The Slow Nature of Weight Loss
One thing I am constantly reminded of is the physical impossibility of losing weight fast.
For the first time in over a year, I feel like I’m returning to my old self. I gained a total 55 pounds during my pregnancy–eating right and exercising almost daily. Despite my midwife’s consolation that “it’s just how your body deals with pregnancy,” it didn’t feel natural to be putting away so much weight on my frame. But today, 5 1/2 months later, I mark having lost 39 total pounds since the height of my pregnancy weight gain–without breastfeeding. Unbelievable!
It’s really true that staying conscious of how much you eat every day works to lose weight. We don’t realize how many calories are in the foods around us. That serving of Oreo cookies is roughly equivalent to a whole 6″ turkey breast sandwich at Subway in calorie count. The cookies may be easier to access, but much harder to count in value, almost impossible to limit to one serving, and poor in keeping us full.
If you can get past the first initial week of hunger pains, you can manage weight loss. Fortunately, regular hunger pains are nothing like the hunger pains of pregnancy! They do go away! Add a little bit of visualization to the end of your day–if you need it–and the weight will start coming off (you don’t need any special lengthy meditation. Just “keeping in mind” what you want will work on itself when you’re not thinking about it).
I’m doing surprisingly well sticking to plan, but one thing I am constantly reminded of is the physical impossibility of losing weight FAST. The concept of fast weight loss comes from those flashy commercials and the before/after picture of people we’ve never met. They say they lost 10 pounds in a week. But it’s just not possible. It’s not only not true, it a physical impossibility. Once you understand the math behind weight loss you may not be so discouraged when you only lose 1/2 a pound a week.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND WEIGHT LOSS
Every pound of fat on your body is roughly equivalent to 3500 calories. We throw the word “calorie” around like it’s a unit of food, but instead it is a unit of HEAT. A calorie is literally “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 ° (Celsius).” When you eat food, you are eating fuel, energy that your body will literally burn so that you can move, respirate, think, conduct chemical processes…everything you do is an act of combustion. Our little human bodies follow the same laws of physics as the large planets of the universe. And food is how we fuel our system.
How many calories do you need to simply stay alive every day? Well, according to medical physiological knowledge, most adults on the planet regardless of size or weight have a minimum balance–and it’s roughly equivalent to 700 calories a day before your body will start metabolizing your muscle and your immune system. This is the fuel we need just to respirate and have our body perform the most basic internal functions. This is a lower number than most peoples BMR, basal metabolic rate, which will generally run 1200 to 1500 for an average size and aged adult, female and male respectively. We all have variable metabolic settings beyond our individual BMRs depending on how efficiently we burn calories (this changes with age, sickness, physical activity…), and this can all get very confusing. 700 calories, though, is a key caloric value you need to keep in mind because it is the bare minimum amount you truly need without damaging your body. If you eat only 700 calories a day, over time, you literally will gain no weight. In fact, unless you are sick, bed-ridden, or have a severe metabolic disorder, you will be hard pressed to keep anything on your body at this level.
What does 700 calories look like? In 24 hours it’s a sandwich and two 200-calorie snacks. That’s it, no food before bed, no handful of nuts here and there, no cup of coffee. Try counting 700 calories, it’s very little food! Very few people in our country eat this little day after day. At about 700 calories most people are just above metabolizing their muscle. People around you may say they are dieting and “just can’t lose the weight”….but are they really counting the calories of each item they put in their mouth? And are they really eating only a specified amount each and every day without fail? It’s physically impossible to not lose weight if you are not eating 600-700 calories a day on average. You need 700 just to breathe, so any fuel beyond that will be burned by your basal metabolism up to the point where you no longer need it.
If you actually have weight to lose, meaning pounds of fat stores on your body, getting there is a math formula.”
We have made an industry out of endless weight loss methods and new things to try–but each and every one of these is not changing the math, they are each adjusting the subjective (motivational and appetite) elements of weight loss. And it’s good we have so many options. Everybody responds differently to what excites them or what foods trigger their hunger and cravings, so thank goodness we have lots of things to try! But this isn’t what causes your weight loss. Don’t think you have to eat “only this food” or “no sugar/fat/carbs” to lose weight. Some good advice will certainly help curb your hunger sensation, or make for a more vitamin or protein rich alternative, but it’s secondary to the task at hand: you have 3500 extra calories per pound stored in fatty acids on your body that you have to use up. Are you 10 pounds over weight? 15 pounds? You’re looking at burning some FIFTY-TWO THOUSAND (52,000) calories from your body’s storehouse versus from food.
