If you're trying to lose weight, the maximum amount you should aim for is losing 2 pounds per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is a realistic and healthy goal, but it can only be achieved if you meet an energy deficit every day. Calories are one way to track the energy the body uses. To lose weight, the goal is to burn more calories than you take in.
Video of the Day
Here, learn to calculate how many calories you need per day to lose 2 pounds per week, the types of food and exercises you'll need and how to track your weight-loss progress.
1. Find Your Calorie Deficit
Weight loss is about more than calories in, calories out. Many other factors can affect weight loss, which we'll get into shortly. But calories are one important part of the equation.
Exactly how many calories you should eat to lose 2 pounds a week will vary from person to person and depend on many factors, like your current weight, age, activity level and body composition.
To find your number, you'll need to first find your maintenance calories (how many calories you're eating per day to maintain your current weight) and then subtract about 1,000, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So, for example, if you're currently eating about 2,500 calories a day, you may want to aim for about 1,500 calories a day to lose 2 pounds per week.
This doesn't take into account your physical activity, though. If you increase how many calories you burn through exercise each day, you may not need to cut quite as many calories from your diet.
One easy way to find your maintenance calories is by using a calorie-counting app, which can also help you track your food and calorie intake as well as your calories burned throughout your weight-loss journey.
Alternatively, you could use the Body Weight Planner provided by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to find your calorie goal, and then track your calories using a separate app or old-fashioned pen and paper.
Keep in mind that either method will only give you a general guideline, and because everyone's body is different, you may have to use some trial and error over the first few weeks of your weight-loss journey to find a calorie deficit that works for you.
If you're struggling, consider reaching out to a professional for help, such as a weight-management specialist, obesity doctor or registered dietitian.
Don't cut your daily calories below 1,200 without consulting a doctor or registered dietitian. For most people, going below this number is considered a very low-calorie diet or rapid weight-loss diet, which can put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies, muscle loss and other health issues, per the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
2. Pay Attention to Portion Sizes
Once you've determined your daily calorie goal, you can start safely cutting calories.
This could look like portioning out 1 cup of brown rice next to your 4-ounce chicken breast at dinner, or eating air-popped popcorn instead of chips.
You can also use a food scale. Some people use this to ensure they're on the right track meeting their nutritional targets. This could also help you with a common practice called "meal prepping," where you prepare portioned meals ahead of time.
Not only can meal prepping help you stay on track with your diet, but it can also help you save money and avoid wasting food
3. Choose Low-Calorie, Nutritious Foods
No matter what diet plan you go with, incorporating nutritious foods is a must. You'll want to make sure you're eating all the major macronutrients you need per day, including lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Lean proteins: Chicken breast, turkey, tempeh, low- or nonfat dairy, fish like halibut and salmon, shrimp, lentils, beans
- Healthy fats: Avocados, nuts, fatty fish like salmon and tuna, tofu and edamame, tahini, eggs, olives
- Complex carbs: Beans and lentils, peas, starchy veggies, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa
- Fruits and vegetables: All, in whole form, without added sugar
Should You Follow a Specific Diet?
Some people choose to follow a specific weight-loss diet. Many of the most popular diets feature low-fat and low-carb foods.
In fact, a September 2014 meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that commercial low-carb and low-fat diets showed significant weight loss in participants, but that the differences among the diets were minor. (The meta-analysis included the Atkins, Zone, South Beach, Jenny Craig, Rosemary Conley, Volumetrics, Slimming World, Biggest Loser, Weight Watchers, Ornish and Nutrisystem diets.)
The study authors concluded that, when deciding between any of the commercial low-carb and low-fat diets, people should adopt the diet that they are most capable of sticking with.
If you do go with a commercial diet, they often come with useful resources, guidance and a community of other dieters to help you get started and adhere to a long-term plan. These programs may also include their own meal plans, meal prep systems, training videos and other useful resources.
If you choose not to go with a commercial diet (which is totally OK!), aim to eat a diet filled with lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables, while limiting things like alcohol.
Keep in mind, some commercial diets may require you lose more or less than your goal of 2 pounds per week. Consider asking your doctor or a registered dietitian about what commercial diet to go with, or if you should create your own diet plan.
4. Measure Your Progress and Adjust Accordingly
According to the Mayo Clinic, diets often require an "initiation" phase. During this period, which often takes place in the first two weeks of dieting, weight loss can range from 6 to 10 pounds. Much of this weight loss, however, is loss of water weight rather than fat loss.
This is because when you restrict calories, especially those coming from carbohydrates, your liver begins to break down glycogen — a reserve supply of glucose stored in the liver and muscle. Once glycogen is broken down, it supplies the brain and body with energy during periods where glucose is limited (i.e., when dieting), per the Cleveland Clinic.
According to a September 2015 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, glycogen is bound to roughly three grams of water for every gram of glycogen. Therefore, expect initial weight loss while dieting to be from water weight.
All of this to say, it's best to start measuring your weight-loss progress after a two-week initiation phase of any diet, for more accurate measurements. Then, aim to weigh yourself at the end of each week. In theory, you should lose about 2 pounds per week.
If you don't lose your desired amount, adjust your caloric intake slowly so it better reflects your needs. Keep your average height and weight by age in mind when tracking progress, too. That way, you're not setting up unrealistic expectations for yourself.
5. Consider Your Metabolism
In addition to caloric intake, muscle mass and metabolism play roles in determining your rate of weight loss. While your base metabolic rate can depend on several different factors, a few determinants include the following, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Body size and composition: Larger or more muscular people burn more calories at rest.
