Medically reviewed by Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD
Setting Successful Weight Loss Goals
The fundamental principle behind dieting and weight loss is pretty simple: restrict your dietary intake and/or increase your physical activity so that you burn more calories than you consume, pretty simple right?
Then why is it so hard for some people to lose weight? It seems like at any given time a majority of adults are on a weight loss diet. Despite this, data shows that two-thirds of us are still overweight. Even if you have successfully lost weight in the past you may have found that keeping off the pounds is more challenging than actually losing the weight the first time around. Weight loss is hard for the majority of people as shown by recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that puts over a third of adults in the United States in the obese category. Whether you seek better overall health, reduced risk of developing certain diseases such as type 2 diabetes, being thinner for cosmetic reasons, finding effective methods for long-term weight loss continues to be a goal for many people. If you are a person who has ever struggled with losing weight, it is hard not to feel frustrated. One of the ways you can work to reduce this frustration is to make sure that no matter what plan you choose, you are setting realistic weight loss goals for yourself to stay motivated, stay on track, and see some changes!
Assess your readiness
Unfortunately losing weight can be a pretty long and lonely process, as you may have found out in the past. Making sure that you are in the right mindset and ready to undertake these permanent changes to your diet and lifestyle can make a huge difference in your overall ability to successfully achieve your goals. Ask yourself these questions to build awareness of how ready to change you really are:
- Why am I motivated to lose weight?
- What do I think the health benefits of losing weight will be?
- What have I done in the past that has been successful related to losing body weight or maintaining weight?
- What have I done in the past that has not been successful?
- How much time, effort or resources am I willing to use in order to make this happen?
- What do I think my current barriers to weight loss are? Do I think I have strategies to minimize or eliminate these barriers?
- How much stress am I putting on myself to lose weight?
- Do I currently use food as a way to cope with this stress or other problems in my life? Do I have other non-food coping strategies available to use? Am I willing to use them?
- Am I willing to change my eating habits?
- Am I willing to change my lifestyle?
- Do I have a support system that I can rely on to help me along the way?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very easy and 10 being very hard, how difficult do I think losing weight will be? If your answer is a 7 or above - you may want to consider seeking out professional support to help you build out a weight loss plan.
If you are considering losing a large amount of weight (more than 5 to 10 pounds), have a pre-existing health condition, or are attempting a weight loss for the first time talk to your health care provider to ensure that you are creating a healthy and sustainable plan that addresses your needs.
What is realistic when it comes to weight loss?
You may have heard in order to lose weight it is all about calories in versus calories out. Maybe you have heard that a calorie is not a calorie, which adds another layer of confusion to sift through. It may seem like an obvious statement that it is important to set realistic goals for weight loss but for many people it is hard to know where to start, especially with less than clear or unreliable information.
In order to lose one pound of weight, the body needs to be able to burn 3500 more calories than it takes in. While some calories are more nutritious and healthful than others, when it comes to weight loss, a calorie deficit doesn’t matter if the calories come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates. While it might seem like losing 5 pounds in 1 or 2 weeks so you can look good for a certain event might seem completely doable, it is actually pretty difficult and trying to lose too much weight too soon is not just bad for your self-esteem but can also take a major toll on your health and ability to lose weight in the future. It can also make it easy to gain the weight back.
For long-term goals it is smart to aim for losing 0.5 to 2 pounds per week, although if you only need to lose 5 to 10 pounds total or less than 10% of your total current weight, you might want to stay around 0.5 to 1 pound per week in order to make sure you are maintaining as much muscle mass or lean body mass as possible.
In order to achieve this, you will need to burn 250 to 1,000 calories more per day than you consume. This can be done by decreasing the number of calories you consume and increasing physical activity.
To create realistic goals, focus on creating short-term process goals and longer-term S.M.A.R.T. goals. These types of goals aim to help you not only achieve these short-term types of goals but also on goals that address why you are doing this. These are known as process and outcome goals. Process goals are what you will do, such as “I will focus on eating 6 to 10 servings of vegetables each day” compared to outcomes goals which are focused on aims such as “I will lose 4 pounds”. The more you focus on creating strong shorter-term “process” goals the more chances you will have to experience success and re-evaluate lack of success. These process goals are the key to making changes. However, the long-term S.M.A.R.T. goals help you achieve lasting habit change.
