Setting realistic expectations for weight loss
Top 10 points of this guide
- You can’t completely control your weight loss journey: How fast, how much, where you lose weight may all be out of your control. Setting realistic expectations leads to long-term success.
- Aim to control what you can: You can control the nutritious food you eat, your enjoyment, and lifestyle habits like exercise. You can control eating satisfying and delicious low-carb food.
- Set a modest weight goal to start: Many people have an “ideal” weight in mind that may feel unattainable. Start with a more modest goal that feels doable to you. When met, set a new goal, and then succeed again.
- Don’t put a timeframe on the goal: Your body will lose weight in its own time. An unreasonable target date can lead to unhealthy choices or feelings of failure when you are succeeding in many non-scale victories.
- Don’t aim to lose weight from specific body areas: Fat storage patterns are often determined by genetics. While keto diets can target visceral fat, the way you lose weight from your figure will be unique to you.
- Eat a nutritionally complete diet — including enough calories: Don’t severely restrict food intake. Diet Doctor’s meal plans are designed to meet your nutritional needs first.
- Lose weight without hunger: If you feel weak, hungry, cold, or exhausted you may need to eat more protein, fat, or both. Go for it.
- Enjoy your food: A diet that makes you feel miserable or deprived is one you cannot sustain. Pick Diet Doctor menu plans or recipes that feature food you enjoy. Know that what you eat influences how much you eat.
- Increase your strength: Even tiny amounts of regular resistance training will build muscle, increasing your metabolism, physical strength, and confidence.
- Progress will be up and down: Don’t be discouraged if there are days your weight goes up on the scale. This is normal. It is the overall trend that counts. If you have bad days, learn from them and keep going.
For a more nuanced, deeper discussion of these important points, read more below in our detailed guide and check out the links to other resources.
Framing expectationsAt any given point in time, nearly half of the US population is on a diet to lose weight.1 Yet it seems deliberately restricting calories isn’t a very good way to do this.2
In fact, most weight loss attempts appear to be unsuccessful.3 But most diets follow a very typical pattern, based on the notion that if you force your body into a calorie deficit — by eating less, moving more, or (usually) both — you will lose weight.
On a typical diet, a specific formula determines how much weight you’ll lose and how fast. First, calculate the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight. Next, subtract some of those calories every day – more for faster weight loss, fewer for slower weight loss. When you reach the magic number of a cumulative 3,500 calorie deficit — by eating less, exercising, or both — in theory, you will have lost “a pound of body weight.”4
In practice, it’s seldom that simple. You might “subtract” the right number of calories and still not lose the amount of weight promised. Or you might lose weight but feel so tired and hungry that you can’t wait to eat “normally” again.5
Here at Diet Doctor, we think the approach to eating we recommend is different. But that’s what they all say, right? We strive to be trustworthy, and sometimes that means saying things other diet and weight loss sites don’t. That’s why we’re different, and that’s why we think our approach is different.
So let’s just get this out there: you do not have complete control over how much weight you lose, how fast you lose it, and from which areas of your body you lose it. Managing these expectations is part of long-term success.6
That’s the bad news: you can’t entirely control your weight loss journey. The good news? There are many aspects of weight loss you can — and should — control.
Watch a summary of this guide where we talk about how you can have a weight loss journey that’s healthy, enjoyable, and empowering.
How much weight will you lose?
Many people start their weight loss efforts with a specific number in mind: “I need to lose X pounds (or kilos) — then I’ll be the ‘right’ size.” But where did that number come from? What makes that number so important?
At Diet Doctor, we think your health comes first. Trying to force your body to lose more weight than it realistically can may increase the risk that you’ll under-nourish yourself in ways that undermine health. Remember that things like pregnancies, menopause, medications, and even your previous dieting history can affect how you store fat in ways that you are not entirely able to control.
Take a moment to think about “that number.” Are you stuck on that number for reasons other than personal health goals and a desire to feel good about yourself? You can give yourself permission to choose a goal that is right for your body.
