Public health recommendations regarding weight loss have seen a reasonably consistent uptick since the mid-20th century. Since approximately 73% of the population has overweight or obesity, a push to bring down the number on our collective scale has likely been founded in good intentions.
That said, there’s a dark side to much of the messaging around weight loss. Restrictive diets and unrealistic images of physical perfection in print and social media have contributed to noticeable problems, such as disordered eating and poor self-esteem.
In response to this unhealthy approach to weight management (known as “diet culture”), you may have noticed a pendulum swing away from weight loss. Numerous influencers and public health experts alike have noted that losing weight isn’t always necessary for health benefits; often times, weight loss as a health goal is simply caving to societal pressures.
But which is it? Is weight loss a good goal or a harmful one? Experts and research help answer this confusion.
How to Know If Weight Loss Is an OK Goal for You
When it comes to health, there are plenty of reasons why losing weight can be a worthy goal.
Scientific evidence shows that many chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and joint pain can be improved or even prevented by focusing on a healthy weight. “For the average overweight individual, weight loss may be an acceptable goal because of a health consequence, or simply knowing you feel better in your body when a few pounds lighter,” notes dietitian Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN. As long as you’ve received the green light from a doctor or registered dietitian, beginning a weight loss journey for better health is completely acceptable.
Despite what you may see on certain TikTok or Instagram accounts, you don’t have to feel ashamed for wanting to lose weight and feel better. Gans cites wanting to get back to a certain weight after giving birth or wanting to fit into clothing you’ve worn and liked as likely reasons individuals may have weight loss on the brain. It is an individual right to pursue this, even if socially the opinion may be lacking in popularity.
Is Weight Loss for Everyone?
For many people, sustainable weight loss comes with benefits for both physical and mental health. But it isn’t for everyone.
If you’re already at a healthy weight, there’s no need to try and change the number on the scale. “Weight loss would also not typically be recommended for an individual with a history of an eating disorder,” Gans adds.
Determining whether weight loss is a good goal often comes down to your motivation and probable outcome. Looking to shed weight out of a sense of insecurity, a desire to look like a magazine cover, or to please someone else isn’t a recipe for happiness (and often isn’t one for success, either).
Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN
If a person’s reason for weight loss is coming from a place of self-hatred versus self-compassion, it could do more harm than good
— Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN
Meanwhile, some weight loss goals simply aren’t attainable. “One example would be a 5’5” woman who has never weighed less than 145 pounds her entire adult life while following a healthy diet regime, but would love to be 130 pounds,” Gans notes. In an instance such as this, Gans recommends working toward weight acceptance, rather than a calorie-cutting regimen that could spiral into unhealthy mental and emotional territory.
It’s worth noting, too, that popular diets (particularly fads focused on weight loss) often don’t stick. According to 2020 research on over 21,000 subjects, a macronutrient-based diet achieved results for weight loss in the short term, but these largely disappeared after 12 months.
If you’ve attempted multiple diets without lasting results, it may be best to focus on other goals, such as adding more fruits and vegetables and more activity, rather than weight loss.
How to Set a Wise Weight Loss Goal
if you want to have a number goal, that is okay, but think of it loosely and work on the behaviors that will help you get there instead. You might feel more empowered by setting weight loss goals that revolve less around a number and more around other wellness factors. Here are four to consider.
Align Goals With Necessary Health Outcomes
For those working on weight loss for a health benefit, it may be useful to keep the benefit itself top of mind. Perhaps your goal in losing weight is to get better sleep at night, relieve back or joint pain, or reduce your blood sugar levels. Looking forward to feeling better physically may spur you on more than digits on a scale ever could.
Link Goals to Feelings or Experiences
Humans are emotional creatures—it’s not surprising that a feeling or emotional experience can tell us we’ve reached a goal. You might like to feel more confident or not feel apprehensive about appearing in photos, for example. “It could be simply feeling better in your clothing when you get dressed in the morning,” says Gans.
Keep Your Timeline Realistic
As much as we might desire to slash through dramatic weight loss goals, extreme, rapid weight loss isn’t usually realistic. (Often, it can even be dangerous.) People who take weight loss steadily and gradually are more likely to hang onto their success long-term.
Whatever goal you set, it’s critical to make it doable. You may choose to aim for a modest number, such as 0.5 to 2 pounds lost per week, or a 5 to 10% loss of your body weight. You might even set a time goal, such as sticking with a new eating plan for 90 days. Just remember that small steps add up—once you’ve hit your first goal, however small, you can always keep going down the path.
A Word From Verywell
If you’re considering weight loss, give some thought to your motivations. Don’t hesitate to discuss them with a physician, dietitian, or therapist. A mental health professional or dietitian can help you identify realistic goals for you that will help you achieve your long term goal.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a realistic weight loss goal?
The definition of “realistic” will differ from person to person, based on a variety of factors. Many public health experts recommend a long-term weight loss goal of 5-10% of body weight, or 0.5 to 2 pounds per week, but this isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Does being hungry mean you’re losing weight?
Being hungry is simply a sign of where your body is at in the digestion process, not necessarily that you’re burning fat. And while losing weight requires balancing your intake and output of calories through diet and exercise, it doesn’t mean going hungry.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Losing Weight.