So how do you create S.M.A.R.T. goals?
Set S.M.A.R.T. goals
When making any type of change in habit, research shows that goal-setting is an important part of finding success in achieving that goal.More specifically, it is helpful to set up a goal that works for you. A popular and successful approach to setting goals creating a SMART goal, where SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.A SMART goal can help you think through the details and give you a better idea of how you can actually tackle your desired outcome. For example, saying you want to lose 10 pounds is very general and doesn’t give you much direction on how you can accomplish it. Even a goal such as “eating healthier” or “exercising more” can be quite general. Instead, try to think of a goal such as increasing your vegetable intake to two vegetables per day three times a week, going for a 10-minute walk break during your lunch hour Monday-Friday, or drinking two full water bottles each day before 8:00 pm. The more specific you can get, the better. If you’d like to learn more about SMART goals, we spell it out in this blog post here.
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Think about the long-term
When you are considering making changes to your diet, think of the journey as a marathon and not a sprint. This is especially important when it comes to making changes in our diet for weight loss. While research does support that dieting can lead to weight loss, what should be considered is an approach that can help the weight stay off and prevent weight regain. As mentioned, a healthy rate of weight loss is a maximum of 1-2 pounds per week; anything more than this may risk slowing metabolism and/or regaining the weight back. Any type of diet program that makes promises that sound too good to be true likely are not looking at long-term success. Be cautious if you hear any messaging that promises to lose 10 pounds in one week or melt belly fat without any work. One more thing to think twice about is any dietary program that encourages severe restriction, cutting food groups or requires purchasing expensive shakes or pills. These approaches may put you at an increased risk of failure and weight regain, nutrient deficiency, and lower self-esteem.
Additionally, too many dietary changes at once may cause burnout. Small, gradual changes are more likely to stick for the long run.
Make it convenient and work with your personality and lifestyle
In addition to making goals that will set you up for long-term success, another thing to consider is how well the goal fits with your personality and lifestyle. For example, if you have always been a night owl and cherish your evening time, making a goal of a 5:00 am workout may not be working in your favour. Instead, maybe an evening yoga class or a mid-day jog would be more realistic for you. If you know you get busy during the weekdays, cooking a healthy dinner each night may be setting you up for failure. Perhaps you could prep ahead on the weekends and simply reheat on those busy nights. While there will always be obstacles along the way, find ways to work with your personality and lifestyle instead of against it. Anticipate roadblocks, but don’t let them get in the way of your goals.
Find ways to measure progress
Once you have made your SMART goals and you’ve thought about how to make changes for the long-term that work for you, start thinking of ways that can measure and track your progress. This may require thinking outside the box. The number of the scale is not the only way to measure success when making dietary changes. Some other signs of progress to look out for could include having more energy, feeling less bloated, clothes fitting better, less achy joints, decreased brain fog, or sleeping better. Success can also be seen in biomarkers such as improved blood sugar control, improved blood pressure, or better cholesterol levels. It may be helpful to take note of your “before” status and check-in with yourself or your health care team regularly to see your progress.
Celebrate reaching milestones
As mentioned earlier, making changes can be tough. So when you do notice you are reaching your goals and making your new habits feel like part of your normal routine, don’t forget to celebrate your healthier lifestyle! If you made a goal to run a 5k by the end of the summer, perhaps some new running shoes would be an excellent reward. If your goal was to drink 16 ounces of water before 10:00 am, maybe a fun new water bottle would keep the inspiration going after you’ve been consistent with that goal for a month. When it comes to dietary changes, it is often a good idea to find ways to celebrate that do not involve using food as a reward. So get creative and celebrate those milestones in fun ways!
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What comes next?
If you find yourself feeling stuck with making changes, you are not alone. Sometimes the challenge is simply where to start and guidelines to make those initial small steps that will eventually gain momentum. Goals, challenges, motivations and lifestyles differ from person to person. It’s important to know where these differences exist and where to begin making changes. Our genetics can give us clues to these differences and provide us insight at the foundational level to our personalized dietary needs. Gain a better understanding of your body, allow your genes to inform your new dietary habits to support your health goals. Click here to learn more about your DNA’s guide to healthy eating.
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