Weight loss is often the number one goal people have when I work with them. People can agonize about the scale, weighing daily or multiple times a day looking for progress. This behavior increases even more when people are spending money and time on products, gym memberships, and personal training. So many people struggle on this front for a few reasons: a lack of consistency, dieting without exercise (or vice versa), and not understanding what the scale means to name a few. Today we are going to dive into what our weight means, how it fluctuates daily, why diet alone doesn’t work, why exercise alone doesn’t work, and finally, how to combine the two in order to set yourself up for success.
You Want Fat Loss not Weight Loss
When you look at a scale you need to understand a few things in order to use it as the tool it is. Your body is made of lean mass (bone, muscle, tendons, organs ), water, and fat mass. Every diet is centered around some form of calorie restriction. Even when you feel like all you did was change the quality of your food intake and not the quantity, you still reduced your calories just by making your body run on lower caloric things (vegetables, lean meats) . Or in the case of high fat diets, you are still cutting out all of the stereotypical junk foods and replacing them with satisfying fats that make it easy to push the plate away when we have eaten the proper amount. Quality helps quantity but is not independent of that. In all instances, an effective diet reduces your calories. When your body gets its “budget” of calories it has a whole bunch of processes to complete called your metabolism. Some processes are always going to get their energy. For example, your heart will always get what it needs, your brain is greedy and takes priority too, your hormones need to be produced and swapped out, and the list goes on an on. At some point there isn’t enough energy to go around for everything your body needs energy to do. The fat your body stores is a good savings of energy, but while we are living off of that savings, our body will look for ways to lower our “expenses” of energy. Muscle mass is expensive and uses a lot of energy even if you’re not using it. If I am on a budget and have a ferrari that nobody drives in the driveway, at some point I will sell that car in order to pay rent. Our bodies treat muscle and bone like that sports car. If we don’t use our muscle mass during weight loss then some of that weight loss will be loss of muscle mass and bone density. If I lose 10 lbs but half of it was muscle and half was fat then when I look in the mirror I’m not going to enjoy the change. The amount of muscle loss during exercise is affected alot by how much you have to lose. The less fat you have to lose the more you will hold onto it. Going back to the budget analogy: if I have millions in the bank but no job, I’m not too worried and don’t feel a need to downgrade my money use (money use= metabolism). If I am very low on savings (low body fat) then I am going to start to worry and try harder and harder to downgrade my lifestyle by selling the ferrari, buying a smaller house, etc. This is why when on a very low calorie diet you tend to be tired because your body is trying to conserve energy. When we aim to eat better and exercise we have to work to reduce our caloric intake to use our calories from savings but not so much that we reduce lean mass. We want fat loss not just weight loss. So much of our health especially as we age is about having good lean mass to have healthy joints, prevent osteoporosis, and more things than I can count. Weight change is not just fat loss and loss of lean mass. We have weight from water, stored carbohydrate inside our muscles and liver, as well as weight from bowel movements.
Water weight is tied to a variety of things that I won’t go too in depth with here. The big point to make is that it can fluctuate a lot. If I eat a high carbohydrate meal I will store as many of those carbohydrates in the muscles and liver until they are full. Each gram of carbohydrate is paired with 2-3 grams of water so one big italian dinner can make me gain as much as 5 lbs with in just stored carbs and the water that goes along with it. This is why on a low carb diet you can drop so much weight in a day or two. If you have no carbohydrate stores then you don’t have the associated water as well. Water weight is also affected by salt intake. Any time you have have a major fluctuation from your normal salt intake you will see a big fluid change. Hormones also impact how much water we are storing. This is why many women know they won’t see a drop in weight the week before they start their cycle even though they know they are doing the right things.
Understanding all the things that go into your weight can help you analyze your weight on the scale and not be owned by it or deceived by quick results. Quick weight loss is not all or even mostly fat loss.
Why Diet Alone Doesn’t Work and Exercise alone doesn’t either.
When you reduce your calories without increasing your physical activity you run the risk of that weight loss being a lower percentage of fat loss. When I am physically active I am telling my body to keep the expensive muscle and bone and make more of this deficit come from my fat stores. Psychologically there is another side to dieting alone that is worth mentioning. If I want to lose a pound a week then I need my calories reduced by 500 per day to reach 3500 calories (the amount of energy in one pound of fat) It’s much harder and feels more restrictive to reduce calories by 500 than to exercise 250 calories extra per day and then only eat 250 calories less than I would have otherwise. Because quick weight loss is not fat loss then I need to find something I can sustain long term.
Many people exercise regularly but never seen any weight loss or body fat percent change. When you are very active your body cues you to eat incrementally more. You naturally balance those calories out with an extra spoonful here and a quick snack there. Many people who exercise drastically over exaggerate how many calories they burn working out. If you use your physical activity as a license to overeat or reward yourself then you will not have that deficit needed to use your fat stores.
Both Imperfectly is better than ignoring one completely.
When it comes to your health all the pieces matter. You will get far better progress by improving a little in both areas than just focusing on one piece of the equation. If you are a person that maybe is in one of these camps and prioritized one diet or exercise way over the other then you have so much untapped potential for your health. Always strive to eat slightly better and exercise a bit better. When seeking to lose weight you need to understand that weight loss is an added stress to your system and you should make sure that your restricting calories only enough to stimulate fat loss but to not start to cause huge energy drops, constant starvation level hunger, or weakness. The more aggressive your calorie restriction the harder it is to keep these side effects at bay. Take care of yourself and pay attention to how all the pieces beautifully fit together.
If you have further interest, below I have a variety of youtube videos on weight loss and your body if you are interested. Some are relatively simple and some can get pretty deep into the weeds
Simple quick video
This one goes quite a bit deeper into everything that is happening there. Feel free to pause and google stuff