If I said I’d experienced a million successful weight loss stories I wouldn’t, technically, be lying. As Beachbody’s “Director of Results,” I’ve seen a lot more than that. The actual numbers don’t matter. I’m only using them so you’ll pay attention, because I know how this drill works. Today’s topic is another for reference. It’s basic, but important, because if you don’t understand the fundamentals of weight loss, you’ll probably go astray when things get tough.
Let’s begin by looking at how things work when you’re both out of shape and have a lot of weight to lose. When this is the case, getting starting is the crux. Just Press Play was Beachody’s original slogan, because the key to success was to simply to open the box you bought, put in a video, and press play. If you just did that one thing, we knew it was all downhill from there.
Let’s evaluate why. When you’re very overweight, almost anything you do will lead to improvement. Any exercise, any diet that isn’t all fast and convenient foods, will kick start the process. The hardest part is changing your habits so that exercise and thinking about making better food choices is a way of life. Of course, if you add a structured exercise program and a sensible eating plan, it will work better, and much, much, faster. Throw in a few tips on how to do this, and a super motivating fitness trainer, and it starts to get addicting.
Beyond the mental crux, things are pretty simple. At the beginning of a program, your body isn’t too picky. More exercise and less food is the key. Splitting hairs is merely a bonus. In fact, when you’re very overweight, you can eat way less than you technically need to survive and not only see great results, but feel better. Since this tactic does not work forever, it requires an explanation.
You’re bringing your body into homeostasis; a point where it’s functioning as humans were meant to, which includes exercise and eating foods that come the earth. We are built to move, and when we do our bodies release performance-enhancing hormones to regulate processes, including how to think and expend energy. All of which lead to not only weight loss, but more energy, mental alertness, and feeling better.
You’re body also doesn’t like to be overweight. Because we’re built for survival, and excessive body fat slows us down, your body can quickly turn this fat into an energy source. What basically happens is that you starve yourself and your body uses its (ample) reserves of adipose tissue (aka fat) to survive. As those reserves get used up, you shrink and lose weight, all of which leads to everyone telling you how great you look and inspiring you, perhaps, to workout even harder and eat even less. But then, at some inevitable point, things get tricky.
When you need to eat more to lose keep losing weight.
In the simplest sense, body composition is your fat to muscle ratio. Everyday during the above process you are changing yours. The fat you’re burning up is energy, allowing you to exercise and, thus, build muscle. As you body composition changes to more muscle, and less fat, its metabolism increases. This process requires you to eat more food. Not just in order to support the new muscle, but to continue losing fat.
“Increase your calories” is the single most popular piece of advice we give to people in the latter part of their exercise programs. Starving only works for a short time. Once you are fairly fit, you need to eat in order to recover from the breakdown of your (now more intense, even if they don’t feel harder) workouts. And this is true whether you still have weight to lose or not.
We’ll get more into specifics in later articles in this series. For now, here’s a simple breakdown of how it works. I’ll use a real world example.
A six foot man, who hasn’t exercised in years, weighs 250 pounds. His body fat is very high. We won’t worry about exact numbers here because, as much as people love to use them, they aren’t very important.
If you run one of the many calorie calculators out there, you’ll find this guy should eat close to 4,000 calories a day to maintain this weight. But he wants to lose weight, and is starting an exercise program; so the rationale is that he should eat less than 4,000, or keep eating 4,000 and let the extra calories he’s burning off take some weight off. While this would work, albeit slowly, there’s a much better way to do it.
Because he’s super out of shape, he most likely isn’t burning a ton of calories during his workouts. Also, because he has so much body fat, he can vastly under eat and his body will convert his fat to energy to run things while he’s “starving”. In fact, mobilizing fat for fuel is a process you can train, so under eating and exercising while make his body more efficient.
If he eats, say, 1200 calories a day, which is unhealthy under most circumstances, he’s actually going to excel for a short period of time, from a few weeks up to a few months. I would not personally recommend he go that low, but he did, so that’s what I’ll use. Again, exact numbers don’t matter much. He ate less, and made it healthy food. And he felt better, and lost weight, so all is good in the world. Until…
At some point he’d gotten pretty fit. His newer, stronger body, went into rebellion and his results stopped for one of the reason in this article on hitting plateaus, not eating enough. He was advised to eat more by his “fitness advisor” (me), and resisted, worrying that he’d gain weight back, until he became truly frustrated that his workouts were getting worse, he was feeling bad, and he’d stopped losing weight; stuck in what’s often called “starvation mode”.
When he reluctantly began to add calories, and few hundred at a time, his workouts got better and he began to lose weight again. At around 2,000 calories/day, his weight loss was so quick he dropped below his goal weight and kept going, which didn’t stop until he was at nearly 3,000 cals/day. He kept adding cals until he got himself to a fit, healthy 175, where he was eating a bit over 3,000 calories a day for maintenance.
That’s the gist of how weight loss works. You can vastly under eat, but only for a short time. When you get close to your goal you’ll need to strategize, eating plenty to fuel your workouts and support your metabolism, using tricks and small calorie deficiencies in order to continue your weight loss. Now that we’ve covered the basics, and plateauing, this series will move into strategies for keeping weight loss going once you’re past your initial stages.