Sustainable Fat Loss and the Power of AND

Fad diets don’t work for most people long-term AND that doesn’t mean sustainable fat loss isn’t possible for many people AND just because it’s sometimes possible doesn’t mean everyone with some “extra” body fat should be bothering to try to lose it. ALL of these can be true at the same time.

Fad diets, including pretty much everything on the best-seller list. are ineffective in creating long-lasting, sustainable weight loss for most people. The diet industry doesn’t need us to sustain the weight loss, they just need us to buy their books and products, blame ourselves when they don’t work, and come back for more.

Sustainable fat loss is possible for many people, but not all people, through behavior change and mindset work. It is not equally possible for everyone in that subgroup to get to a “normal” weight and stay there. Of the numerous factors that contribute to our body compositions, only some of them are under our influence. We can’t change our genetics, level of societal privilege (but hey, many of us keep fighting the good fight!), and so much more, AND the piece of the pie that we CAN influence will be different for each of us. For one person learning to manage emotional eating, for example, will result in major changes in body composition and for another person, it may do very little. We are each unique, complex systems, and the inputs necessary will vary.

AND if that work is not valued, too hard, or not accessible to someone now or ever, it is no one else’s job to tell them they should care more, work harder, or buckle down and make it happen anyway.

Folks who argue that sustainable fat loss is impossible love to quote research, and as a big nerd, I’m usually all on board with that sort of thing. However, most research on fat loss also creates unsustainable systems for rapid weight loss that result in regain for most participants. Researchers like to make systems that are standardized for every participant and tightly controlled for a short period of time. In the extreme cases, they give people 800 calories a day in meal replacement shakes and then release them back into the wild to see how they do. At least, that’s what the vast majority of them looked like until more recently.

There’s some pretty great work coming out of a few researcher’s labs these days that still meet the needs of scientific rigor but give us powerful insights into what can influence our weight range. Dr. Kevin Hall has been a real standout lately, with tightly controlled studies investigating the influence of dietary composition on caloric consumption, including some recent (2019) findings showing that when participants ate highly processed foods, they naturally consumed about 500 more calories on average each day than participants who ate minimally processed foods. So, one tool that can help some folks towards fat loss might be increasing the percentage of foods in their diets that are minimally processed.

Which requires having the privilege necessary to make those changes AND the desire and interest in doing so.

And with this sort of research, we end up with a list of behavior changes that can influence our weight range that may or may not be accessible to any particular individual and might lead to sustainable fat loss: getting sufficient restful sleep, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol consumption, building sufficient exercise and movement habits including both cardiorespiratory health and strength, stress management strategies, mindfulness practices and more. Each of these can be a piece of the puzzle for an individual towards sustainable fat loss, depending upon their unique circumstances.

What do I mean by sustainable fat loss? This means finding changes that reduce our average caloric consumption and/or increase our average caloric expenditure that can be continued most of the time on most days for months or years at a time. These changes will be different for everyone and are not equally available to everyone. The results of these changes will look different for each of us.

We cannot predict with mathematical perfection what results are sustainable for us. Our “ideal” weight will be a range, and it will ebb and flow based upon the seasons and other periodic changes. For example, for me it is reasonable that how I eat and move looks different during the school year than it does over the summers.

The changes we make will have different impacts on each of our bodies, and we can’t assume a healthy weight will mean putting us on the “healthy” part of a BMI chart. Healthy means all of our health, and if the behaviors necessary negatively impact our social, emotional and/or mental health, then they are not healthier for us.

Here’s some n=1 anecdata for myself: Over a decade ago I lost 50-60 pounds. I didn’t hit some target weight and then stay there for the next several years. My weight trended down sometimes and trended up sometimes, but I stayed in that 50-60 pounds lost range for many years. At that time, my weight was sometimes just barely under the cut-off for so-called “normal” weight on the BMI charts (and I had a dumbass doctor who made sure to comment on it). The weight range I was at was healthy for me at that time. It did not lead to unhealthy overfocus on my body, my eating or exercises.

