Wouldn’t it be great if you could be given an exact timeline for how long it would take to lose a certain amount of weight, like, say, 20 pounds? The truth is, though, that weight loss is super personal and how much—and how quickly—one person loses weight could be totally different from the next.
That said, many healthy weight-loss guidelines say you should aim to lose one or two pounds per week (whether you have five or 50 pounds to lose), that means it could take anywhere from 10 to 20 weeks to lose 20 pounds.
That may seem like a while, but it’s better to go slow. “Anyone who is not in the obese category trying to lose more than one to two pounds per week is risking their health, especially if resorting to extremes with high caloric deficit or extreme training, or both,” says Susane Pata, NASM-CPT, a certified personal trainer.
That said, there could be weeks, or even months, when the scale doesn’t budge, says Tori Holthaus, RDN, the founder of YES! Nutrition, LLC. “How long it takes to lose a given amount of weight depends on so many factors, like whether you’ve lost weight before, health conditions, how much weight you actually need to lose, and your sleep and stress levels,” she explains.
Remember: The longer it takes to come off, the more likely it will stay off, says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, the CEO of NY Nutrition Group and author of The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan. “Intentional, rapid body fat loss usually implies that you’re eating way too restrictively or exercising way too intensely, both of which are not only hard to keep up but can be quite health hazardous,” she adds.
Start with a goal of losing 5 percent of your current body weight and see how you respond to that, Moskovitz recommends. From there, you can figure out whether you can reduce by another five percent. “It might seem like 20 pounds is the magic number, but aiming too high could hold you back from making any progress at all.”
And about those progress pics? Try not to compare your progress to someone else’s. “Everyone loses weight differently,” says Moskovitz. “Some may notice their clothes fit better, their stomach looks flatter, or their face narrows out instantly after seeing the scale go down. Others may have to be patient and feel the results before they can see them.” Note that you also can’t choose where and how your body sheds fat cells, she adds.
Meet the experts: Tori Holthaus, RDN, is the founder of YES! Nutrition, LLC. Roxana Ehsani, RD, is a nutritionist and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Susane Pata, NASM-CPT, is a certified personal trainer. Lisa Moskovitz, RD, is the CEO of NY Nutrition Group and author of The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan.
So, can you lose 20 pounds fast?
While there’s no magic trick to help you drop 20 pounds instantly, Moskovitz has a few pointers she believes can help anyone regardless of their weight-loss plan. “First, keep a journal and include not just what you’re eating, but how much, why you’re eating it, and rate your hunger and stress level. This can help pinpoint areas that you need to work on and if there is any emotional or stress eating that needs to be addressed,” she says.
Moskovitz also advises that while water won’t suppress your appetite, upping your water intake can prevent hunger confusion, which is when you eat because you think you’re hungry but what you’re feeling is actually just thirst. Plus, it will keep you hydrated, energized, and even alleviate bloating.
She suggests taking a look at your current diet and assessing how it can be improved. “This simple mindset shift can make creating a calorie deficit much healthier and less stressful. Add in fiber-rich carbohydrates, lean proteins, and anti-inflammatory fats. Bulk up the rest of your meals with plenty of non-starchy veggies and fresh fruit,” she says.
Her final tip? Pay attention to habits and behaviors over numbers and charts. “If you’re feeling discouraged by the scale, pack it up and put it away. Even if the goal is to see a drop in total pounds, a watched pot never boils,” says Moskovitz.
The Best Ways to Lose 20 Pounds As Quickly As You Can Safely
To help you kickstart your weight loss, we asked Pata and registered dietitian Roxana Ehsani for their nutrition and fitness tips.
1. Make veggies your main course.
Veggies are the lowest calorie food out there, and one of our most nutrient dense foods, meaning they’re loaded with good-for-you nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber. “The more we center our meals around veggies, the more likely we will eat less calories overall, thus leading to weight loss,” says Ehsani. “We won’t feel deprived when we fill up on veggies, as they are loaded with fiber, which takes longer to digest in the gut.”
Instead of thinking of pasta or potato or steak as your main course, get in the habit of thinking of veggies as the main course. “This doesn’t mean you have to eat a sad salad at every meal—just think of ways you can add more veggies into your meals you already enjoy eating,” she says.
