This is more complicated than you probably think.
People tend to want everything broken down into just one slogan or soundbite that either suits their biases or that they find easy to argue against. The reality is, there are a lot of angles to cover here. I’ll do my best to cover them all within a reasonable word count, but I make no promises on that last part.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started.
For reasons that will hopefully become apparent, I’m actually going to start with the conclusion, and the conclusion is actually a paragraph borrowed from something I posted on instagram the other day, as follows:
More than ever, the longer I do this and the more people I work with as a professional coach, the more I truly believe that our focus needs to be on simply enjoying the physical challenge of productive training, and enjoying the intellectual challenge of working to a productive fueling strategy, as well as assessing your physiological and psychological responses to each as you learn to do more of what keeps you strong, healthy & happy, and to reject whatever doesn’t.
That sounds great, but what’s the problem with wanting to lose weight?
Well I’m glad you asked. First of all though, that headline at the top of the page doesn’t translate to “I don’t want to coach fat people” or anything silly like that. Also, I always object to anything that gives anyone a message to the tune of “you might as well not bother trying, just accept that where you are is where you’re supposed to be”, so that’s definitely not my point either.
Obviously I’ve helped people to lose weight successfully in the past. Clients, other people who follow my pages and put the pieces together for themselves. Some with medical conditions such as autoimmune diseases. Some who got on top of a restrict, binge & purge type eating disorder and lost weight. Some who rather generously credit me with facilitating a “life saving” level of weight loss.
A handful of fast facts about diets and weight loss:
- All diets work for the same reason; they create a caloric deficit.
Whether people are aware of the amount of calories or whether due to restriction of food choices, any changes in dietary habits that result in weight loss infer a caloric deficit.
- Different named diets, low carb approaches, balanced approaches… when the energy and protein provision is matched, the clinical evidence suggests there is little if any difference in the results of different approaches. So there is not just “one correct” or “one best” set of eating habits we should all adopt.
- Regardless, the statistics are that over the long term there is no approach that has a high success rate. People tend to regain the weight.
- In fact, according to the International Journal Of Obesity; “it is now well established that the more people engage in dieting, the more they gain weight in the long-term.”
So, what is the problem then?
Well that depends.
In theory, you make changes in dietary habits resulting in a caloric deficit. You lose weight, and so long as you do not revert back to habits resulting in a caloric surplus you should not regain the weight. Therefore the simple explanation is that the problem is down to continuance of adherence. Or so it would seem.
As an example, here’s how it is supposed to work, and for that matter actually does work.
Imagine I have a new personal training client who is a younger woman and let’s say 5, 10 or 15kg overweight due to not being in the habit of being active, and perhaps in the habit of over indulging a little too often. As a competent and responsible trainer, I get her started with a decent, strength based training program, and the appropriate energy targets at a suitable level of deficit and with a reasonable margin for error. If she follows my instructions with some level of consistency she’ll certainly lose weight as she develops a more athletic condition.
Assuming she then maintains her interest in training and does not revert to an excessive energy intake, she should not regain any weight. That’s how it works in theory anyway. I want to move on but first let’s just acknowledge that what I’ve described is not really a “weight loss approach” the way most people would go about it.
So, whether it is working to a caloric deficit, whether it is sticking to this particular diet and this particular set of foods… if the people continue to do it, it would continue to work, right? You’d like to think so. So why don’t people just keep doing it?
Reasons for non-continuance of adherence:
There could be any number of reasons and I’m not forgetting that mere complacency or even delusion are two of them, but it would be a flagrant cop-out to pretend that those are the only reasons and therefore absolve trainers & health coaches from their obligation to provide approaches that are feasible and efficacious over the long haul.
In simpler terms, I’m asking you just humour me and consider entertaining the mere possibility that people sometimes lose motivation because the approach has stopped producing results, or simply because the approach is impractical and any expectation of continued, long term adherence was entirely unreasonable.
Weight loss dieting tends to be of an extreme variety, either with strict low calories, strict food exclusions, or both. Strict adherence would prohibit ever going out to eat socially, visiting your parents for a home cooked meal, having a takeaway night or ordering home delivery. These approaches tend to be temporary by design, and as discussed, the long term consequence is greater weight gain.
With that in mind and getting back to my hypothetical client we described earlier, if we focus on developing an interest in a productive approach to training, we can expect weight loss. However if we focus on weight loss and my instruction is a low carb, low cal, clean eating style of extreme and restrictive diet, as well as high intensity activity “to burn calories”… any expectation of continued long term adherence is overly optimistic at best, any weight loss is temporary at best, and the long term consequence would be weight gain, a worsened relationship with food, and likely a decrease in enthusiasm for exercise as well.
In the case of a second new client of a higher and more excessive weight, it is very likely that their current weight is actually the consequence of previous attempts at weight loss perhaps over a period of years or even decades, and this is the outcome we wanted to avoid with the first hypothetical client. For this reason, it would make no sense at all to give them more of the same now. It would make no sense to take an attitude of “we need to lose weight first” via the same restrictive and unproductive approaches.
There are benefits to any amount of activity over being inactive, and benefits to getting out of restrictive dieting and developing more consistent, structured and appropriate eating habits and a healthier relationship with food. When the type of activity resembles some form of what we might describe as “productive training”, in a more overweight or obese client we can expect significant decreases in measurements as the body begins to better ultilise energy and resources in support of lean mass at the expense of fat mass, as well as numerous other health benefits.
Here’s the curious thing. While seeing significant results in fat loss you’d expect to see confirmation of this when weighing in on the scales, but the reality seems to be that this is not always the case right away. What a pity it would be to fail to value or appreciate the good results in fat loss, strength and performance at training, improved health markers and the rejection of restrictive dieting, just because the scales do not confirm these results with the corresponding loss of body weight.
There’s more though.
To wrap up and reiterate, by developing an interest in productive training and with suitable sports nutrition guidance there will be certain client profiles where weight loss is very likely, certain client profiles where weight loss could be expected but cannot be guaranteed, and let’s not forget there will be some for whom weight loss should not be seen as an acceptable outcome at all.
My observation is that when people are focused on and overly concerned with weight loss per se, even when given a good and productive approach to training and the appropriate instruction, the tendency will be to sacrifice the efficacy of the training strategy by falling back into weight loss type behaviours and mindsets as previously described. For example, making changes or additions to the training program “to burn more calories”, and to skip meals or otherwise fall short of the prescribed levels of fueling that are required to facilitate any sort of results.
Ironically, it will be the very things that people feel compelled to do because they “are trying to lose weight” which ultimately prevent them from reaping the many benefits of a sensible and productive approach to training.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having body composition and condition related goals, we must pursue them with sensible, effective and productive approaches and attitudes, and resist the social conditioning that sees us more inclined towards the extreme, destructive and ultimately futile methods typically associated with trying to lose weight.