How fast can you expect to lose weight? Plus, why your weight fluctuates so damn much

Weight loss scale

On most coaching consultations I get asked some version of the question, “how fast can I expect to lose weight or see results.”

Because I’m honest and prefer not to blow smoke up your ass my response is always the same.

It depends.

After I say this I envision your face looking like this.

Eye roll gif

In today’s article, “how fast can you expect to lose weight.” I cover how to set the right expectations around weight loss, how fast you can expect to lose weight, and why your weight fluctuates so damn much.

How fast can you expect to lose weight? 

Weight loss depends on a number of factors. 

  • are you in a consistent calorie deficit?
  • does the approach you’re taking make sense for your goals
  • are you enjoying the process (or at least not hating it to the max)
  • your current starting point (a lot of weight to lose or a little)
  • adherence to the plan

When working with clients I often find that it’s not a lack of progress for them that’s frustrating. It’s that they started with unrealistic expectations, don’t understand why they can’t sustain the results they got when they started or a combination of the two.

Setting expectations around how fast you can lose weight

Two of the most important things you can do for yourself when trying to lose weight are to manage your expectations and accept the tradeoffs that come with weight loss.

There’s a good chance you’ve said these things before:

  • If I’m not losing weight what’s the point?
  • My results are too slow, why bother?
  • I’m not progressing as fast as so and so. I must be doing something wrong.

If you only view moving your body, exercise, and eating well as a vehicle for losing weight you will most likely be left frustrated and confused. 

What will weight loss mean to you?

How will your life be different?

You may actually find that it’s not weight loss that is important for you, but something else. 

Here’s an exercise that I’d like you to take part in to find your deep reason:

  • Ask yourself why you want to do this
  • Whatever your answer above ask yourself WHY.
  • Repeat this process 5 more times.

Example: I want to lose 20 pounds.

  • Why? Because if I lose 20 pounds I’ll feel better and look better
  • And Why will I look and feel better? Because I’ll have more energy and feel more confident.
  • And Why do I want to have more energy and confidence? So that I can run around with my kids and not get exhausted and feel more confident to experience more life.
  • Why is running around with my kids and experiencing more life important? Because when I’m able to play with my kids more it puts me in a good mood and when I’m experiencing more of life I’m excited about what tomorrow might bring.
  • And why do I want to be in a good mood and excited about what tomorrow might bring? Because when I’m in a good mood life feels better and more enjoyable. When I’m excited about tomorrow I feel less stressed in control of my life.

There’s a lot more behind wanting to lose 20 pounds than just losing 20 pounds. More often than not the real reason you want to drop weight, reduce body fat, or get stronger is that you want to feel more confident, in control, and excited about your life.

What is your “deep reason” for wanting to lose weight? 

What is the difference between weight loss and fat loss?

Weight loss and fat loss are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

When most people say they want to lose weight, what they are referring to is fat loss. A major challenge is that fat loss isn’t always reflected by the number on the scale. This is why understanding the differences between the two and measuring your progress in ways other than the scale are important. 

Weight loss is the result of losing weight from muscle, water, fat, glycogen, waste, and other things. Fat loss is weight loss only from fat you have lost. 

When you weigh yourself on a bathroom scale you are measuring weight loss and NOT fat loss alone. Measuring fat loss can be done by a number of methods.

  • Dual-energy X-ray absorption (DEXA)
  • Hydrostatic weighing
  • Skinfold calipers
  • Digital scales (bioelectrical impedance and electric impedance)
  • Bod pod
  • 3-D body scanners
  • Multi-compartment models (the most accurate but often unavailable to the public)

Each has its own set of advantages, disadvantages, accuracies, and inaccuracies. 

Unless you are getting ready for a specific event that requires you to achieve certain levels of body fat you may not need to bother with these tests. Using the scale, girth measurements, photos, and non-scale measures of progress will be sufficient.

What does the scale actually measure?

Body scales measure how much you weigh by measuring how much force exists between you and Earth. When you jump on the scale you’re getting a reading of a number of things.

What weighing yourself daily DOES NOT measure:

  • Fat loss. Over a 24-hour period, fat loss is minimal at best.

What weighing yourself daily DOES measure:

  • bowel movements
  • pee
  • glycogen stores/water retention (which can be influenced by carbohydrate intake)
  • blood volume (influenced by salt intake)

Hour to hour and day to day scale fluctuations are most often influenced by your bowel movements, pee, and carbohydrate intake – And not directly related to fat loss.

The most influential of these can be your glycogen stores. Because glycogen can account for 5-10% of your weight in your liver, and 2% of the weight in your muscle. By going on a low-carb diet for a few days you can reduce your body weight (not necessarily fat tissue) because of glycogen and water loss.

