Weight Loss 101
I want to talk a little bit about weight loss because I have seen a lot of misinformation floating around the internet recently. As we approach the end of December, many people are thinking about how they will change their life in the upcoming year, often including weight loss as a resolution. Now this post has no intention to shame anyone who is wanting to lose weight, but rather to bring to light facts about weight loss that are often left out of conversations. Wanting to lose weight, especially with the way our culture glorifies a slim figure, is completely natural and understandable.
Before we start, I want to clarify/define a few things. First, the word diet simply means a pattern of eating, and that is how I use the word. If you see “diet” in quotations, that is referring to society’s construct of the word as a way of restricting food intake with the intention of weight loss or any other claimed health benefit. Second, I understand that there are people who have lost weight and kept it off. This is very rare and if you are one of those people, congratulations because that is difficult to do, but please do not come at me saying so-and-so was able to lose weight by cutting out these foods. People’s bodies are different and respond differently to “diets”. Third, I am not telling you that weight loss is impossible and you should give up right now. But I want you to understand that weight is not really a health criteria. Weight cannot tell you anything about what is going on inside a person and there are many people who are in a larger body who are in perfect health, as in they have normal blood work, they are regularly exercising, and eating in a healthful way. There are also people who are in a smaller, more socially desirable body but have many issues with their blood work, do not exercise, and do not eat in a healthful way. Our bodies all have a certain weight they want to be at, called a set-point, and trying to change this often doesn’t go well. Your body will fight you if you try to go below this and so it’s best to let your body lead. It knows how to deal with things, it does not need society’s constructs placed upon its thousands of years of evolution. Weight does not define health and it should not (for the most part) be a value or goal for health. Ok, thanks for dealing with that, now let’s talk about weight loss myths.
The ability to lose weight from an evolutionary stand point would mean death. We are not made to simply drop a couple of pounds here and there. Your body holds on to weight and doesn’t want to let it go. If you do start losing weight, your body will compensate by lowering your metabolism so you use less energy and it can conserve what you are eating for daily functions. Please don’t think that drinking something like green tea or any other “metabolism-boosting” aid is going to help compensate for that. It will not. The weight loss industry was worth $66 million in 2016. They will sell you anything to feed on your hope of weight loss in order to make money.
“Diets” don’t work. Our bodies are not made to lose weight and routinely, studies involving “diets” as part of a weight loss regimen fail to maintain weight loss after a few years, with subjects often putting on more weight as a result of deprivation. Now there is something called the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) and people can register if they have lost more than 30 lbs and have kept it off for at least a year. A year. This is not very much time in the grand scheme of things, but let’s pretend like it is. The NWCR is used for research so we can understand more about how people have lost weight. Why? Because researchers still do not know much about weight loss. It is also used to let others know that it is possible to lose weight. There are some 10,000 members who are sent an annual questionnaire about their lifestyle and, from my understanding, are removed if they end up gaining the weight back at any point. I know 10,000 seems like a lot. It seems promising and they have success stories and inspiration posts to let you know that you can do it too, but 10,000 is barely a fraction of 1% of Americans (it comes to 0.003% of 300 million Americans and that’s not even using the estimate of 325.7 million from 2017!) This just reiterates the point that weight loss is not easy and it’s not natural for our bodies.
“But Katy,” you might be saying, “what about counting Calories?” That is a big misconception. Yes, creating a caloric deficit can help with weight loss, but it is not a guarantee. You never use the same amount of Calories in two days, so eating fewer likely won’t affect you. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that we need the same exact number of Calories each day. If I cut out 500 for 1 week, theoretically I should lose 1 pound of weight that week because 1 pound of fat is 3500 Calories. But when I get to that new weight, I will need fewer calories to compensate for my weight loss. So I cut out more to create that 500 deficit and the cycle keeps going. With this logic, I could eventually cut out enough Calories to no longer exist. Therefore, simply counting Calories is not going to work. Weight loss is not as simple as “calories in, calories out.” This is not even taking into account things like water weight and muscle mass. So let’s get into some of that.
Water weight is the reason people get excited early in a weight loss regimen because it is often what you lose first. This is not beneficial. It means you are dehydrating your body. What you want to lose is fat, not water and not muscle. I have seen people who will weigh themselves before they exercise and then again after to see how much they lost. They always seemed so shocked that they lost a full pound or even more from a workout that likely burned ~500 Calories. THIS IS WATER THAT YOU LOST. You are dehydrated and need to drink however much “weight” was lost in order to rehydrate. You did not lose any weight or any fat, it was simply water. So please drink your water, and remember that if you are thirsty, you are already a little dehydrated.
Lastly, let’s talk about muscle. Many people think that you can just work out to lose weight because you are burning calories and building muscle. This is a very complicated matter, but first, let’s start with: it is much easier to eat back those Calories you burned in your workout than it is to burn them by working out. But regardless, losing fat and building muscle are two opposing processes. You cannot build muscle without eating more Calories than what your body needs, which is the complete opposite of weight loss. Yes, muscle is more metabolically active than fat so it will increase your metabolism, but you will also need to eat more in order to maintain that muscle mass. It is a very tricky situation to navigate if you decide to try to lose weight with exercise alone.
Now that I have thoroughly scared you about not being able to lose weight, there are other ways to become healthy. Having a “diet mentality” only hurts your progress towards a healthy lifestyle. A diet mentality includes thinking that certain foods are better than others (black and white thinking, good vs bad foods), that you need to compensate for eating certain things, that you can’t eat certain foods, that you need to exercise for a caloric deficit rather than health and enjoyment, and many more. The best way to get to your body’s set point is to not focus on it and treat yourself and your body well. This means listening to it and giving it not only what you want to eat, but also what it needs to eat. I know this is vague, but dietitians or doctors cannot be the ones who tell you what to eat for every meal. You need to be able to make those decisions yourself.
A really great tool, if you want to learn more about this, is the book Intuitive Eating. (I do not make any money from this link or from promoting this, it is truly one of the best resources out there, in my opinion.) This goes through 10 steps of how to get past diet mentality and treat your body the way it should. It helps you get over thinking that weight loss is the only definition of health and understand where your set-point weight is. I highly recommend this book to everyone! It has truly helped me define how I want to practice as an RD and so many others understand how to navigate their health and relationship with food. For a brief overview of what is in the book, check out my Intuitive Eating Guide.