The vast majority of medicines have a list of potential side effects that is far, far longer than the condition or symptom they are designed to treat. Often, these side effects (internal bleeding?!) sound even worse than the discomfort we’re dealing with (I’ll take the headache, thanks…). But side effects don’t always have to be bad. When food is used as medicine, the side effects you’re likely to encounter are far more desirable. One side effect of this kind of optimized nutrition may be fat loss.
What’s the difference between weight loss and fat loss?
When you step on the scale, your overall weight is measured. Water weight, muscle, fat, bones, and everything in between is added up to get one number. How much of that weight is fat or muscle usually goes undocumented.
As a result, weight alone tells you very little about how your body is, either from an outside, image-driven perspective or an internal health standpoint.
Someone who goes from a more sedentary lifestyle to a more active one will experience beneficial changes to their body. Perhaps weight that was once fat becomes muscle, their posture improves with their core strength, or perhaps their resting heart rate lowers. Many of these positive, healthy changes are invisible to the scale.
This is not to say that scales are entirely unhelpful for all fitness and wellness goals, but simply to say that weight is only one, general measurement. Therefore, the number on the scale should not be weighed too heavily.
8 Reasons dieting with the singular goal of “weight loss” or “fat loss” usually leads to failure
1. We don’t see results fast enough
When dietary (and even lifestyle) changes are made, measurable and visible changes can take awhile to kick in. The rate of change happens at different speeds for different people, depending on genetics, food intake, and activity levels. If you’re switching from a diet full of processed or salty foods to a cleaner menu, some changes may be apparent in a matter of days. Generally, it takes weeks to see real change.
2. Changing habits is hard, and can be stressful (mentally & physically)
When your body and brain are used to things, shifting gears can be truly challenging. Eating has kept humans alive since our origin, so of course the brain and body have developed a complex set of systems, rewards, and cues to control it. Under stress, both humans and rodents are more likely to eat sugary and fatty foods.
3. We eat for a variety of reasons
We eat for nourishment and for entertainment, comfort, and pleasure. Eating can be a form of self medication. Eating carbohydrates, for example, may directly impact hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin and melatonin. From eating a pint of ice cream after a bad break up to losing our appetites on account of anxiety, food and mood are intertwined. If eating is a symptom of an underlying mental health challenge, trying to change the eating without addressing underlying challenges will likely result in failure.
4. Lack of resources (healthy food, knowledge, time)
If you live in a food desert, don’t know what constitutes a healthy diet, or can’t afford the time or money for exercise…your diet is not going to work in the long term.
5. We quit when we get to our goal appearance or weight
If the sole reason you are on a diet is to get to a particular appearance or target weight, you’ll probably stop once you get there. If you return to old habits, weight gain will happen again, and yo-yo dieting is a common response. Many people end up in a cycle of dieting and overeating that continues indefinitely.
6. We make extreme, unsustainable changes
Making changes to your diet that are too intense or extreme to maintain often leads to yo-yo dieting. If you cut calories too quickly, you may put your body into “starvation” mode (aka adaptive thermogenesis). While this can result in weight loss in the short term, you will gain the fat stores back when regular eating habits return.
7. We make changes to our diets without changing our activity level
While it can be done, losing fat solely through decreasing how much you eat is less effective than pairing it with exercise. Pairing it with exercise also offers far more health benefits.
8. Set point
While there are conflicting opinions and study results on the subject, the idea of a “set point” suggests that your body “gets used to” a certain weight and then maintains that weight. As a result, losing weight can be a struggle, because as you decrease your calories your body conserves energy and makes you use fewer. However, the set point idea doesn’t always factor in exercise, and how you can burn more calories this way (both through activity and through building muscle mass).
Have we been looking at fat loss the wrong way all along? What if the results we want happen when we put our mental and physical health first? What if instead of seeing fat loss as the goal, we saw it as a potential side effect of taking care of our bodies?
[Part of] the Solution: See fat loss as a potential side effect of optimal nutrition
Instead of focusing on fat loss as the entire goal, focus on internal health and lasting lifestyle changes. How?
