Losing 20 pounds can seem like a daunting goal and you're probably wondering where to start. Although a combination of diet and exercise is ideal, you can achieve weight loss through diet alone. Here's how.
Even if exercise is off the table, you can still lose weight by cutting calories and eating right. You’re better off avoiding weight-loss pills anyway, unless prescribed by your doctor.
Take It Slow and Steady
If you're trying to lose a lot of weight, it can be tempting to look for a quick fix like a crash diet that promises rapid results. Penn Medicine advises steering clear of all crash diets and juice cleanses. Most of them don't work, since they cause you to lose lean muscle and water weight, rather than fat. Once you go back to eating normally, you're likely to regain all the weight you've lost.
Penn Medicine says crash diets and cleanses can also endanger your health. They can deplete your body of vitamins and electrolytes and cause you to get sick and dehydrated. Losing electrolytes can also result in other health problems, like kidney damage and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking a slow and steady approach to weight loss instead. You should aim to lose around 1 to 2 pounds of weight per week, by making long-term changes to your daily habits. The idea is to build a healthy lifestyle that you can continue to follow once you reach your ideal weight. This is the best way to not only lose weight, but also keep it off in the long run.
A September 2018 study published in the journal Healthcare found that the most successful weight-loss strategies are those that are safe, healthy, nutritionally adequate and affordable. The researchers note that setting realistic weight loss goals and opting for a nutritionally balanced diet plan that accounts for your needs, dietary preferences and medical conditions is the best way to lose weight.
Reduce Your Calorie Consumption
According to the Mayo Clinic, weight management basically boils down to calories consumed versus calories burned. Food is fuel and gives your body the energy it needs to function.
If you consume more calories than your body is able to burn in a day, your body will store them as fat, says the Mayo Clinic. This fat remains in your body until you use it up. If you consume fewer calories than you need, your body is forced to draw on stored fat to fuel your bodily functions. This eventually results in weight loss.
The Mayo Clinic notes that 1 pound of fat is equal to approximately 3,500 calories. Cutting 500 calories from your daily diet for a week would help you reach a deficit of 3,500 calories and you would lose 1 pound of weight that week. If you want to lose 2 pounds per week, you would have to cut 1,000 calories from your daily diet, to help you reach a deficit of 7,000 calories per week.
These figures can help you understand how weight loss works but it's important to note that they are not set in stone. Harvard Health Publishing explains that several factors, like your genes and your metabolism, influence the rate at which your body burns calories.
While you're cutting calories, it's important to ensure that your calorie intake doesn't go too low. Eating too few calories can deprive you of essential nutrition. Harvard Health Publishing states that men's calorie intake shouldn't fall below 1,500 calories per day and women shouldn't eat fewer than 1,200 calories per day.
You can use a calorie tracker like LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate calorie counter app to set a daily calorie goal and track your progress.
Eat the Right Calories
Apart from monitoring caloric intake, you also need to pay attention to proper nutrition. A January 2020 study published in the journal Nutrition investigated different diets and how conducive they are to weight loss. The researchers found that all the diets yielded similar results, provided the participants cut their calories and opted for high-quality foods.
Healthy foods help you meet your nutritional needs as well as your caloric needs. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health lists unrefined, minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein as high-quality foods.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, low-quality foods include refined (white) grains, highly processed snacks, sugary foods and drinks, fried foods, foods that contain trans fat and foods that contain a lot of saturated fat. These foods provide calories but not much nutrition and promote weight gain.
To lose weight, you need to cut low-quality foods out of your diet and meet your calorie needs through high-quality foods. The Mayo Clinic provides a few examples of how this would work. If you typically eat chocolate ice cream (285 calories per cup) for dessert, you could replace it with strawberries (46 calories per cup) instead. Similarly, you can replace your flavored latte (250 calories per 16-ounce serving) with a black coffee (4 calories per 16-ounce serving).
If you do eat high-calorie, low-quality foods, the Mayo Clinic recommends limiting your portion sizes. For instance, instead of eating two slices of pepperoni pizza, which would amount to 626 calories, you could eat one slice and replace the second slice with 2 cups of grapes. The second meal amounts to 437 calories. These caloric values are estimates; the actual amount can vary depending on the brand and the style of preparation.
The Mayo Clinic recommends checking food labels to determine caloric density. It's also important to note serving sizes. For instance, the packet of chips you eat along with your lunch may actually be two servings instead of one. For foods like fruits and vegetables that don't have food labels, you can look up the nutrition values online or check your calorie tracker app.
Alternatively, you can visit a registered dietitian or nutritionist, if you need help building a meal plan. They will be able to provide you with a customized program that takes into account your calorie needs, nutrition requirements, weight loss goals, dietary preferences and medical conditions.
- Obesity: “Effect of Diet and Exercise, Alone or Combined, on Weight and Body Composition in Overweight-to-Obese Post-Menopausal Women”
- Penn Medicine: “Want to Lose Weight Quickly? Here Are Seven Reasons Why Crash Diets Probably Won’t Work”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Losing Weight”
- Healthcare: “Defining the Optimal Dietary Approach for Safe, Effective and Sustainable Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese Adults”
- Mayo Clinic: “Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Does Metabolism Matter in Weight Loss?”
- Nutrition: “Scientific Evidence of Diets for Weight Loss: Different Macronutrient Composition, Intermittent Fasting and Popular Diets”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “The Best Diet: Quality Counts”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Calorie Counting Made Easy”