For example, if you love to eat eggs in the morning, can you add at least two to three different veggies and make yourself a veggie omelet? Or throw in some mushroom slices, tomatoes, and baby spinach. Try veggies in a new way: Have them roasted, grilled, air-fried, stir-fried, add them to soups, stews, rice dishes, dips, or smoothies.
2. Cut sugar out from your diet.
“It can be really hard to cut out sugar, as it’s found in many foods, such as cereals, yogurts, some plant-based milks, granola bars, alcoholic mixed drinks, sports drinks, coffee drinks, [and] smoothies,” says Ehsani. If you really want to cut out the sugar, don’t just eliminate sweets and treats. Look at the other foods you are eating or drinking that may have added sugar, too.
If you tend to eat a sweetened oatmeal packet for breakfast along with a sweetened yogurt and a flavored latte in the morning, you might be consuming a lot more sugar than you even realize, which can make it more difficult for you to lose weight. But Ehsani points out you also don’t need to opt for sugar-free everything.
“Instead of buying a flavored yogurt, choose plain and add your own fruit to it to naturally sweeten it up,” she says. “If you tend to buy vanilla soy milk, choose plain, unsweetened soy milk next time, or if you tend to buy a flavored oatmeal packet, purchase plain oats and add your own cinnamon and fruit slices on top to add flavor.” Simply identifying these foods that you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer can be helpful for taking stock of how much added sugar you’re actually consuming.
3. Space out your protein intake.
Eating more protein is a must because protein helps build and preserve lean muscle mass. “High-protein diets help reduce your appetite, as it affects weight-regulating hormones, such as ghrelin (which reduces hunger), so you ultimately end up eating fewer calories,” says Pata. Protein also helps boost metabolism, and it’s much harder to store as body fat than carbs and fat, notes Pata.
That said, most people need about o.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, and if you are active, this number can increase. In fact, regular exercisers need closer to 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram to support tissue growth.
The key is to consistently eat the macro throughout the day in order to hit this number: “Consume high-quality sources at each meal and into snack times, such as eggs, tofu, beans, nuts, seeds, chicken, milk, lentils,” says Ehsani. “Our bodies store carbs (known as glycogen) and fat (adipose tissue), but don’t actually store any protein for us to use as energy. Therefore, overconsuming at meal times might actually lead us to gain weight rather than lose it,” explains Ehsani.
It’s always best to work with a registered dietitian to figure out exactly how much protein you really need per day if you’re struggling to figure out specifics.
4. Begin a progressive training program.
“As you begin a workout program that actually stimulates the body’s systems (i.e., a challenge that places demand on the muscles), your body responds to supply energy for those demands—hence an increase in caloric burn and metabolic response, among other things,” explains Pata. After a certain amount of time on the same program, your body may have adapted and plateaued, requiring more challenge in order to get to the next level.
This is where a smart exercise program that progresses once the body plateaus can make a difference in continued weight loss, and an increase in lean muscle mass.
5. Ramp up your NEAT.
“You can increase your caloric burn with NEAT, a.k.a. non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It refers to energy expended throughout the day that doesn’t include structured exercise, according to Pata. “If you can do this several times a day (and include a workout in the early part, or later part of your day), you can increase your caloric burn and keep the weight off,” she says.
For example, if you sit at a computer for most of the day, set an alarm to get up and get active so you can increase your NEAT. Activities can include raking leaves, sweeping the floor, vacuuming, taking a brisk walk around the block, carrying groceries, etc.
“The idea is to be consistent with these and do a variety of these types of activities several times a day,” says Pata.
You can become even more masterful in creating a plan by:
- Creating a list of your general daily activities and seeing where you can add more
- Identifying times when you sit for long periods
- Evaluating your experiences and see where you can do better but still enjoy it—you will be less likely to make it a habit if you don’t
- Calculating how it adds up to stay motivated—if you can burn an extra 100-200 calories per day with non-exercise activities, it can help you in your weight loss
6. Monitor whether you are overtraining.
Too much of a good thing can certainly be a bad thing: If you are engaged in a workout program but are going too hard too often, you may be overtraining. One symptom of overtraining is consistently waking up tired after a full night’s sleep, says Pata.
“Overtraining does the opposite of what you want a workout program to do: You can feel depleted throughout the day, your performance can decrease, you may get sick more often, and you may even gain weight,” she says. “High and sustained stress from overtraining keeps cortisol high which can cause weight gain.”
