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.
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?