The 5 Stages of Weight Loss: What You Can Expect When Losing Weight
If you’ve ever tried a new fad diet, then you know what a roller coaster of a journey it can be. Before you start your next weight loss solution, get familiar with these stages of weight loss.
Knowledge is power! Knowing about the physical stages of weight loss can make it easier for you to get through the tough ones and reach your end goal — long-term, healthy weight loss.
Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss
Before we get to the stages of weight loss, it’s important to understand the differences between fat loss and weight loss. They’re not the same!
Think of weight loss as the overarching term for the numbers on the scale going down. Where it gets confusing is that weight loss is not necessarily fat loss. For most people, when losing weight, fat loss is the ultimate goal. But, when you first start restricting your calories, you lose weight, not fat.
It’s critical to know the difference so that when the numbers on the scale stall or you see big fluctuations day-to-day, you know that that’s just normal weight loss. With weight loss, you’re seeing changes in the amount of water your body retains, how much you ate the day before, and waste (poop) you have yet to evacuate.
Weight loss is normal while dieting, but your ultimate goal should be to gain or maintain your muscles and lose fat. To encourage fat loss instead of just weight loss, you should eat plenty of protein while creating a calorie deficit in your diet and increasing your physical activity levels. To make sure you’re losing fat, invest in a scale that measures your body fat content. (1,2)
5 Stages of Weight Loss
During your weight loss journey, you’re likely to go through a number of different stages and phases. While there’s a usual pattern of weight loss stages, you might also find that you go through some of the stages multiple times and might skip some stages.
As you begin your weight loss journey, here are the physical stages of weight loss you should expect to go through.
1. The Honeymoon
The first phase of a weight loss journey is all about optimism, that’s why we call it “The Honeymoon Phase”. Your weight loss plan is bright and shiny and new. It seems achievable and not too restrictive. You’ve got tons of motivation and are excited to get started.
In the early stages of the honeymoon phase, you’re cooking at home, preparing your meals, making healthy choices, and regularly getting to the gym. You’re 100% committed.
The best part? You’re likely even seeing some movement on the scale. This is a great phase, and a great place to start, your weight loss journey. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last forever. Life and reality start to get in the way.
Fast Weight Loss
During this first stage of weight loss, you’ll notice that it seems like the pounds are just falling off. During the first four to six weeks of your weight loss journey, you’ll lose weight and you’ll lose it quickly. (3)
But, it’s important to keep in mind that during the first stage of weight loss, much of the weight you’re losing is from water. As you reduce your calorie intake, your body begins to consume its excess glycogen stores, which are stored in your liver and muscles. (4)
While this results in a smaller number on the scale, you’re not actually losing (much) fat during this phase. Once your body has burned off its excess glycogen stores, it can begin to burn off fat. This is known as ketosis. (5)
Your weight loss is affected by the composition of your diet, the number of calories you consume, your age, sex, starting weight, and physical activity.
Don’t let this discourage you. Watch those numbers go down and use that as fuel to continue motivating you into the next body stages of weight loss.
2. Reality Check — Slower Weight Loss
Womp, womp. Reality check.
For anyone who has tried out a new diet, you know how painful the reality check is. You’re doing well planning your meals, avoiding the fast food and snack machine, and then real life intrudes. You wake up late or your kid has an emergency and your meal plan gets out of whack. You find yourself out and about, hungry and tired. So you drive-thru somewhere for a convenient meal.
This one small thing can derail your entire mental plan for your new diet. It can take multiple days or even a week to get back on board if you ever do. This mental blockage and real-life can slow your weight loss goals.
Slower weight loss is a normal, natural phase in the stages of weight loss.
Slow Weight Loss
During this phase of slower weight loss, you may notice that you’re shedding weight more slowly and you may reach a weight loss plateau where you’re continuing to eat a restricted-calorie diet but aren’t losing any weight at all.
This is normal!
But, it’s also very frustrating. This stage of your fat loss journey can be mentally and emotionally taxing. Your motivation is waning and everything seems just a little bit harder.
When choosing a diet, it’s important to find something that fits your lifestyle and can be a permanent change that you can stick with.
While the changes on the scale come more slowly during this phase, it’s actually a really important phase. During this slow weight loss phase, you’re actually losing fat — which is the goal!
One thing to watch out for: hunger. During this phase, you may feel more hungry, more often. Look for high-protein snacks and meals to help you feel full longer.
3. Fight the Plateau — Don’t Get Discouraged!
The third state of weight loss comes in once you’ve been restricting your calories for months. You’ve already gone through an emotional roller coaster with multiple setbacks and mistakes. This stage of your weight loss journey is about finding balance and not getting discouraged.
During this stage, you might find that you’re more consistent with choosing healthy meal options and getting exercise. You’re sticking to your meal plan most of the time and controlling your portions. You’ve built a foundation of healthy habits. And, you’ve also realized that the weight loss process will take time and effort.
Building healthy habits is difficult, but this phase is all about sustainability and motivation. Routine can get boring, so it’s important to find ways to keep yourself interested. This weight loss journey is long-term. Finding small, healthy rewards along the way can help you from getting discouraged and giving up.
4. True Lifestyle Change
In the fourth stage of weight loss, you’ll find that your habits have become so deeply ingrained that you no longer think about them. You look forward to your weekly meal planning session, you crave protein-rich, vegetable-heavy meals, and your friends no longer question your order when you go out to eat.