If weighing yourself daily mostly accounts for poop, pee, and glycogen/water. Is it even worth it to weigh yourself daily?

In a 6-month randomized controlled study (RCT) those who weighed daily lost 6 kg or 13 pounds when compared to a control group. It was also shown that those who weighed themselves daily were more likely to engage in things related to weight loss (i.e. eating less fast food and watching less T.V.)

But there’s something to keep in mind here. Most of us will not be participating in RCTs. Which means more of our emotions could get involved.

If you’re losing weight steadily you’re more likely to jump on the scale regularly. You’re probably excited about it and it makes you feel good.

But if you “eat off-plan” you’re less likely to jump on the scale the next day because you know the impact it may have on the scale.

Some of us also have a “complicated” relationship with the scale. Which may lead to disordered eating or impact our self-esteem.

Note: I’ve worked with a number of clients who have had a “complicated” relationship with the scale. After a few conversations about what the scale represents and how to handle the feedback – that relationship is often improved. Sometimes it just takes a coach and a rational voice.

On average, how long does it take someone to see weight loss results?

You may not lose weight at the rates described below and that is ok. Progress is progress and as you’ll read later in the article, the scale doesn’t always tell the tale.

People like to freak out when they’re not losing weight as fast as their friend, brother, sister, significant other, or random person on the Internet that is talking about their hashtag fitness journey.

Generally speaking, reasonable and safe rates of weight loss per week according to experts, research, and governing bodies suggest the following.

Extreme (per week)

  • 1-1.5% of body weight 
  • Men: 2-3 lbs
  • Women: 1.65-2.5 lbs

Reasonable (per week)

  • .5-1% of body weight 
  • Men: 1-2 lbs
  • Women: .8-1.65 lbs

Comfortable (per week)

  • .5% of body weight 
  • Men: <1 lbs
  • Women: <.8 lbs
Rates of progress
Credit: Precision Nutrition

Something to keep in mind is that weight loss is often faster when you first start, and when you have more weight to lose. The more weight you lose, the slower the rate of weight loss.

Ultimately, how fast you can lose weight depends on how consistent and patient you can be with the program that you’re following.

How much weight loss is realistic in a month?

Given the examples above, a realistic rate of weight loss in a month could be between, <3.2 and 10 pounds for some women. And between, <4.0 and 12 pounds for some men.

Not losing weight within these ranges does not mean you’re a failure or doing something wrong. There could be some other things going on. 

  • You’re not actually in a calorie deficit
  • Making great progress but comparing it to others
  • Inconsistent measurements
  • Metabolic adaptation
  • Water retention
  • Health issues (menopause, PCOS, etc..)
  • Your plan is dumb 😬

I discuss each a bit more in the video below.

Is losing 5 pounds in a month realistic?

Yes and no. This will depend on your starting point. The larger you are, the easier this usually is. For most men and women this is a realistic rate of progress.

But let’s not get greedy. Progress is progress, whether it’s 1 pound, 5 pounds, 10 pounds – or simply feeling more confident in your skin. Celebrate the shit out of any progress you make and appreciate the effort you’re giving to work on your health.

Why your weight loss fluctuates so damn much

Hot damn the scale can be rather frustrating sometimes, can’t it?

In the video below I conducted an experiment showing how the scale can fluctuate over the course of a day based on a number of factors.

Natural weight fluctuations are normal. Weight loss doesn’t typically happen in a linear line. Expect daily and weekly fluctuations due to the following.

  • Increased carb intake
  • Increased sodium intake
  • Water retention
  • Stress
  • Sleep
  • Your most recent meal
  • The last workout you did
  • Bowel movements
  • Did you weigh in at a different time?
  • Where are you in your menstrual cycle?

What we’re looking for is a trend over time. This is why I recommend weighing yourself first thing every morning. This is for a number of reasons.

  • You get used today fluctuations so you don’t freak out when it goes up
  • Like any good experiment, you have more data points to work with
  • Research shows that those who apply self-monitoring techniques are more successful than those that do not.
Weight loss with trend line
Notice the fluctuations but the downward trend over time

This doesn’t mean you have to weigh yourself daily to be successful. I am well aware that the scale can be a complicated relationship for some. If this is the case, try working with a qualified coach to help you improve that. Or express to them that it’s not something you want to do at this time. You’ll see later, there are a number of ways to measure your progress that extend beyond the scale. 

How to weigh yourself

I know it seems fairly obvious. Step on the scale, read the number, step off the scale, and carry on with your day. But as you saw in the video above there are a number of factors that can influence your weight, and doing it incorrectly can give you inconsistent data.

Step 1: Standardize your weigh-ins

You want to weigh yourself under the same conditions so that you have as few variables as possible.

