How to Lose Weight Safely

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 14, 2024
10 min read

You want to drop pounds, now. And you want to do it safely. But how?


Many experts say it’s best to lose weight gradually. It’s more likely to stay off. If you shed pounds too fast, you’ll lose muscle, bone, and water instead of fat, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The academy’s advice: Aim to lose 1-2 pounds per week, and avoid fad diets or products that make promises that sound too good to be true. It’s best to base your weight loss on changes you can stick with over time.

For faster results, you’ll need to work with a doctor to make sure that you stay healthy and get the nutrients that you need.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “calories in, calories out” -- as in, you just need to burn more calories than you eat and drink.

But it’s not that simple, as many people can tell you from their own experience.

Nutrition and exercise are both important when trying to lose weight. Eating fewer calories has a bigger immediate impact, but staying active will help you keep the pounds off. And, of course, exercise has major benefits for your body and mind whether you’re trying to lose weight or not.

Your metabolism -- how well your body turns calories into fuel -- matters, too.  If you cut too many calories, you not only skimp on nutrients, you slow down your metabolism, making weight loss even harder in the long run.

There are many ways you can safely start losing weight without cutting calories too much. You could:

  • Cut back on portions.
  • Figure out how many calories you get in a usual day, and trim back a bit.
  • Read food labels to know how many calories are in each serving.
  • Drink more water, so you’re not so hungry.

Whatever method you use, you’ll need to favor good-for-you foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein. But there's no one-size-fits all plan for healthy eating. Working with a dietitian is a good idea so you make a plan that covers your specific needs. And when you make a healthy weight loss plan, it's important to stick with it. To get healthy and stay that way, the trend has to continue -- not just for a week or a month, but for the long term.

That means you need one key thing: motivation. What are your reasons for wanting to lose weight and for sticking to the plan? Research shows that people are most likely to keep up weight loss when they have their own reasons and aren't just following a health provider's advice. 

So think about your reasons. Are you at high risk for heart disease or diabetes and determined to avoid it? Do you want to feel better in your clothes? Play more easily with your grandkids? Whatever it is, write it down and post a reminder where you'll see it every day.  

 Studies also show you're more likely to stay motivated if you set goals along the way and reward yourself for reaching them.  

Many apps can help you track your eating. Since you probably have your smartphone with you all the time, you can use it to keep up with your plan. Or keep a pen-and-paper food journal of what you ate and when.

You’ll also want to have people on your side to help you stay motivated and to cheer you on. So ask your family and friends to support your efforts to lose weight.

You might also want to join a weight loss group where you can talk about how it’s going with people who can relate. Or talk with someone you know who’s lost weight in a healthy way. Their encouragement is contagious, in a good way.

At the most basic level, food is fuel. It gives you energy to do things. But very few people eat just for that reason. Food is at every social gathering. And it’s where a lot of us turn when we have a rough day.

You’ll need to know what makes you want to eat when you’re not hungry and have a plan for those moments. You'll also want to develop some of the other habits proven to help weight loss.

Find out what drives you to eat

What are your triggers? Do stress, anger, anxiety, or depression make you want to eat? Or is food your main reward when something good happens?

Try to notice when those feelings come up, and have a plan ready to do something other than eating. Could you take a walk? Text a friend?

Reward yourself for making better choices

Get yourself a bouquet of flowers or indulge in a weeknight movie. Just don’t use food as the reward.

Eat more often

This might seem backwards, but if you eat 5-6 times a day, it could keep hunger at bay. You could split your calories equally across all of those mini-meals, or make some bigger than others. You will need to plan portions so that you don’t end up eating more than you bargained for.

Eat more mindfully

Savor your food. Notice how it smells and tastes and feels in your mouth. Notice when you start to feel full. Just being aware of your food in this way may help you lose weight -- and make eating more pleasurable to boot.

Limit portion sizes

If you eat a lot of restaurant meals or are used to heaping plates of food at home, you might be surprised to learn what's considered a portion size by dietitians. For example, a portion of protein, like a hamburger patty or chicken breast, should be the size of a deck of cards. A serving of cooked pasta is half a cup. Sticking to modest portions like these can help you lose weight. 

Use smaller plates

One way to make small portions look bigger is to serve them on smaller plates. Some, but not all, studies suggest this is a helpful weight loss strategy.

Eat more slowly

Research shows slow eaters consume fewer calories and are less likely than fast eaters to have obesity.

Avoid eating late at night

People who regularly eat late at night are more prone to obesity. Some research suggests that eating at night can slow calorie burn, increase fat storage, and make you feel hungrier all day.

Take setbacks in stride

Weight loss setbacks are normal and expected. Even people steadily losing weight often hit a plateau after a few months, and just about everyone falls off their eating or exercise plans from time to time. If that happens, try to take a small step back toward your goals. Call on your support network for encouragement. And try not to get bogged down in negative thoughts. 

You don’t have to go vegan, gluten-free, or quit any particular food group to lose weight. In fact, you’re more likely to keep the pounds off for good if it’s something you can live with for the long term. Despite the desire for fast weight loss, fad diets and plans that promise quick results aren't the answer. You are unlikely to stick with them and they may rob you of needed nutrients.

