Weight Loss for Beginners: What You Need to Know to Lose Weight
The ultimate guide to weight loss for beginners, with expert tips from an MD on what to eat and do to see success.
Life's milestones trigger many people to think about weight loss for the first time. A new job, a new year, a relationship change, pregnancy and post-partum, menopause or middle age, and a big event like a high school reunion or wedding may prompt people to lose weight.
While you may be a beginner at weight loss, many others have experimented with diets and exercise plans so there’s plenty of advice available. Because everyone's metabolism and body composition differs, weight loss tips that are helpful for one person may or may not work for another.
Motivation gets most people started on their weight loss journeys, but developing healthy eating and exercise habits, not restrictive diets, leads to success. You don't just want to lose weight; you want to adopt a lifestyle that makes maintaining a healthy weight a priority.
Where to Start Your Weight Loss Journey
There are many ways to track your progress on your weight loss journey. Unfortunately, none of them are perfect, as the human body is complex.
Weight loss would be much simpler if you could actually calculate the number of calories you eat and burn throughout the day and expect to see weight loss that corresponds to the 3500 kcal rule, which suggests we lose a pound for every 3,500 calories burned.
Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly difficult and tedious to calculate exact amounts of calories consumed and burned.
Researchers have also shown that weight loss is typically much less than expected<sup>1</sup> when using the 3500-kcal rule.
A scientific paper suggests that the 3500-kcal rule was created by calculating that a pound of fat stores about 3,500 calories. The researchers write that this value could be appropriate for modest weight changes in overweight<sup>2</sup> or obese people, but it’s an overestimate for others.
While trying to calculate a 3,500 caloric deficit can prove inaccurate for some and futile for others, there are several tools you can use to track your weight loss progress. Taken together, they may provide a more complete picture of where you are currently and the progress you are making.
- Help you gain insight into your eating patterns
- Help you gain control over the weight loss process
- Motivate you to continue your weight loss journey
Keep in mind that there are no measurements to track physiologic changes in your body, such as a more efficient cardiovascular system, better blood flow, and increased mitochondria<sup>4</sup>, the energy-producing organelles in your cells.
Even if you don't see change when you are tracking your weight loss, increased physical activity and healthier eating are still causing positive changes in your body.
Numbers that may help you determine where you are in terms of weight are your waist circumference<sup>5</sup>, waist-to-hip ratio<sup>6</sup>, and body fat percentage<sup>7</sup>. Body mass index (BMI) is another metric to measure and interpret weight status; however, it doesn’t include considerations for gender or race.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a healthy waist circumference is less than 40 inches for men and less than 35 inches for non-pregnant women.
The World Health Organization classifies waist-to-hip ratio as follows:
- low health risk: 0.80 or less for women, and 0.95 or less for men
- moderate risk: 0.81-0.85 for women, and 0.96-1.0 for men
- high risk: 0.86 and higher for women, and 1.0 and higher for men
Measure your waist and hip circumference with a tape measure wrapped around the smallest part of your waist (breathe normally) just above your belly button, and wrapped around the largest part of your hips and buttocks. Divide your waist measurement by your hip circumference to get your waist-to-hip ratio.
A scale is a great tool to help you track your weight loss and stay accountable<sup>8</sup>. Like many measurements, it is the trend, rather than a single measurement, that is important.
Here are some important things to consider when weighing yourself:
<ul role="list"><li>Weight loss tends to be more rapid in the beginning<sup>9</sup>, as excess water weight is lost. It then settles into a pattern of one to two pounds lost per week, depending on your calorie intake and activity levels.</li><li>Weighing yourself at the same time each day decreases the impact of variables that temporarily affect your weight.</li><li>Drinking fluids, being constipated, or eating salty foods can all affect your weight. Don't be discouraged by fluctuations.</li><li>Many women retain fluid right before and during their menstrual periods. This weight gain is temporary.</li></ul>
Many people find weighing themselves psychologically challenging<sup>10</sup>, as the perception of body image can sometimes be correlated with weight. Using a scale on a weekly basis can help you track trends without being affected by day-to-day weight fluctuations.
