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How to Set Weight-Loss Goals You Can Actually Achieve

You’re ready to lose weight. No, really. This time you mean it. But you have no idea where to start. Perhaps a goal or two would help. But how do you know if they’re realistic? Can you really drop two dress sizes in time for that big reunion? How long does it take to lose 10 pounds, anyway? This goal-setting business is hard. In fact, maybe you should have a caramel latte first.

Sound familiar? For help, we turned to Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life. Here’s her advice for setting the best weight-loss goals.

What are some things to consider when setting weight-loss goals?

RD: I’m a big fan of holistic goals—not everyone can lose weight at the same rate and pace. Somebody who has time to do all kinds of meal preparation and go to the gym may have a very different path from somebody who’s busy taking care of aging parents or children. So I think you need to be realistic.

I always tell people, “Be careful not to just steal someone’s diet plan.” You say, “I’m gonna do this whole hog,” and then you do it for four days and before you know it, it’s something at your kid’s school or your church or something with your mother. And you feel like you’ve failed the whole thing. So I often tell people to spend a week getting to know their own rhythm. Everyone has great intentions on Sunday afternoon—and by Wednesday they’re buried in a bowl of ice cream. So it’s about taking real stock of what you can do. And what that means then, in using holistic goals, is that you may go slower than somebody else.

What else?
Talk to your health care provider, especially if you have any other kind of health conditions. Because before anyone makes a radical change in how they eat or how active they are, they should check in with a medical professional.

What’s a reasonable time frame for meeting my goals?
RD: I think six months is a reasonable amount of time. Six months is enough time to make some significant changes in routine and habit. In six months you may go through a couple of seasons. You might experience a couple of holidays or other typical weight-loss challenges. Six weeks is not enough. But by six months, even if all you’ve done is dump the soda, or you’re no longer getting the afternoon Frappuccino or cupcake, that’s huge.

How should I track my progress?
RD: These days we can keep so much data on our weight loss. We have apps on our phones and our fitness trackers. It’s a blessing and a curse. It can be very rewarding to see that you’re meeting your goals and doing what you’re supposed to. You can say, “Hey look, I’ve done my steps, I’ve done my workouts, I’ve eaten this and I drank that.” The risk is—and I say this as somebody who has studied and worked around eating disorders—is if we get too caught up in the benchmark, it can almost get obsessive. You want to make sure you don’t get so caught up in the numbers and all the rest that you lose the forest for the trees.

You lost 85 pounds in 17 months. Did you start by setting certain goals?
RD: I was so convinced I was going to fail, I didn’t tell anyone. That way if it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I couldn’t even go up a flight of stairs when I started. But we had a treadmill at home and I said, “Any week I don’t lose weight, I’m going to up my time on the treadmill by 5 minutes.” I literally started with 5 minutes, and then 5 became 10, 15, 20. And I stopped all the stuff I knew to stop, like drinking soda. I used to eat birthday cake for breakfast. I cut out all fast food. And then I let myself eat whenever I was hungry, but I could only snack on fruits and vegetables.

Should I share my goals with other people?
RD: Some research has shown that engaging in weight-loss and exercise goals with a group helps, because everyone motivates each other. But other studies have shown that it can actually be difficult for some people if they’re not losing weight at the same rate as others. Even if they’re doing beautifully, they get discouraged and give up. Sometimes mixed-gender groups are tricky because men tend to lose weight a lot more easily than women do. Once again, it really depends on who you are and how you work.

Do my weight-loss goals ever need to change?
RD: I’m a big fan of assessing your goals every month. Go back and see what works and what doesn’t. If you find yourself thinking, “If I have to eat one more carrot, I’m going to kill someone,” you’ve got to reassess (and probably pick a different vegetable). Maybe you change jobs, or your schedule changes. A lot of people get stuck thinking, “Once I start doing this, I’ve got to see it all the way through.” Not necessarily. It’s like when you’re doing your bills for the month. You sit down and see what’s working and what’s not.

What if I don’t hit my weight-loss goals?
RD: Everybody loses weight at a different pace. Weight loss is one of many things to measure on your way to better health. Other measures can be things like, how much did you exercise today? How many steps did you take? Or how many stairs did you climb? How much water did you drink? How much soda didn’t you drink? We forget to pay attention to things like that. And those goals are equally important, because those are the kinds of goals that can stay in place for a lifetime.

Maybe you didn’t lose 10 pounds in six weeks. But maybe you did hit your gym goals. And before you know it, that becomes a habit. You may not end up a size zero, but you may be setting yourself up for diabetes prevention, stronger bones and going into older life with a sharper mind.

So the real key is habit formation. That’s why it’s such a good goal. Because if someone said, “Hey, I stopped drinking soda. I don’t drink any soda, or I drink just one soda a week.” I’d be like, “You did great. That’s wonderful. I don’t give a damn if you haven’t lost weight.” Or a person says, “Now I’m cooking at home five nights a week when I used to eat fast food three nights a week.” That’s huge.

It’s about taking stock of all of your healthy and unhealthy habits, making modifications and creating new habits. If weight loss comes as part of that, consider that a bonus.

How easy is that for women—to think of weight loss as a bonus rather than the goal?
RD: I think it’s probably hard for women. At the end of the day, so many women want to be a certain size or look a certain way. In my clinical work I’ve seen so many people believe, “If only I were thin, then all these wonderful things would happen.” And sometimes they do. But usually life stays the same, only you’re just the thinner version of yourself.

But if you make healthy changes and get into the habit of eating fruits and vegetables, of packing the carrots for work and maybe hitting the gym or going to yoga class, whatever it may be—you’ve just put money in the bank account of health. To me, weight loss is almost the icing on the cake.