Weight loss is not a straight line

Should weight loss be linear? Short answer – no probably not. 

You can probably stop reading this now but I’m going to delve into why if you’re more of a reasons-person rather than just an answers-person.

Many people have the idea that weight loss is this nice linear thing that just happens in a straight line. Most of my clients do too. 

Certainly, for some people, weight loss moves in a pretty straight forward way (lucky bastards) but for most, you’ll find weight going back and forth or not moving much each week for a number of reasons that don’t just involve the calories you’re eating. 

One of the biggest ones is water retention. This is particularly applicable for females thanks to our hormonal cycle. 

Water retention can have us believing that an otherwise well-executed diet is failing. It can mask the occurrence of fat loss. It can also frustrate the hell out of us. It has certainly frustrated me many times. 

There’s many reasons we might be holding water – so many it’s kind of ridiculous. Sodium, potassium imbalance, hormonal imbalance (especially around menstruation), not drinking enough water, eating too much or too little fibre, being really sore from a workout, etc. etc. 

Another reason is cortisol. The stress hormone. 

There was an experiment that was conducted in 1944 called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. I had actually never heard of it until I went to an Eric Helms seminar and he mentioned it in his presentation. It’s a pretty interesting one that surely wouldn’t pass ethics requirements today. 

Basically a group of 36 volunteers (who were actually war protesters allowed to participate in this study rather than go off to fight) were put on a semi-starvation diet for 6 months. The aim was to have the men’s body weights reduce by ~25% over this period and their calories were adjusted accordingly.

Interestingly, over this period weight loss initially worked very linearly. As time went by though, weight loss stalled and started occurring in what has been explained by Lyle McDonald and the like, as “whooshes”. 

As in, literally overnight men in the study would drop 3+ pounds after weeks of stagnation. This happens often when dieting, we may lose 1kg and for weeks on end see not much movement at all. This has been attributed to water retention that occurs as triglycerides inside cells disappear and are replaced with water. 

The men in the study were losing body fat but not seeing any change in scale weight due to fat being replaced by water. 

The water retention is the body’s natural method of accounting for fat-loss and the body may be burning fat even if the scale isn’t moving. 

In order to overcome the plateaus, the researchers noted that after a refeed the men would often weigh in lighter the next day. This was put down partly to a reduction in cortisol that was provided by the sudden higher calorie intake. By reducing cortisol, it was also believed that the body let go of the water.

So how do we apply this to a cutting phase or a diet? Make less changes, less often. Be prepared for weight loss to look like a squiggly line on the graph rather than a straight line from A to B (a squiggly line you may want to punch). Don’t continuously cut calories and increase activity every time the scale doesn’t move (this could actually make water retention worse). Graph progress over a month and take a monthly “average” weight from the four weights from each week. 

Keep fluid high. Keep sodium and fibre consistent. Ensure potassium intake is at RDI. Get good sleep. Have a refeed every 4-6 weeks and remember, remember, remember, weight loss is hardly ever linear. 

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