How To Lose 20 Pounds (and keep it off!)

How to Lose 20 Pounds and Keep It Off

It’s not uncommon for people to say, “That will never be me”, unfortunately, it’s not exactly a choice to gain weight (unless you’re building muscle).  Whether it be working 60+ hours a week, experiencing two back-to-back pregnancies, or suffering a traumatic injury, life HAPPENS. 

You physically don’t have the energy, the capacity, or realistically have the TIME to exercise. Who’s going to look after the kids to make sure they don’t choke on a LEGO while you’re working out? How are you going to spare that hour for exercise when you need to finish up that project for work? How can you exercise past the pain of your injury without causing further damage? The list goes on and on.

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Sometimes, it’s a matter of finding that babysitter, that extra hour in the morning before you get up for work, or modifying your workout routine, to stop allowing excuses (no matter how good they are) to get in the way of YOU and YOUR GOALS. 

For most, twenty pounds is a good target (we’re talking fat loss, not simply weight loss, we want to KEEP skeletal muscle mass and lose fat, not the other way around) from your current weight. Having an excellent nutrition plan to coincide with your workout routine and lifestyle is the best way to do that. There is a term as “skinny fat”. Focusing on weight loss rather than  fat loss is exactly how that comes as an end result. Maintaining muscle mass is important for not only health (muscle burns more calories than fat and helps to support strong bones) but for noticeable changes in strength and shape (muscle is more compact than fat). 

And if you’re a woman reading this and think that muscle will make you “big” or “manly”, you’re wrong. The only way you’ll BULK up is if you’re in a caloric surplus (eating more calories than your body requires), eating a ton of protein, and working out a LOT. It also takes TIME to get to that stage; you wouldn’t wake up the next day looking like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you want to be a cardio bunny (maybe you simply enjoy running and endurance), then go for it! But if you’re making yourself do ridiculous amounts of cardio because of misinformation, then please stop. Research has shown that skeletal muscle is efficient for varieties of health reasons like combat mental illnesses such as depression and a decrease in mortality rates, shown to be lower in those with greater muscle mass (1,2).


How Long Will It Take?

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That completely depends on you. Setting REALISTIC goals, reaching out to professionals for medical advice when unsure, doing your research (Gossip Magazines and the dude at GNC don’t count), create consistency in your journey, and, more importantly, remembering that setbacks WILL happen. It’s part of the journey. Learning from mistakes and getting back on track is the best way to handle them. Don’t go off on a week-long binge and quit. You’ve got this! 

Set a goal that feels highly achievable. 

If your goal is to lose 20 pounds in a week, you need to rethink your goals and priorities. That's not a healthy amount of time to lose that amount of weight. Set a long-term goal and then mini-goals (steps) to achieve that long-term goal. So, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds total as fast as possible, setting a goal of a pound per week is more realistic (that would add up to 5 months for 20 pounds WITHOUT setbacks). 

Setting mini-goals to prioritize losing one pound a week would look something along the lines of-

  1. Hitting my daily calorie intake goal
  2. Hitting my protein goal (high protein recommended)
  3. Drinking 2-3 liters of water daily 
  4. Completing all my workout sessions for the week (weight lifting recommended)
  5. Getting a full night’s sleep every night 
  6. Meal prepping for busy, on-the-go days
  7. Lean towards healthy foods (whole grains, vegetables, and lean proteins)

These mini-goals might seem simplistic and maybe even unimportant, but this is every health and fitness individual’s go-to goals for the week in order to prioritize results and a routine that coincides with their goals. Make a checklist for reach day if need be to make sure you’re hitting these mini-goals and then focus on the ones you’re not hitting!

What’s A Habit Shift?

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Let’s first look at a habit. Habits can be anything ranging from snorting when you laugh or having a dessert after dinner every night.

In health and fitness, you quickly learn about unhealthy habits you’ve had that equate to weight gain and ways to you can make them healthier. “Healthy” and “unhealthy” can also be subjective to the person. Some fitness people will look at a chocolate cake and screech, “Unhealthy” while chugging energy drinks. Others will eat the chocolate cake, fit it into their daily caloric intake, and get back on track the next day.

There can be certain “habit shifts” you can take to lessen the strain and time of achieving your health and fitness goals.

Rather than reach for those bags of chips, reach for a bag of Quaker Oats Rice Crips (a range of flavors, fewer calories so you can eat more). Rather than drinking sugary drinks like Pepsi or Sprite, drink water or flavor it with Mio. Rather than give up on your fitness goals when you hit a plateau, change up your routine! Make sure you’re challenging yourself during your workouts and showing up. Look at what you’re eating during the week and whether it fits your daily caloric intake goal! 

