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The 4 Stages of Weight Loss Explained

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The 4 Stages of Weight Loss Explained

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • The four stages of weight loss are rapid initial weight loss, steady but slower weight loss, a plateau, and maintenance. 
  • Learning about each stage can help you develop a sustainable weight loss plan and prepare for expected setbacks.  
  • A registered dietitian specializing in weight loss is an invaluable resource for making dietary and lifestyle changes.

There isn’t a single best diet to lose weight.

Still, current guidelines recommend taking a comprehensive approach that includes being physically active, eating nutritious foods, and monitoring your progress.  

Additionally, it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with the four stages of weight loss: rapid initial weight loss, slower but steady weight loss, plateau, and maintenance.

Knowing what lies ahead can help you set realistic goals and plan strategies to overcome potential setbacks, such as fluctuating motivation levels and unplanned obstacles.  

Keep reading to learn more about the four stages of weight loss and how to navigate each milestone.

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Stages of Weight Loss Explained

Although diet and lifestyle changes may lead to rapid initial weight loss, it’s normal for weight changes to slow down and eventually plateau.

The truth is many factors that influence weight are outside your control.

These include age, genetics, race, and ethnicity. 

Even if you follow your weight loss plan perfectly, your body may not lose as much weight as you hoped. 

In these moments, focusing on positive outcomes beyond the scale can remind you of everything you’ve accomplished. E

xamples of non-weight victories include: 

  • Having more energy to play with your children or grandchildren. 
  • Waking up with a positive mindset. 
  • Healing your relationship with food and eating.
  • Practicing mindfulness at meals. 
  • Sleeping better. 
  • (Potentially) reducing medications. 

Brainstorming why you’re interested in weight loss can be a beneficial first step in a weight loss journey.

Feeling rooted in your goals helps you stay motivated when things feel challenging.

Write your motivators in a private journal or hang them in your office. 

Stage 1: Rapid Initial Weight Loss

Restrictive weight-loss approaches may produce rapid results but are challenging to maintain long-term.

A restrictive diet usually has three core themes that may overlap: 

  1. They manipulate your macronutrient intake (low carb-high protein or low carb-high-fat). 
  2. They restrict calories, specific foods, or food groups (Paleo diet). 
  3. They manipulate the timing of your meals (intermittent fasting). 

These restrictive diets are examples of fad diets, which aren’t recommended for sustainable weight loss—they’re difficult to follow, and people often regain weight after stopping. 

Instead of fad diets, try following a healthy weight loss strategy focusing on behaviors rather than strict food rules.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests following these steps to achieve healthy weight loss: decrease excessive energy intake, enhance diet quality, and increase physical activity. 

Nourish offers online nutrition counseling that is covered by insurance. Book an online appointment with a Nourish dietitian for individualized care.  

Stage 2: Steady but Slower Weight Loss

Weight loss typically slows down after three months, depending on your strategy and starting weight.

Continued rapid weight loss at this stage may indicate you’re losing lean muscle mass, which can damage your metabolism and weaken you over time. 

Aim for a healthy weight loss rate of one to two pounds per week or four to eight monthly.

Steadily losing weight and decreasing your waist circumference are both positive signs that you’re reducing fat mass instead of muscle. 

Stage 3: Plateau

A weight loss plateau occurs when you stop changing weight.

It commonly occurs after six months of weight loss effort, but the timeline is highly individualized.

Although this weight loss stage can be frustrating, there are scientific explanations that may explain the stagnation. 

In the past, metabolic health researchers attributed plateaus to slow metabolisms.

However, newer evidence suggests that appetite increases after weight loss may also play a role. 

Specifically, researchers estimate that metabolic function decreases calorie expenditure by 20-30 kcal for each kilogram lost—but appetite increases by 100 kcal.

You simultaneously burn fewer calories and crave more food, which can lead to a plateau or weight gain. 

Once you hit this stage, focus on maintenance or book an appointment with a Nourish dietitian for more support. 