Most people eat more food and therefore consume more calories in a day than they are aware of. Logging your food intake is time-consuming <sup>11</sup>, but if you can manage it, you’ll have a much better idea of how many calories you consume. You’ll also start to learn which foods and food combinations are more calorie-dense. You can use this information to find equally satisfying substitutions that may include more nutrition and satiating fiber or protein.
Estimating calories is difficult. When researchers asked patrons in a restaurant how many calories were in their meals and then compared the estimated and actual calories <sup>12</sup>, at least two-thirds of participants underestimated the calories in their meals—a quarter of them underestimated calories by at least 500.
Besides keeping track of calories, food logging can help you identify food allergies and sensitivities, and ensure your diet is balanced in macronutrients. Researchers from Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research found that people who kept a food diary lost twice as much weight <sup>13</sup> as those who did not.
Smart Watches with Pedometers and Activity Trackers
While scales track your weight, smart watches track your physical activity. Whether you take steps walking or running, you burn calories and improve your cardiovascular health. Using a smart watch with a pedometer can increase your activity level<sup>14</sup>, make it easy to set goals, and allow you to track your activity over time.
Continuous Glucose Monitors
A continuous glucose monitor measures your glucose just beneath your skin. It intermittently samples the fluid around your body cells. Ideally, you should see a steady glucose number with slight increases after eating throughout the day. Glucose tracking can change your approach to weight loss, as it provides a way to visualize trends and see which foods and activities most significantly affect your blood sugar.
Taking body measurements can help you track your progress. Even if the number on the scale isn't changing, you may still be losing fat and inches off your frame.
When taking measurements, wrap the tape measure firmly around your body without squeezing it. Take your measurements against bare skin.
Measure some or all the following:
- Bust: Measure around the chest right at the nipple line, but don't pull the tape too tight.
- Chest: Measure just under your bust.
- Upper arm: Measure around the largest part of each arm above the elbow.
- Forearm: Measure around the largest part of the arm below the elbow.
- Hips: Place the tape measure around the biggest part of your hips.
- Thighs: Measure around the biggest part of each thigh.
- Calves: Measure around the biggest part of each calf.
- Waist: Measure a half-inch above your belly button or at the smallest part of your waist. Breathe out before measuring, but don't suck in your stomach.
Body measurements are typically not the most accurate way to keep track of changes in your body with weight loss, but they are easy to do. Other ways you can measure your percentage body fat include calipers (measure the size of skin folds) and bioelectrical impedance analysis<sup>15</sup>, which measures fat-free mass and total body water.
Other Ways to Track Your Weight Loss Progress
There are many ways to track your progress towards a healthier weight that don't involve numbers, such as whether you:
- Are sleeping better
- Have less joint pain
- Can exercise longer and more comfortably
- Have better-fitting clothes
- Feel more confident
- Are comfortable choosing healthier foods for yourself
Tracking weight loss<sup>16</sup> is an excellent way to stay accountable and gather feedback that your body is changing. Choose a tracking method that is easy to use and fits your schedule.
Setting Goals and Reasonable Expectations
Discuss with your doctor how much weight you should lose and how quickly you should try to lose it. The general rule is no more than one to two pounds per week. A slow and steady weight loss<sup>17</sup> plan is safer for your body and more sustainable than a more aggressive approach. More than two pounds lost per week can increase your risk of nutritional deficiencies and loss of muscle mass.
The fundamentals of a balanced diet<sup>18</sup> are straightforward. Eat a wide range of foods with most of your daily caloric intake coming from fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, milk and milk products or plant-based dairy alternatives, and lean protein. Avoid saturated fats, trans fats, added salts, and sugars.
Metabolism is the process of burning food calories to produce energy. You are continuously burning calories at a baseline level throughout the day. The rate at which you burn calories<sup>21</sup> is determined by your age, sex, genetics, and muscle mass. Being heavier, taller, younger, and male increases your basal metabolic rate.
Exercise and movement throughout the day increase your calories burned.
Weight loss slows as you lose weight because of a decrease in metabolic rate<sup>22</sup>. You can counter this effect by increasing your muscle mass. Building muscle mass and maintaining a higher metabolic rate<sup>23</sup> means you should have plenty of protein in your diet.
