Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why You're Losing Fat (But Not Weight)

For anyone who's attempted a serious weight loss program, you've probably used the scale to help gauge progress. You've also probably had some serious setbacks and frustrations with the dial not moving in the right direction. If you're frustrated with your weight loss progress, this article may help you come to terms with why you are still losing body fat but not losing weight.

Importance of Scale Weight

Typically most of us begin a weight-loss program with the hope and expectation that we can drop a significant amount of weight in a short amount of time. Unfortunately, the term that we use for this program ("Weight Loss") is what causes the most frustration. Rather, "Fat Loss" is the term that would provide better benefits - both psychologically and physiologically. 

A scale is commonly used to find a starting point to further measure progress. It's a simple method as it only takes a few seconds and doesn't require any preparation. Many trainers (myself included), doctors and physiologists use this method to find a baseline - but that doesn't mean it's the most accurate. 

Other methods such as bioelectrical impedance, bod-pods, DEXAs, or underwater weighing can provide significantly more accurate information as to your body composition. They can indicate precisely how much body fat (in pounds and percentages) you carry, as well as muscle and bone mass. The downside is that often these are either expensive, time consuming, or difficult to prepare. Hydrostatic underwater weighing, for example, used to be the gold standard for finding body composition. The downside is that participants have to expel ALL of the air in their lungs while a researcher (usually a student or intern) attempts to read a wobbly scale before drowning occurs.

Just breath out for a minute while I do some calculations...

The DEXA (Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry)  is now considered the best method for obtaining the most accurate body composition results. The only downside is that it's a very expensive machine which requires considerable set-up and experience. Basically, you'd have to visit a doctor's office every time you want to measure progress and that can take quite a hit for your insurance bill.

Just hold still for a bit while I calculate your deductible...

So while scale weight can be incredibly inaccurate (or an outright lie) as to what's going on physiologically, it's very simple to do and requires no extra work. This is why it's so common. But again, a major downside is that scale weight can be easily manipulated. In fact, you can vary your body weight between 10-30lbs in a 24 hour period.

True story! Just ask any wrestler, fighter, or athlete who competes in weight categories. It's not pleasant, but it can be done.

So What's the Deal?

As far as weight is concerned, the scale doesn't care where it comes from. Clothes, water, that leftover burrito that's slowly making it's way through your intestines...yeah. That all contributes to what the number says. 

The most contributing factor to scale numbers is water weight. That is, the weight of water that is flowing through your blood, cushioning your muscles, or hydrating your skill - all contributes to the number on the scale. In fact, if you drink 16oz of water: Congratulations, you just gained a pound!

Someone stop her before she gets too fat!

Before you freak out and start throwing away all your water bottles, understand that this is a normal day-to-day fluctuation in weight that is REQUIRED. Remember, over 50% of your body is composed of water. Depending on who you ask, that number could be as high as 60-70%. When you drink water, it's slowly absorbed and shuttled into the blood stream, muscles, brain, and even fat cells. This is where the scale confusion comes from.

Fat Cells Need Water Too

Assuming you're properly dieting and exercising, you should be in a calorie deficit. That is, your body is expending more energy that it is consuming. As a result, you will gradually burn excess body fat.

While this can get a bit complicated (and I have forgotten many of the physiological steps since I've been out of school), the basics hold up: Eat less, exercise more, lose body fat. 

The frustration comes from when body fat is slowly lost, yet excess water is retained. During new exercise programs, or diets in which you consume more water, your body may get a little confused with what to do with all this excess H20. Water retention may be increased so as to provide for the newly working muscles. In addition, there is some research and professional speculation that fat cells themselves absorb water after they have been depleted.

That's right, you're burning fat, and then regaining the weight in water! 

Now add in the fact that some people hold more water than others (women especially), and that caffeine, hormones, food intake, and monthly fluctuations can further add to the water retention, and you have a recipe for frustration.

Don't Panic

So how do we deal with this seemingly impossible task? The best thing to do is to keep calm and continue as planned. Don't get frustrated with the apparent "lack of progress". As time goes on, your body will remove excess water and learn how to properly balance H20 levels, leading to a appearance of steady weight-loss.

Here are a few tips:

1) Don't weigh more than once per week.
2) Weigh consistently - same time, same place, same outfit once per week or less.
3) Use your appearance in the mirror and the fit of your clothes for guidelines.
4) Don't quit or become frustrated after short fluctuations (small ups or downs). 

Remember, it's the long-term health we're concerned about. However, if you're actively dieting, exercising, monitoring your food intake, and being honest with yourself, you'll make the progress you want to see.

Don't look for shortcuts, but don't give up.

As always, email me with questions or comments:


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