Cortisol is not necessarily a bad guy, but it is when it is elevated for abnormally long periods of time. To avoid overtraining, Pata suggests you use periodization in your training program. “Periodization, which is like a schedule of workouts that divides training into smaller and progressive stages, allows time for the body to rebuild, and for cortisol levels to return to a normal state,” she explains. “If you happen to be training for an event, add several hours of recovery between exercise sessions in order to lower chronically raised cortisol levels on double session training days.”
Consuming fewer calories than needed to maintain bodyweight can lead to weight loss. “Safe caloric intake deficit is effective for weight loss, but it might zap your energy if it’s too extreme,” says Pata. “It can also affect your performance during a workout if it’s too low, so be careful not to let one negatively affect the other. Otherwise, reaching a weight-loss goal will be that much harder in the long run.”
To figure out what a healthy calorie deficit looks like for you, Pata suggests checking with the NASM Calorie Calculator, which will give you a safe amount of calories to target based on your age, weight, height, and sex.
8. Start mixing up weights in your workouts.
Progressive strength training means that you should try not to keep picking up the same weight for each body part month after month—making the goal to lift heavier and heavier to help increase lean muscle mass.
“Progressive strength training increases lean muscle mass,” says Pata. “The more lean body mass you have the greater your basal metabolic rate will be. So you burn more at rest with more lean muscle mass.”
There are various ways to go about it. “Make sure the resistance level is challenging to the point that by the end of the set you experience fatigue or failure,” says Pata. “These workouts should be total body workouts and can involve bodyweight, dumbbells, or even TRX.”
Another pro tip: Aim to work the lower body with squat and lunge variation and target your core with planks, plank variations, and rotational exercises. You should definitely target the upper body with chest, back, and arm exercises, says Pata, and aim for moderate intensity and tempo and complete three sets of 10 to 12 reps to start.
Real Women Share How They Lost 20 Pounds (Or More)
“I lost the first 20 pounds in about seven to eight months. In total, I’ve lost about 40 pounds.”
“I struggled with my weight for many years (since my teens). I’ve done many diets over the years and would always end up gaining back any weight I lost. Five and a half years ago, I joined an accountability group with some other ladies like me who were working toward similar goals, worked out at home for around 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week, and followed a simple lifestyle nutrition plan. The biggest thing for me was the mindset shift. When I finally ditched the diet mentality and learned how to make this a lifestyle, everything changed. I stayed consistent and the weight stayed off for good this time.” —Susan Azzara, 44, 40 pounds lost
“It took me two months to lose 20 pounds. In total, I have lost 71 pounds.”
“In January 2021, I started intermittent fasting. My eating window was 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. I’ve never enjoyed breakfast, so it just felt like a normal day. This, plus running and walking, helped me lose my first 30 pounds and motivated me to complete my first half-marathon. Strength training is really what helped with my weight loss. I started strength training in April 2021, my life has never been the same. It’s my favorite form of exercise because you don’t have to endlessly jump around to have a great workout. At my heaviest, I was 208 pounds. Within seven months, the weight had vanished. It happened very quickly but not intentionally. I fell in love with eating the right foods and stayed active every day. It’s been an unbelievable journey. After two kids, I’d lost all hope that I could have my dream body. Nevertheless, I’m so proud of the fact that I still possess the discipline to stay consistent without restrictions.” —Erebi Bowring, 26, 71 pounds lost
“I lost 20 pounds in about four months. I’ve lost about 35 to 40 pound to date.”
“I was scrolling through IG one day, and my friend posted progress photos of herself after completing workout challenges. I’d done a previous program with her before, but this was new. I’m a sucker for challenges. Not for a quick fix but because it’s fun to be a part of a community of support where everyone has a common goal to get healthier. I did this challenge six consecutive times, and I began at around 185 to 189 pounds in August 2020. By December 2020, I was down in the 160s, and by January 2021, the 150s! The workouts were intense but fun! I could finally move with joy, but also help my body shed the weight! Finding a workout you love is honestly key to consistency. Looking at movement as a gift and blessing rather than something you have to do will help shift that mindset.” —Danielle Hearn, 36, 35 to 40 pounds lost
“Losing weight took me three months after my first pregnancy, and four months after my second.”
