By the time you start dieting, you’ve probably wanted to see your weight drop for a while. When you decide to do something about it, you expect results— now, dammit.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Dieting usually isn’t fun, so it makes perfect sense that you’d want to get it over with as soon as possible.
One option is to starve yourself and do hours of cardio. You’ll lose weight quickly, but you’ll also lose muscle, feel like crap, and be miserable. You also might not develop the skills you need to maintain fat loss over the long-term.
The real question is how fast can you lose fat while maintaining your muscle mass, performance, health, sanity, and happiness. In other words, what’s a reasonable rate of smart fat loss?
Let’s look at some of the most important variables that affect how fast you can lose fat.
Your Energy Expenditure
The more calories you burn, the larger a caloric deficit you can create. This doesn’t mean that large deficits are always better, but in general people with higher energy expenditures will be able to create larger deficits and lose fat faster than people with lower energy needs.
Don’t expect a high rate of fat loss if you have below average energy needs. This is true even if you’re using an extremely large deficit. For instance, if you only need 1,800 calories to maintain your body weight, cutting your calories in half will still only give you about 1.8 pounds of fat loss per week.1 That’s good, but not anywhere close to what many people expect.
If you have a higher energy expenditure, then you can generally expect to lose fat at a faster rate. Obese people often have extremely high metabolic rates, and can safely lose 2-3 pounds of fat per week as a result.2
If you burn a ton of calories through exercise, however, massive calorie deficits are a bad idea.
You’ll generally lose more muscle, your performance will drop, and you’ll increase your risk of getting sick or injured. You also probably won’t be able to maintain the same volume or intensity of exercise, so you’ll burn fewer calories and won’t get to eat as much.
Large deficits simply don’t work with high volume/high intensity training, so don’t push it.
Your Lifestyle Behaviors
If you monitor your calorie intake, practice flexible dieting, stick to your exercise program, move a lot throughout the day, get enough sleep, and generally take care of yourself, you’ll lose fat at a faster more consistent rate.
If you give in to every craving, overly restrict your food choices, don’t make time for exercise, don’t move much throughout the day, and don’t prioritize important fat loss behaviors, you’ll lose weight slower.
This isn’t a horrible thing, mind you. It’s not the end of the world if you’d rather spend an extra 30 minutes playing video games instead of going on a walk. You just have to remember that you won’t lose weight as quickly.
Your Body Fat Percentage
As you get closer to the limits of leanness, your body generally tries to catabolize more muscle tissue. Large deficits will help you lose more body fat, but you’ll also start to lose a lot more muscle mass.3,4
“People try to lose fat way too fast most of the time. This is true even in bodybuilding circles. The typical diet is somewhere between 8-16 weeks… the typical diet I have with my clients is twice that — 16-32 [weeks of dieting].”
“It takes a while to get very lean. You can push it faster, but it will come with a greater loss of lean body mass…”
If you’re leaner, expect to lose fat slower.
Your Fat Loss History
If you’ve struggled with fat loss before, expect it to take slightly longer than it does for others.
The bottom line is that some people are more resistant to fat loss than others, and some people are able to lose fat without even trying. If you’re in the former category, then expect your progress to be a little slower.
How to Decide What a Realistic Rate of Fat Loss is for You
In most cases, you can expect to lose between 0.5-3.5 pounds of fat per week, depending on the above variables.
Instead of fixating on a specific rate of fat loss, it’s generally a better idea to determine an optimal calorie deficit first. Then you can plan how long it will take to reach your goal weight.
That said, here’s a chart to help you get an idea of how fast you should be losing fat based on your body fat percentage. Remember that this is a starting place — not an exact road map.
Your Realistic Rate of Fat Loss Cheat Sheet
|Body Fat Level||Rate of Fat Loss|
|Men: <15% Women: <24%||<0.5-1.5 lb per week, or; 0.25-0.75% of bodyweight per week.|
|Men: 16-25% Women: 25-34%||1-2 lb per week, or; 0.75-1.5% of bodyweight per week.|
|Men: 26+% Women: 35+%||1.5-3.5 lb per week, or; 1.0-1.5% of bodyweight per week.|
When in Doubt, Take the Slower Route
If you’re unsure of where to start, err on the side of slower fat loss rather than faster. You can always cut calories more if necessary. Some bodybuilding coaches like Layne Norton even recommend “Eat as much as possible while still losing fat.”
You might take slightly longer to reach your goal weight, but you’ll probably lose less muscle, feel better, and be able to eat more throughout the process than if you rush your diet.
1. Hall KD. What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss? International Journal of Obesity (2005). 2008;32(3):573–576. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803720.
2. Johannsen DL, Knuth ND, Huizenga R, Rood JC, Ravussin E, Hall KD. Metabolic slowing with massive weight loss despite preservation of fat-free mass. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012;97(7):2489–2496. doi:10.1210/jc.2012-1444.
3. Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011;21(2):97–104.
4. Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(2):326–337. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181b2ef8e.