable, long-term results," says Bollig.
And don't become discouraged if you hit a plateau, which is pretty normal for anyone on a weight loss journey. It's also easy to stray away from the healthy habits you've built once you experience your initial weight loss, which you usually have to keep up in some capacity to maintain your results.
"If your weight loss does slow down, the best thing to do is stay on track, believe in yourself, work hard and talk to your doctor, nutritionist, or personal trainer about what you’re feeling and reevaluate your current plan," Bollig says. "There are plenty of solutions including cutting more calories daily, increasing physical activity, changing the type of physical activity or a combination of all three." By changing up your routine a bit, you're bound to lose weight—and hit that goal come three months.