1. Use different metrics than a scale to gauge your health and well-being
- If you can afford it, getting your blood work done can give you a ton of useful information about your insides. You can find out about the levels of cholesterol and fat in your blood (triglycerides), how certain organs are doing (like your thyroid or liver), and what various vitamin and mineral levels are at (like vitamin D).
- Take your resting heart rate and/or blood pressure. There are accepted healthy ranges for blood pressure and for heart rate.
- Track your sleep and energy. There are multiple apps available for this, and wearable technologies, too (ex. Fitbit). Solid sleep that leaves you feeling rested and energized throughout the day signifies good health.
- Notice how thick hair your hair is, how strong your nails are, and if you have healthy looking/feeling skin and gums.
- If you’re a woman, track your menstrual cycle and symptoms (cramping, cravings, etc). A regular menstrual cycle is a sign of health. If you experience cramping beyond a manageable level, it can be a sign of sub-optimal health (including low vitamin D).
- How well can you do everyday tasks? How difficult is carrying groceries, or walking up a couple flights of stairs? Is your breathing heavy or regular?
- Pay attention during your bathroom trips, are your bowel movements regular and is your urine clear? If not, hydration and proper fiber intake will greatly improve them for the vast majority of people.
- Do you frequently get sick, experience headaches, or feel joint pain? Optimal nutrition will minimize these unpleasant symptoms.
- How many servings of fruits and vegetables do you get a day? While this one isn’t really a direct measure of internal health, it does correlate with other internal health measures on this list. If you’re eating about 2,000 calories a day, aim for ~two cups of fruit and at least two-three cups of veggies. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), only 1/10 adults meet this goal.
- Notice what your body is physically capable of, from the amount of weight you lift or the number of reps you do to the duration or intensity of your cardio training. If you’re wondering what numbers you should aim for, here’s a place to start.
- If you’d still really like to use a scale to monitor body changes, notice other metrics your scale may have. In some cases, scales estimate muscle mass, body fat percentage, water weight, etc. These metrics can help you track where weight changes may be coming from.
- While it’s a good idea to be a bit wary of it, measuring tape can also be a simple, helpful tool. Your waist circumference can indicate health risk to some extent, too.
- How do you feel?
2. Build healthy routines that will last a lifetime
When your focus is more on how you’re feeling (in combination with other measures of internal health), making lifestyle changes that persist becomes easier. There is no magical, quick fix to losing fat or feeling better. Only long-term changes can do that in a lasting way.
Say goodbye to diet “sprints”, exhausting juice cleanses, and yo-yo dieting. You won’t miss them.
There are plenty of nutrition-based ways to start:
- Incorporate more fruits and veggies into your diet: It’ll give you countless benefits.
- Supplement whatever you don’t get enough of from whole foods: Vitamin D and Omega-3s are a good place to start (if you’re picking fish oil for omegas, read this guide first).
- Buy and eat fewer simple carbohydrates: Check out 20+ low-carb substitutes for your favorite high-carb foods. Swap out the empty calories for ancient grains instead (no, gluten isn’t inherently bad).
- Add fiber: Here are 10+ toppings for 10 grams of fiber in a day.
- Add fermented foods: Here are five easy ones you can make yourself.
- Switch to more plant-based options: Wondering which plant-based milk is the healthiest? See nutrition comparisons for 13 milks here.
- Use the Japanese concept of Hara Hachi Bu to indulge healthfully.
- Use food as medicine: Clinical research shows that food can replace (or reduce) drugs in many cardiovascular cases, for example.
Here are a few other reads that may be useful:
- Not sure how to change poor health habits or form good ones? This is a good place to start.
- Want to start off your healthy lifestyle with a gentle detox that won’t harm you? Here’s how.
- Shopping for packaged snacks? Look for these things on the label.
Optimizing your nutrition will come with many beneficial side effects, perhaps including fat loss, and most definitely including improved internal health. Doesn’t that sound better than the side effects you read on the back of the last medicine you took?