We have covered the topic of energy balance and it is a concept everybody should know about considering it's the single biggest influence on your weight.
Knowledge is power and I think if you are prepared to try and lose weight or ‘diet’ you are going in to the process blind unless you actually learn the basics of how the body works.
An individual can still make progress not knowing, I'm sure you all have friends or family who have lost weight before not knowing. But think - how many have kept the weight off successfully? Have they done this eating a variety of tasty food and without massive restriction? Have they been educated properly along the way?
Understanding the fundamentals makes the process easier to buy in to, and it makes long term success FAR more likely. If you understand something you're more likely to stick with it. You know what needs to be done, you know why, and you know what can potentially disguise progress. All of this equals success.
If you are informed and ready to commit to the process then success will inevitably follow.
There are many reasons why people can fail when it comes to weight loss and I do truly believe that lack of knowledge is the main reason. There is no circumventing this.
This topic is something I think can help people conceptualise fat loss and the time scale further and really provide you with strong knowledge on how long it takes for things to happen.
If there’s one thing you need with fat loss it is patience and I hope to convey the 'why' here.
Why Does Fat Loss Take So Much Time?
‘Fat loss takes time’. You'll hear me say that a lot and talk about 8-12 week dieting phases. But what is the reasoning behind it?
Remember that the human body is built for survival. Survival is our first instinct. We have evolved relative to our environment (and other factors) over hundreds of thousands of years.
As far as survival goes it would not be good for us if we could burn through calories very quickly, nor would it be good if we could burn through body fat stores very quickly either considering that we existed for such long periods of time in a physical environment where food was scarce.
We had to hunt and forage and there may have been extended periods where we didn't have direct access to food. Because of this we evolved to NOT burn through energy quickly and to be somewhat resistant to burn through any fat stores when energy isn't freely available.
We evolved to survive because we were exposed to a harsh food environment and this is a good thing, we evolved to improve our chances of staying alive and the survival of the species depended on that.
In a very short period of time we now have easy access to very, very energy dense food twenty four hours a day and we don't have to move around much if we don't want to.
This is a discussion in itself but I think the image summarises the outcome of this environment change in such a short period of time.
But food is also complex and many factors come in to play.
- Physical environment.
- Social environment.
- What part of the world you live in/food availability.
- Religious beliefs.
- Cultural influences.
- Foetal programming and what you were exposed to as a child.
- Mental health and food as a coping mechanism.
- Personal taste preferences and choice.
- Your genetic predisposition.
- Socioeconomic factors.
You can't really sum it in to 'we move less and eat more', but at the same time it's an overwhelming influence. I'm going to try and show the mismatch with some visuals and it does relate back to energy balance.
If we look at the energy we burn while doing household activities and sport (for 30 minutes) below we get a ball park figure and nice range of potential calorie burn. Please do not take these figures are gospel as they are an estimation and nothing more.
Everything will depend on individual factors here but you get the idea - the figures in 'at home' activity are in the very low hundreds and even strenuous sport like soccer (note that it's competitive soccer, it's not ambling around in the back garden) is in the lower hundreds as opposed to thousands.
Sometimes it can feel like you've put a huge amount of effort in to something and you might think you expended a huge amount of energy, but it's probably not the case.
If we move from the energy out side (activity) of energy balance to the energy in side (food) let's look at a more modern source of food, something that is extremely tasty and actually one of my favourite foods - pizza. This is a typical large pizza you'd pick up in the frozen section of any supermarket, or even buy from a takeaway. They're all fairly similar in that they run in to thousands, not hundreds, of calories.
There's a mismatch in that we are relatively conservative at burning calories (because we evolved to be like that) compared to the food sources we now have access to. Not only do we have access to them, but oh man, they taste so good!
You may look at the activity calorie burn chart and think a couple of things:
- There's a good chance you think you're more active than you are.
- You may think 'if I train or work really, REALLY hard I'll burn all the excess calories in that pizza'.
You think you're more active than you are, that's correct. Most people do. People over estimate their energy burn and under estimate their calorie intake (it's more than likely you DID NOT think a pizza was that calorie dense).
As for trying to outwork a very large intake of calories - it doesn't work. One of the reasons it doesn't work is it is VERY hard to sustain high outputs whether it be home activity, work or training (or a combination of all). If you put a huge amount of exertion in to periods of the day you end up spending a lot of time recovering or moving less for the rest of the day. You compensate and the end result of your overall day evens out.
Training twice a day or getting obsessed with a high step count doesn't work. Trust me, I've tried it and I've seen many people try and fail.
Your best bet is to do something sustainable, get your 10k steps and train once a day 3-5 times per week. Learn about food and try make sure your energy intake is appropriate to your goal.
