Home My Journey The Anatomy of Extreme Weight Loss, and the Hardest Decision I’ve Had to Make in My Journey

The Anatomy of Extreme Weight Loss, and the Hardest Decision I’ve Had to Make in My Journey

by Erika Nicole Kendall

This is long, in-depth, and kind of science-heavy, but I think that any person coming from where I started and moving towards where I’m going will need to consider these very things when it comes to working with your own body.

Over the past couple of years, I had to decide to commit to one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made over the course of my weight loss journey. It was an absolute major risk, because… well, let me explain.

There are some things that people don’t tell you about extreme weight loss, especially if you originally began as a supremely sedentary person. Someone like me, who could hardly stand up from the couch without bracing myself with both arms, had little to no muscle at all. So much of it had disintegrated into nothingness from my bouts with yo yo dieting and couch potatoism, that when I first started working out, I struggled with the 5lb weights, and 10-lb weights were a joke.

The only muscle I really had was in my booty. No, really. Exercises that I could complete with my gluteal muscles were a breeze, and it was an unbelievable ego boost to be able to continuously bump the weights up on the machines. Where I might’ve felt demoralized by the lack of weight I could manage in my upper body – and my core? fuhgedaboutit! I had no core strength! could barely sit up out of my bed unassisted! – I felt a sense of pride in my capability to really work my lower body.

For the morbidly obese, the weight loss journey is difficult. So much of the information involving weight loss is centered around people who are at least intermediate-level active, or have even a base level of understanding of nutrition, or people who are trying to lose a few vanity pounds. There’s nothing wrong with vanity pounds, but that kind of information isn’t going to be tailored to the specific needs of a morbidly obese person with the desire to lose.

It’s reflected in the research, as well – so many studies on nutrition and health lack major praxis. You need to understand what, in an obese person’s environment, contributes to their ability to be obese. Is it emotional? Is it hormonal? Is it something in their food? Do all of these characteristics intersect in a positive way, or a negative way? There’s so much assumption based on the sameness of all people that major variables are overlooked, and it complicates research.

In one of the installments of Weight of the Nation, HBO’s four-part documentary on the obesity epidemic, one of the researchers spoke to the realities of weight loss in contrast with a person who has successfully sustained their weight over an extended length of time.

I’m going to transcribe the excerpt I’m including, because I think it’s incredibly important to see this in actual text as opposed to simply watching the flick (but if you want to watch, this link will take you directly to the part of the flick I’m talking about):

“Individuals losing weight are not metabolically the same as they were before they lost weight. Consider two individuals, same gender, same age, exactly the same body weight, one of those individuals is at that weight as a result of a ten- to fifteen-per cent weight reduction. The other has been at that weight their entire adult life. The weight reduced individual will be requiring about 20% less calories per day, relative to what somebody of that weight whose never lost weight would eat, or, would eat ten percent less and increase their physical activity in order to keep at that body weight.

If that reduced individual goes out to lunch with her friend, and they both order the same meal, that will represent a 20% overeating for the weight  reduced individual, yet normal eating for the person who is not in that [reduced] state.

20% may sound like a little, but 20% excess caloric intake a year, will account for the inexorable weight gain. As far as we know, this phenomenon does not go away, so being successful for a year or two doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to go back to eating at the rate that would be appropriate for a person who’d never lost weight.”

It’s super important that you understand what this is saying – someone who loses weight and reaches a weight that someone else has maintained their entire life will still have to eat even less than the maintainer, in comparison, in order to maintain their reduced weight. This is essential. It not only explains weight gain and rebounding, but it also offers a potential explanation for weight loss plateaus, as well… especially for someone who originally started out cutting far too many calories in order to lose in the first place.

I have a theory about this. Considering the way that people adjust their diets in order to lose weight in the first place, one of the first things many people do is reduce not only the amount of carbs entirely – healthy or otherwise – but the amount of and sources of protein, as well. Think about it – rices and some whole grains serve as a source of protein in many ways. Many people, in an attempt to shrink down the size of the plate and the portions on it, often feel guilt about that large hunk of meat on the plate and often pare it down far beneath what the body truly needs.

