Even after shedding 30 pounds over the years… I used to beat my head into the proverbial wall at times trying to figure out why I couldn’t lose weight, why it seemed like I was gaining weight.
Now, when the scale does tip one way or the other, most of the time I know exactly why weight peels off, why I suddenly gained a few pounds, why the scale’s not moving.
It certainly helps that nowadays I focus more on fueling and refueling workouts and recovery, and it’s not as important how much weight I do or don’t lose. My weight for now is okay, even if it could be better, and as long as I don’t put on a bunch for good I’m not as concerned about it as I am about maintaining my training and health.
Back to the point: When the scale tips, when pounds go off, when they peel off, I have a pretty good idea of why. It often comes down to two important factors aside from mere calories consumed vs calories burned.
If you’re trying to lose fat, and you find (despite your calorie counts making sense) the weight is not coming off or that you’re actually gaining weight, it may come down to two likely culprits.
1. You’re eating too much processed food. We underestimate the effect of processed food on our bodies and our weight. We also underestimate what of our food is processed.
First of all, just about anything outside of its original form is what I lump in as “processed”. For example: Frozen chicken in a bag I consider whole food, even if it had to be processed into a bag and it might contain a trace of infused brine.
However, fried chicken or chicken nuggets are a processed food, even if any part of it is whole, original chicken. The meat wasn’t originally shredded and recomposed into nuggets. The meat wasn’t covered in bread batter and dumped in a vat of hot canola oil.
I consider a can of tuna a whole food. I consider tuna salad or a factory-seasoned tuna fillet a processed food.
The key difference is additives. These contain a variety of chemicals of varying safety and effect on our bodies. One key common element in every processed food of any flavor is sodium.
Sodium makes the body retain water, and to some degree this is beneficial. Our bodies are mostly made of water, and we need some sodium to (among other needs) help our bodies retain the needed water to maintain ourselves.
However, the law of diminishing returns with sodium kicks in before 3000 milligrams (mg) a day, and if you eat any volume of processed food at all you will easily blow through this threshold. A few dashes of table salt may contain a few hundred mg. A typical (often tiny) serving of most processed foods can contain as much if not (often) a lot more.
Notice how a lot of processed food is tasty? It’s tasty in part because it has a lot of sodium. A slice of pizza can have close to 1000mg of sodium. Eat a fast food meal, and you probably hit 3000mg with that alone, never minding whatever else you eat the rest of the day.
This food is also engineered to make you quickly crave more of it, and most give it to that engineered craving. It’s no wonder people take in way more sodium than they should.
Among its many other effects, the key effect of sodium is that it inflames your organs. That inflammation causes you to retain water. A LOT of water. Several pounds of water. The leanest and cleanest eating people can quickly get their bodies to retain 3-5 pounds of water with the right combination of processed food (on top of the physical weight of that food), within as little as a day of crappy eating.
Okay, so the body needs water, right? How is that bad?
Remember when I mentioned that inflammation? That, folks, is very bad. It’s similar to the effect a virus has on your body. An inflamed organ is like a sick organ. Ever had a coughing fit? That’s often because your airway and associated organs are inflamed. Does that feel good? Do you think that’s healthy?
Well, that’s how bad your internal organs are doing when they’re inflamed. And a lot of people live their entire lives in this state. People get so used to it they don’t realize they’re effectively sick. It’s little wonder we’re such a diseased, perpetually sick culture. Our constant inflammation gives way to easily contracted, chronic illness.
Also, that retained water isn’t going to cool you off or hydrate you. Your body retains water to surround and buffer your inflamed, damaged organs as a biological reaction of protection. That retained water sits there until the inflammation goes away, and then it’ll be released through your bladder, as exhaled vapor, or as sweat. It’s not hydrating you any more than throwing a bucket of water against the back of your head will quench your thirst.
Processed food causes inflammation because most of the chemicals and other ingredients in these foods aren’t naturally occurring substances our body is built to ingest. Whether or not they’re truly carcinogenic (and BTW you can objectively tie most cancer back to the volume of processed food in a patient’s everyday diet)… ingredients in processed food cause the body’s organs to flip out and react badly in ways we may or may not recognize. Combine this with the often-high amounts of sodium, and your body is going to retain a lot of water to fight back the resulting inflammation.
This is not to say you should NEVER eat processed food. Sometimes, a processed food is the best way you have available to ingest certain nutrients. And of course a lot of tasty processed food is enjoyable to eat. Now and then, sure, enjoy yourself.
