Nutrition | POSTED February 16, 2022

Why YOU are the Secret to Your Weight Loss

Weight loss isn’t simple. The old mantra “eat less and move more” [1] is not only unrealistic, it’s overly reductionist [7]. If we consider weight loss as a simple physical goal, we ignore the complex human behind the process. Furthermore, this reductionist approach fails to consider the environment, social and cultural landscape that the individual interacts with. This may present more or less opportunities for managing one’s health. All this is to say, that we may have less agency than we realise yet still there’s a pervasive weight loss stigma that only serves to worsen the issue for those struggling with being overweight and obese [10].

In Australia alone from 2017-18, an estimated 12.5 million Australian Adults, or 2 in 3 Australians were classified as overweight or obese [10]. Today, I want to briefly explore the complex topic of weight loss. I’d also like to provide you with some direction, if losing weight is something you should do and are ready for.

Let’s talk obesity

Obesity is a term used to describe an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation. This is a chronic disease state which results from an imbalanced interaction between hunger (appetite) and fullness (satiety). As a result, Individuals eat at a higher energy balance than normal which results in excess energy stored as fat. It causes a myriad of metabolic, biomechanical, and psychosocial health complications. This is a multifactorial issue as many of the inputs driving appetite and satiety are subconscious and influenced by psychological, environmental, biological, and social cues. Therefore, we can’t “will” ourselves to be less hungry or more disciplined, however we can consider which inputs are modifiable. Available treatment categories include lifestyle modification, medication, and surgery, escalated based on individual needs. 

Man stepping on weight scales

The classic additive model 

Now that we’ve got some definitions out of the way, let’s dive into some of the deeper points. Although it would seem intuitive, our bodies do not linearly increase energy expenditure due to increased activity [7], or decrease exactly linearly as we reduce energy intake. In the latter case, we call this “metabolic adaptation” where the more we’ve lost, the less we burn at a rate lower than what we would normally predict (although this is not so extreme that it would prevent long term weight loss [8]).

When people say “eat less and move more” they are implicitly referring to the additive model that assumes you can outpace your energy expenditure by simply training with more frequency and intensity without realising that your body, in an effort to maintain homeostasis will reduce energy expenditure elsewhere without your conscious control. This is known as the Constrained Energy Model.

Constrained Energy Model

There are many ways in which our bodies subconsciously attempt to maintain homeostasis. For example, individuals can experience metabolic changes that are behavioural, such as “sitting instead of standing, or fidgeting less, but they may also include reductions in other, non-muscular metabolic activity”. In another example, men and women enrolled in a long-term exercise study exhibited reduced basal metabolic rate over time. Lastly, “studies in healthy adult women have shown suppressed ovarian activity and lower oestrogen production in response to moderate exercise” [7]. Our bodies have tightly controlled mechanisms to manage fluctuations in activity and bodyweight.

Although I’m potentially making a strawman argument here, when people say “eat less”, many assume that means ‘rabbit food’ (for example, lots of salads). What I’m trying to highlight is that the statement itself is one part inaccurate and one part misleading. We can eat relatively low calorie (energy dense) high volume foods. Of course we should exercise and we need to consume less calories than what we’re burning to lose weight. All this is to say, the energy in and energy out equation has more factors influencing it than just food intake and exercise output… and we haven’t even considered the thermic effect of different foods yet!

Sourdough on bench top

Look beyond the scale

Often when people come to me and tell me that they want to lose weight I ask if they have considered what they think about maintaining or gaining muscle mass. Usually I receive a quizzical look until I explain further. We should specify weight loss as ‘fat loss’ and secondly, know that maintaining lean body mass while losing fat is paramount to long term success [9]. A greater amount of lean mass (muscle tissue and organs) will increase one’s resting metabolic rate and also carries with it a range of other health benefits [9].

When determining how to lose weight, we should strive to reach a healthy overall weight and bodyfat level. Adipose tissue (fat storage site) is a metabolically dynamic organ that also serves as an endocrine organ capable of synthesizing a number of biologically active compounds that regulate metabolic homeostasis. Adipose tissue in physiologically desirable quantities helps maintain body homeostasis [5]. In an abnormal situation such as obesity, adipose tissue does not perform its function correctly and this results in a “dysregulation” of the mechanisms reasonable for maintaining a stable environment, potentially leading to metabolic disorders and other chronic complications [5]. 