A picture should be starting to emerge. We're not designed to drop fat quickly from a physiological point of view, and then our environment is set up to perhaps work against us a little in terms of maintaining a set weight because we might not need to move as much and...PIZZA (and all the other calorie dense, nice tasting foods).
If we understand how the body works and how our new environment can affect things what does it actually look like trying to drop fat?
Weight Loss - Putting Yourself In A Calorie Deficit.
I'm going to give you a ball park range of total daily calorie needs that I see for normal, every day people like you and I. When it comes to extremes like the Tour De France or some other feat of human activity the needs increase by quite a lot, but for us it looks something like this.
The energy need to maintain your weight through food ranges from about 1,500 to 3,000 calories depending on the person. A smaller, less active female at the lower end of the scale all the way up to the taller, heavier, and more active male.
There are cases outside this range, but most people fall in there somewhere and this is the amount of calories to maintain your weight.
When you look to lose weight, you really are specifically looking to lose fat tissue. Lowering the levels of fat tissue on your body is generally the way to improve your body composition. Adding muscle plays a big part too, but that's another discussion.
Fat tissue is stored energy (a very simplistic statement, it's far more complex but for the sake of this article) and it has an energy value, and the energy value for 1 kilogram of fat tissue is 7,700 calories.
You have an energy need, it generally falls between 1,500 and 3,000 calories depending on whether you're male or female, how active you are and some other considerations. You want to lose fat and to do so we have established that you need to be in a calorie deficit.
If the guy who needs 3,000 calories per day wants to drop fat then he needs to consume less than 3,000 calories per day and the same principle applies to the lady whose energy output is 1,500 calories per day.
We have also established that this needs to be smart, it doesn't make sense and is not at all sustainable to create this huge calorie deficit thinking we are outsmarting a body which has evolved for THOUSANDS of years with survival in mind.
Be smart with your deficit, be smart with your food, be smart with your activity (10k steps) and be smart with your training (3-5 times a week, don't get injured).
If we take a look at data (this is why the sheets are important) and use myself as an example I wanted to lose weight/drop fat and had set things where I was aiming for 2,300 calories per day with an estimated need of around 2,800 calories. This is fairly close to the real suck-y end of a deficit for me. If I go lower on the calories things get really hard, really quickly.
Your body does not operate as a simple in/out mechanism when it comes to calories in the short term, but at the same time this is what you try to control as your weight does reflect energy balance over medium and longer periods.
In the first two weeks here I'm in an approximate 500 calorie deficit each day and you can see in the image below I stuck to it.
500 x 14 = a 7,000 calorie deficit give or take (you can't ever account for every single calorie).
In theory I'm very close to the 7,700 calorie energy value of 1 kilogram of fat tissue. Now, I don't set anyone up ever with the intention of accumulating a 7,700 calorie deficit in a certain time frame. It works the other way around, you set the person up doing what is sustainable and then you can calculate an estimated time frame/rate of weight loss AFTER that's done.
We know our body is designed for survival so there is no 'on switch' that just goes 'yep, let's just burn fat', and while 7,700 calories is technically the energy value of that 1 kilogram of fat there are many different things occuring in the body, pulling and dragging slightly trying to keep homeostasis (a stress free, balanced state). Add human error with food to that and how your activity each day is going to be a little different.
Don't look at a sheet, add up the sums and give out because you're not down 1 kilogram on the scales the day you think you should be. Heck, you may drop MORE than you're meant to at some stages (it'll be water drop off influencing your weight, not fat).
It can take a little bit of time to get going, but if you consistently stay in a calorie deficit you will inevitably start to lose fat mass and the scales will match. The scales can also be very deceptive so I will deal with that before we finish.
If you look at the next sheet below we skip on a few weeks and I'm still doing mostly the right things and the scales is down from 84 at the start to 82 kilograms.
This is not insignificant for someone who is already lean, this is big progress.
You need to string together a consistent period of time where you are in a daily calorie deficit so your body looks to your fat stores for energy. A week on here, a week off there is not enough.
You've heard me talk about 8-12 week dieting periods. This is enough time to accumulate a deficit and for fat loss to occur if stuck to. You'll go well beyond a 7,700 calore deficit and lose X's amount of kilograms.
Being in a deficit sucks physically and mentally and generally after 12 weeks it's time to check out and move to your maintenence calories. These are a little higher and hunger, tiredness and diet fatigue can be reset along with your metabolism which will have slowed.
You CANNOT permanently diet and you MUST reset.
With your 8-12 week phase is it easy to scupper a deficit if you're not on the ball? Yes.