The Recommended Daily Allowance<sup>24</sup> of protein for a healthy adult:
- 0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight for sedentary people
- 1.0 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight for those who engage in minimal physical activity
- 1.3 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight for those who engage in moderate physical activity
- 1.6 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight for those who engage in intense physical activity
The upper limit of protein intake for both men and women is 2 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight. No more than 20–25 grams should be taken at one time. Too much protein can cause digestive, kidney, and blood vessel problems<sup>25</sup>.
Food Choices and Hunger
Consider two food choices you may love: one high in fat and calories from highly processed ingredients, and the other high in nutrients and fiber from unprocessed ingredients. Perhaps you love a large, juicy burger and fries from your favorite fast-food restaurant, but you also love a salad with chicken breast and topped with homemade olive oil vinaigrette.
Salad has more water content, is nutrient-dense, and is high in fiber. As a result, you will feel full and stay satisfied longer after eating a salad. This may be hard to believe if you view salad as “rabbit food” or stereotypical diet food. But, if you focus on building a salad with a variety of colorful veggies, lean protein, some nuts or seeds for crunch (instead of croutons), and a clean dressing made with heart-healthy oil, you should feel sated after eating it.
Consider the foods you like and think about how you can prepare them in filling and satisfying ways. Your tastebuds will adapt as you expose them to healthier foods.
Don't label foods as bad or good. The goal is to eat mindfully. Deprivation is demotivating. When only a piece of chocolate will satisfy your hunger, not eating one can cause you to overeat as you try to satisfy your chocolate craving with other foods.
Pay attention to satiety. It’s important to know when you are full and which eating patterns make you feel most full. For some people, eating small meals frequently is most satisfying. For others, larger, less frequent meals work better.
Reading Food Labels and Restaurant Menus
Food labels can be confusing. When evaluating food labels<sup>26</sup>, consider:
- Serving size, calories, nutrients, and the percent daily value of those nutrients
- Food preparation method: deep-fried, pan-fried, and candied all add calories (not to mention added sugar and undesirable oils)
- Food descriptions: food preparation terms such as creamy, au gratin, battered, breaded, glazed, loaded, cheesy, and smothered typically describe high-calorie foods
Weight Loss Friendly Foods
Weight loss friendly foods are nutrient- and fiber-dense, filling, nutritious, and part of a complete meal plan. Here are some examples:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Whole grain toast (try sprouted whole grains)
- Salad topped with tuna or chicken breast
- A broth-based soup
- Brown rice and vegetables (add a plant-based protein or lean animal protein if you’d like)
- Baked or grilled fish with roasted vegetables
- Salad topped with a lean source of protein
- Sheet pan baked chicken breast with vegetables
Talk to your doctor to determine a healthy daily calorie allotment for you. Use calorie tracking apps to track your calories throughout the day (Signos provides a great one). Pay close attention to:
- Portion size
- When you eat
- How often you eat
- Whether or not you eat intentionally
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NIH) has a variety of recipes<sup>27</sup> to meet various health needs. All recipes are heart-healthy and provide information on serving size, the number of servings, calories, and nutrient composition.
Our one-week low-glycemic meal plan also provides nutrient-dense, tasty, weight loss friendly recipes to try.
What causes you to eat? There are triggers everywhere that can threaten your weight loss plan. Identifying the ones that cause you to eat when you’re not truly hungry can help you steer clear of temptation.
Seeing and smelling foods can make you want to eat, even when you’re not hungry. Examples of environmental triggers:
- The bag of chips sitting on the counter
- Coworkers in the break room having a snack
Sometimes triggers are emotional. Examples of emotional triggers:
- Grabbing a salty, high-calorie snack when you’re stressed
- Mindlessly eating after an upsetting phone call or message
Social triggers can be hard to break because they commonly involve other people. Examples of social triggers:
- Eating more food or less healthy food when dining with friends at restaurants
- Having dessert when a family member makes it for you
- Having a partner pick up greasy takeout on the way home from work
To control triggers and avoid temptation, don't buy high-calorie, processed foods with little nutritional value. Make yourself work to get unhealthy food when you want it. You may decide it's not worth driving to the store to buy.
Almost 60% of the calories in an average American diet<sup>28</sup> come from processed foods. Processing removes fiber and vitamins from foods and adds salt and sugar, which fuel food cravings. Processed foods may also spike your blood sugar and then cause it to crash, leaving you hungry. These types of foods are engineered to taste more delicious, which makes it harder to stop eating them.