- Age: Older people tend to burn fewer calories, as they progressively lose muscle mass with age.
The story on metabolism, however, is much more complicated. Your metabolic rate is also partly determined by genetic makeup, diet composition, hormonal controls and environmental factors that affect sleep, lifestyle, physical activity and stress, per the Mayo Clinic.
And according to a September 2014 Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition review, your metabolic rate actually slows down in response to weight loss. This adaptation can make long-term weight loss challenging, and often means you need to lose weight slowly and in an incremental fashion, in order to avoid extreme energy deficits — i.e., anything greater than 1,000 calories per day.
6. Include Physical Activity
We all know movement is important for our overall health. But unfortunately, exercise will mean nothing without implementing a proper diet when it comes to weight loss. That's why a healthy eating plan in combination with exercise is the best strategy when losing 2 pounds per week.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should include at least 30 minutes of exercise in your daily routine. But you may have to dedicate more time towards aerobic exercise in order to meet your daily caloric goal.
If you're unable to get the full 30 minutes at once, split up your workout into 10-minute blocks spread throughout the day.
In addition to aerobic exercise, strength training (like weightlifting) can also help you burn fat and lose weight, as more muscle mass can help increase your metabolic rate. The Mayo Clinic suggests including strength exercises at least two times per week.
Sometimes, when you lose weight, you run the risk of losing muscle, too. Incorporating moderate strength training exercises while losing weight can help you maintain muscle mass and prevent deceleration of the body's metabolic rate, per a May 2017 review in Advances in Nutrition.
How Many Steps Do You Need to Take Per Day to Lose 2 Pounds a Week?
There's been this common understanding that taking 10,000 steps a day will help you lose weight, but this may not be true for everyone, and there's no guarantee you'll lose a particular amount of weight if you hit this number.
How many calories you burn and how much weight you lose will depend on many other factors, such as your genetics, metabolism, nutrition and your level of physical activity outside of walking.
That said, one April 2018 study in Obesity found that taking 10,000 steps a day, particularly with 3,500 of those in bouts of 10-minute intervals, was associated with enhanced weight loss. (Note: This study was small. More research needs to be done to determine this connection.)
7. Manage Your Stress
According to an October 2018 randomized controlled trial in the Journal of Molecular Biochemistry, the more stress you have, the more cortisol is produced in the body, leading to possible accumulations of fat in the abdominal area.
This means, lower cortisol (and possibly lower stress levels) is associated with less weight in the stomach area.
8. Get Better Sleep
Getting solid shut-eye could result in positive weight loss if practiced in tandem with diet and exercise.
In fact, an April 2022 study in JAMA Internal Medicine (which followed 80 participants with overweight) found those who stuck with a consistent sleep schedule for two weeks ate fewer calories during the day, thereby aiding potential weight-loss efforts.
The study suggests that maintaining healthy sleep duration over long periods of time could be an important part of weight-loss programs.
Aim to get anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
9. Drink Enough Water
Staying hydrated throughout the day can help curb your appetite, support your metabolic health and make your workouts more efficient, thereby helping you lose weight, per Johns Hopkins University.
Aim to get anywhere from 11.5 to 15.5 cups of water per day, through drinking or water-rich foods, per the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
For easy math: Try to drink half your body weight in ounces each day (e.g., if you weigh 180 pounds, aim for about 90 ounces, or 11 cups.)
The amount of calories you need each day to lose 2 pounds per week will vary depending on factors such as your metabolism, genetics, underlying health conditions and level of physical activity. You may need to do some trial and error to find the right number for you.
Ultimately, though, you should aim to eat nutritious foods, get regular exercise, manage stress and prioritize sleep in order to lose weight in a healthy way.
If you need more support, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian for guidance.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention : "Losing Weight | Healthy Weight"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Metabolic Adaptation to Weight Loss: Implications for the Athlete"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Body Weight Planner "
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: " Meal Prep: A Helpful Healthy Eating Strategy"
- Journal of the American Medical Association: "Comparison of Weight Loss Among Named Diet Programs in Overweight and Obese Adults"
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: "Relationship Between Muscle Water and Glycogen Recovery After Prolonged Exercise in the Heat in Humans."
- Obesity (Silver Spring): "Pattern of Daily Steps is Associated with Weight Loss: Secondary Analysis from the Step-Up Randomized Trial"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Aim for a Healthy Weight: Key Recommendations"
- Mayo Clinic: "South Beach Diet"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- National Library of Medicine: "Diet for rapid weight loss"
- Obesity (Silver Spring): "Physical Activity Energy Expenditure and Total Daily Energy Expenditure in Successful Weight Loss Maintainers"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Metabolism"
- Journal of Nutrition, Exercise & Biochemistry: "Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): a component of total daily energy expenditure"
- NLM: "10 ways to cut 500 calories a day"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Which diet is best for long-term weight loss?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Glycogen"
- Mayo Clinic: "Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss"
- Journal of Molecular Biochemistry: "Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Effect of Sleep Extension on Objectively Assessed Energy Intake Among Adults With Overweight in Real-life Settings: A Randomized Clinical Trial"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Sleep Do I Need?"
- National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine: "Report Sets Dietary Intake Levels for Water, Salt, and Potassium To Maintain Health and Reduce Chronic Disease Risk"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Mayo Clinic: "Weight Loss: 6 Strategies for Success"