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Many women, at one point or another, want to lose weight.
Some hope to trim five or ten pounds from their current weight, and others have a more significant amount to shed.
If you’re thinking about starting a weight loss journey, the first step is not to change your diet and exercise.
The key to safe and sustainable weight loss is first to determine if you’re even a good candidate to lose weight in the first place.
Read on to discover if you’re in the right place physically and mentally to lose weight, and some basic strategies for losing weight if it’s safe to do so.
Can I Safely Lose Weight?
There are a variety of factors to consider before you decide if it’s the right time to lose weight.
After all, assuming you have weight to lose, you want to lose the weight and maintain that lost weight. We all know that losing weight, only to gain it right back, is unhealthy both physically and mentally.
Ask yourself the following questions before you begin a weight loss program:
1. Do I have a regular period?
If you don’t have a history of amenorrhea, it’s potentially safe to lose weight. Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation for one or more missed menstrual periods.
If you’re not overweight and are dealing with amenorrhea, you should definitely not be trying to lose weight. And it’s possible you may even need to gain weight to recover your period, even if you’re not considered underweight according to your BMI.
If you’re not having your period, it is best to speak with your doctor before starting any weight loss program. Some causes of a missing period, such as PCOS, can be benefitted by weight loss, but it’s still good to check with your doctor to see if losing weight would actually improve your menstrual function.
2. Are My Weight Loss Goals Reasonable?
Your BMI, or Body Mass Index, is a general measure of body fat based on your weight in relation to your height and applies to most adult men and women aged 20 and over. While BMI doesn’t take into account muscle mass, it can give us some idea of whether or not weight loss would be safe.
If you are in the healthy range of BMI (18.5 to 25), it can make sense to lose a small amount of weight if you want to. As long as by losing weight you don’t drop to underweight on the BMI scale (18.5 or less), you are potentially in a safe range to lose weight.
But remember: if your BMI indicates that you are in a healthy range, you don’t necessarily need to lose weight. And doing so might even be harmful to your health.
If you want to set some physique goals, you can instead focus on body composition and muscle gain. With some new muscle added and a stronger looking physique, you might be happy with your body without ever losing a pound.
With that said, I can’t stress how important a healthy body image is. Even wanting to lean out without changing your scale weight needs to come from a place of self-acceptance, rather than discontent and low self-esteem.
Weight loss is the safest when your BMI indicates that you are overweight or obese. This is where the bulk of the research suggests health benefits for weight loss, particularly if your BMI is above 30. (Keep in mind that a BMI in the overweight category doesn’t necessarily mean you have too much body fat!)
And the last thing to keep in mind about BMI is that it’s generally based on standards for Caucasians. If you’re a non-White ethnicity, you likely have a different range of BMI that would be considered healthy.
3. How Are My Stress Levels?
It is much safer and easier to lose weight when you are not under a significant amount of stress.
If you are going through a major life crisis or change, it’s best to wait until your life has settled a bit before starting a new weight loss program. Unfortunately, research reveals that if you are under stress, weight loss becomes much harder.
“Even if you usually eat well and exercise, chronic high stress can prevent you from losing weight—or even add pounds,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, and Author of Body for Life for Women.
Chris Masterjohn has a great podcast about how there’s a “right time” to lose weight based on your stress levels. The main point he emphasizes is that sometimes we shouldn’t be trying to lose weight because the timing isn’t right.
Focus on reducing your stress first before you do anything to change your diet and exercise routine (beyond just setting up generally healthy habits.) Once your stress levels are normal, you can focus on more of a fat loss approach by tweaking your diet and exercise routine to one that puts you in a calorie deficit.
4. How Am I Sleeping?
If you are getting enough sleep, it is okay to start trying to lose weight.
According to a Consensus Statement from The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, adults should sleep seven to nine hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
Sleeping less than seven hours per night on is associated with adverse health outcomes, including weight gain and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, depression, and increased risk of death.
Research shows that sleep deprivation actually reduces our metabolic function and increases our appetite, meaning that sleep loss directly impacts our body’s energy balance (i.e. calories-in-calories-out).
Plus, not sleeping well ramps up your stress levels, making it difficult to lose weight (see point #3!)
If you’re sleeping less than 7 hours a night or you feel consistently sleep deprived, your focus should be on getting your sleep improved before you make any changes to your diet and exercise routine. You may find that you lose excess weight simply from getting enough sleep!
5. How Much Do I Exercise Already?
Access your current activity level before starting to lose weight. If you are already doing an adequate amount of exercise, adding in more could cause stress on your body. The amount that is considered “adequate” definitely depends on the individual, and could range from 3-5 days per week for most people. More than 5 days a week of intense exercise tips most of my clients into the “overtraining” category.