  • Weigh on the same days and at the same time each day. Preferably every morning right after waking up and a bowel movement if possible.
  • Always weigh naked
  • Use the same scale each time (make sure batteries are working)

Step 2: For most people, don’t obsess over 1 to 5-pound changes in your weight

Most of us are going to have weight fluctuations between 1 and 5 pounds. Depending on your size, this could be even more. Consider this maintenance mode. Look for trends over time. If weight loss is your goal, a downward trend. If weight gain is your goal, an upward trend.

Bonus step for women:

It’s natural for some women to have their weight spike up during their cycle. This does not mean you gained fat. Track your cycle and compare those weeks to other weeks of your cycle. 

How a low carb diet affects weight loss in the first few weeks

Low carb and keto diet zealots be like, “I lost 10 pounds in the first week.” It’s all about the carbs, just stop eating them.

Evidenced-based nutrition coaches be like, “slow your roll. If it worked for you and you like it, cool. Keep on keeping on. But here’s what’s going on.”

1 gram of carbohydrate comes with 3 grams of water. This is why when people go on a low-carb, or ketogenic diet, they see rapid weight loss (not fat loss) initially as the body drops water. Inversely, if you’re ending a period of low-carb or ketogenic dieting, you can expect your weight on the scale to go up as you replenish some glycogen and water in your body.

Slow your roll meme

Glycogen is the storage form of glucose and carbohydrates in animals and humans.

Your liver stores roughly 80 to 100 grams of glycogen. Your muscles store around 400-600 grams of glycogen. Each gram of glycogen can store up to 30 grams of water. 

If you have 90 grams of glycogen in your liver that is 270 grams of water. When you add the two together that equals 360 grams.

If you have 600 grams of glycogen in your muscles that is 1,800 grams of water. When you add the two together this is 2,400 grams.

All together that comes out to 2,760 grams.

Glycogen and water retentiong
Photo: Mac Nutrition Uni

When you reduce the number of carbohydrates in your diet the body begins to use the glycogen you have stored as fuel. If you walk regularly or exercise intensely you can burn through these stores pretty fast.

You can see from the photo, as glycogen begins to get depleted so does some water. And with that, the weight associated with both. Thus, you lose weight from glycogen and water depletion.

During this time there could be some fat loss but ONLY if you were eating in a calorie deficit. If not, you may still have the same body fat but experience weight loss because of the glycogen and water loss.

beat a dead horse

And to completely beat a dead horse. Study after study shows when a calorie deficit is accounted for there is not a single diet that is superior for weight loss. Fat loss comes down to calorie/energy balance. So yes, you can eat carbs or not eat carbs and lose fat. 

What is needed to lose body fat and weight?

Averaging a calorie deficit overtime is required to lose weight. A calorie deficit is done by eating fewer calories than your body needs, using more calories than your body needs, or a combination of the two. 

Calorie Deficit Chart

Your body uses calories in three primary ways:

  • Basil metabolic rate (BMR): This measures the number of calories your body needs to carry out regular bodily functions like pumping blood throughout the body, digesting food, breathing, and keeping your body temperature stable. 
  • Thermic effect of food (TEF): This refers to the calories used to digest, absorb, and metabolize food.
  • Thermic effect of activity (TEA): These are the calories you use during exercise. TEA can also include non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which accounts for the calories used for activities like yard work and fidgeting.

There are a number of ways you can average a calorie deficit over time. A few of which I have outlined in the diet guide.

However, it’s really tricky to track your calorie intake or how many calories you’re burning precisely (despite what your wearable says) and there are a lot of factors that go into creating a calorie deficit.

After coaching hundreds of clients I’ve noticed certain behaviors lead to sustainable weight loss results.

You may be thinking, “well fuck, that is a lot of stuff to get good at.”

You don’t need to master each one to be successful. Some of my clients excel at all of them, other clients do well with a few and not the others. Ultimately, it comes down to creating a calorie deficit and there are a number of ways to do that.

If you’re looking for a place to start pick one of the areas above to focus on for a week or two. Once it’s become routine move on to the next. I have a 12-week guide as well as online coaching if you need more accountability and support.

Is it better to lose weight fast or slow?

The word better or best seems to come up often in the fitness industry.

What’s the best workout, best diet, is it better to do weights or cardio first? Often, there isn’t a better or best.

When it comes to weight loss I encourage you to appreciate any progress you make. And to be comfortable with progress you don’t make too. The real win is in taking action – celebrate that.

When it comes to losing weight fast or slow you can make the case for both. But keep in mind that fast and slow are subjective measurements that are specific to the individual. What’s fast for one person may be slow for another and vice versa.

A benefit of losing weight at a faster rate means you won’t have to restrict calorie intake. You lose weight and start eating at maintenance calories sooner. Some studies are finding both short and long-term advantages to fast initial weight loss without weight regain.