Stage 4: Regaining or Maintaining Weight

Perhaps it’s surprising to learn that regaining weight is a common outcome for many people.

Research has demonstrated that more than half of the weight lost will return within two years, and 80% will return by five years.

Weight regain can occur due to poor compliance with a restrictive weight loss plan and uncontrollable changes to your physiology and environmental determinants, like losing access to healthy foods.  

How Long Does It Take To Start Noticing Weight Loss?

Scientific studies have demonstrated that rapid weight change in the first four to six weeks is from loss of water weight and not fat mass. 

At this point, you may notice subtle changes, like a looser fit around your belly, but you’ll need to keep following your weight loss plan to change your body composition.

Some people may experience a smaller waist circumference after three months of healthy changes. 

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Adjusting Your Weight Loss Plan for Success

To stay on track, set realistic goals that are specific, measurable, and forgiving.

They should also be flexible in case you need to modify them in the future. Here are examples: 

  • “I’ll never drink soda again” becomes “I’ll have flat or sparkling water at most of my meals and enjoy a soda on Friday night.” 
  • “I’m never getting drive-through again” becomes “I’ll bring a homemade lunch to work four days a week, and on the fifth day, I’ll decide if I want to dine out or bring another homemade meal. ” 

Reviewing your progress toward your goals is a helpful way to assess your weight loss plan.

You don't need to modify anything if you’re happy and consistently achieving your objectives. 

However, if you’re struggling or unhappy, you may benefit from simplifying your goals to make them more realistic.

Here are the examples again:  

  • “I will decrease my weekly soda intake from five cans to two.”
  • “I will decrease my daily drive-through purchases to three meals weekly.”

Tips for Navigating Long-Term Weight Loss

Long-term weight loss is difficult, but you can take steps to succeed.

Here are tips to help you navigate long-term weight loss: 

  • Stay accountable by touching base with your friends or peers. 
  • Book ongoing nutrition appointments with a dietitian. 
  • Write down your motivation for weight loss and refer to it when you feel low. 
  • Make small, consistent changes. 
  • Track your progress to remind yourself of everything you’ve accomplished. 

Occasional setbacks can happen, but developing maintenance behavior skills may help you overcome them faster.

For example, learning how to create a contingency plan when you can’t follow your routine and how to make appropriate meal substitutes. 

Overall, research suggests that people who receive weight maintenance training have better long-term results than people who only receive weight-loss training.

Takeaway

If you’re trying to lose weight, experiencing rapid weight loss in the first month of making lifestyle changes is normal, but it may slow down after three months.

Moving forward, you should aim for a healthy weight loss rate of one to two pounds per week.

Your weight will eventually plateau, and you’ll shift to the fourth weight-loss stage.

At this point, you should implement maintenance behaviors.

Remember to be kind to yourself as you work towards your health goals.

Even if your weight doesn’t change, you’ll still benefit from healthy behaviors such as exercising and eating whole foods. 

How a Dietitian Can Help

A registered dietitian is a nutrition expert and licensed health care professional.

They can offer tips and strategies to help you succeed in your weight loss journey. 

You may not know what to expect if you’ve never met with a dietitian before.

Here are questions to ask: 

Find a dietitian specializing in weight management. Visits are covered by most insurance carriers, which means you pay zero dollars out of pocket. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How much weight do you lose before you notice?

People who live in a larger body are more likely to notice results quickly (in as little as 4-6 weeks), but results will be highly individualized.

Most people must follow their weight loss plan for three months before noticing changes.

What are the stages of weight loss?

There are four stages of weight loss. 

  1. Rapid weight loss. 
  2. Steady but slower weight loss. 
  3. Plateau. 
  4. Regaining or maintaining weight. 

If you feel stuck and and don't know how to move forward in your weight loss journey, consider booking an appointment with a registered dietitian.

What are the first signs of weight loss?

Initial signs of weight loss include looser fitting clothes, which can occur after losing water weight within the first month of diet changes.

You may also feel more energetic, but this could be a by-product of being more physically active and eating nutritious foods.

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