The most common signs of excessive exercise are reeling ill or run down, losing muscle mass, gaining fat, and constant exhaustion. If this level of training is maintained long enough, overtraining syndrome can develop.
Overtraining is associated with depression, hypothyroidism, HPA axis dysregulation (“adrenal fatigue”), and digestive dysfunction, along with a variety of other symptoms. Intense exercise raises our cortisol, and chronically high levels of cortisol can cause a host of problems including sleep disturbances, digestive issues, mood issues, belly fat gain, and cognitive dysfunction.
Overtraining also negatively impacts the immune system, leading to poor immune function and frequent illness, or possibly even autoimmune activity in extreme cases.
The biggest problem is that many of my clients (myself included!) actually find that they gain weight when they start exercising too much. Whether or not that’s body fat or water weight gain, if your goal is to maintain or lose weight, you need to find the right balance between appropriate, effective exercise and adequate rest.
Sometimes cutting back on your exercise is the best thing to do if you’re experiencing unwanted weight gain or stubborn excess body fat!
6. Do I Have Enough Muscle Mass?
Remember that you don’t want to drop below a healthy BMI (see point #1).
If you are in a normal BMI range but don’t have much muscle, it might make more sense to work on gaining muscle mass. Improving your muscle mass could help you become happy with your physical appearance without having to lose a pound.
For more about how focusing on gaining muscle can frequently be more beneficial than trying to lose weight, listen to our podcast on dealing with “skinny fat”.
7. What Is My Current Caloric Intake?
Monitor your current diet. If your diet is already very low in calories, you should fix that before losing weight. I consider any diet more than 20% calorie reduced to be too low. (To determine your personal calorie needs, use this calculator.)
This is especially important if you are having symptoms associated with not eating enough calories such as brain fog, lack of concentration, fatigue, and irritability. You first need to focus on dealing with those symptoms and getting your calorie intake up before sustainable and healthy weight loss can happen down the road.
Under-eating hurts your metabolism. It slows down your body’s calorie use and makes it harder to sustain weight loss. Also, if you eat too little calories, you will likely gain back your weight quickly after your diet.
Remember, you want to lose weight, sustain it and feel good. If you’re currently in a deficit and you’re not losing weight, you may need to go through a refeeding period.
How To “Reverse” Your Caloric Intake
A calorie refeeding process can help your overall health and make symptoms of eating too few calories disappear.
Refeeding is typically defined as a planned, structured increase in calorie intake. There are many ways to do a refeed, including what’s known as reverse dieting. There are hundreds of people who have reverse dieted their way out of a chronic calorie deficit in order to allow for healthy weight loss that doesn’t impair their metabolic function.
Refeeding can yield a myriad of psychological and physiological benefits such as a better mood, a higher metabolism, and increased motivation. It’s a good idea to seek guidance from a registered dietitian nutritionist before starting a refeeding process.
If you know the answers to all of the above 7 questions and fall into the healthy response range, it is safe to continue the to the weight loss process.
You will have more sustainable and health-supporting results if you take these factors into serious consideration before you try to lose weight.
As I mentioned before, the podcast “How I Lost 30 Pounds in Four Months, and How I Knew It Was Time,” by Chris Masterjohn, Ph.D. is another great resource to determine if the time is right for you to lose weight.
Practical Strategies For Sustainable Weight Loss
Once you’ve determined that it’s safe to lose weight, here are some strategies and guidelines to get started on the right track.
Increasing Muscle Mass
There are many benefits to increasing muscle mass to help support long term weight loss. Increasing your muscle mass might not help with immediate weight loss results, but it will benefit you in the long term.
Since muscle is more dense than fat at the same weight, gaining muscle and losing body fat at the same rate won’t show any progress on the scale but will show significant progress in how your clothes fit. Having more muscle increases your insulin sensitivity as well, reducing the likelihood of gaining weight from a higher carb intake.
By increasing your muscle mass first, you will feel stronger and healthier, and your body will start to look fitter than before. And you may decide that losing weight on the scale just isn’t a high priority while you’re focusing on getting strong!
Listen to this podcast about how to eat and exercise to build muscle.
Once you have built up some muscle, you can begin to diet safely, but be warned; you will likely lose some strength and muscle mass as you start to lose weight. If you have performance goals on weight lifting, you might see a dip when you decide to lose weight. So don’t freak out if your gym performance suffers during a weight loss period!
Also, as you build up your muscle mass, the amount of weight you want to lose might change. The more muscle you have, the higher your weight will be, so you may be happy with how you look at a higher weight than you expect.
