Because weight loss isn't all about the number on the scale. It's about how you feel!
Photo: Granger Wootz / Getty Images

When people set out to lose weight, they often have a specific number goal in mind. Maybe it's the weight you were in college, a pre-baby weight, or something more arbitrary-a number that you think will make you happy. But those who are successful in changing their habits and seeing some movement on the scale are often left wondering when they're actually *finished* with their weight loss. Is it when you hit that specific number goal? Is it when you fit into your "skinny" jeans again? Is it when you're tired of thinking about your weight? Here's how dietitians help their clients decide when it's time to go into maintenance mode-and their perspective might surprise you.

Why Your Goal Should Be Flexible

First thing's first: Eating pros don't really encourage the idea of a "goal weight" that comes in the form of a specific number. "People may have an idea in their head about what a goal weight for them should be, but it's usually unrealistic juxtaposed against the life they actually want to live that's filled with energy, vitality, and strength; or against the body shape and size they seek to have; strong, lean, and femininely curvy," says registered dietitian Emily Field. Considering many women are interested in a more muscular physique these days, it makes sense that they might be happy with what they see in the mirror at a higher weight.

What's more, sustainability is key, and often an "ideal weight" based on a chart or weight from years ago simply isn't possible to maintain. "The whole trick with weight loss is actually to keep it off, not to get it off," says registered dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin. After all, research shows that many people who lose weight end up gaining some or all of it back. While it's not a foregone conclusion that this will happen after successful weight loss, setting a realistic goal can help prevent regaining weight. "If you set a weight that is too unrealistic for your body, then you will never maintain it long-term, even if you reach it, and reaching it may even feel like torture because your body is not meant to live at the number," says Zeitlin. So set a realistic goal weight and you'll probably get there and stay there.

Plus, there's the fact that many people who successfully lose weight end up feeling amazing at a different number than they anticipated. "I have worked with some clients who feel great after losing 10 pounds and decide they are happy with that and not the initial 15 they wanted to lose," says Zeitlin. "Health is so much more than a number." In the end, the goal of weight loss is to feel good, both mentally and physically, right? So how do you know when you've reached that magical happy place that is your ideal weight? While it varies from person to person, there are some general commonalities you might notice.

The Physical Signs

The first thing you should be looking for is physical signs your body is at a happy weight, experts say. Here are the top signs that don't have anything to do with the weight on your scale.

Your clothes fit the way you want. "I frequently won't weigh clients, and instead ask them to talk to me about how their jeans, dresses, and suits are fitting them," says Zeitlin. "Sometimes getting too focused on the numbers on the scale can feel discouraging because they can change depending on if you had a salty food the night before and are retaining some fluid. Instead, slip on your 'skinny' jeans; you'll feel the weight-loss difference without the obsessive number counting." (BTW, here's more about what's normal and what's not when it comes to weight fluctuation.)

Your doctor says you're healthy. "Looking at medical numbers such as blood pressure, resting heart rate, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels can be big indicators of health, many times more than the number on your scale," says registered dietitian Amanda Barnes. It's a huge misconception that someone with a technically "overweight" BMI cannot be healthy-but test results don't lie. Being fat but fit is a real thing, and if your own personal ideal weight happens to be at a higher BMI and your doctor says you're good to go in terms of metabolic health, that's perfectly fine. Sometimes, you don't even need to lose a drastic amount of weight to get to this point. "Losing just five percent of your body weight can lower your blood pressure, help with disease risk and management and much more," says Barnes.

Your non-scale measurements of success are improving. These metrics can be pretty much anything you want, but Field says it's important to have them so you'll know when you're getting closer to where you want to be. "I use a variety of assessments to track progress with my clients," she says. "We take body measurements, assess lifestyle changes, measure food volume or total macronutrients over time, and record athletic performance improvement." These are all great, measurable ways to figure out how you're doing with your weight loss. Taking body fat measurements can also be helpful. "I can show clients incredible body composition changes (lean muscle gain and fat loss) in spite of ever really seeing significant and drastic changes in scale weight," says Field. (Learn more about why body recomposition is the new weight loss.)

Your energy is on point. How your body feels as you go about your daily routine is also a helpful indicator of when you're nearing your goal. "For many, this is the weight when they perform well in the physical activities they love, have great energy consistently, are sleeping well, and feel resilient through challenges and stressors," says Field.

You're able to keep your weight constant. Lastly, if your weight has been consistent for a while and you feel that it's not difficult to keep it there, that's a pretty sure sign that you're in a good spot. "You might have reached your ideal weight if it feels effortless to maintain," says Field. This will usually mean you're able to eat in a way that makes sense to you, and that makes you feel satisfied mentally, physically and emotionally.

The Mental Signs

Just as important as the physical indicators, there are also mental and emotional gauges that you've reached your goal weight. Here are a few:

You feel confident. "A huge factor in weight loss is that you will feel more confident," says Zeitlin. While this isn't trackable with a scale or numbers, she says confidence levels are something she regularly checks in with her clients about, as they're crucial in telling her whether a weight-loss plan is working or not. "Never overlook the mental shifts that accompany weight loss, because they are just as important and motivating as the numbers going down," she adds. (Related: Why Losing Weight Doesn't Always Lead to Body Confidence)

Your eating plan has become uncomplicated. "When you are losing weight in a sustainable way, it will affect the way you plan your meals and think about your plate, which will eventually feel like second nature," says Zeitlin. This is also a good indicator that you'll be able to maintain your weight loss long-term. "Once the amount of vegetables on your plate just comes naturally to you, that's a good mental sign that you've changed your lifestyle habits and have reached a good goal."

You're enjoying your lifestyle. "It sounds simple, but I truly believe that your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you're living the healthiest life you actually enjoy living," says Field. That means if you enjoy hitting the gym five days a week but you also want to have pizza and beer with your friends once a week, your ideal weight is one where you can do both of those things and feel good about it. Because while being at a healthy weight is important, so is living your life.