You’re not just dieting, you’ve made a true, sustainable change to your lifestyle and eating habits. This is a great stage to be in. Your diet feels natural and sustainable. You understand your cravings and how to fulfill them without overindulging.
While this can be a highly satisfying stage of your weight loss journey, it won’t last forever. You might swing back and forth between different stages. That’s normal! Your goal is to build habits for true, permanent fat loss.
5. Maintaining Weight Loss
The final physical stage of weight loss is maintaining your weight loss. With many diets, you’re encouraged to deprive yourself to lose weight quickly. The drawback to these types of diets is that you’re more likely to yo-yo and regain the weight you’ve lost.
Maintaining your weight loss should be just as important to you as losing weight. Weight loss maintenance is not just about eating differently, it’s about changing your behavior. (8)
Here are a few strategies to help you maintain and complete the stages of weight loss.
- Keep healthy food on hand. The food you see is the food you’re most likely to eat. Buy healthy food options such as fruit and vegetables and keep them where you can see them, on the counter in a bowl, and prominently stored in the fridge. Bonus points: prepare your fruits and veggies so you have grab-and-go snacks. (9)
- Avoid processed foods. Processed foods are generally higher in calories, fat, and sugar. By avoiding processed foods, you’re going to automatically gravitate towards whole, healthy foods.
- Increase protein intake. Protein helps to keep you feeling full longer. When you focus on eating protein-rich meals, you’ll get full and stay full. This helps you to avoid the munchies and reaching for a snack. (10)
- Track and self-monitor. Keeping a food journal and tracking your exercise can help you to self-monitor and increase your self-awareness of behaviors and how they affect your weight loss.
- Find movement that makes you happy. Physical activity is a crucial part of weight loss maintenance. If you have found movement and exercise that makes you happy, that will make it more likely that you’ll do it. Having a variety of activities can also help. You can go to the gym, take yoga classes, have solo dance parties, and take walks around your neighborhood. With options, you can move every day and not get bored.
- Create a stress management plan. Stress is a major factor in weight loss and weight loss maintenance. When we feel stressed, many of us reach for comfort foods, which tend to be highly processed or full of carbs and fat. Your stress management plan should include healthy ways to deal with your stress.
- Sleep! Many people forget that sleep is an integral part of health. When we lack sleep or stay up late, our body craves quick energy sources, which include carbs and sugars. By getting plenty of sleep, your body is well-rested and cravings will be limited. (11)
The weight loss process can be slow and tedious. You might bounce back and forth between the different stages of weight loss, which can be very emotional.
While the early stages of weight loss can be filled with hope and success while you’re quickly losing weight, the next stages, where weight loss slows down and you might hit a plateau, can be frustrating. Finding emotional support and ways to change your behavior can make it easier to get through all the stages of weight loss.
- Edda Cava, Nai Chien Yeat, Bettina Mittendorfer, Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 8, Issue 3, May 2017, Pages 511–519, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.116.014506
- Sardeli, A., Komatsu, T., Mori, M., Gáspari, A., & Chacon-Mikahil, M. (2018). Resistance Training Prevents Muscle Loss Induced by Caloric Restriction in Obese Elderly Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 10(4), 423. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10040423
- Heymsfield, S. B., Thomas, D., Martin, C. K., Redman, L. M., Strauss, B., Bosy-Westphal, A., Müller, M. J., Shen, W., & Martin Nguyen, A. (2012). Energy content of weight loss: kinetic features during voluntary caloric restriction. Metabolism, 61(7), 937–943. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.metabol.2011.11.012
- Chung, S. T., Chacko, S. K., Sunehag, A. L., & Haymond, M. W. (2015). Measurements of Gluconeogenesis and Glycogenolysis: A Methodological Review. Diabetes, 64(12), 3996–4010. https://doi.org/10.2337/db15-0640
- Diet Review: Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss. (2019, May 22). The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/ketogenic-diet/
- Thomas, D. M., Martin, C. K., Redman, L. M., Heymsfield, S. B., Lettieri, S., Levine, J. A., Bouchard, C., & Schoeller, D. A. (2014). Effect of dietary adherence on the body weight plateau: a mathematical model incorporating intermittent compliance with energy intake prescription. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(3), 787–795. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.079822
- Melby, C., Paris, H., Foright, R., & Peth, J. (2017). Attenuating the Biologic Drive for Weight Regain Following Weight Loss: Must What Goes Down Always Go Back Up? Nutrients, 9(5), 468. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9050468
- Ramage, S., Farmer, A., Apps Eccles, K., & McCargar, L. (2014). Healthy strategies for successful weight loss and weight maintenance: a systematic review. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 39(1), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2013-0026
- Paixão, C., Dias, C. M., Jorge, R., Carraça, E. V., Yannakoulia, M., Zwaan, M., Soini, S., Hill, J. O., Teixeira, P. J., & Santos, I. (2020). Successful weight loss maintenance: A systematic review of weight control registries. Obesity Reviews, 21(5). https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.13003
- Halton, T. L., & Hu, F. B. (2004). The Effects of High Protein Diets on Thermogenesis, Satiety and Weight Loss: A Critical Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(5), 373–385. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2004.10719381
- Fatemeh Azizi Soeliman, & Leila Azadbakht. (2014). Weight loss maintenance: A review on dietary related strategies. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.