What To Expect Once Calorie Reduction Begins
You will see some decreases in strength and athletic performance as you lose weight, so make sure your dieting is the least impactful as possible on your muscle mass. The best way to do this is to eat at a safe and reasonable calorie deficit and prioritize a high protein intake.
Generally speaking, consuming at a 10-20% calorie deficit per day is a healthy caloric intake when you are trying to sustain weight loss and muscle mass. For a woman who needs 2200 calories per day to maintain her weight, she may start with a daily intake of 1800-2000 to see some weight loss. Don’t go more than 500 calories below your daily needs, and keep your calorie “cut” periods to no more than 12 weeks at a time.
Eating enough protein during a calorie deficit is also extremely important. This is regardless of the amount of carbohydrates and fat in your diet. Research consistently shows that higher amounts of protein are needed to maintain muscle while losing body fat. There are various ways to add more protein to your diet even if you don’t like meat or eggs.
In general, protein should be 25% of your daily calories when trying to lose weight. If you are a 140-pound woman eating 1800 calories a day, you need 112.5 grams of protein per day as part of your diet.
This protein calculator is a useful resource for determining healthy protein intake based on your age, weight, height, and activity level.
What about Carbohydrates and Fat?
Research shows there are no advantages to sticking to either a low carb or low-fat diet. Both types of diets can lead to successful weight loss. It’s best to experiment to see how you feel when you choose to eat lower carbs or fats. If you feel like it’s easier to stick with a low carb or low fat diet, then do so.
The most important factor in weight loss is that your calorie intake is less than what you are burning. Of course, the quality of your food choices will make you look and feel better, as will how often you eat.
Listen to more about what really matters when it comes to meal timing and frequency here!
When I work with clients, my main consideration with macronutrient balance is what type of exercise they’re doing. For example, with high-intensity interval training, you may feel better on high carb diet. If you are lightly jogging, walking, or practicing yoga, a low carb/higher fat option might be better for you. These are just general guidelines and you need to figure out where your sweet spot is.
Some people prefer to balance a number of carbohydrates and fats in their diet. Controlling your portions is especially important when including a mix of carbs and fats in your weight loss diet.
If you’re not limiting carbs or fats, you’re going to need to be more attentive to your overall calorie intake for the day. Simply track your intake and measure portion sizes until you have it all figured out.
How To Calculate A Safe Caloric Deficit For Your Body
There are a number of ways to determine a caloric deficit that will lead to safe and sustainable weight loss. The USDA has a body weight planner that yields similar results to the methods I use with my clients. With any method, the hardest part is estimating your activity level. Keep that in mind when working with a Registered Dietitian or using the app, you don’t need exact measures to achieve weight loss success.
The best idea is to start your weight loss program and tweak it if need be. You may want to work with someone to become educated on how to make normal activity and caloric estimates.
Many times, women think eating 1200 calories a day is normal and healthy, and it’s not. 1200 calories is not enough to sustain a healthy metabolic rate during weight loss for most women, especially active women. If you’re confused about what your weight loss calorie goals should be, work with a registered dietitian who can help you personalize your diet!
Cycling Weight Loss with Weight Maintenance
Cycles of weight loss and weight maintenance are important for sustainable weight loss. It’s an effective method for sustainable body composition changes, especially when you have a lot of weight to lose.
Cycling between weight loss and weight maintenance phases makes the weight loss process easier. It also helps maintain strength and muscle mass, as well as preventing significant alterations to your metabolic rate that come from chronically undereating.
Cycling weight loss and weight maintenance are also effective if you have a small amount of weight to lose. Short pulses of weight loss and weight maintenance prove to be more tolerable and lead to better success for most people.
12 week (3 month) weight loss cycles, followed by at least a month or two on a weight maintenance program is an efficient method no matter how much weight you have to lose. If you’ve lost more than 10-20 pounds between those weight loss periods, recalculations of your calorie needs will be needed as your weight changes.
Give yourself plenty of time to recover from a “cut” and don’t start another one until you’re feeling great, sleeping well, and seeing good performance in the gym.
I hope this article was useful to you as you begin your weight loss journey!
Remember to give your body time to recover after high-intensity workouts. Also, keep in mind that losing weight is a stressor no matter how much weight you have to lose. Be mindful of how you feel emotionally, and pay attention to how your body feels at all times.
Get lots of good sleep and don’t eat at too much of a calorie deficit (>20%). If you are not feeling well or a major, stressful life event happens, return to a maintenance diet and don’t worry about weight loss until things settle down.
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