“I’ve always weighed between 120 and 130 pounds, until I had kids. When my son was about 10 months old, I started working out pretty intensely with weight training in the evenings and cardio in the mornings, five or six days a week. I ended up losing 40 pounds in about three months. I went from 163 pounds down to 123 pounds, and was shocked at how quickly my body reacted to the changes I made. But then I hit a plateau, and I got pregnant again!
After that pregnancy, I weighed 182 pounds. After giving birth, I worked out very hard with a little less cardio and more weight training. While exercising helped me tremendously, I wouldn’t have seen results if I kept eating the way I had before. I completely changed my diet by eating lots of lean protein, tons of veggies, small amounts of carbs in the form of oats or grains, eliminating processed sugars, and drinking tons of water. And of course, I have cheat meals. It’s all about finding balance that works for my lifestyle. It took me about four months to get to 152 pounds with 17 percent body fat, and I’m pretty happy where I’m at.” —Candace Perkins, 30, 30 pounds lost
“I’ve lost a lot of weight at different rates over the course of five years.”
“I had been overweight my whole life, even as a little girl I was always “bigger” than others my age. My weight really started to climb at age 17 during my first pregnancy and continued to gain more throughout my early 20’s. I also struggled with uncontrolled type 2 diabetes leaving me with a quite a long list of health issues. Nearing 400 pounds at age 28, I decided I needed to take control and get my life back. I never actually tried to lose weight in the past aside from a few years of “new year new me” goals that fizzled out after a few weeks. This time I knew what needed to be done was a real lifestyle change. Changing my mindset truly helped change my life. [I created] realistic and sustainable habits to my daily life by finding a nutritious plan that wasn’t extreme and actually sustainable and getting movement in each day. Consistently choosing to show up for myself every day and giving the best I can each day led me to a whole new life. I lost over 200 pounds in 2 years, and maintained for 1.5 years.” —Maria George, 32, 206 pounds lost
“I lost 100 pounds in a little under a year. I didn’t have to restrict my favorite foods or do hours of workouts I hated.”
“I had suffered a pretty traumatic back injury leading me to having to get surgery. I knew deep down my weight was a large contributing factor to my health and I finally knew it was time to take control back. I tried so many fad diets in the past and nothing ever worked. I did my research and hit the ground running. I lost 100 pounds in a little under a year. I didn’t have to restrict my favorite foods or do hours of workouts I hated. My journey was sustainable and achieved through nonrestrictive habit implementation. I knew I wanted to further my education and become a certified nutritionist and help just one other person, and now I help thousands across the world. It’s truly the most rewarding feeling in the world.” —Sylvia Glass, 27, 100 pounds lost
“I stopped obsessing over the number on the scale and started focusing on my fitness milestones (…) and how well my confidence was improving.”
“At my heaviest, I weighed almost 230 pounds at the age of 23. At 27, my current weight is 145 pounds. After starting to experience early warning signs of medical issues in my early twenties, I started my weight loss journey with a mindset of becoming healthier and focused less on becoming skinnier. It took me a few years during my journey to really learn about the balance and what would be sustainable. During COVID, I hit a plateau and again got discouraged. At the beginning of this year, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and joined a new gym and hired a personal trainer who really [got] me to challenge myself. He taught me the importance of this becoming a life change, not a race to get the quickest results. Within the first few months of following a meal and exercise plan, I’ve become in the best shape and strongest than I could ever remember. I stopped obsessing over the number on the scale and started focusing on my fitness milestones, how I look and felt in clothes and how well my confidence was improving. With this mindset, I lost almost 60 pounds in just 2023.” —Toni Spatola, 27, 82 pounds lost
“One of my greatest motivations has and will always be knowing I can positively impact someone else.”
“My journey has not been easy by no means, I lost over 100 pounds and went from a size 14 to a size 4. I fought with being overweight since I was a child, then through postpartum depression, family issues, betrayals and simply many other situations. However, I never gave up, I never gave up believing that I had the strength, willpower and discipline to become a better version of myself. So 5 years ago I started lifting at the gym and began fueling my body the right way. Today I’m a bodybuilder competitor and a personal trainer and one of my greatest motivations has and will always be knowing I can positively impact someone else other than myself.” —Gabriela Scattaglia, 30, 125 pounds lost
Sabrina is an editorial assistant for Women’s Health. When she’s not writing, you can find her running, training in mixed martial arts, or reading.
Emily Shiffer is a freelance health and wellness writer living in Pennsylvania.