Are your weight-loss expectations unrealistic? While setting challenging goals can be motivating, you might do better to focus on realistic and attainable results to avoid becoming discouraged.

A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that having a higher expected weight loss might lead to higher achieved weight loss, but that those who felt more satisfied with their results are more likely have long-term success (1).

As part of this study, 88 severely obese, middle-aged adults participated in a randomized controlled trial that compared two types of weight-loss diets combined with a healthy lifestyle intervention. Before the start of the trial, participants recorded their goals for weight loss as “a dream,” “happy,” “acceptable,” or “disappointing.”

At the end of this yearlong study, the researchers found that regardless of the type of diet, people who set a higher goal for expected weight loss at the start of the trial lost more weight than people who set less ambitious goals for themselves. This finding supports the idea that challenging goals might be more motivating.

On the other hand, the researchers noted that the participants’ level of satisfaction with their weight-loss results was associated with weight maintenance a year later. Those who were the most satisfied were better able to maintain their results. This could mean that participants who fell short of their goals became discouraged and were not as motivated to maintain the weight-loss results they did achieve. This finding from the study lends support to the argument in favor of setting reasonable weight loss goals to help achieve long-term success.

For those who are overweight, losing about 10 percent of body weight has been associated with improvements in health (2). Research also supports the idea that losing between five and 10 percent of body weight is an achievable goal for an average person who is overweight (3). The problem is, although health should be the main reason for weight loss, it’s not the only motivator for many of us.

In reality, our ideal or “dream” weight-loss goal is much greater than what is needed for improved health.

The key is to figure out what will work best for you. While some people may be motivated by setting challenging and inspiring weight-loss goals, it may be more important for others to set an achievable goal to maintain long-term success.

No matter what type of weight-loss goal you set, it’s important to keep your expectations surrounding your goals realistic. For example, not losing weight as fast as expected or reaching a weight-loss plateau are normal parts of a weight-loss journey. However, people rarely account for these factors as part of their expectations.

Setting reasonable expectations for time, effort, and results are important to achieve a sustainable change.  Additionally, everyone’s body is different. No two people will have the same weight-loss experience or weight-loss results.

With the excitement of starting a new health journey and seeing or hearing about other people’s transformations, you may be inclined to set what some people view as unrealistic goals and expectations.

You might also receive well-intentioned advice to start with small changes or set more modest, achievable goals. But recent studies have shown that both approaches can be successful, as long as you choose the approach that motivates you.


  1. Calugi S, Marchesini G, El Ghoch M, Gavasso I, Dalle Grave R. The Influence of Weight-Loss Expectations on Weight Loss and of Weight-Loss Satisfaction on Weight Maintenance in Severe Obesity. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Jan;117(1):32-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.001.
  2. Agborsangaya CB, Majumdar SR, Sharma AM, Gregg EW, Padwal RS. Multimorbidity in a prospective cohort: prevalence and associations with weight loss and health status in severely obese patients. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2015 Mar;23(3):707-12. doi: 10.1002/oby.21008.
  3. Johnston BC, Kanters S, Bandayrel K, Wu P, Naji F, Siemieniuk RA, Ball GD, Busse JW, Thorlund K, Guyatt G, Jansen JP, Mills EJ. Comparison of weight loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysis. JAMA. 2014 Sep 3;312(9):923-33.