Habit shifts can be objectively simple, but they can be difficult depending on the “habit” you’re trying to confront. Some are easier to change than others. Modifying your habits to conform to your goals is the best way at finding a compromise to your lifestyle change!

The Mental Journey of Weight Loss

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Weight loss is a mental journey. Don’t think so? Check this out.

During the process of weight loss, you find yourself facing off against your fundamental behaviors and habits---emotional or stress eating, lack of consistency, lack of discipline, and so on. This can be incredibly difficult as it can put a strain on your fitness journey. Facing these difficulties head-on and only making them as difficult as you make them, making an ant pile a mountain, will be the best way to step up and over those obstacles. 

I loved this quote from Kelvin, a man who lost 266 pounds simply from changing his perspective, “I believe that for everyone who is overweight or obese and doesn’t want to be, there’s a story. There’s a story about how they got that way. Therefore, there needs to be a story for how they’re going to stop being that way” (3). He goes on to say, “Losing weight is as much psychological as it is physical. Counting calories and workout plans are fine, but we don’t change our behaviors without dealing with our mind and our emotions” (3).

He’s spot on! A lot of emotional eating, which gets a majority of us to the point of having to lose 20 pounds, can be based on loneliness, stress, depression, bad coping skills, or something else we are struggling with. Facing these behaviors head-on can be hard, but building healthy behaviors is completely worth it. 

Slow Weight Loss Is More Likely To Be Permanent Weight Loss

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In a study done to examine the results of slow and sustainable changes made for weight loss, it was shown that more modest behavioral changes are capable of promoting weight loss, decreasing adiposity markers, and sustaining these changes over a 3-month time span (4). .

Many people go gung-ho at the start of their weight loss journey and quickly drop out because of the unrealistic expectations they set on themselves. Set realistic and attainable goals for yourself. Aim to lose x% - x% of total weight per week. For the average person, that is .5 to 3 pounds per week. Now set mini-goals for the week and for each day so as to achieve that long-term goal. 

What Is Your Healthy Weight Target?

Using your BMI, or Body Mass Index, is a good way to check your progress and overall health. Note that a BMI does not take into consideration muscle mass. A healthy BMI changes based on age, sex, and height. 

As A BMI Goal:

  • Underweight = <18.5
  • Normal weight = 18.5–24.9
  • Overweight = 25–29.9
  • Obesity = BMI of 30 or greater

Another method, which in my opinion, is a healthier and more guided method of finding a healthy body composition, is using your body fat percentage. The same as using your BMI for measurements, the results change based on age, sex, and height. The percentage of essential fat is 4–5% in men and 10–13% in women. Remember, fat isn’t bad for you, but like anything in excess, it can be dangerous.


Body Fat Percentage Classification for Women

  • Under 15%: Low Body Fat Risk.
  • 15%-18%: Ultra Lean. 
  • 18%-22%: Lean. 
  • 22%-30%: Moderately Lean.
  • 30%-40%: Excess Fat.
  • Above 40%: High Body Fat Risk.

Body Fat Percentage Classification for Men

  • Under 5%: Low Body Fat Risk.
  • 5%-8%: Ultra Lean. 
  • 8%-12%: Lean. 
  • 12%-20%: Moderately Lean.
  • 20%-30%: Excess Fat.
  • Above 30%: High Body Fat Risk.

The Fastest You Could Lose 20 Pounds 

Focusing on health and sustainability, about 6 to 20 weeks is the fastest you could lose 20 pounds without causing health issues or injury. When first starting out, you might notice the scale going up--don’t fret! Those changes are due to water retention (water weight) and inflammation from muscle damage (from exercising). You’re not gaining true weight. Focus more on body fat percentages than the scale. The scale is not an accurate tool of measurement for “health”. Remember, muscle weighs more than fat and is also more compact than fat. 

Set realistic expectations for yourself. Focus on the long-term by setting short-term goals. 

Most People Will Need 1-2 Years

Weight loss is a lifestyle shift that requires multiple habits and lifestyle changes. It may take 30 days or more for each habit change, especially if you’re taking on more than one. Set your mind right by not stressing over the time it takes to lose weight. Put that energy into facing each day head-on and hitting those goals you’ve set for yourself. Hit your caloric intake goal. Hit that protein goal. Complete your workouts for the week. Get that work in, and the results will come! 


Sleep is your body’s way to rest and recover. If you’re not getting the proper amount of sleep, then your body isn’t recovering. If your body isn’t recovering, then you’re not going to see the results from your hard work. If you’re not getting sleep, your energy levels go down, and so do your motivation and discipline. It’s a domino effect that prevents you from reaching your goals. 

Get those Z’s in at night and watch the results come! 

