Starting a new fitness and nutrition program is pretty exciting. In January a common goal we see is "weight loss", or more accurately, fat loss. When we start out we are already envisioning the end product in some way or another. We are supposed to enjoy the process, perhaps challenging ourselves to do it – but what really matters is us getting to the end and achieving our goal.
That initial excitement, therefore, comes primarily from the excitement we feel at the thought of getting to the end goal – and if, after two or three weeks, we don’t seem to be any closer to that goal we can start to feel pretty flat. After all, losing fat means you need to delay gratification until you’re done and that sucks! I don’t want it to sound like I’m making the process of fat loss out to be torture – of course it isn’t – but it’s not as enjoyable as not the process of fat loss and so your motivation is a really relevant variable.
In my experience, a lot of motivation comes from results and progress. We get a little hit of dopamine (the ‘happy hormone’) when we see that we are moving towards our end goal, and that’s enough to keep us going.
But what if that progress isn’t coming? What if things haven’t changed despite keeping your New Year’s Resolution or 2018 goal? It’s my hope that in the following blog I’ll be able to answer that.
There are three primary reasons that your progress hasn’t become all that apparent yet, so I’ll take them in turn
1. Your progress is hiding.
Before you go to bed tonight, eat some heavily salted chips and drink a couple of pints of water. When you wake up tomorrow you will have gained weight – possibly quite a bit of it. That’s because sodium influences the physiological functioning of your kidneys, causing them to retain more water. Basically, acute intakes of excessive sodium make your body think it’s dehydrated, and so it stores water rather than making you pee (note, this is acute excessive sodium, not sodium in general). That all makes sense, but what doesn’t make immediate sense is this: stress does the same.
When you are stressed, either mentally or physically, you increase secretion of a hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol is a really important hormone without which we would be dead, but in this instance, it can interfere with that exact same kidney system and cause you to store water – this matters because calorie restriction (so fat loss) causes this stress response. If you are losing fat you are placing your body in a stressed state, so it stores water. If you then get stressed because that water weight is masking fat loss then more water will be stored, and so on. The short cure to this is to relax, be sure to take some time to yourself in which you can switch off, and to trust the process. You ARE losing fat, you just can’t see it.
2. It’s slow because it’s supposed to be
Ever hear about those people who lose 7lbs in a week? There’s a couple of reasons for that. First of all, when you are eating a ton of food you’ll gain a whole load of water just like I’ve mentioned above (due to overeating calories, and probably the sodium). As you reduce calories, that water whooshes out – and so you’ll lose a couple of lbs in the first day or two. This is even more dramatic if the person cuts carbohydrates because carbohydrate, stored in muscle mass, is used up during low carb diets. This causes a dramatic loss in weight, too. Then, of course, we need to consider that eating a lot of food leaves a lot of it in your gut for a while so if you start eating less you won’t have as much undigested food in your gut and so the scales go down.
All in all, if you go from a bad diet to a really low calorie, low carbohydrate diet you’ll lose a bunch of scale weight in the first week but almost none of it will be weight that matters.
Weight that matters? We need to talk about fat and muscle.
When we talk about losing weight, what we want to do is lose fat. Losing water doesn’t really make a difference because it’s always temporary anyway, and losing muscle mass is just a bad idea – even if you aren’t a bodybuilder! What you lose can really change scale-weight changes, though.
1lbs of fat tissue contains roughly 3500 calories of stored energy but 1lbs of muscle tissue, on the other hand, contains only around 600. Now, if you eat fewer calories than you consume then the additional energy needs to come from somewhere, and what you want is for it to come from fat stores instead of muscle stores. If you do a low-protein diet and don’t exercise (two factors that protect muscle tissue) then the loss can be roughly 50/50 fat to muscle – let’s do a little bit of maths to show you what that means for your scale weight.
2 people, both reducing their weekly calorie intake by 3500.
- Person 1 – loses 100% of the weight from fat – loses 1lbs of weight
- Person 2 – loses 100% of the weight from muscle – loses almost 6lbs
That’s a pretty big difference! Of course it would never happen that the outcome would be 100% one or the other, but as you can see the higher the percentage of the energy you burn from your body’s stores comes from fat, the SLOWER your weight loss will be. Because you’re exercising hard you will protect your muscle mass more effectively, and because you’re likely eating a more moderate protein intake the protection will be even better!
So sure, you’ll lose weight slower than your friends at slimming clubs – but your results will be better…
3. Your approach may not be entirely correct
And finally, the elephant in the room – have you honestly stuck to your approach? The thing that influences weight loss (and so fat loss) more than anything else is the amount of food you eat, and research tells us that most people underestimate the amount of food they eat. If you aren’t totally sure that you’ve stuck to your approach, a great option is to look at using an app like MyFitnessPal for a week or two, and tracking every single bite of food/sip of non-water liquid that you drink. Doing that could reveal that you eat more than you think.
And if you HAVE stuck to the plan, it’s probably option 1 or 2. And if that’s the case you have no reason to worry. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you’re progressing. Have patience, you’re in good hands.
Written by Ben Coomber, BMF Nutritionist