Think about the degrees to which many people cut their calories, sometimes eating anywhere from 800 to 1200 calories when their body naturally burns upwards of 3,000. Think of that, on top of a punishing cardio routine. A 2,000+ calorie-a-day deficit might sound like an ideal way of losing weight, but the toll it takes on the muscular system (and possibly even more) is surreal. Layne Norton has been talking about this for months, referring to components of this as “metabolic adaptation” – it’s serious shit. (And you know it’s serious, because I swore. I never swear.)

As I shared once – okay, maybe a few times – before, muscle development is essential. It is vital. A pound of muscle burns anywhere from two to three times the calories that a pound of fat burns per hour. If you’re constantly depriving your body of the things that muscle needs to thrive, let alone grow, you’re exponentially decreasing your ability to burn calories. What’s more, a yo-yo dieter who takes on a brutal cardio program and an ultra-restrictive low-carb, low-protein-for-their-body-type diet is most likely to lose much of the little muscle their body has been fighting to put on and keep on in the first place.

Contrast that person with the person who has maintained a “healthy weight” over the course of their adult life, who not only has likely accumulated muscle over time in a natural, non-workout-related way but also likely has a healthy case of ‘fidgeting’ syndrome, which is a natural way that the body burns excess energy, something many non-maintainers don’t know or have.

In short, I think the thing that negatively affects a weight reduced person’s ability to eat and live like a maintainer, is muscle development. Body fat percentage.

When I wrote this post a year or so back, I said that I’d set a personal goal of getting my body fat percentage down to around 15%, which would get me down to a weight that’d help me determine whether or not I wanted to go through with competing after all. At my smallest weight, I was around 160lbs, a size 4/6 dress, and didn’t believe that I’d have that much work to do in order to get to that body fat percentage.

Whewwwwwww little did I know.

All the images I’d seen, all the times I’d fantasized about being able to wear the dresses and the low-cut jeans and the cute painted-on workout shorts, I’d been fooled. Being a size 6 didn’t mean I’d have the lean body of my dreams, because I had no muscle. I was small, but I didn’t know any better – it was never “skinny” that I was after. It was strong.

If body fat percentage tells you the percentage of your weight that is purely fat, then two things contribute to body fat percentage – the amount of fat on the body, and the amount of muscle, as well. I figured, maybe if I focus solely on building muscle for a while, it’ll not only make it easier to burn the fat (because, remember, muscle burns more calories than fat!) when it comes time for me to commit solely to that, but it’ll be easier to affect my body fat percentage in the way that I want with more muscle bumping the percentage points in my favor.

That's me! Somewhere around 26% body fat! There's a small amount of definition in my arms, but still some work to do.

That’s me! Somewhere around 26% body fat! There’s a small amount of definition in my arms, but still some work to do.

In other words, I had to make a conscious decision to gain weight, something that, as a weight loss blogger and an admitted success story, made me incredibly uncomfortable. But, for me, the writing was on the wall. So much of my journey was spurned by my desire to develop new abilities, and here I was, at my smaller size, and I couldn’t successfully accomplish so many of the tasks I’d originally fallen in love with. I bought a pole and loved practicing in my living room, but didn’t have the muscle to do many of the more amazing tricks I’d seen. I couldn’t hold myself up. I couldn’t flip myself. I certainly couldn’t flagpole.

At my weight, if I’d tried to continue losing fat to get my desired body fat percentage, I would’ve needed to get somewhere around 130lbs and, at 6′ tall… that would leave me unhappy. I was seeing sharp bones in my shoulders, hips and knees. My booty was looking, ahem, unpleasant. My thighs had no shape. My hourglass was fading. And, thanks to the complete and utter lack of delts (deltoids, or “delts,” are shoulder muscles), I was looking like, basically, a bobblehead.

So, the decision was made. A strict weight training routine would have to be employed. Regular training – anywhere from three to five days a week, depending on what and how I was training – using free weights and form so perfect that Ah-nold himself would be impressed would be the only way I could make it happen.

