You're watching your calories, avoiding processed foods and eating more fruits and vegetables. These are big dietary changes, and you're eager to see the positive results in your waistline (of course!) as well as your cholesterol levels and other markers for disease — but you have to remember to be patient.
Why? Because things worthwhile take time. Changes don't just happen overnight. While you may see quicker improvements in your energy levels, skin, sleep and digestion — depending on the changes you're making — it could take weeks or months for the benefits of healthier eating to show up in your blood tests and as significant changes on the scale.
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It's easy to get frustrated, thinking, "Ugh, none of this is working, so I might as well stop!" But stick it out.
It might help you stay motivated if you know when to expect to see these larger results. Then, when you reach that point, you can evaluate whether what you're doing is actually working.
While diet-induced changes to weight and health markers are highly individualized, we tapped experts to give us a rough timeline of when most people will start to see some positive changes from healthy eating and better lifestyle habits. Here's what to keep in mind as you go.
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This is the first day you decide to throw out all the processed foods and sugary sodas in your home and stick to healthier options all day long (think salmon, grilled chicken, veggies, beans and quinoa). You might expect to wake up the next morning having dropped a pound or feeling energized and light.
Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but one day likely won't result in any major changes. Perhaps your stomach might feel a bit lighter or you may have slept a bit better, but don't expect too much here.
One thing you might experience, though, is a reduction in blood glucose levels, which can help lower your risk for diabetes and heart disease, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
"In the short term, as soon as a person adapts a glucose-reduction type of diet — minimal simple sugar, plenty of lean protein (fish, chicken, legumes, low-fat dairy), healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil), and lots of fiber — their blood sugar levels will come down immediately, within a day or two," says Suzanne Dixon, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian and epidemiologist in Portland, Oregon.
OK, you're a week in. First off, congrats! Great motivation, and keep it up!
As for weight loss, you may have shaved off about a pound. Let's say you cut back on calories (which you'll need to do to drop weight). Slashing 500 calories a day results in a pound of weight loss per week, as a pound equals approximately 3,500 calories.
"Aim for half to 1 pound of weight loss per week for that slow, steady effect that is more likely to stay off in the long term," says Juliana Dewsnap, RD, LD, CPT, a dietitian for Baze.
If you've been sticking to healthier foods, you may also notice that you're less bloated, says Shuhan He, MD, a physician in Harvard Massachusetts General Hospital's Emergency Department and founder of Conductscience and Mazeengine
Plus, your triglyceride levels — a type of fat found in the blood that's linked to heart health, per the Mayo Clinic — are very sensitive to diet and respond to dietary changes quickly. "Simple carbohydrates and alcohol will increase triglycerides. Cutting both of these things out of the diet will decrease them," Dixon says.
And if someone dramatically cuts back on carbs and starches — especially highly processed sodas, sweets and snack foods — triglycerides will likely drop noticeably within a few days.
"Triglycerides are interesting, because they are the one part of the 'lipid panel' blood test (which is what your doctor orders when checking cholesterol) that respond very strongly to carb intake," she says. On the contrary, cholesterol levels tend to be more sensitive to fat intake in the diet, she adds, and it may take longer to see a change there.
Good news: You can expect to see positive changes to your body composition after two to three weeks of healthy diet changes. You may notice the pounds coming off the scale or that your jeans simply fit a bit better, which is a sign that you're replacing fat with healthy muscle.
You will likely start feeling better, too, if you're eating what your body needs, Dewsnap says: "This might look like more energy, sleeping better, less aches and pains, clearer skin, etc."
When it comes to your weight, consider tracking weekly. "Weight fluctuates on a daily basis, so tracking weekly is a better way to monitor for a downward trend so you don't get too caught up in the details," Dewsnap says. "But if you're on a weight-loss program, you should be able to tell if you're in a consistent downward trend after two weeks."
Blood pressure can respond fairly quickly to diet changes, too. "If you are taking blood pressure medications and blood pressure is very high, it could take two to four weeks, but if it's not too high it can take as few as seven to eight days," says Dr. He.
"If a person switches to a blood pressure-lowering diet, such as the DASH diet, their blood pressure can drop noticeably within a few days to a couple of weeks," Dixon agrees. The key is to cut back on sodium and increase natural sources of potassium in the diet.
Still, remember that these changes are individualized. "We are also now seeing that some of these biomarkers can have a large genetic component as well," she adds.
"In just a few weeks, if you're fueling your body right, you may experience more energy and mental clarity and less aches and pains."
By this point, you should be getting into a routine with healthful eating. Maybe you see changes in your approach to meal planning, what you're buying at the grocery store or what new foods you've come to love. This is a great time to start incorporating exercise into your routine if you haven't already. "Many people do best getting into a solid eating routine before moving on to exercise," Dewsnap says.
