In a society of instant gratification and quick fixes, many of us get unbelievably frustrated during our health and fitness journey. Our expectations are that once we've made the decision to "get in shape," the changes should start showing up now.
And can we really blame ourselves?
We see commercial after commercial on TV touting pills, shakes and gadgets that magically transform human blobs into washboard abs in a matter of weeks. Celebrities pop up on talk shows extolling the virtues of pre-packaged food programs and how they've lost 30 or 40 pounds - or more - simply by eating the tasty food. You'd have to wear blinders in a grocery store checkout to avoid reading magazine headlines shouting "Mary Beth lost 15 pounds on the New Cookie Diet" - naturally matched to a cutesy photo of Mary Beth in colorful profile holding out the waist of her giant fat-jeans (I always hate Mary Beth just a little). Dare to hop on Craig's List and type in "weight loss" - you'll be flooded with offers for HCG, pills, acupuncture, hypnosis, and maybe a shrunken Voodoo head.
Let us also not forget the reality TV shows where severely obese people routinely shed 10 or more pounds in a week. Watching that makes a normal person's single pound loss seem like failure. Anything less than 5 pounds starts looking like a reason to throw yourself off a roof somewhere.
Well, don't despair - for two reasons:
• Most of that advertised garbage is just that ... garbage. Weight loss marketers are smart - they are not to be underestimated. Most before/after photos are of people who purposefully gained weight for the "before picture" then they returned to their previous, healthy lifestyle and magically lost the supposedly stubborn weight. A lot of the "treatments" are nothing better than placebo effect - sugar pills or water drops would be just as effective if they were packaged and sold the same way. Almost every weight loss product is accompanied by a "diet and exercise plan." Imagine that.
• The Laws of Thermodynamics will never fail you. If you set up a caloric deficit and maintain it, you will lose weight. It might not be at the supersonic speed you desire, but it will happen.
It's usually the rate of weight loss that gets most people all twisted up - mixed in with the fact that weight loss is not perfectly linear.
Here's where I'd like to make a distinction between "weight loss" and "fat loss." Weight is the number showing up on the scale - a measure of your body's entire mass pulled by gravity (it's why you'd weigh less on the moon). It's everything that is you: bone, blood, water, intestinal contents, muscle, fat, hair, etc. Fat mass is just the fat. When we diet, we are aiming at decreasing fat mass but we use a "weight measure" as the indicator. That's where the gnashing of teeth begins.
Fat loss might be linear (assuming a consistent, daily, caloric deficit) but weight loss is not. Your weight fluctuates all the time - for some people it can bounce around 5 to 7 pounds. If you graph your daily weight, it will most likely have a saw-tooth pattern. Some days are up, some are down. But if we draw a "best line fit" through the data points, you should see a negative slope. That downward trend shows you are definitely losing weight over time.
Yet, this isn't how most of us view our weight loss. Most of us scrutinize our progress one day at a time. We tend to zoom in on a single point and let it dictate our entire day. One morning we have a sudden drop and we are super happy ... over the moon because we woke up and lost 3 pounds. But a couple of days later, we are upset - beating ourselves up because we gained 1.5 pounds. Oh how we hate ourselves for gaining that weight. And a week of no gains or losses is when we are truly ready to throw ourselves off a roof - the dreaded plateau.
If we take the "long view" (look at all the data) we can easily see that weight loss is indeed happening. We should be proud and just keep plugging away - maintain that caloric deficit. The pounds will leave - thank you thermodynamics.
I know - I can hear your thoughts ... "Why, why, why do I sometimes gain and why are there plateaus?"
The answer isn't usually very complicated. It's mostly water and intestinal contents. Take solace, if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you have a daily caloric deficit - you are losing weight. Just take a deep breath and ride out the daily fluctuations.
If, however, you've been maintaining or gaining for a few weeks, then you need to do some serious soul searching and data collecting. You are not in a deficit. You may think you are - maybe even swear on a stack of bibles that you are ... but you aren't. I'll grant you some added muscle mass (for those that are resistance training), increased blood volumes, bone density, etc. But you can't ride that horse for long. Seriously, if you are on a plateau that lasts weeks and weeks, you are in caloric balance.
And, no, you have not slowed your metabolism down from the "starvation effect." If the starvation effect were true, Ethiopians would not be skin and bones. I will agree that during caloric restriction, your body does all kinds of things to try and "slow you down" (like suddenly a nap sounds really good) but your "metabolism" doesn't slow down. There are a certain number of calories needed to run your body. How much you move plays into that number. Move less, eat more - gain weight. Move more, eat more - stay the same weight. Move less, eat less - stay the same weight. Move more, eat less - lose weight. Got it?
Bottom line - ignore the magic pills and gadgets, set up a caloric deficit, be brutally honest with yourself, and take the long view. It will work!
NSCA certified personal trainer Shannon Sorrels holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and an MBA. Her company, Physix LLC, works with Valley individuals as well as groups to improve their overall fitness. Reach her at (480) 528-5660 or visit www.azphysix.com.