Caloric Reduction

To lose fat, you must be in a caloric deficit (aka not eating less than what your body needs). Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body burns at rest to function, like breathing, so obviously, we don’t want to go below that caloric number. Your body weight, age, gender, height, and lifestyle alter your BMR number. Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is what we actually use to determine what your caloric intake will look like--by eating calorically less than what our body needs and using our total daily energy expenditure to further that deficit, a caloric deficit and therefore, hopefully primarily, fat loss is expected. 

Retaining the weight loss afterwards is all about maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. You can eat things you like, but sometimes that requires compromise---whether that be portion-control, subbing certain ingredients for more macro-friendly ones, etc. Keeping active is another great way to keep the weight off and encourage a healthy body and routine. 

Staying in a deficit too long can cause the body to adapt and therefore decrease your “maintenance” caloric setting. To counteract that, we want to occasionally increase our calories, sometimes called “diet breaks”, after we hit a plateau in our fitness journey. Another process called “reverse dieting” is the process of retreating from a caloric deficit up to maintenance calories. It’s recommended to up your amount of calories by about 100 calories rather than just fly up to maintenance calories after a long time in a caloric deficit. This will counteract any uncertainties of what exactly IS your maintenance caloric range (this can change based on your activity level). 

Increase Of Vegetables

It is wise to invest in loads of vegetables in a caloric deficit for a couple of reasons. 

  1. Vegetables (most of them anyway) are low-calorie and therefore can be eaten in high volumes. This, especially in a caloric deficit, can help make you feel full and satisfied while being careful with caloric intake and hunger. 
  2. Vegetables are nutrient-dense and good for you! They are great for your body and health, with many benefits, especially in darker, leafy greens. 

Decrease of Sugar

A decrease in sugar is recommended in a caloric deficit for a few reasons. 

  1. Processed sugar causes cravings, which can cause issues when in a caloric deficit. If you find yourself leaning towards the chocolate cake every night rather than a healthy meal packed with vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates, then you’ll find yourself skipping out on nutrients, macros (protein especially), and high in calories. 
  2. Sugary drinks can quickly increase your caloric intake. When you’re already struggling to be careful with your foods and hitting your caloric intake goal, drinking a can of soda filled with sugar will increase your calories for the day without filling you up. If you can fit it in for the day, I say go for it, but if you’re finding yourself hungry every day and bingeing meals because of it, then finding a substitute macro-friendly option to replace the soda is recommended. 

Increased Activity

Our Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is what determines what our calorie deficit is going to look like. Physical activity is necessary, not only in promoting health and strong bones but increasing the number of calories (food) we can eat a day while eating in a deficit.

Activities like weight training are especially recommended as muscles burn more calories than fat at rest, support strong bones, and fight against fatigue (you’ll notice the simplest of tasks that were once difficult are now easier than they were before!). Setting up a consistent exercise routine--weight training, walks, cardio, swimming, H.I.I.T.--can greatly increase changes like a decrease in belly fat, lowering risks of heart disease, and drive you closer to your weight loss goals.

If you don't know where to start or how to, hire a personal trainer! They have the schooling and experience to program your workouts, create meal plans and guidance on how to count calories, stay away from fad diets, embrace carbs rather than run from them, all while helping you lose pounds of fat. 

Mental Resiliency

When the scale doesn't move, or you have weight gain or a cheat meal, building the mental fortitude that accepts that life is not a steady uphill climb, you will find yourself adapting to your fitness journey smoother. You will make mistakes, eat too much, skip out on a workout---it happens! You’re not the only one who does it, and you won’t be the last. It’s preparing yourself for obstacles, so next time you are ready! That can look like--meal prepping for your busy days, setting your clothes out for your early morning workout, creating a schedule for when you’re going to workout and sticking to it, or maybe even finding an accountability partner! 

You’re not alone in your journey, and you are not the exception. You CAN do it! You just need to plan and stay disciplined! 

Becoming a Consistent Human

Americans are trained to admire the overnight success. The training montage. The greatest Loser. 

But true change comes from consistency. Set maintainable goals and stick to them. If you have to alter things on the way to get there, do it! Get those workouts in, prep your meals, sleep like a bear, and drink your water! But above all, be consistent by working through the bumps and figuring out what works best for you. 

I’m going to recommend a book to read called, The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. 

The compound effect “is the principle of reaping huge rewards from a series of small, smart choices” (5). The book talks about ways to maximize your gains by making small, consistent choices that drive you to take full responsibility for your life with action steps to take to do so. I highly recommend this book if you’re searching for a way to align yourself with your journey! 


kaelyn buzzo  Kaelyn is a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach (ISSA) with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing (English) and a Minor in Nutrition from the University of South Florida. Read More.