500 calories (your deficit might be 300/400 or something else) isn't necessarily a lot of food especially when it comes to something like pizza or other calorie dense food (even if it's labelled healthy). A handful of sweets or nuts here or there...
On the flip side of everything is it easy to put on weight? Yes, very easy.
You can see for an inactive female with a daily calorie need of 1,500 it's very hard to lose weight.
Ever try eating 1,000-1,100 calories per day? It's not a lot of food. That takes time and discipline to lose weight. Then if you think for that person to PUT ON weight...remember the pizza? If that lady eats the pizza not only has she got nothing else left to eat in the day but she's gone OVER her calorie need by 300 calories.
Keep accumulating that and going OVER your calorie needs and 7,700 calories starts adding up and up. It doesn't disappear so that's where fat mass comes from.
When you start putting on weight it is that excess energy causing the accumulation of fat tissue.
Why Does My Scales Hate Me?
By now you should know that you're trying to change things in your body that are set by thousands of years of evolution. It can be done, but it can't be done properly quickly.
Judge a dieting phase AFTER 8-12 weeks of you doing the right things the overwhelming majority of the time. This is what it takes to physically make changes to the tissue on your body (it's the same with building muscle, but that can actually take a lot longer).
In shorter time frames than 8-12 weeks I'm sure you've come close to throwing the weighing scales out the window. Why doesn't it show up all the hard work you're doing?
Below are the main influences on scale weight.
Muscle tissue is similar to a fuel tank. When you eat carbohydrate some of it gets stored in your muscle tissue as glycogen and this is the fuel you use for high intensity training. This can affect scale weight but generally when you're dieting down glycogen stores drop so it shouldn't contribute to a wonky scale weight.
Please don't think that going low carb is a better way to get your scale weight down. Low carb and low glycogen stores DOES NOT mean you are losing fat. Also, if you train with high intensity and you go low carb you're buying a train ticket direct to suckville.
Food and food residue is the same. If we put ourselves in a calorie deficit we are eating less food and by association less fibre (less of it hanging around in the gut) so it shouldn't be responsible for a scale weight annoyance either.
Fat tissue we know will drop over time but it TAKES time.
That leaves total body water. This is the main cause of your annoyance. The human body and all our cells are largely made up of water so it in turn can have a big impact on scale weight.
Stressed out? It may cause you to retain more water.
Eat some food yesterday with a lot more salt than normal? You might retain more water.
Having your period? You're going to retain more water.
The irony is that when someone starts dieting in the first week or so it's usually water drop off that shows up on the scales. You might think you're losing fat (and the mechanisms may well be kicking in to gear) but it's generally water.
You'll be eating less food than you were, this means less water bound to the food and probably less sodium (salt) in your diet which will all cause there to be less total water in your body.
Scale weight DOES NOT show up changes in your body composition. Look in the mirror. How do your clothes fit? You can be losing fat tissue from your body but it is masked on the scales by a jump up in water. I know I've said initially water will drop off but in the weeks after that you can be quite sensitive to change from hormones/food and many other mechanisms in the human body.
Your body is actively changing but the scales doesn't say so because the amount of water in your body fluctuates day to day and hour to hour.
Over longer periods of time scale weight and how you look in the mirror match up. You see it in the mirror and you see that number drop.
People often ask about rates of weight loss. If you're losing weight on average in any way week to week you are doing the right things. There is no set rate of weight loss because everybody is different and there are so many variables to account for.
Don't judge yourself by another person's progress either, we are all very, very different. Do you see the person standing across the street who looks the same height, age and weight as you.
Do you know anything about them? Do you know what medical conditions they may have or not have? Do you know if they played sport at a high level years ago and the difference between their muscle fibre and your muscle fibre?
Even if you matched you both up with calories and activity do you know anything about that person's DNA or genetics?
Focus on yourself and focus on the processes.
YOU SHOULD AND WILL lose weight if you're honest and patient.
It's a lot easier if you're educated on why you're doing things.
Fat tissue has an energy value and that is approximately 7,700 calories per 1 kilogram of it. The only way to lose fat is in a calorie deficit and our body doesn't just turn an 'on' switch for that to happen.
You need to consistent, you need to be honest with your efforts and work hard. It's easy to undo a deficit with a handful of calorie dense food.
Scale weight is influenced by water and other things attached to water levels so it can play a funny game with the scales ESPECIALLY in shorter time periods. Actual fat loss takes time.
When looking at your success and how your body is changing do the right things for 8-12 weeks and THEN you can assess how everything went.
Shorter than that time scale focus on the PROCESSES and getting them overwhelmingly correct.
There is literally nothing to be gained from comparing yourself to anyone else, focus on your own journey. Trust me, if you work hard people will notice and you'll inspire someone to do the same.