For many, a combination of both the BMI scale and waist circumference norms should provide enough of a reference to go by regarding bodyweight targets and fat loss but of key importance is to strive to be within a healthy range while developing or at least maintaining muscle mass. The Heart Foundation states that your health is at risk if your waist size is over 94cm for men and over 80cm for women. They also have a BMI calculator if you’re interested in knowing where you sit on the scale.

Heather bench pressing 30kg

Considering the individual

Understandably, the issue is complex. Unfortunately, the marketability of a single method or ‘quick fix’ is far easier than a complex answer. As Stan Efferding said [11] compliance is the science. Spending time arguing about which diet or exercise program is best is problematic as there’s currently no conclusive evidence showing one is superior to another but moreover, even if there was, it would be a moot point if the individual couldn’t sustain the process. The number one predictor of success is compliance. The most consistent dieters have the best outcomes.

Behavioural changes that you can implement

Thankfully we have resources that demonstrate trends which can be modified at an individual level [2]:

  • 98% of participants report that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight.
  • 94% increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking.
  • Most individuals had to keep with their food modifications.
  • 78% ate breakfast every day.
  • 75% weigh themselves at least once a week.
  • 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.
  • 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

Some other evidence-based tips that you can start immediately include the following:

  • Participating in regular exercise which increases sensitivity to satiety signals (plus other benefits)!
  • Increasing availability of high satiety foods (think protein, fibre, whole grains and water).
  • Reduce availability of hyper-palatable foods that are energy dense.
  • Create an environment that supports your goals. This might be as simple as sitting down at the table without distractions to become aware of your satiety and appetite signals. 

Realistically, some people will find these easier than others. Some are born with success, some have to work hard for success. The behaviours that make you successful need to become part of your lifestyle. You will need to troubleshoot which behaviours you can stick to.

Jake with male client

Troubleshooting why you aren’t losing weight

So you’ve gotten started and you’re not sure about your progress. Fat loss (remember how earlier we said to specify it?) can be a frustrating process! Despite the frustration, we recommend having some form of weekly accountability to ensure that you’re heading along the right path. So, what happens when the scale doesn’t read how you’d expect it? I think firstly, have realistic expectations. For better or worse, your physiology is not that sensitive. Consider it a blessing that you won’t lose weight instantly. Your body has a plethora of complicated checks and balances in place to maintain homeostasis. The inverse is true (which is good) that you won’t instantly gain body fat from that night out eating pizza. Now, you might gain weight but we have to consider fluid balance, in part determined by salt and carbohydrate intake (found in pizza right?) and other factors as well as:

  1. time you weighed yourself,
  2. number of bowel movements you’ve had, and
  3. food in the intestinal tract.

These three points all determine someone’s current weight on the scale.

If you want a more accurate reading, we suggest:

  1. weighing yourself under consistent conditions, and
  2. weight-in regularly enough (perhaps daily) to take an average.

If your weight is going down every 1-2 weeks and you’ve been consistent, you’re probably doing fine. In saying that, don’t change anything just because you didn’t see much progress in a week or two. Stay the course and continue to track. With a consistent base you can make an informed decision about what changes you need to make, if any.

Woman Measuring Waist

Conclusion

It’s easy to see how complicated weight loss can actually be. This is why we always encourage people to consider sustainable, long term strategies. We don’t have the scope in this article to cover pharmaceutical and surgical interventions but please note these are safe, well researched and highly effective when applied in the right context. During your weight loss journey, training and aiming to improve performance goals can be a fantastic way to keep you motivated and be a healthy distraction from just thinking about your physical self as just overweight or obese.  We also want to encourage people to be kind and consider how weight stigma has negatively impacted people’s lives. I think the National Obesity Prevention Strategy has some fantastic ambitions that we can all take away today. They are, All Australians:

  • live, learn, work and play in supportive healthy environments,
  • are empowered and skilled to stay as healthy as they can be, and lastly
  • have access to early intervention and primary health care.

Resources

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32969147/
  2. http://www.nwcr.ws/Research/default.htm
  3. http://www.nwcr.ws/Research/default.htm
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33977636/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32443588/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25182101/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4803033/
  8. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/112/3/558/5835207
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30513859/
  10. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/overweight-and-obesity
  11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySUrqIRaCvU