How soon you lose weight all depends on the consistency and duration of the lifestyle changes you're making. That goes for diet and exercise (also, genetics come into play). And, just so you know, you don't have to work out for weight loss, though you'll want to hear what two experts, who are both registered dietitians and trainers, have to say about why you should.
How You Can Lose Weight Without Exercise
Stay in a Caloric Deficit
Registered dietitian Alix Turoff, MS, CDN, who's also an NASM-certified personal trainer, said that a caloric deficit is key for weight loss. Registered dietitian and NASM-certified personal trainer Gabbi Berkow, MA, CDN, agreed, explaining to POPSUGAR, "The calories you burn in a day is the sum of your basal metabolic rate [the energy your body needs to do everyday, life-sustaining functions like brain activity and breathing], calories burned in digesting food, and any physical activity you do." Calories burned in digestion is called the thermic effect of food, she said, noting that your basal metabolic rate (BMR) makes up about 70 percent of your daily calorie burn, the thermic effect of food makes up about five to 10 percent, and exercise makes up the remaining 20 to 25 percent.
"It takes burning 3,500 more calories than you eat to lose one pound of fat," Gabbi said, so to lose one pound per week, you have to burn about 500 more calories than you eat per day. (This is consistent with what Jim White, RD and ACSM-certified personal trainer, said in a previous interview.) If you're not engaging in regular structured exercise, you need to reduce food intake enough so you're burning more calories than you eat in a day, she said.
Alix recommended starting with a deficit of about 15 to 20 percent below your maintenance, or the calories you would need to maintain your current weight. "This means that if your maintenance calories are 2,000 calories per day, your deficit would be 300 to 400 calories," she said. An aggressive deficit might make you lose weight faster, but it's not easy to maintain and won't benefit long-term weight loss. "If you start with the 15 to 20 percent deficit and you're not seeing results after four weeks, you can decrease your calories by 100 calories per day," Alix said.
Nutrition Is Key For Weight Loss
There are many diets out there to choose from, but Alix said she tells her clients that the goal is to "lose weight while eating as much as they can." All foods can fit in a healthy diet, she said. "We talk about how to balance their day in a way that will allow them to feel full, have energy, and support their workouts. If someone has a condition that requires a specific diet, such as diabetes, hormonal imbalances, and inflammatory bowel disease, then they would require a more specific diet." Alix also encourages intuitive eating, which focuses on honoring hunger and fullness cues and not limiting yourself.
For weight loss, Gabbi suggested measuring out portions and sticking to serving sizes because if you don't exercise, there's "not a lot of wiggle room" and your calories have to be lower. "Fill up on low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like lean protein and veggies. Avoid sugars, white starches, fried foods, and processed foods," she advised. Why? Because, she said, they are high in calories, don't keep you full, and increase your cravings.
Macros For Weight Loss
Gabbi went on to say that the main focus should be having a well-balanced plate by macros: protein, fat, and carbs. Keep protein high, she instructed, at least one gram per pound of bodyweight, or about 40 percent of your calories, "to retain your muscle mass, stay full, and keep your metabolism up. The remainder of your calories will come from carbs and fats. Choose the split of carbs and fats that works best for you and that you can stick to. If you're more active, you'll need relatively more carbs than fat."
Every time you eat, Gabbi said, make sure you have at least 20 grams of protein; a healthy carb full of fiber like fruit, veggies, or whole grains; and a healthy fat. Though meals would depend on your individual calorie needs, she said breakfast could look like oatmeal made with 1/3 cup oats, 1/2 cup blueberries, one plain nonfat Greek yogurt, and one tablespoon chia seeds. Dinner could be something along the lines of four to five ounces grilled chicken or fish, a side salad with one tablespoon olive oil, and at least one cup steamed veggies.
Is Just Diet or Diet and Exercise Better For Weight Loss?
If you diet and even incorporate more NEAT (nonexercise activity thermogenesis) such as walking your dog, mowing the lawn, and gardening into your daily life, both experts agreed that working out is still a piece of the weight-loss puzzle that you're missing. They said a combination of diet and exercise is most effective.
Exercise increases your calorie burn, meaning you can eat more total calories while still being in a deficit, so you don't have to restrict food as much, Gabbi explained. Exercise is also key for preserving muscle mass, she said, which "is essential because muscle is what keeps your metabolism up [since you burn more calories at rest when you have more muscle mass] and therefore reduces the likelihood of regaining weight."
Strength training, according to Gabbi, is the most important type of exercise you can do while trying to lose weight because it "preserves your muscle mass, keeps your metabolism going [aka burning calories] 24 to 48 hours post-workout as your muscles recover, and gives you the 'toned' look that most people want." She said sprinkling in cardio is important, too, to help with burning calories, fat loss, and cardiovascular health. To start, here's a four-week workout plan that incorporates strength training and cardio.
Alix agreed that it's easier to create a calorie deficit through diet and it gives you more flexibility in the foods you eat, but she pointed out that exercise is important in the weight-loss process for another reason: mental health. "Exercise is a 'keystone habit,'" she said, which means it leads to other good habits. "It makes someone feel empowered, strong, and capable. Once you get a good workout in, it's so much easier to focus on eating well. The combination of diet and exercise is extremely powerful."
It's up to you what you decide to do. Everyone's weight-loss journey is different, and other factors such as getting enough sleep and reducing stress also play a role. As always, if you're unsure what the best method is for you, consult with your doctor or, more specifically, a registered dietitian as well as a certified personal trainer.