But it does make sense to cut way down on, or totally cut out, empty calories.

Foods to limit for weight loss:

Foods with added sugars. These are the sugars in cookies, cakes, sugar-sweetened drinks, and other items -- not the sugars that are naturally in fruits, for instance. Sugary foods often have a lot of calories but few nutrients. Aim to spend less than 10% of your daily calories on added sugars.

Carbs with less nutritional value. You don't have to eliminate carbs, but you can be picky about your choices. For example, whole grains are better choices than highly processed items because processing removes key nutrients such as fiber, iron, and B vitamins -- though some may be added back, such as in “enriched” bread. Also, look for choices that are low on the glycemic index, meaning they are digested more slowly and are less likely to raise your blood sugar.  Low-glycemic foods include green vegetables and most fruits; high glycemic foods include potatoes and white rice. 

High-calorie drinks. One easy way to lose weight quickly is to cut out liquid calories, such as soda, juice, and alcohol. Replace them with zero-calorie drinks like lemon water, unsweetened tea, or black coffee.

Diet drinks will save you calories compared with sugary beverages. But if you then reach for a cookie or other treat because you’re still hungry or you think you saved enough calories for it, that plan backfires.

What to eat for weight loss:

Protein. It’s satisfying and will help keep up your muscles. There are vegetarian and vegan sources (nuts, beans, and soy are a few), as well as lean meat, poultry, fish, and dairy.

Most Americans get enough protein but could get it from leaner sources. You may already have plenty in your diet. Your exact protein needs depend on your age, gender, and how active you are.

Good fats. Small amounts of fat can help you feel full and less like you’re on a diet. The better choices are those in fish, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. Those have unsaturated fats -- polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, specifically.

Fiber. You can get that from vegetables, whole grains, fruits -- any plant food will have fiber. Some have more than others. Top sources include artichokes, green peas, broccoli, lentils, and lima beans. Among fruits, raspberries lead the list.

Meal replacements. These shakes, bars, and other products will control your calories while you use them, if you don't make up the calories elsewhere. They’re convenient and take the guesswork out of dieting. Still, you’ll need to change your eating habits to keep the weight off once you stop eating meal replacements.

You might think that fasting is a quick way to drop pounds. But all fasts aren’t the same. If you eat or drink nothing for days at a time, that's a fast. Such prolonged fasts can be dangerous and do nothing to adjust regular eating habits. They aren't a good weight loss strategy.

But many people these days are talking about something else -- intermittent fasting. That's when you choose times of day or days of the week to eat nothing or eat much less than usual. In some versions, you just stop eating at night; in others, you eat only during a 6- or 8-hour period each day. Some plans call for eating normally on most days but having just one small meal a couple of days a week. 

Some small, short-term studies suggest intermittent fasting can help with weight loss. But there hasn’t been a lot of research on how off-and-on fasting affects weight or health in the long term.

Regular fasting, of any sort, isn't safe for people with diabetes or eating disorders or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Even if you aren't in those groups, you may find fasting isn't for you because you get headaches, feel cranky, are low on energy, or get constipated. 

If you decide to fast, drink lots of water and take a daily multivitamin. Talk to your doctor, especially if you take medications that may need adjusting.


No matter how you kick-start your weight loss, the best way to keep it off is with long-lasting lifestyle changes like a healthy eating plan and physical activity. If you’re not sure where to start, how many calories to cut, or how to do it safely, you might want to consult a registered dietitian.

How does sleep affect weight loss?

Getting too little sleep can have a big effect on your weight.  Research shows poor sleep can lead you to snack more on foods high in fat and carbohydrates and to eat more calories overall. If you sleep too little or have poor-quality sleep, you may find weight loss a bigger struggle.

How can I drop 20 pounds fast?

If your idea of fast weight loss is dropping 20 pounds in a week or 20 pounds in a month, you should know that experts say losing 1 to 2 pounds a week is a more realistic and sustainable goal. It may take 10 to 20 weeks to drop 20 pounds safely with proven strategies like cutting portion sizes, drinking more water, getting more active, and learning to manage unhealthy eating triggers. 

What's the fastest way to lose drastic weight? 

Doctors consider losing anything more than 2 pounds a week to be rapid weight loss. In some cases, such as when someone with obesity is preparing for weight loss surgery, a doctor may supervise a very low calorie diet. On such a diet, you might eat as little as 800 calories a day, from meal replacement shakes, bars, or other products, and lose 3 to 5 pounds a week. Most experts don't recommend this diet for more than 12 weeks -- and never without medical supervision.

Many consumers looking for the quickest way to lose weight will turn to fad diets promising faster results. It's true that you might be able to lose 10 pounds or more in one week, by drastically cutting calories -- but you'll lose water and muscle, not fat, and eat so few calories that your body will respond with a surge of hunger. You'll also likely feel weak and tired. You are unlikely to stick with that plan or keep the weight off.