Eaten situationally, processed food is not damningly awful. But, eaten consistently every day as a substantial portion of your day to day diet, processed food at best causes more problems than it solves. And, among many other things, it’s a key reason you have and gain pesky weight.
I’ve talked about this before: When people clean up their diets they initially lose a lot of weight up front before the weight loss slows. Very little of this initial weight loss is fat; in fact, the slower weight loss later is often more consistent with the amount of fat truly being lost.
That fast initial weight loss is mostly the water weight your body is shedding as you clean up your diet, your sodium intake is highly reduced, and the inflammation of your organs begins to subside.
This water weight can be gained just as fast. Recently, I stepped on the scale and it said 165. During the following 24 or so hours I had the chance to pig out on some deliciously salty processed food. I also got really thirsty, and drank a lot of water. Go figure the next time I got on the scale with an empty stomach it said I weighed 170!
I certainly didn’t gain five pounds of fat in 24 hours. Whatever I had eaten had long since digested once I stepped on the scale (plus, yes, I had used the restroom beforehand). But I certainly drank close to a gallon of water in that time span, and a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. Pretty much all of my newfound weight was retained water, surrounding my now-inflamed organs.
Over the following week I shed a good portion of that weight, and of course I had to pee a lot during the couple days after I starting eating clean whole food again.
I just wrote a book on item 1 of a two-item list. Pardon my lengthy text.
2. You’re not burning as many calories as you think.
We as a society have become largely sedentary individuals, to the point where the more active among us really aren’t doing as much physically as our ancestors.
First, take away your exercise time, and any on-foot commuting, and look at how physically active you are during the rest of your day. How much time is spent moving on your feet? How much time is spent sitting? Laying on the couch? Even when upright, are you just standing, or walking/running/whatevering around? Do you have to lift or carry stuff? Or is all your walking and standing easy?
Depending on how active you are, you may not burn many more calories than you do while sleeping. Or you may burn 15-25 more calories an hour thanks to all the little physical activity in your day.
Or maybe you’re running back and forth in your job and life and you’re burning a ton of calories, but then either a) you don’t have excess weight you’re trying to lose and thus you’ve got no reason to read this piece, or b) you do have excess weight you’re trying to lose, and your culprit is absolutely retained water from an excess of processed food.
Personally, I burn about 72 calories an hour when sleeping, and about 100 calories per hour during a typical day outside of any exercise. But I’m also pretty active. Living in Wrigleyville I have to walk to get anywhere or do anything outside of my home. I obviously run most days. I have fidget-level energy and am frequently moving about at home, at work, at anywhere. If I don’t exercise I burn about 2500 calories a day, and with any running at all I can burn 3000 or more.
I also notice that any gym workouts, like weight lifting, calisthenics, circuit training and the like… don’t burn many calories at all. I may burn less than 200 during a good 30 minute workout. Sure, my muscles are getting bombed, and therein lies the point. But anyone who lifts or does other gym work for their exercise probably isn’t burning as many calories as they want to think.
Even the afterburn of fat following physical activity (which is a product of your elevated heart rate still trying to come down to normal) doesn’t burn all that much. Most bros who swear by lifting also swear by a low-carb diet like keto to help them burn fat, and it’s often the diet that’s slimming them down more than anything. Basically, they’re calorie restricting by eating fewer, but more satiating fat/protein rich foods.
Still, while diet is about 80% of your road to weight loss, it’s important to include a substantial degree of physical activity. It’s good for your body, your hormones, your muscles, your metabolism, your psychological health… and the expenditure of energy helps you sleep better too.
Runners tend to lose more weight and stay leaner than other gym goers for one simple reason: They burn a lot more calories aerobically, while still developing core and lower body strength through the repetitive full-bodyweight-bearing motion of running. Ideally as a runner you strength train in other ways for your whole body. But runners and other endurance athletes burn a lot more calories per workout than people who do other workouts.
I burn about 120-125 calories per mile, regardless of my velocity. I may burn 200 calories in an intense weight workout. But I could burn just as many calories in less than 2 miles of easy running. The weight workout has value that running does not, but it by itself it won’t kick start my metabolism… especially if I spend the rest of the day sitting down.
I wish I had a neater ending to this long write-up, but I’ll leave it there. Aside from mere calories in vs calories out, struggles with fat burning often stem from overestimating your calorie burn and from eating sodium-rich processed food that makes your body retain water.