Perhaps you’re like me, and you know many people struggling to lose weight. It could even be a loved one struggling with being overweight or even being obese.
There’s the question everyone is asking: how do you do lose weight and keep it off?
This is a quote from the Mayo Clinic:
“Your weight is a balancing act, and calories are part of that equation. Weight loss comes down to burning more calories than you take in. You can do that by reducing extra calories from food and beverages and increasing calories burned through physical activity.”
In other words, eat less and move more.
But what if the key to success hinged on something else?
Most people I know trying to lose weight focus on one thing: eating less.
They might try and walk a little bit more, but it seems easier for them to deny themselves food than it is to do something tiring like exercising.
At first, they’re motivated and cut out snacks and make smaller dinners. They lose 10 or 12 pounds.
But then things start to stall.
A few months pass by, and they’re back to their regular eating habits, and the weight comes piling back on.
They’ve tried every type of diet and service you can buy, and nothing ever works in the long run.
I’ve had more than a handful of friends and family ask me how to lose weight after struggling on their own for so long.
Now, being a naturally skinny guy, I’ve always been extremely hesitant to offer any advice to those who wanted to know how to burn off 20–30-40 pounds of pure fat.
But after being asked time and time again, one day, I decided to go and take a look into the research.
Oddly, the fundamentals seemed somewhat similar to helping a skinny person bulk up through muscle. Common things like:
- Eat more protein
- Eat more real, whole food that you cook yourself
- Do resistance training like lifting weights
- Improve both sleep quality and quantity
- Get some sunshine and do enough daily movement (like walking) for proper hormones and health
There are some differences, of course. Skinny people need to lean towards less-filling foods to get into a calorie surplus. Liquid calories like smoothies, easy-to-chew foods like burgers and chilis, and calorie-dense foods like nuts with dried fruit.
And overweight people need to lean towards more filling foods to get into a calorie deficit. Avoiding liquid calories, eating chewier foods like steaks and chicken breast, and eating foods with more water/fibre (veggies, etc.)
But both skinny and overweight people ought to be doing resistance training.
But the problem was that almost every single person I spoke with wasn’t interested in lifting weights.
They wanted to lose weight, not lift it.
Why is lifting so important when it comes to losing weight? There’s been a ton of recent studies around this topic, but the reason why is summed up nicely in this March 2020 study “Associations Between the Proportion of Fat-Free Mass Loss During Weight Loss, Changes in Appetite, and Subsequent Weight Change: Results From a Randomized 2-stage Dietary Intervention Trial.“
Basically, researchers made people eat a calorie deficit to lose weight while testing out a variety of different diets. (One group got to eat a high-protein diet.)
The average person lost 11kg (24 pounds), of which 30% of that weight was fat-free mass.
That means 30% of the weight they lost wasn’t fat but was instead a loss of lean mass like protein from muscle and organs, bone density, water, etc.
The more protein they lost from their muscle and organs, the slower their metabolism became, and the drive to regain the weight increased.
The authors wrote:
“It is hypothesized that the functional effect of [fat-free mass] on [calorie intake] is activated by a threat to the structure of organ and skeletal muscle tissue (i.e., protein) by prolonged negative [calorie intake].”
So what does that mean?
It means that if someone just “loses weight,” by eating less food, that will shrink their muscle and organs. At a certain point, their body is at risk, and they will feel an extreme drive to regain the weight to protect their body.
Their metabolism will slow, and their body will do whatever it can to regain weight.
So, we need to get specific with our wording and the results we actually want.
We don’t want to lose weight, which includes losing protein from muscles/organs—we want to burn fat.
We want to keep all the fat-free mass like protein in the body’s muscles and organs, bone density, etc.
How do you only burn fat instead of losing muscle?
To burn fat while maintaining lean mass to protect your muscle and organs, you must combine these three things:
- Resistance training
- eating a high-protein diet
- getting enough sleep
Those are the main keys to holding onto as much fat-free mass as possible while cutting calories.
Now, this study only found this effect of weight regain after losing lots of muscle only in men and not in women. It might still be true for women, but they didn’t lose as much weight in the same time period, and they also didn’t lose as much muscle. (Researchers thought this was because women had less muscle to start with and had less to lose.)
Otherwise, the results lined up with the previous research. Like one study from 2015 about how traditional dieting makes people fatter. It goes like this:
- People eat less food to “lose weight,” and in the process lose fat-free mass like muscle and protein from their organs.
- Their body slows their metabolism to protect their organs, and their body does whatever it can to regain weight to recover their health.
- From the study: “completion of [fat-free mass] recovery is also accompanied by fat [storage], excess fat accumulates. In other words, fat overshooting is a prerequisite to allow complete recovery of [fat-free mass].”
And there we have why traditional dieting not only doesn’t work—but makes people fatter.
- Step 1: Lose a bunch of muscle and shrink your organs and muscles.
- Step 2: Slow the metabolism and eat more to get the muscle and organs back to being healthy.
- Step 3: This overshoots calories in the process, and now they’re fatter.
Now that they’re even fatter and even more unhappy with their body, they unknowingly punish themselves and repeat the process. They lose a bunch of muscle again, eat more to get the muscle back and gain more fat, etc.
There’s a ton of little details to navigate too, especially since intermittent fasting is all the rage right now.
People don’t like counting calories, so they cut out a meal, usually breakfast. While intermittent fasting helps people to get into a calorie deficit, it also means a longer period of time without eating any protein.
In a 2015 study on obese women, they all ate the same calories and protein, but one group ate two meals a day while the other group ate six meals a day (with much smaller portion size.)
The group eating only two meals a day lost more muscle. With the exact same calories and protein. Why?
The body is more efficient with protein when it’s getting some every 3–5 hours.
So for those who are cutting meals to cut calories, well, they ought to also be increasing their protein intake to counteract some of the inefficiencies with eating fewer meals.
All in all, if fat-loss is the goal, you’ll do best to:
- eating a high-protein diet with lots of nutrient-dense, whole foods
- lift weights (or some form of resistance training)
- give yourself at least eight hours of sleep each night (and getting more may be necessary.)
There are other things you can do to help in your battle, such as getting enough sunshine and daily movement, like taking a brisk walk outside, which helps your body have proper hormones.
Another one is getting your TV out of your bedroom, and avoiding artificial light at night (or wearing blue-blockers.) In a 2019 study funded by the National Institutes of Health titled “Association of Exposure to Artificial Light at Night While Sleeping With Risk of Obesity in Women” wrote this:
“Compared with no [artificial light at night], sleeping with a television or a light on in the room was associated with gaining 5 kg or more.
Gaining 5kg (10 pounds) more in just a 16-month study. Association doesn’t mean causation, but we know that bright light at night can suppress melatonin, which is a hormone that tells our body to burn fat and repair our body.
If you’re struggling with being overweight, take a moment to remember all the hard things you’ve already triumphed over. You can do it. You just need the right plan and support. If you have any questions, leave a comment below.