Weight loss follows when adult humans enter a phase of negative energy balance brought about by reducing energy intake and/or increasing energy expenditure. The weight loss period is usually viewed as a continuous process, ending when energy equilibrium is achieved at a lower weight or with death following depletion of fuel stores. However, growing evidence supports the expanded view that induction of negative energy balance leads to well-defined physiological effects characterized by three discrete phases (I-III). At present there are no comprehensive reviews of the ‘early’ phase of weight loss, a gap highlighted by recent interest in rapidly testing new treatments with short-term protocols. Herein we show from earlier reports and with new data that weight loss during phase I is: mathematically quantifiable with a t1/2 < 1-week and 4- to 6-week duration; includes well-defined rapidly evolving body composition and energy expenditure changes; and is moderated by multiple factors including subject sex and activity level, nutrients ingested at baseline and during the negative energy balance period, and hormone and pharmacologic treatments. Our in depth review collectively characterizes phase I as a distinct weight loss period while revealing important knowledge gaps that can be filled with appropriately designed future studies.