Triggers can lead to overeating. However, eating mindfully, making healthy foods accessible, and monitoring your response to emotional, physical, and social triggers can help keep you on track to a healthier way of eating.
Planning your meals in advance can help you avoid skipping meals or choosing high-calorie options due to hunger and decision fatigue. Eating appropriate portions of low-glycemic foods when you’re hungry keeps blood sugar stable throughout the day.
When your blood sugar plummets, you might be tempted to satisfy your need or craving for food with quick sources of energy—which can be highly processed, calorie-dense foods. Researchers are testing the addictive potential<sup>29</sup> of these hyperpalatable foods, as they can derail the weight loss progress of even the most motivated person.
Eating regularly can also lead to lower ghrelin levels<sup>30</sup>, which means you feel more satisfied throughout the day. A rise in ghrelin stimulates your appetite, making it harder to lose weight and ultimately leading to weight regain<sup>31</sup>.
The Importance of Hydration
To metabolize your food efficiently, the cells in your body must function optimally. Your body is about 60% water<sup>32</sup>, so drinking plenty of water maximizes your ability to metabolize foods. Good hydration increases fat metabolism and decreases appetite<sup>33</sup>.
And while hydration is important<sup>34</sup> for effective weight loss, it’s equally important to choose the right drinks. Sugary drinks<sup>35</sup> are liquid calories that eat up your calorie budget and leave you still hungry. Sugary drinks have no protein, healthy fats, or fiber. More troubling, you may choose unhealthy, high-calorie foods<sup>36</sup> when eating a meal consumed with a sugar-sweetened carbonated beverage.
Water, flat or sparkling, is your best choice.
Weight Loss for Beginners: Exercise
Exercise is important for your overall health and can support your weight loss. The type of exercise doesn’t matter as much as incorporating a mix of aerobic and strength training activity into your routine.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of intense exercise each week<sup>37</sup>. This shakes out to just 15–30 minutes a day, five days a week. A brisk walk for 30 minutes is about 4,000 steps.
Increase Your Daily Activity
Rather than jumping into 10,000 steps (which is an arbitrary recommendation anyway) per day, start with 2,000 steps a day. Once you consistently meet your goal, increase it by 1,000 steps. Add steps throughout your day rather than setting aside a block of time and walking all your steps at once. Moving in frequent, short bouts throughout the day can help you keep your blood sugar stable.
Here are some tips to increase your steps throughout the day:
- Park your car farther away when running errands
- Walk instead of driving
- Pace when talking on the phone or scrolling social media
- Walk through the store instead of using online shopping
- Set an alarm on your watch or phone to remind you to get up and walk every 30–60 minutes
- Walk the stairs whenever possible
Incorporating aerobic physical activity throughout your day can improve your cardiovascular health<sup>38</sup> and decrease your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Strength training can increase your muscle mass<sup>39</sup>, which increases your metabolic rate and helps you burn more calories, even at rest.
Common Pitfalls and Roadblocks
Many people find they increase their caloric intake<sup>40</sup> when they exercise, which can be a significant barrier to weight loss. Careful tracking of food and portion intake can help.
One of the most common roadblocks to weight loss is psychological, which impacts motivation. Restricting calories, banning food, and skipping meals can demotivate you.
Instead of focusing on restriction, try these:
- Add a new whole food to your grocery list each week (try kabocha squash, persimmons, low-sugar kefir, or bison, for example)
- Compete with a friend to see who can make the healthiest version of a dish
- Try a new restaurant known for using high-quality, unprocessed ingredients
- Try a new sport or exercise class. At home, try a YouTube exercise or dance video
Another underrated roadblock: decision fatigue. Plan your meals in advance to help you stick to your healthy eating plan.
Weight Loss Tips
Temptation bundling<sup>41</sup> can help you exercise more and choose better habits. When you pair a pleasurable activity with a behavior or habit that you’re trying to develop, there’s a higher chance you will engage in the behavior and potentially even look forward to it!
The best advice for beginners wanting to lose weight is to make changes slowly until they become part of their daily lives.
As you choose healthier foods and consciously add breaks for physical activity during your days, you’ll feel better and, gradually, you will lose weight. Set small, measurable goals and celebrate the small successes (even the non-scale victories!) during your weight loss journey.