Here’s a little-known secret in the world of over-sensationalized dieting promises: you can start with a more modest weight-loss goal that feels doable for you. And, if you reach it easily while enjoying your new way of eating, you can keep going and revise it down later. This gives you the opportunity to succeed — and then succeed again!
How long will it take to lose it?
Many people also start their weight loss efforts with a specific time frame in mind: “I need to lose X pounds (or kilos) by X time this year.” Maybe it is a special event like a wedding or reunion, or maybe it’s just bathing suit season (again). Almost everyone can relate to the desire to look and feel their best for those situations.
But ask yourself this: did you have a time frame in mind when gaining weight? Did you tell yourself, many years ago, “I plan to have gained this much weight by the time I’m 45?” Probably not. Weight gain usually happens over time, while you’re busy doing other things.
Weight loss often happens the same way. There’s nothing wrong with losing weight quickly if you’re eating a nourishing diet.7 On the other hand, having a compressed timeline for weight loss can be counterproductive for some people.8 And this may be true for all diets — not just carb-restricted ones.
A looming deadline with weight left to lose can be a good excuse to give up altogether or try “quick fixes” that undermine health. Furthermore, an unreasonable target-date can narrow your entire focus to diet-diet-diet, creating an unsustainable and unpleasant imbalance in your life.9
Give yourself permission to rethink this. Consider creating deadlines for non-scale, health-related victories that keep you moving steadily toward your weight loss goal, but that you can control.
Can I change my body shape?
Despite the click-bait ads saying, “Lose stubborn belly fat with this one secret trick,” your general body shape may be a matter largely beyond your control. It’s true, keto diets are known for targeting visceral fat located in the belly area.10 Yet this may or may not dramatically change your belly shape.
Most of the time, fat storage patterns are determined by genetics. If you come from a long line of individuals with wide hips, you may not be able to coerce your body into having slender ones.11
That’s all the bad news: you can’t fully control how much fat you lose, how long it takes, or from where you lose it. But you can focus on the aspects of weight loss and health you do have more control over: nutrition, hunger, enjoyment, and lifestyle habits such as exercise.
You can lose weight with a nutritionally complete diet
At Diet Doctor, we care about helping people who want to lose weight. But we care about health first. Pushing weight loss too far too fast by limiting essential nutrients or severely restricting calories is counterproductive for long-term health.12
Low-carb and keto diets are naturally designed to make sure you meet all your nutrition needs first. Getting adequate protein is critical to good nutrition — and research shows it is a primary factor in successful weight loss and maintentance.13 Use these target ranges to learn how much protein to aim for each day. Our guide to protein on a low-carb or keto diet also has lots of useful information about this key nutrient.
Low-carb and keto diets are also naturally designed to limit the one nutrient you don’t need at all. There’s no such thing as an “essential carbohydrate.”14 Many high-carbohydrate foods — like breads, cereals, and juices — provide so little nutrition that what is there has been added during processing in the form of “enrichment” or “fortification.”
Instead, you focus on nutrient- and fiber-rich veggies that are low in digestible carbohydrate. Yet they’re high in vitamins and minerals — things we all need in sufficient amounts.
Your essential nutrition needs can be met completely with a diet of protein foods, a mix of colorful veggies, and some fat. On a low-carb or keto diet, you have complete control over how nourishing your diet will be.
You can lose weight without hunger
There’s a reason the word “hangry” was invented. Hunger can make anyone cranky — and it can certainly torpedo any diet.15
At Diet Doctor, we think you should be able to lose weight without going hungry. Check out our guide that provides an in-depth look at hunger, which also explains why a low-carb or keto diet helps control hunger for most people.
In a nutshell, keeping carbs low limits foods that cause cravings and overeating, while creating a condition — ketosis — that may help you feel full.16 Plus, studies show that protein and high-fiber veggies — foods that star in a low-carb or keto diet — help us feel full for extended periods of time.17
Added fat, in the amount your body — rather than a calculator — decides is right, provides energy to replace carbs. This is why there is usually no need to count calories on a low-carb or keto diet. You can always eat more if you are truly hungry.
If you feel weak, hungry, cold, or exhausted long after the initial “keto flu,” you may need more protein, fat, or both — so go for it!18 Not being hungry on your new diet is something you can control.
You can enjoy the food you eat while you lose weight
A diet that leaves you feeling miserable and deprived is a diet you can’t sustain. A low-carb or keto diet should allow you to manage hunger and have plenty of energy. It should also provide you with foods you enjoy eating and preparing.
You may already know you can enjoy luscious foods like full-fat cheese, marbled meat, and real butter on a low-carb or keto diet. But at Diet Doctor, we also recognize some people may miss “carby” foods that are familiar or traditional, especially for social gatherings or celebrations.
If you feel you’re “missing out” on foods you enjoy, you don’t have to resign yourself to feeling sad about it. You can experiment with low-carb recipes that satisfy your appetite, taste delicious, and feel special. Diet Doctor is famous for having over 1,000 low-carb and keto recipes, including ones for pizza, bread, and even some decadent brownies! Give yourself the gift of time to experiment with recreating meals you love in low-carb versions. Learning these new skills is also something you can control.
You can take charge of how you look and feel while you lose weight
Instead of being frustrated by trying to control how much weight you’ll lose and how quickly you’ll lose it, focus on goals over which you have much more control. Maybe you can tell yourself, “In two months, I’ll have learned 20 easy and delicious keto meals I can make at the drop of a hat.” Or, “In six months, I’ll have added three days of exercise to my weekly routine.” With those kinds of goals, weight loss can happen the way weight gain probably did — over time, while you are busy doing other things.
When that important event or warm weather rolls around, you can still feel good about yourself, knowing you’re going to continue improving your health as you continue your weight loss journey. If you’re ready for a special outfit in a new size but are still losing weight, you might want to reward yourself with a splurge you can later pass along to a friend.
Or consider renting (easy these days with the internet), borrowing, or shopping at a consignment or thrift store. Then your investment will be in your continuing journey rather than a special-occasion outfit that will soon be too large.
However, there is one thing you can do to speed your journey along. Instead of trying to diet yourself into a completely different body shape, try something more likely to dramatically re-shape your body given the genetic foundation with which you’ve started. “What is this magic?” you ask. It’s no internet, click-bait, “secret trick;” it’s resistance training.19
There’s much more about this in our exercise guide, but here’s the scoop: resistance training that involves progressively overloading your muscles will stimulate your body to build new muscle. New muscle can help re-shape the body type your parents passed along.
You can build an upper body to balance out wide hips, if that’s what you inherited. You can’t make your legs longer, but you can add curves and definition to the legs you’ve got. Strengthening your core — your back and abdominal muscles — will improve your posture. Plus, fat with muscle underneath just looks better.
Finally, although you don’t have complete control over the path your weight loss takes, gaining physical strength boosts your confidence and “inner” strength, helping you in the journey ahead.
Getting real about weight loss
At Diet Doctor, we are committed to making low carb and keto simple. Part of that commitment involves only making claims we can support with evidence.
Is keto a highly effective approach to weight loss? Yes, evidence supports this. But scientific studies look at how the average weight loss of one group compares to the average weight loss of another group. You are not “an average” of a group. Your weight loss path will be different than everyone else’s.
Drs. Jen and David Unwin’s clinical experience — another form of evidence — shows some patients stop and start their low-carb weight loss efforts a few times before they really achieve success. But every stumble on the path is an opportunity to learn something, and learning from a setback is just another way to succeed in the long run.
Success stories are inspiring, but if your own journey is more of a roller coaster than a walk in the park, those stories can be intimidating. If you end up asking yourself, “If that person can succeed, why can’t I?” then it’s time to take a step back. Remember, your story belongs to you, and it is still unfolding.
When you let go of the things you have less control over, you get to let go of feelings of inadequacy that can derail an otherwise successful effort.
Life happens. Even the things you think you can control sometimes fly out the window. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to control things you can’t.
Instead, focus on what you can control. Set goals you’re in charge of: making home-cooked meals as many nights as you think is reasonable; starting an exercise program you enjoy and can maintain; writing down a sleep routine to help you get good quality sleep.