After almost two years, I’ve successfully put on an unbelievable amount of muscle. I purchased a scale that gives me body fat percentage, muscle percentage as well as water weight percentage in order to better quantify the numbers I was seeing on my scale, and I carefully tracked the numbers as they rose and fell. My arms are bigger and more firm, my thighs have more shape to them, my shoulders are more defined (which means my hourglass is coming back), my booty no longer looks as, ahem, unpleasant as it once did. I’ve even managed to grow some of my breasts back in the process – from an A cup to a C, amen and again. I can’t even speak on my poling improvements yet – just know, that I’m trying to walk in the air like Janine Butterfly.

Now, the journey changes once again. A focus on a strict muscle development plan meant ignoring fat loss for a while, and being comfortable with that. Now, I feel like I have plenty of muscle – could even possibly stand to lose a bit – and it’s time to train like I have a career on the line. Because, in a sense, I sort of do, now. Could I stand on the cover of my book today, proud of my work? Absolutely. That doesn’t change the fact that I feel like I could go farther, push myself more. And stagnancy isn’t a component of full fitness.

It’s hard to tell a woman who fought so hard, for so long, to lose so much weight, that she has to carefully and consciously choose to gain it in a very specific fashion… especially when that woman speaks very publicly about weight loss. But this is the best decision for me. And now, I’m making another decision. Let’s see where this one takes me.

Wait, what book?

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marie December 19, 2013 - 1:34 PM

what book???? tell me more!!! 🙂

Rachel December 19, 2013 - 2:23 PM

Can you give a detailed list of what your weight routine looks like right now? or direct me to a post where u have may have already done so? Thanks, love your blog and posts!

Erika Nicole Kendall December 20, 2013 - 4:17 PM


@AquaGoddessDC December 19, 2013 - 4:38 PM

Book!! That’s what I saw that made me hit the comments section, lol. Signed copy, please and thank you!!

Another thing that people don’t tell you is that after a certain point of living with stretched skin (nearly four decades, anyone?), it’s nearly impossible to lose lots of weight and not become the very image of a melting candle. At this point, my shoulders, ribcage, and hip bones are “popping,” but the rest will require much, much, much more work to address. Either way, I’m on this journey, and will continue to pursue every avenue possible to reach the healthy height/weight ratio for my chibi self.

Thanks, Erika, for continuing to be so open with your journey, and helping us to learn to make better choices along the way!

Annette December 19, 2013 - 4:39 PM

Love it!! I have come to that realization about myself. I wasn’t looking for a number but want lean muscular lines. I have seen women who aren’t bulky, entertainers that do pole work lift their body weight like it was nothing. Yet they are slim, lean, strong muscle.

Thank you. Makes sense when it seems by body was craving protein. I didn’t reduce my calories but changed the food content..ended up eating more and losing inches gradually. My body needs muscle training from scratch especially being in a sedentary job where I set all day. Love to hear about the book.

Maria CB December 19, 2013 - 4:42 PM

Yes, what book?????!!!!!!!

Jeannatemcmurray December 19, 2013 - 5:53 PM

You are awesome! This information is on point. Thank you!

Marrell December 20, 2013 - 9:28 AM

Loved this and it hits very close to home. When I first learned of that 20% ish, I was mad and I am not even anywhere close to goal. I am not even sure how I will function on low calories like that but time will tell. I am glad that I am not scared of Strength training (actually I love it and really want to look like Lita Lewis or Serena) but it is hard to accept. Ericka I look forward to seeing you get your heavy lifting on, and reading your book whenever you are ready to grace us with that. Actually if you ever put your music on a CD you can add that to the list too lol 😉

Kami December 20, 2013 - 10:19 AM

Well I took a body fat test so my goal is to come down to 22 % body fat. In the past, I was doing low calorie diet and hard cardio/ training. I ended up straining my shoulder in the middle of the year. Now, I am focusing on beginner level workouts and doing kangoo classes.
I also took a bmr test to see how calories i burn on a resting rate. I was suprised that it was high number. I decided not to cut 500 from that number but only 150 and byuld up a fitness routine. This would be easier to mantain rather than dropping to 1200 calories. At the end, im still trying to give up soda made with evaporated cane juice. Sugar bevarages are the devil, been free for a week . This is interesting. No more extreme dieting for me, it dont work. Even though I have more questions about why do the doctors promote these low calorie diet is weight loss centers?

Kay December 23, 2013 - 4:12 PM

I have issues with my knees and hands that makes body weight excersises like push-ups and squats/lunges difficult and sometimes not possible. Is Pilates a good way to build muscle and get strong without hurting myself? Do you have any other suggestions? Thanks!

