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Expectations vs. Reality When Dieting With a Goal of Weight Loss; How to Set Yourself Up For Success

So, you want to lose weight and you decide that you are going to start a diet. This can mean something different for everyone. Some people decide to count calories, some people decide to cut out “junk”, some people cut out entire food groups or macronutrients such as carbs or fat (we’ll discuss why you don’t have to and shouldn’t cut anything out that does not make you sick in a different post). Whatever diet you choose there are most likely going to be ups and downs and that is okay.

The concept of dieting seems pretty easy, eat less food than is needed to maintain your current body weight and you will lose weight. Sounds simple. Then why is it so hard for some people to lose weight? There are many different factors that come into play. The first one we are going to talk about is adherence.

Most people are not as adherent to their diets as they think they are. They may not measure or weigh food correctly and therefore underestimate how many calories they are actually consuming, taking them out of a deficit.

Another contributing factor could be that you’re cutting too many calories too quickly and starting out at a point that is unsustainable for a long period of time. This is going to make it almost impossible to adhere to your diet and you will be setting yourself up for failure.

The first question you have to ask yourself is why do I want to lose weight? If your answer is simply for health or aesthetics then you don’t necessarily have to have a strict timeline. I am not saying that you shouldn’t have a target weight or a date you would ideally like to accomplish your goal by. What I mean is that you can be flexible in your plan and timing Unless you’re cutting for a competition like bodybuilding, powerlifting, weightlifting, etc. you don’t need to set super strict guidelines and allowing yourself wiggle room will make your weight loss journey easier and more enjoyable.

So how long should you be dieting for? The general rule of thumb is that you don’t want to be in a calorie deficit for longer than 12 weeks at a time. If you’re guilty of chronically dieting or if you know someone that always seems to be on a diet or trying to lose weight, they should probably take a break for at least 12 weeks, if not longer, to let themselves recover mentally and physically before trying again.

If you want your diet to be successful in terms of adherence you want to eat as much food as you possibly can while still being in a deficit. Start your calories out high and keep them there until you start to plateau. Once the scale stops moving is when you can decrease your calories again. It can be difficult to determine how many calories you should be consuming to maintain or drop your weight as everyone’s body is different. I recommend starting off by using a TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) calculator that can be found here (please ignore where it tells you your ideal weight for your height and your BMI score, those are not ways to measure your health and you shouldn’t give a $#!+ about either of them). This will give suggestions for calories to lose, maintain and gain weight. The calories for weight loss are typically set at 500 below maintenance, as over the course of a week this equals 3,500, which is the amount of calories one needs to burn to lose a pound. If you are unsure how much food you are currently consuming, it makes sense to start out at your maintenance calories. They may be less than what you are currently eating so it is possible that you could begin to lose weight while eating at maintenance. After about two weeks at maintenance if you are not seeing any change then you could begin to slowly decrease your calories.

While this may seem like a slow process (it’s supposed to be) this is a healthy and sustainable way to lose weight. When you slash calories and lose a lot of weight quickly it’s usually mostly water weight and you will most likely gain it all back and then some, which is why fad diets and yo-yo dieting never actually work.

After you’ve started your diet in a healthy and sustainable fashion, how can you be sure to be adherent? Well, I am here to tell you that believe it or not you don’t have to be adherent 100 percent of the time. I’m sure you’ve heard of the 80/20 rule before and there is a reason for that -- it works well enough. Remember, you’re not cutting weight for a specific competition, so any goal or timeline you set for yourself doesn’t really mean anything. If you go away on vacation and you want to enjoy yourself for a week or weekend, you can. Sometimes diet breaks can actually even help with adherence. If you allow yourself a few days off, it may help you come back even more motivated and stronger.

So what if you do fall off of your diet or you stray from it without wanting to? I am going to give an example of two different but similar scenarios. Scenario 1: I have decided that I want to lose weight. I count calories and plan all my meals out the night before. The next day I am 100 percent adherent to my diet and stay completely on track. The morning after that I am the exact same weight as the day I started. Should I be upset or disappointed? I was absolutely perfect with my diet so why didn’t I see any results? I didn’t see results because I only did the diet for one day, you cannot expect to see change over night. Scenario 2: I have been on a diet for about 4 weeks now, I have been about 80 percent adherent overall and 90 percent adherent this week. I ended up having a longer day at work than expected, I had to skip my workout and ended up eating an additional 1,000 calories. The next morning I weighed myself and my weight was up 2 lbs. Does this mean that the last 4 weeks of dieting have been ruined? Absolutely not. Why? Because it was only one day of overeating and the 2 lbs are most likely water weight and will be gone by the next day.

The purpose of the scenarios above are to demonstrate that we don’t expect to see positive change overnight, so why do we expect to see negative results after one day of derailment? Do you expect your muscles to grow tremendously after one workout? If you do then we need to have a talk, it doesn't work like that. Change happens over time when we are consistent. If you are consistent with your diet and allow some treats here and there, they won’t really make an impact on your progress. Just like if you’re someone who trains twice a week and is consistent with their workouts you’re going to see better results than the person who trains 5 days in a row one week and then takes 3 weeks off.

The diet/fitness industry taunts us with clickbaity articles and programs that offer quick results but as with anything else, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So when it comes to dieting and nutrition set yourself up for success by having realistic expectations about how long it will actually take for you to reach your goals. If you are in it for the long haul (which you should be) you don’t need to worry about losing 15 lbs in a week (please do not ever try to do that). You will be better off and have long lasting results if you take your time and do it the correct way. Dieting should also not cause you to have a negative relationship with food. If you feel that you are becoming too restrictive or obsessing over food, then that is a sign that it is time to stop. If you need guidance please consult with a registered dietician or nutritionist and if you experience any type of disordered eating then please seek professional help.

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