Shortly before my second daughter was born I decided that I wanted to lose weight. I had watched my parents struggle and suffer through various forms of bariatric surgery, and I wanted nothing at all to do with it. So I changed my diet and lost weight. Over the course of a year I lost about 100 lbs. It would be great if that was the end of the story, right? I kicked fat’s butt, and lived happily ever after. For any of you who have worked at losing weight, however, you know that’s not quite how it goes.
The first issue I ran into was “The Wall”. If you’ve never tried to lose weight, or are one of the lucky few that’s never needed to try, then you may not be familiar with “The Wall”. Effectively, once you’ve lost a certain amount of weight your body refuses to lose anymore without making further (often draconian) cuts and changes. The second issue is that my wife and daughters were eating all the tasty foods that I had eliminated from my diet. After a year of watching them eat stuff I’d deprived myself of, I cheated. And cheated. And… cheated. Unsurprisingly, I started gaining weight again.
Somehow I managed to nip that in the bud, and for the past year I’ve maintained about 80% of my original weight loss. I’m lucky in that respect; most people who lose weight (regardless of method) eventually end up gaining it all back, plus interest, penalties, and fees. But it got me wondering about weight loss. How is it that we lose weight, and why do we have so much trouble keeping it off?
Science and Weight Loss
As a disclaimer, I’m not a nutritionist, or even a biologist. Everything that follows is the application of my basic understanding of biology principles plus extensive internet research (*cough*Wikipedia*cough*). So if you know more about this and I’ve said something wrong, please let me know! Having said that, I found this information helpful as I consider my weight loss problems, so I thought others might benefit from it as well.
Point 1: You lose weight through urination. This one blew my mind when I realized it. I’d always assumed that losing weight was related to poop, not pee. However, when I thought it through I realized that possibility wasn’t possible, and the implications of this changed my entire thought process about how to lose weight. To understand this point, let’s think about what happens to a piece of food as it travels from mouth to toilet. It will help if you have a basic understanding of the digestive system, although I’ll be glossing over some of the less important details.
Food starts off in the mouth, of course, where you chew it. As you chew it your mouth produces saliva (or spit). So in your mouth, you’re adding stuff to the food — mostly water. When you’re done chewing, you swallow. The food passes through your esophagus to your stomach, where a whole bunch of acid is added. The food is broken down further by both the acid and your stomach’s motion; the mixture is then passed to your small intestine. In your small intestine your body releases enzymes to break down the food more. It also releases materials to neutralize the stomach acid, which also produces water. It then grabs everything of value from the broken down food — proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc. Anything that your body doesn’t want gets passed to the large intestines. The large intestines basically reabsorbs any excess water from what’s left of the food. It also serves as a home for bacteria that munch on the leftover food; those bacteria produce a few more useful elements, vitamins, and other resources, which your large intestine grabs as well. (They also produce gases, which are released as, well, gas.) What’s left over after all of this “processing” is passed out as fecal matter — poop.
In other words, poop is just the stuff from your food that your body couldn’t use. At no point did your body add anything that wasn’t necessary to grab the good stuff. The fat you want to lose is part of your body. As that fat burns, the leftover pieces end up in your bloodstream. As we’ve just seen, there’s no place in the digestive system where waste products are transferred in from the blood. The digestive system is “input only”! There must be a way to get this stuff out, otherwise you’d never lose weight at all. Fortunately, you have a filtration system for your blood — the kidneys! They pull the bad stuff out of the stream and send it to your bladder. There it gets mixed with water and eventually dumped as urine. Peeing is the “output system”!
So what are the implications of this for weight loss? First, drink lots of water. It helps your kidneys work efficiently and provides plenty of fluid for the disposal of all those extra fat leftovers. In addition, I have no research to back this up, but my expectation is that the body only allows so much waste to build up in the bloodstream as a percentage of volume. If that’s true, then it’s not hard to imagine that when that limit is reached your body throttles back on producing waste as it tries to find a good balance. If that means burning less fat, then suddenly you may find your weight loss slowed or completely stopped! Drinking more water will increase the volume of blood, which should keep the fat burning process at full throttle. This last point, however, this is pure supposition, so it may not be true. In any case, if you’re really losing weight you’ll pee more often as your body gets rid of leftovers of burned fat, and it’s important to drink more water to make up for the additional losses.
Second, any food you eat isn’t strictly speaking part of your weight! It’s only the part that’s actually absorbed in the small intestine that increases your weight. Everything else will be coming out in the end anyway; whatever weight you gained from having eaten it will be canceled out by the weight loss from pooping. If you weight yourself every day celebrating every pound lost and cursing every pound gained, you’re driving yourself crazy for no reason. Most of those daily fluctuations are simply the rise and fall of “carried” weight. You don’t count the five pounds you gain/lose by putting on or taking off your shoes; why count the part of the food that’s simply passing through? What really matters is the long-term trend. Instead of looking at daily changes, look at your average weight each month. That will give you a better measure of your weight loss progress. Forgive yourself the daily gains and forget about the daily losses — eating, drinking, pooping, and peeing can change your weight by up to 5 lbs over the course of a day.
Third, and I hate to admit this because I absolutely adore coffee and tea, alcohol and caffeinated beverages are horrible for weight loss. They effectively act as diuretics, which means you end up peeing more simply due to drinking them. In addition to the horrible consequences of dehydration, your blood volume reduces, which puts strain on your kidneys and may inhibit fat burning. Not only that, but if you add sugar (or even some sweeteners) then you’re adding calories! Your body will burn those calories before burning fat (because they’re easier to use), which will definitely inhibit weight loss. It’s better to drink water or other non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic, non-sugary drinks (ie, water).
Point 2: Your body becomes more efficient as you lose weight. This one sucks for weight loss. Some studies have shown that the more weight you lose, the more efficient your body becomes. In other words, someone who has always weighed 150 lbs will use more calories than someone who once weighed 200 lbs and lost 50, and both of those people will use more calories than someone who once weighed 250 lbs and lost 100. What this means is that once you lose weight, you’re screwed. You can never go back to eating the way you did before. If you do, you won’t just gain back the weight you lost, you’ll gain back more, because your body is better at using and storing the energy you’re taking in. I’m not going to jump into the fray about whether the issue is calories, fat, or various forms of sugar; the issue is that your body is conspiring against your weight loss efforts. So having lost 100 lbs I have to be more vigilant just to stay at my current weight. If I manage to overcome the hormonal changes and metabolic efficiency changes and lose more weight I’ll have to be even more vigilant. How depressing!
How I Feel About Weight Loss Now
Although the two points above are challenging, I think they lay out a pretty clear action plan. I need to drink more water and less caffeine. I’ll still weigh myself daily, but not stress about any particular measurement. Instead, I’ll keep an eye on the long-term average, with the understanding that I may have hit my personal wall. I’ll try to continue losing weight — I’ve got another 50 lbs to hit my goal — but I know that, realistically, I’m unlikely to get there. It’s more important that I not gain than it is that I lose more. Your mileage may vary, of course; however, if you struggle with your weight I urge you to be compassionate and accepting of where you are the in the process. And if you have any stories about your struggles with weight loss, I’d love to hear them! However, diets (and exercise regimes) are like religion — holy wars have (and probably will) be fought over which one is the ONLY TRUE PATH. Let’s not do that. K?thxbai!