Losing weight at a slower rate typically means less change and restriction. This could be a benefit for someone that has a lot on their plate and is apathetic to making more dramatic changes to their diet.

It’s also ok to cycle both approaches. You can alternate periods of more aggressive weight loss with maintenance or slower weight loss. Ultimately, the decision is yours to make.

The scale doesn’t tell the entire tale. Check-in on other metrics to get a sense of the bigger picture

Using the scale as the only way to measure progress is one of the biggest mistakes I see people making.

If you are only measuring your progress by the scale it can make the process feel defeating and frustrating. Finding other ways to measure progress can be helpful for keeping you motivated, adherent, and happy. Leading to long-term success.

  • Photos and measurements
  • Energy, mood, stress, sleep
  • Performance in workouts
  • How your clothes fit
  • Everyday tasks are getting easier
  • Endurance is improving
  • Blood work and health markers are improving
  • You feel stronger (mentally, emotionally, and physically)
  • Cravings are reduced
  • You’re more resilient
  • Digestion is improving
  • Your skin is glowing

Outside of weight loss, what are other meaningful measures of progress for you? 

Final thoughts on how fast you can expect to lose weight

Most clients I work with come to me with an outcome-based goal. 

I want to..

  • lose 15-20 pounds
  • get healthier
  • have abs for summer
  • tone up for my wedding
  • revenge body 

How will you know when you’re there? What will be different when you achieve those things? 

If you have a weight loss goal, great! It’s your goal, own that shit. But I encourage you to understand your real goal.

For most people, it’s not about weight loss. It’s about getting further away from pain and discomfort and getting closer to some pleasure and happiness that they associate with losing weight.


Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash


Obesity education institute

CDC, What is healthy weight loss?

Glycogen metabolism

Weinsier RL, Wilson LJ, Lee J. Medically safe rate of weight loss for the treatment of obesity: a guideline based on risk of gallstone formation. Am J Med. 1995 Feb;98(2):115-7. doi: 10.1016/S0002-9343(99)80394-5. PMID: 7847427.

Heymsfield SB, Thomas D, Martin CK, Redman LM, Strauss B, Bosy-Westphal A, Müller MJ, Shen W, Martin Nguyen A. Energy content of weight loss: kinetic features during voluntary caloric restriction. Metabolism. 2012 Jul;61(7):937-43. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2011.11.012. Epub 2012 Jan 16. PMID: 22257646; PMCID: PMC3810417.

Heymsfield SB, Harp JB, Reitman ML, Beetsch JW, Schoeller DA, Erondu N, Pietrobelli A. Why do obese patients not lose more weight when treated with low-calorie diets? A mechanistic perspective. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Feb;85(2):346-54. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/85.2.346. PMID: 17284728.

Vanwormer JJ, French SA, Pereira MA, Welsh EM. The impact of regular self-weighing on weight management: a systematic literature review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2008 Nov 4;5:54. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-5-54. PMID: 18983667; PMCID: PMC2588640.

Nackers LM, Ross KM, Perri MG. The association between rate of initial weight loss and long-term success in obesity treatment: does slow and steady win the race? Int J Behav Med. 2010 Sep;17(3):161-7. doi: 10.1007/s12529-010-9092-y. PMID: 20443094; PMCID: PMC3780395.

Ashtary-Larky D, Ghanavati M, Lamuchi-Deli N, Payami SA, Alavi-Rad S, Boustaninejad M, Afrisham R, Abbasnezhad A, Alipour M. Rapid Weight Loss vs. Slow Weight Loss: Which is More Effective on Body Composition and Metabolic Risk Factors? Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2017 May 17;15(3):e13249. doi: 10.5812/ijem.13249. PMID: 29201070; PMCID: PMC5702468.

Purcell K, Sumithran P, Prendergast LA, Bouniu CJ, Delbridge E, Proietto J. The effect of rate of weight loss on long-term weight management: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2014 Dec;2(12):954-62. doi: 10.1016/S2213-8587(14)70200-1. PMID: 25459211.

Pacanowski CR, Linde JA, Neumark-Sztainer D. Self-Weighing: Helpful or Harmful for Psychological Well-Being? A Review of the Literature. Curr Obes Rep. 2015 Mar;4(1):65-72. doi: 10.1007/s13679-015-0142-2. PMID: 26627092; PMCID: PMC4729441.

Hall KD, Heymsfield SB, Kemnitz JW, Klein S, Schoeller DA, Speakman JR. Energy balance and its components: implications for body weight regulation. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Apr;95(4):989-94. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.036350. Erratum in: Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Aug;96(2):448. PMID: 22434603; PMCID: PMC3302369.