Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tortoise and the Hare

How many times have you been around people who have spoken about how quickly they have lost weight on a given diet ?  How often have you seen these very same people a few months later and then noted that they gained the weight back ? (How many times have you secretly and evilly laughed to yourself when you did see this ??)

As will appear SO many times in this blog, I repeat my disclaimer that better health is NOT about a number on a scale. So please do NOT interpret what I say below as meaning that your focus should be how quickly or slowly you lose weight. Your focus should always be about proper diet and activity which as a byproduct leads to weight loss.

But it is legitimate to ask why. Why is focusing on weight loss so bad? Why not try to lose weight quickly in order to get over the "hard part" and then you can focus on just the maintenance. And if there is a diet plan that says that you can lose 20 pounds in two weeks, why not use it ?

The simplest way to answer these questions is to say that our bodies need time to adjust. Imagine walking into a gym and trying to lift a 200 pound weight, when you have never exercised in your life. For most people, this would end with a big thud, a broken toe (and bruised ego) and a request for a refund on the gym membership. On the other hand, if you start with a 20 pound weight and slowly build up, then over the course of months (to years) you will be lifting the heavy weights. Even amongst professional athletes, it can take years to reach their full potential. So, time and patience are critical. The rewards are clear.

When it comes to weight loss, the same is true. Sudden drastic drops in caloric intake will be met by your body's resistance. Your body will play with your metabolism and general well being and appetite in order to get you to either eat more or be less active (in order to conserve energy). And for most people, the resistance can be SO dramatic, that they give up soon after starting. This leads to a sense of failure and can cause a boomerang effect where the person eats more and gains more weight.

It takes time for your body to get comfortable with a loss of fat. It takes time for your system to adjust to the change in diet and physical activity. But once you "hit your stride", you will see your weight drop. How fast ? Well, this is very individual and will greatly depend on how hard you push yourself. But you will hear "1/2 to 1 pound a week" thrown around alot. And if someone can maintain this rate of loss over time, it adds up to ALOT of weight loss over the months.

Still, there will come a time when you will stop losing weight. And this will also very much depend on your individual physiology and genetics. And yes, there are some people who are thin and lose weight easily when they do gain. That's life.

One factor that interferes with weight loss, is the side effect that eating less has on muscle mass. When your body is stressed because of low calorie intake, it will not ONLY eat up fat stores, it will also eat away at your muscle mass. Muscle demands alot of energy. So unless you are really using your muscles, your body will extract energy from them. And as your muscle mass drops, your body's baseline energy needs will also drop. That means that as you diet, your need for calories will go down. And yes, you can get to a point where you still have a good amount of fat on you but your body's caloric needs are quite low. This also makes it relatively easy to gain weight back, if you start taking in more calories.

Is there a way to stop this loss of muscle ? Exercise. But not any exercise. You need to do exercises that stimulate your muscles to grow. These kinds of exercises are usually called "resistance", meaning that the exercise puts a pressure on you that your muscles need to resist. The classic way to do this, is to lift weights. And before anyone panics. we are NOT talking about training sessions that would put bodybuilders in the hospital  It is possible to benefit greatly from resistance exercise without being extreme. And we will talk about this next time.

Thanks for listening

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