It wasn’t until about a month ago that I actually understood why I wasn’t losing my baby fat. My baby was 8 pounds, my placenta was only about 2 pounds (I weighted it myself! Midwife deliveries have you taking that thing home). Add another 10-15 extra pounds for uterine tissue, blood, fluids…the baby’s part of pregnancy only made up for 25 pounds (at the most) of my weight gain. I had another 30 pounds of fat that needed to be shed postpartum. For some reason, I thought that just going back to eating what I used to eat pre-pregnancy, about 1500-1600 calories a day, would make that happen. It was a good start to shrinking my stomach, but it wasn’t getting any extra fat off my body. And my trainer’s recommendation to “just eat normal and workout” wasn’t working out. Unless you are a marathon runner, I’m convinced you can’t “burn” the calories off your body with exercise. Over time, exercise can increase the efficiency of burning fat, but–and especially with having a little baby at home–this isn’t a realistic solution for most mothers.
In order to truly start losing weight on the body, I had to use up the fuel, meaning I had to put myself at a calorie deficit so my body would shift to burning the fat. My gracious boss, mentor, and wonderful MD medical doctor Frank deGruy, finally sat me down and explained all this to me a few months ago:
“Rita, how much weight do you want to lose? 30 pounds? Okay, 30 pounds is 105,000 calories of fuel that you’ll need to pull from your body’s fatty acids. So calculate how much you need normally each day to maintain a weight and move that down to a deficit of several hundred calories–whatever you can stick to and feel comfortable with. Just make sure you are eating at least 700-800 so you don’t start canabalizing your muscle and the fats in your brain.”
I can tell you that I don’t think I’ve done a day yet at just 700 calories a day (it’s much less than you realize). But his advice was accurate, and has me down 15 pounds now with only 15 more to go for my pre-baby body. I really needed to understand on a logistical level how this worked, especially when I’m only losing a half pound a week.
I know, it doesn’t “feel” like you’re losing anything when it comes off so slowly…it can be discouraging, almost pointless feeling.”
Don’t give up! Keep the slow burn going and tell yourself you have plenty of time. Taking out even just 300 calories of your diet is NOT EASY. If you think that a pound of fat is 3500 calories, and you are at a deficit of 300 calories a day, it’s going to take 12 days to use up that pound of fat. If you mess up one day, the next morning tell yourself “Today is a new day, a new opportunity to make it through to the evening with my calorie intake.” Sometimes having something as a distraction helps, too. I’m notorious for being very good during the day while I’m busy at work, but when I get home…man, I’m so hungry!! Just knowing that about myself helps, though.
I have very little resistance in the evenings after work. It’s just the way I am. I want to relax and have a good meal (who doesn’t?). Yes, I could focus some more willpower at night (and I’d probably lose weight faster) but this isn’t a sprint. I’m comfortable losing 1/2 a pound a week, I want to eat with my husband, so I just keep my calories as low as possible during the day, giving me extra room in the evening. All those people who say it’s “bad” to eat a lot at night? Once again, peoples’ opinions don’t supercede the fundamental laws of physics (thank goodness!). It could be health-ier for other reasons to eat light at night, but that’s not me and not my style. And frankly, it has nothing to do with weight loss.
There are lots of free calorie apps out there for your phone or computer. My girlfriend turned me on to My Fitness Pal years ago. The database is all user-made, and it seems to have everything I’ve ever eaten. I went for months logging my food on the app so now, I’ve virtually memorized the calories in what I eat most often. Much easier to keep a running tab in your head, but it’s good sometimes to track food in the diary–we tend to round up or down when it’s only in our mind.
Hopefully this post encourages you to know you can get your pre-pregnancy body weight back. Know you have lots of options, too. Just follow the science, be honest with yourself, and it will happen. It takes time and it takes persistence, but you will get there! You can do this!