Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Managing Expectations around Weight Loss

I overheard a conversation today in Starbucks where a woman was exclaiming she’d lost 7 pounds in a week on her diet…but she was ordering a Mocha and a pumpkin scone.

When it comes to diet and weight loss, people don’t seem to want to discuss how it actually works. Yes, I know that saying “consume less calories than you burn” is kind of trite, and most people don’t want to think about it in that way, but understanding some of the “science” of it is very helpful to staying on the path.

Here’s something I don’t hear much about which I know scientifically to be a fact (you can look it up!).

1. When you are consuming less calories than you burn, your body will start to burn fat
2. When you are restricting calories/burning fat, you eliminate more fluid (water weight) from your system than when your calories consumed vs. calories burned is balanced.

It is the water weight that accounts for most of the 7 pounds showing up on scales during crash diets. If you consume 500 calories less than you burn every day for a week, the scale may show seven pounds difference. While your overall mass has indeed changed by seven pounds in this instance, you’ve actually only shed a pound of fat. It’s a good way to shed a pound of fat though and if you do the exact same thing for 20 weeks, you will lose 20 real pounds of fat.

It’s a healthy way to go about it - simply by some combination of exercise and reducing intake that leads to a total net calories burned of 500 more than you consumed.

But, if you stabilize to consume as many calories as you burn (as I expect the woman in Starbucks was doing by ordering a mocha and a scone) you will quickly gain six of these pounds back as you never “really” lost them to begin with.

I believe understanding all of this and preparing for it is important. People see they “gained 6 pounds” when they weren’t really taking in more calories than they were burning, and get frustrated and sometimes give up. Understanding how it all works can help you prepare for the longer-term as well as help with managing how you feel about the results you see on the scale.

By the way, I'm not against the every now and then Mocha and Scone combo. I just used to order them every day (venti, with whipped cream!). Those days are gone and I lost my weight (~80 pounds) and have kept it off for going on 4 years. I try to lay off the mochas pretty much altogether, but I have had the pumpkin scone twice in the last month or so -- it did not disappoint.

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