Erika Nicole Kendall December 23, 2013 - 10:23 PM

I wish Roooooo were here.

If you can spare it, invest in a corrective exercise specialist or a physical therapist. Honestly, I would start doing basic body weight exercises either with small weights or with very carefully-thought out progressions – it’s not a full squat, it’s an assisted squat; it’s not a full lunge, it’s an assisted lunge; it’s not a full push-up, it’s a wall push-up, etc – to help build up the muscle around the joints to help alleviate the tension and the pressure. What most people don’t realize is that for many people, they don’t have the bare necessity necessary to execute even the most basic moves, and that’s reflected in their advice.

I think yoga or pilates can be great, but they’re body body weight… albeit in different ways. Honestly, the best way to do it is simply to take it slow. Super slow. Start out light, and work your way up.

Udeme Uwan January 13, 2014 - 12:08 PM

Wow, terrific post and right on time. And “stagnancy isn’t a component of full fitness” hit really close to home. I celebrated my 10 year fitness anniversary 1/1/14, but I still have more goals! I’ve felt stuck lately. Time and time again, I realize that my goals can’t be reached without implementing a consistent weight training schedule. I was focusing more on cardio for this month but I think I’ll make a shift starting today. I have nothing to lose except some inches and body fat! Thank you for this post.

Monique February 27, 2014 - 4:47 AM

Ok… I have a few questiins and I am PRAYING you answer. I get so much info from.your blog. Some background: I am 5’4 and currently around 295 down from 308 this after starting eating clean-ER (I still use bottled salad dressing and occassionally will eat frozen, packaged oatmeal with quinoa) since 2/6/2014 and getting regular exercise (3-4 times a week doing fitness blender on youtube) since around 2/15/2014.

Now… I use myfitnesspal.com to track my caloric intake. And I do Intermittent fasting which has been working out pretty well since I have never been one to eat breakfast and workouts don’t make me wanna pass out on an empty stomach. They recommend getting 1570 calories a day and I usually stay within or even under that, depending on how hungry (or not) I am that day. I am sure to make the bulk of my food fresh veggies and fruit. And I eat lean chicken and beans, etc…

Reading this and letting what you said register about creating too big of a deficit in the beginning and then having to create a bigger deficit (which is common sense if you think about it) in order to MAINTAIN your goal, is kinda scary. How do you find out how much you SHOULD be eating? You mentioned body type… what up with that? And how often should one do strength training? I know I said and asked a lot, please direct me to any of your other posts if you have covered what I’ve asked here.

Thank you!

Erika Nicole Kendall March 9, 2014 - 9:01 PM

Okay! Now that I finally have time to sit down in one spot and answer, LOL…

“They recommend getting 1570 calories a day and I usually stay within or even under that, depending on how hungry (or not) I am that day”

In my mind, that’s nowhere near enough ESPECIALLY for regular exercise. I’d expect you to hit a plateau within the next month or two.

The MFPs of the world have incentive to tell you to eat very little – if you use their website and experience little/no results, you’re likely to stop using it. If you experience TONS of results, that’s incentive enough to keep you going. What garners results? HIGHLY RESTRICTIVE CALORIES!

To be 295 and restricting down to 1600 when you should probably be at least 4-500 calories higher (and that’s excluding considering your exercise, the intensity, the frequency, the impact), and not even considering other factors that we risk with consistent training and replenishing those, you’re probably doing quite a bit of damage.

I do have some posts that can help:

on how many calories you *should* be eating
on creating a solid strength training program

I have no idea what you’re referring to with body type, but if you let me know, I can probably speak a little more to it!

Dorothy March 1, 2014 - 2:36 PM

I am thankful that you wrote this article Erika. I have read this article three times. I find it very hunting. I can not get it out of my mind because it is truth. A truthful bitter pill to swallow. Thanks for sharing with us.

Dee May 8, 2016 - 1:58 PM

Thank you very much, Erika, for emphasizing weight training and muscle building. I was afraid of this until I read your site. So, I have you to thank for these quads of steel and solid arms :). Thank you so much for all that you do. Highest blessings.

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