You might also be noticing that your clothes fit differently, but perhaps the scale hasn't moved as much as you expected. "This is completely normal, as weight loss can happen in different areas for different people, depending on your body's natural metabolism," she says.
If you're on a diet to lower your cholesterol levels, such as the TLC diet, changes should start to kick in around now. "Improvement should be seen in at least three weeks, but maximum benefits would be seen from three to six months if you stick to the plan," Dr. He says.
"If your doctor or dietitian is prescribing a diet and wants to check on how it's working on your cholesterol, they will probably tell you to come in for a blood recheck of cholesterol levels in three to six months, but typically, you can see cholesterol drop a little quicker than that if you're sticking to diet changes, such as increased soluble fiber, more beans and nuts and decreased intake of saturated fat and fried foods." Dixon says.
Also note that cholesterol will typically drop as you lose weight, so if you're combining cholesterol-lowering diet changes with a weight-loss diet, you'll likely see a bigger and quicker effect on blood cholesterol levels, Dixon adds.
When it comes to inflammation — which is a risk factor for heart disease, per the Mayo Clinic — a real reduction in inflammatory markers like c-reactive protein, or CRP, takes longer, says Dr. He. "It all depends. If it's acute inflammation it can be lowered between two to six weeks, but if it's chronic inflammation this can take a period of several months to years," he says.
Anti-inflammatory foods like those that contain omega-3s, antioxidants and phytochemicals (fatty fish, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables) can help the body combat inflammation, so nosh on those, Dewsnap says.
In regards to your mood: "In just a few weeks, if you're fueling your body right, you may experience more energy and mental clarity and less aches and pains," Dewsnap says. To be fair, it's hard to say if some of this has to do with inflammation directly or not, but regardless, it's a positive change that should be celebrated.
If you've been keeping up with your healthy habits, you can expect to see a big difference in the way you feel day-to-day, says Dewsnap. "You might notice that you can climb stairs more easily without needing to stop and catch your breath, for example. The reason for this is largely due to improved oxygen efficiency from weight loss," she says.
Indeed, a June 2016 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that people who are losing weight typically see improvements in this area anywhere between eight to 12 weeks.
Speaking of weight loss, you can expect to see bigger changes on the scale at this point. If you've been slashing around 500 calories each day, you may have lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 pounds. (Around this time, you may also find you need to reduce your caloric intake a bit more to continuing losing weight, if that's your goal.)
"Even if you're having some off-days here and there, you likely understand your body more than you have ever before."
Fast-forward to three months into your diet and you can expect noticeable weight loss as well as marked improvements in cholesterol levels, blood pressure and triglyceride levels.
"It can take up to 12 weeks to make a habit stick, which means you've just hit that mark! Even if you're having some off-days here and there, you likely understand your body more than you have ever before by now," Dewsnap says.
If you've made it to this point, it means that you've made a commitment to health and wellness and will start to see real, lasting change.
One of those changes is a reduction in hemoglobin A1c, or A1c for short, which is a measure of your blood sugar levels over time, Dixon says.
Let's say you have a big holiday meal or "cheat day." The resulting high blood sugar level reading won't have much effect on your A1c levels if, overall, glucose is running in the normal range, she says.
"Some people with diabetes will have A1c numbers of 10 percent, which is really hard on the body and bad for health," she says.
So, while you may see an immediate and positive blood glucose response to diet changes, you'll need about three months to see those changes in your A1c levels, Dixon says.
Tips for Long-Term Success
Making healthy dietary changes can sometimes be less satisfying than popping a pill because the effects may take longer to manifest and the process requires commitment. But you can make the process easier by setting realistic expectations based on the timeline above.
And you can also incorporate a few tips from Dewsnap and Dixon for your journey:
- Change your mindset to focus on moderation and healthy "swaps" rather than deprivation
- Keep a food journal to help you stay accountable to your plan and goals
- Consult with a dietitian on strategies that can help ensure you're on track toward your health goals
- Commit to other lifestyle improvements, such as quitting smoking, getting adequate sleep and reducing stress, which can help amplify the effects of healthy dietary changes
Progress looks different for everyone. But in the end, the longer you stick to a healthy diet, the more likely it is that you'll experience positive, long-term health results.
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- University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics: Risk Factors for Heart Disease: Frequently Asked Questions
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Losing Weight
- Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa: How Long Does It Take to Lower Cholesterol?
- Cardiology Research and Practice: Efficacy of Dietary Behavior Modification for Preserving Cardiovascular Health and Longevity
- HelpGuide.org: Healthy Eating
- Cleveland Clinic: High Blood Pressure and Nutrition
- University of Massachusetts Medical School: What You Can Do to Lower Your Triglycerides?
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Women: How Controlling Blood Sugar Benefits Your Heart"
- Mayo Clinic: "Triglycerides: Why do they matter?"
- Mayo Clinic: "C-reactive protein test"