Your weight loss journey will be your own. Setting realistic expectations and enjoying the process are essential to long-term success.
The good news is that if low carb or keto is right for you, it doesn’t feel like those other diets did. It is nourishing and satisfying. It allows you to lose weight without hunger or major feats of willpower. It includes foods you enjoy making and eating. That’s the kind of diet that will lead to weight loss that’s right for you. Because then it isn’t a diet anymore. It’s a way of life.
Setting realistic expectations for weight loss - the evidence
The guide contains scientific references. You can find these in the notes throughout the text, and click the links to read the peer-reviewed scientific papers. When appropriate we include a grading of the strength of the evidence, with a link to our policy on this. Our evidence-based guides are updated at least once per year to reflect and reference the latest science on the topic.
All our evidence-based health guides are written or reviewed by medical doctors who are experts on the topic. To stay unbiased we show no ads, sell no physical products, and take no money from the industry. We're fully funded by the people, via an optional membership. Most information at Diet Doctor is free forever.
Should you find any inaccuracy in this guide, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Medical Association 2019: Trends in self-perceived weight status, weight loss attempts, and weight loss strategies among adults in the United States, 1999-2016 [observational study; very weak evidence] ↩
This popular notion has been questioned by many scientists, including in the following review.
International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 2010: The association between rate of initial weight loss and long-term success in obesity treatment: does slow and steady win the race? [randomized controlled trial; moderate evidence] ↩
In 2019, researchers from Virta health published a two-year study on the keto diet and reported a 15% reduction in abdominal fat.
Frontiers in Endocrinology 2019: Long-term effects of a novel continuous remote care intervention including nutritional ketosis for the management of type 2 diabetes: A 2-Year non-randomized clinical trial [nonrandomized study, weak evidence]
Other studies show a low-carb diet leads to greater loss of abdominal fat than a low-fat diet.
Nutrition and Metabolism (London) 2004: Comparison of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women [randomized trial; moderate evidence]
In the following studies, low-carb dieters lost 22.8% or 11% of their abdominal fat, compared to only 1% for the low-fat dieters.
Nutrition and Metabolism (London) 2020: Effects of weight loss during a very low carbohydrate diet on specific adipose tissue depots and insulin sensitivity in older adults with obesity: a randomized clinical trial [randomized trial; moderate evidence]
Journal of Nutrition 2015: A lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet reduces abdominal and intermuscular fat and increases insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes [randomized trial; moderate evidence] ↩
This is based on clinical experience of practitioners who use low-carb diets and was unanimously agreed upon by our low-carb expert panel. You can learn more about our panel here [weak evidence]. ↩
The Journal Nutrition 2019: High compared with moderate protein intake reduces adaptive thermogenesis and induces a negative energy balance during long-term weight-loss maintenance in Participants with Prediabetes in the Postobese State: A PREVIEW Study [randomized trial; moderate evidence]
Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2005: Perceived hunger is lower and weight loss is greater in overweight premenopausal women consuming a low-carbohydrate/high-protein vs high-carbohydrate/low-fat diet [randomized controlled trial; moderate evidence] ↩
British Journal of Nutrition 2020: The effect of 12 weeks of euenergetic high-protein diet in regulating appetite and body composition of women with normal-weight obesity: a randomised controlled trial [randomized trial; moderate evidence]
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999: High and low carbohydrate and fat intakes: limits imposed by appetite and palatability and their implications for energy balance [overview article; ungraded]
Sports Medicine 2021: The effect of resistance training in healthy adults on body fat percentage, fat mass and visceral fat: A systematic review and meta-analysis [systematic review of randomized trials; strong evidence]
Journal of the American Medical Association 2019: Effect of weight loss via severe vs moderate energy restriction on lean mass and body composition among postmenopausal women with obesity: the TEMPO diet randomized clinical trial [moderate evidence]
Journal of Bone and Mineral Research 2019: Effect of aerobic or resistance exercise, or both, on bone mineral density and bone metabolism in obese older adults while dieting: a randomized controlled trial [moderate evidence]