The case for super slow weight loss

[UPDATED on Sept, 1, 2020 to include new research]

One of the things that sets the Weighless approach apart from other weight loss programs is our emphasis on slow weight loss.  Instead of coaching our members to lose a couple of pounds a week, we try to hold them to a few  pounds a month.

Crazy, right? And yet there is a method to our madness.

The famous (and heartbreaking) “Biggest Loser” study demonstrates just how much damage fast weight can do to your metabolism. After six years, virtually all of the contestants had regained every pound (and more)–despite continuing to eat fewer calories. 

And then there’s the loss of lean muscle.  Most people can only lose 2-3 pounds of body fat per month. If you’re losing weight faster than that, the rest is likely to be lean muscle. Believe me, that’s NOT what you’re trying to lose.

Although our approach may seem like an insanely slow way to lose weight, we’re finding that it’s actually a much quicker (and less unpleasant) path to sustainable fat loss. Interestingly, our members frequently report that after losing weight the “Weighless way,” they look and their clothes fit as if they have lost much more than they actually have.

Losing weight slowly not only preserves your metabolism and muscle mass. It also gives you more time to acquire the habits and practice the skills that will help you maintain a lower weight, heading off the dreaded–and seemingly inevitable–rebound weight gain.

It all makes sense, right? But occasionally, someone in the group will ask if there is published research to support the merits of the super slow pace of weight loss we endorse. Fair enough. I’ve built a reputation for being evidence-based, and most of the people who sign up for my programs cite this as one of the reasons they trust my advice.

Show Me the Research

A few studies have compared the effects of slow vs. fast weight loss. For example:

A 2016 study involving almost 60 subjects found that those who lost weight more slowly lost less muscle mass, which was associated with less weight regain. A similar (but longer) study dating back to 1994 compared the effects of “fast” vs. “slow” weight loss and found that the fast losers lost more weight initially but were much more likely to regain it.

Frustratingly, many of the studies that compare fast and slow weight loss define “slow” as 4-5% of your total body weight per month, which is still too fast by our standards.  But here have been at least two excellent studies where the slow pace is in line with our recommendations.

This 2014 study involved 200 subjects, both men and women. Over the course of the study, the subjects  lost 15% of their starting body weight, on average. The slower group lost at a pace of about 1.5% of their total body  weight per month. The faster group lost at a more typical rate of 4.5% of their total body weight per month.  Although both groups lost the same amount of weight, the slow group lost 10% more body fat and 50% less lean muscle as the faster group. 

This 2018 study by a different research group involved 68 subjects (all men) who lost  6% of their starting body weight. Once again, the slower group lost 1.5% of their total body weight per month and the faster group 4.5% per month. But the difference in body composition was a lot more dramatic. The slower group lost 50% more fat and 75% less lean muscle than the faster group. 

Our approach is certainly informed by research–but it also draws heavily on our experience and common sense. And although we are not (yet) conducting a controlled trial, the results we are seeing and the feedback we are getting from our members are enormously validating.  I think we’re onto something here…and maybe the researchers will take notice.

6 thoughts on “The case for super slow weight loss”

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for this wonderful information.
    Many people call a truce with the battle of the bulge at a certain age, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Changing a diet has to be something you can stick with long-term because if you return to the way you were eating before, you’ll likely gain back the weight.
    I hope this information will really help everyone to work on their weight lose plan smartly.

  2. Super slow weight loss is the only way to go. I lose about a pound a month. I am rarely hungry, I love exercising because I have enough fuel to work long and hard at it every day. I know the weight will not reappear because I have chosen an eating style I can live with; mostly good most of the time, enjoy food and adult beverages in moderation, work out hard. I am 64 years old and back to my college weight. My goal is to get back to my high school weight which will likely take another year. I would rather lose weight slowly and keep it off forever than constantly lose and regain the same 20 pounds. Plus, my skin is old! It needs time to adjust! I don’t want loose skin bags hanging around, lol. Slow and steady wins the race! Good luck to all.

  3. Wow, this is exactly the sort of information I was looking for. I’m already very thin and on the lower side of the BMI scale, but I have a small frame and would like to either lose five pounds or change my body composition without losing weight (but I don’t have access to weight lifting equipment now). I’ve never attempted to lose weight intentionally before, but I’m getting older and don’t want to gain a few pounds every year over time. The general advice of one or two pounds a week just seems like way too fast at my size.

    It’s interesting to hear that may also be the case for people who have more weight to lose as well, and that makes sense. I imagine it may be less of a shock to their system than mine because they have more reserves. However, I used to transcribe pharma advisory boards for diabetes drugs, and even for obese people, you can sometimes see muscle loss at 1-2 pounds a week. (Sorry, it was a long time ago, so I wouldn’t be able to find those studies even if I tried.)

    Getting my nutritional needs met is also a concern, and it seems like it would be hard to get all of the micronutrients I need losing 1-2 pounds a week, especially at my size. I’m on a mostly vegan diet, so I’m tracking to make sure I get enough iron, zinc, B12, calcium, etc. If I am unable to meet my needs on this lifestyle, I will add some dairy and meat. My original concern was that I’d lose weight, but I gained, which happens sometimes.

    Thanks for this post. It’s good to hear that I’m on the right track!

  4. Re. The 2014 & 2018 studies.
    Fast and slow diets lost the same amount of weight?! Were they conducted over different periods of time? How did they compare over the same time frame?

    • Yes, the studies were over variable periods of time. Same amount of weight but lost over 15 weeks vs 5, or 36 weeks vs. 12.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.