I hear it all the time. “How do I lose weight?” “What is the best way to keep the weight off?” “Is there such thing as losing weight too fast?” “I’m not losing enough weight!” Chances are that you may have found yourself asking those questions or similar ones at some point. I’m going to write about everyone’s favorite topic, weight loss. And I’m going to try to shed some light on the topic also. Hopefully you can learn a thing or two after reading this.
Before I begin, I want to make it clear that there is such thing as “healthy” weight loss, and just because you can afford to lose 50lbs doesn’t mean that you should lose 50lbs in 3 weeks. Losing weight is a commitment that you need to make to yourself. If you are not totally bought into the idea, then you will not be successful. Lastly, something that you probably don’t want to hear, if you are extremely overweight, chances are that you didn’t become that way overnight. If it took you 2 years to get from 150 lbs to 270 lbs, then it would be ludicrous to think you could return to 150 lbs in 4 months.
According to the CDC, 1 pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories. Their recommendation for healthy weight loss is anywhere from 1-2lbs per week.1 This can be achieved with a caloric deficit of 3,500 - 7,000 calories per week. Some quick math will show you that you need to restrict 500 - 1,000 calories per day in order to hit that weekly goal of 1 - 2lbs per week. This caloric deficit does not need to come from taking out food. By simply adding exercise or physical activity, you can create a deficit. I feel that too often people that are generally sedentary think that they need to eat less to lose weight. In reality, they can eat exactly the same (assuming they are consuming a balanced diet with real food), and by adding in exercise can create the necessary deficit of 500 calories per day.
“But what if I’m always hungry?” This is an easy fix. For the sake of this argument, there are two types of food; energy dense, and nutrient dense. Energy dense foods are high in energy (calories) and nutrient dense food are high in nutrients, very straightforward. If you were going to eat 550 calories in a meal you can either eat 1 chocolate chip muffin from Dunkin Donuts (energy dense), or you can have 4oz of grilled chicken, 2 cups of baby spinach, 1 cup of diced tomatoes, peppers, and onions, and 1 cup of brown rice (nutrient dense). The muffin might fill you for about 45 minutes. But that meal will probably have you full for a couple hours. Making the switch to nutrient dense food can help curb cravings when losing weight, and you’ll probably feel better too.
So the CDC has it’s recommendations, but that doesn’t really cover the athletic population. For those of you who are trying to lose weight and maintain performance levels, studies have shown that losing about 1 - 1.5% of your body weight per week is more ideal.2,3 Once you begin to lose more than 1.5% of your body weight per week you risk losing muscle mass and increasing the risk of dehydration and decreasing performance.3 This comes into play with different sized athletes. For example, if someone only weighs 100lbs and is trying to lose weight to make a weight class, his/her cutoff will be around 1.5lbs per week, and if they are consistently at the 2lbs/week mark that the CDC recommends, their performance will suffer. On the other hand, someone weighing 300lbs trying to lose weight can lose up to 4.5lbs per week before seeing adverse effects on performance.
Losing weight too rapidly not only can affect performance, but it also can negatively affect your hormones. Changes in thyroid function can occur with extremely low calorie diets. This can lead to disastrous outcomes like chronically high levels of cortisol (there will be another article soon discussion cortisol and weight loss), decreased levels of pituitary hormones, osteoporosis, and lowered immune system. So what do you think happens to people who lose 50lbs in a month? Exactly what I just mentioned. Miracles do happen. But that is not a miracle. Losing a bunch of weight by following a liquid diet or by starving yourself is a great way to screw up your internal systems. But hey, if you’re willing to sacrifice internal function for external aesthetics, I can’t stop you. I can only try to educate you. Not to mention everyone has seemed to figure out that for some reason when people lose a bunch of weight following a new fad diet they usually end up putting it all back on after a few months. Yet they still want to try it, as if their body responds differently than all other humans.
Which brings me to the next question. How do you keep the weight off? Assuming you’ve followed good weight loss practice, and over the course of 6 months you’ve lost about 25lbs, you’re happy with where you are and you want to stay at your new weight. Part of the problem with weight loss is that people think that once they hit their goal weight they are now done and don’t have to worry about what they eat anymore. Wrong. If you are the type of person who doesn’t need to worry about what they eat, you wouldn’t need to lose weight in the first place. So all you people that can eat McDonalds, pizza, and beer and “complain” that you can’t get over 125 lbs. Shut up. You suck, and I and everyone else envy you.
So let’s be real, you need to worry about what you’re eating. Without getting too sciencey, there is this thing call homeostasis, which is where the body tries to hold stable with everything it does. Think of it as a baseline, and your body doesn’t like change. So if you’ve spent years at 180 lbs and now you’ve lost the 25 and are ready to stay at 155lbs, I’m sorry, but your body wants to go back to 180 lbs. So the work isn’t over yet, and you need to continue to watch what you are eating to maintain the weight. Luckily for you though, you don’t need to be in a deficit anymore so you won’t be as hungry all the time. After a few months your body will settle into a new homeostasis right around your new weight, and you will be in an even better situation.
Losing weight isn’t something you can do for a little while and then forget about, it is a lifetime struggle. Thinking you are “done” with a diet is a great way to gain all that weight back. Personally, I prefer the term “weight loss lifestyle” over “diet” simply because diet implies that there is a beginning and an end, which you now know isn’t true.
"Losing Weight." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 May 2015.
Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011;21(2):97–104.
- Turocy PS, et al. National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: Safe Weight Loss and Maintenance Practices in Sport and Exercise. Journal of Athletic Training 2011:46(3):322–336. www.nata.org/sites/default/files/JAT-46-3-16-turocy-322-336.pdf