The frequent lament in my coaching office is: why is this so slow? Why am I not seeing results when I have improved my diet so much? Why doesn’t the weight just fall off?
Now I happen to think that slow weight loss is good, probably better than rapid weight loss. But that’s a different topic.
There are many reasons why weight loss is slow; here’s a big one.
The big reason weight loss is slow
Your body doesn’t want to lose weight.
Repeat: your body doesn’t want to lose weight.
Why would that be? Your heart and your mind certainly want to lose weight. You have summoned up admirable time and energy to devote to this task. You are really working at it.
But your body is designed to prevent starvation. A baseline condition for human life is enough fuel to continue existing, to not starve. Staying alive is a biologic imperative, fitting into those high school jeans is not. (Are you still saving stuff like that?)
And that design, which is brilliant and wonderful and inspired, makes us unsuited to the current world of food. The world of super size and Cinnabon. Living in a culture with way too much food (and tasty food-like products) available is a relatively new and novel situation for humans. And our bodies just don’t know how to handle it.
How your body slows your weight loss
Several mechanisms in your body fight to maintain the weight you have. First, your body seems to have a set point, that is, a weight you are used to. When your energy intake (food) goes up or down, your body thermostat, that is, your burn rate, subtly adjusts other factors to keep you at a stable weight. So, on days when you eat salad, your body burned fewer calories than on the days when you eat ice cream.
That’s why the totally silly examples of how to lose weight by just reducing intake by one cookie a day are ridiculous. The implication there is that even a minor amount of under-eating will inevitably, and inexorably, cause weight loss. By this math we should see people regularly wasting away because they forgot their snacks or ballooning without limit from trivial overindulging. But this is not the case. In general, your body adjusts to variations in energy intake to keep your weight relatively stable.
Sadly for the dieter, this defense of weight mechanism seems to go turbo when you begin your weight loss efforts. Studies of dieters show that food restriction results in metabolic down regulation, which means your body becomes more efficient at using the food you give it, so that, even with super careful eating, test subjects lose less weight than would be predicted if weight loss were a simple, addition and subtraction math equation.
Some describe this as “thrifty mode.” A description with agricultural roots, thrifty is a positive accolade when describing livestock with low food requirements, as in: “Yay, cheap beef!” But thrifty is a bit of a bummer for the hopeful dieter. I personally have joked that I would be a good companion on a deserted island because I need so little food to maintain my weight.
Additionally, food restriction changes your hunger producing hormones. These modulators of appetite help drive us to seek food or tell us we are satisfied. One major hormone, leptin, tells us we are ok (like elevator music). Another, ghrelin, shouts to us that we are starving. This pair of opposing hormones gets us in the mood for food, or not. Restricted eating (dieting) silences the soothing sounds of leptin and amps up the frenetic noise of ghrelin. And that noisy ghrelin clammers at us to eat, eat, eat.
Even exercise, the golden child of all healthy lifestyles, disappoints with regards to weight loss. The more you exercise, in hope of “burning” calories, the smarter and more careful your body is to conserve energy. This subtle body treachery happens in two ways. First, over time, your body gets increasingly efficient at any motion you repeat. So day 100 of walking takes way less energy than day 1. And then, just to get you back for trying to outsmart your body’s fat holding mechanisms, on the days you exercise, you unconsciously compensate by fidgeting less and thus burning less energy than usual during your non exercise time.
One study of aerobic exercisers found that after 3 months of fairly intense aerobic activity 5 days a week, participants had lost a measly 2 or 3 lbs. The study participants also reduced their resting metabolisms by 100 calories per day. So much for exercise increasing your metabolism. This surprised the researchers who were assuming basic calories-in, calories-out math (like your fitbit). This research reinforces the idea that exercise is not the best weight loss strategy and that exercise “math” truly does not pencil out.
These biological realities tell us why losing weight is often a slow process. But that does not mean that weight is not worth losing. Even slow loss can result in a possible 50 pound change in a year. (Would you be happy to be 50 pounds lighter by the end of next year?)
Instead, we can embrace that slow process and use it to our advantage.
Next time, why slow weight loss is the best kind.
Wishing you great success as you gently improve your health.
National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach
Women’s Weight Loss Programs
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