The only thing more predictable than a January bank balance is a January pledge to lose weight and get back in shape. But while dropping a few unwanted kilos in the New Year before is an admirable goal, keep in mind that weight loss isn’t an absolute science. It’s pretty easy to lay out a foolproof plan to complete your first 5K, perform 20 consecutive pushups or touch your toes, but getting rid of that spare tyre isn’t a given.
Only 20% of people are successful at reducing their weight by 10 per cent and keeping it off for at least a year — a statistic that paints a bleak picture for anyone hoping to lose that excess baggage.
If you’re wondering what happened to the idea that weight loss is simply a matter of eating less and moving more, real life has done a pretty good job of proving it wrong. Turns out the body responds to weight loss with compensatory mechanisms that sabotage results. Metabolism slows by an estimated 15 calories per kilogram lost, so the more kilos you drop, the harder it is to keep the momentum going. To make matters worse, your new sluggish metabolism sticks around even after you’ve stopped trying to lose weight, which makes it tough to keep off the weight you have managed to loose.
And that’s not all. Getting rid of unwanted weight causes hormonal changes that make food smell and taste better. You’ll also experience an uptick in appetite, all of which can last up to a year after weight loss efforts have been suspended. So if you find your slimmer self craving food, blame your hormones, not a lack of willpower.
With the body going all out to slow down weight-loss efforts, it’s no surprise that dieting produces results that are 12% to 44% lower than expected. This begs the question: Is exercise the answer when it comes to getting rid of unwanted weight?
We already know weight loss through exercise alone takes a lot more sweat than most people can muster. And the body does its best to mediate the number of calories burned when the weight starts to come off, or when fewer calories are consumed. A beefed-up exercise routine often results in more hunger, as well as fewer calories burned in non-exercise-related activities.
Further complicating the issue, studies that monitor the effect of diet and exercise on weight loss don’t paint a clear picture, largely because most rely on self-reported data. Since most people under-report the amount of calories they consume and over-report the amount of calories they burn, the results aren’t reliable.
So if weight loss efforts are sabotaged from the outset by a body that interprets diet and exercise as threats to survival, how are you supposed to lose those pounds?
First, you need to look at the body’s response from a glass-half-full perspective: you finally know why sustained weight loss is so hard, and that your struggles aren’t related to a lack of willpower, but rather to a natural physiological response.
Once you acknowledge that fact — and that you’ll likely experience a drive to eat an additional 100 calories per kilogram lost — you’ll be better prepared to manage the urge to eat more and move less. Plus, you can stop the blame game that comes from taking longer than expected to achieve your weight-loss goal.
Also important to note is that there’s no benefit to losing weight quickly, as it’s likely to result in a more pronounced set of short- and long-term compensations that increase the chances of those kilo's coming back with a vengeance.
What will work is a slow and steady approach that includes making lifestyle changes that can be sustained. Changing your diet to include healthier choices and slightly smaller portions is more sustainable than adhering to a trendy diet that involves a wholesale change of eating habits or the avoidance of certain types of food. You might also want to consult a dietitian, who can outline eating strategies designed to manage the rocky weight-loss journey.
The same goes for exercise. Adding purposeful exercise to your weekly routine is great, but adding more movement to your day is also necessary. Don’t opt for routines that tire you out so much that you spend the rest of the day recovering. The key to long-term weight loss is adopting a healthy lifestyle you look forward to maintaining, not one you feel obliged to.
Remember: when it comes to weight loss, you need to focus on the journey, not just the results.
Adapted from JILL BARKER, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE
Updated: January 6, 2019