Later, when life threw me some curveballs, my weight went up. AND I remained at least 30 pounds down from my maximum weight. Some folks would use this to argue, “see, you couldn’t keep it all off” and others would say, “you’re no longer healthy because you’re now ‘overweight.'” Both camps miss the point. I’d maintained that 30 pounds lost–that continues to be a sustainable weight loss for me, AND the lifestyle I was living was the healthiest I could sustain at that time given my mental, emotional and physical needs at the time.

All this talk of sustainable fat loss is sometimes criticized, with folks suggesting that if we say weight loss is possible, in the world we live in with so much fatphobia, weight stigma and the systems of oppression that tell us this is our fault rather than systemic, it could be seen as supporting the narrative that fat people need to fix themselves. I truly don’t care if anyone pursues changes to their physiques or not, and I’m absolutely opposed to judging people based upon their body size. I acknowledge that it is not equally available to each of us, and I agree that the solution is to take the onus off of the individual and stop judging people’s value by their bodies. Fatphobia is a product of systems of oppression, including racism and patriarchy. AND I believe in bodily autonomy, and if we acknowledge the truth that people will continue to attempt fat loss but only let the diet industry define what that looks like, we are contributing to harm by failing to discuss healthier alternatives.

The goal needs to start with the life you’re willing and able to live. True health requires our whole selves–our mental, emotional, physical, and social wellbeing. Changes we’re willing and able to make need to be matched with moving towards all four kinds of health.

The weight will be an outcome of living that life, and it will be a range, and it will vary from person to person. It may be lower for some people and higher for other people, and it may not put us in the “normal” weight range on some chart. Our value is not defined by our appearance, and the importance of our bodies is so much more than what they look like. We need to put appearance and size in correct proportion to the other important elements our bodies give us–they move us around, they allow us to share important experiences with others, they connect us to the Earth and loved ones, they endure, survive and thrive, providing us with joy, sensation, and avenues for curiosity. In the pie chart of importance, how big a piece does appearance or size get? Is that proportionate to the energy you’re giving that work? What else is important and valuable to you and are you giving those things energy as well?

I often write about making habits-based goals built from a place of our values, and this is what I mean. I don’t only lift weights because I like looking swole. It isn’t even half of why I do it. Lifting weights fills my cup, gives me relief from stress, helps me move and feel capable in my body, reduces my chronic pain, opens up doors of experience for me, and makes my life better in innumerable ways. If I could never get lean enough to impress anyone else with my muscles, I would still lift weights. Lifting weights aligns with my values, but only when I do it from this place of building into my life in a wholistic way, not sacrificing my mental, emotional or social well-being in the process.

AND this won’t be true for everyone. Not everyone will have the same relationship with lifting that I do, and that’s ok. Some people may find they can tolerate it because they value their bone health. Some people may only lift when they’re recovering from an injury. Likewise, other people will become passionate and have the option I don’t have to become competitive in a strength sport. Respect for this diversity of experience, motivation, and privilege means respecting the diverse outcomes that come from them. And this is just one factor that influences our physique outcomes–lifting weights.

I am a recreational bodybuilder, and participating in this sport adds value to my life. I talk about physique change from this place–from the position of someone with enough privilege that I get to pursue this totally frivolous and fascinating pastime. I don’t think everyone, or even most people, should pursue bodybuilding. I don’t care if someone has any physique goals at all. I do want to talk about how we can find healthier ways to explore these goals without contributing mindlessly to systems of oppression. For those of us who decide to give it a try, we can pursue physique change from a place of radical acceptance of the truth–that the final results will look different for each of us, and we can only compare our successes against ourselves and our own circumstances. We have to weigh each change in lifestyle against how it impacts the rest of our lives–is it truly adding value or is it taking us away from other parts of our lives that matter too? Sustainable physique change is possible AND it is a privilege to get to try for it AND it’s not for everyone, AND that’s ok.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: