This is the second post in the series, “Self-Sabotage in Fat Loss Diets“. This is a long post.
The words patience and randomness don’t go well together. In this post, I will tell you why most people fail in their dieting attempts, and why in my first post in this series, I said that women are more prone to these problems. It is fundamentally because there is randomness in dieting, and that people just can’t deal with it.
There is one thing that you must keep in mind in this post: You must always plan a fat loss diet, but things NEVER go as planned, especially if you’re a woman. This seriously skews our perceptions of our own body.
In this post, I will specifically cover:
- How water affects the way we look
- The random things that can happen during dieting and how to assess progress
- Skewed Perceptions of our own body Image
- What all this means about progress assessments during dieting
The Water Factor
The picture on the right says it all. Our body is at least 70% water. More specifically, it is a huge system where the balance of water is carefully maintained. It is all about homeostasis. Basically, you body likes a certain level of pH, blood sodium level, etc and wants to maintain that level. It does this by various mechanisms, most of which occur in water.
Knowing this, water swings can be very significant. Let’s just use some of my anecdotal examples.
All-you-can-eat sushi: Up 2 kg the next day
1400kcal low carb diet: Down 3 kg 2 days later
Did I gain 2 kg of fat? And in the second case, did I lose 3kg of fat? Certainly not. I did gain 2kg of water.
One big factor to take into account is your sodium intake. Very simplistically, when you eat sodium (table salt), you body adds more water to various tissues to lower the sodium concentration in these tissues. The result is these tissues swelling with water.
When you eat out (and sodium levels in your diet typically spike) and you retain water. How much water? For a 160lbs person, it is possible to be up as much as 4-5lbs. This water can then take anywhere from 1-5 days to drop off.
In the second case, low carb diets typically deplete some of the body’s carbohydrate stores. To really simplify things (things are never that simple) carbs attract water, losing carbs loses some of this water that ‘tags along’ with them as well. How much can people drop? A 160lbs person can probably drop up to 8lbs of water in 3 days of very low carbs (below 50g a day).
These are just two scenarios, and there are infinite. The best example of water retention disaster is in the female menstrual cycle. Note that hormones affect water balance immensely, and in the menstrual cycle, hormone levels are just fluctuating beyond measure.
Ladies always complain about getting fuller and ‘fatter’ just before their period. This is true, a plethora of hormonal changes ensure that this is going to happen. Now put this together with sodium and other (many other) factors, and it is not uncommon to have a 130lbs female swinging anywhere from 125lbs to 135lbs in the course of a month.
Let me rephrase that: it is downright common for a 130lbs female to swing +-3lbs (127-133lbs) and very possibly up to +-5lbs (125-135lbs).
Before I talk about assessment – Let’s talk about the other funny stuff that can happen during a diet
Alright, so now we know that water swings can be very significant. Let’s bring in another well known trend in dieting, that weight losses are usually non-linear.
What this means is that you may eat in such a way to lose 1lbs of fat a week. But the weight doesn’t necessarily come off at that rate. So your measurements may be:
Week 1: 170lbs
Week 2: 168lbs
Week 3: 168lbs
Week 4: 166lbs
That’s perfectly fine, and the important ting is that after 4 weeks, you arrived just as planned (4lbs fat lost). It is more important to look at the long term trend. This is in part due to the things discussed earlier. The static weight may have been due to a larger meal the previous night maybe, or some nagging water retention. The factors are endless.
However, there is this unique scenario which has been aptly dubbed the whoosh phenomenon. It is where there is completely zero progress for weeks. I really mean no progress, zero progress for maybe 3 weeks. (4-5 weeks in females even) And then suddenly, usually overnight, you drop 4 lbs.
People aren’t really sure why this happens, but it does. All you can do is to accept it. Frustrating yes, but you can’t do anything about it.
Alright, now its time to explain why females are such neurotic dieters.
Just think, I’ve described several phenomenon that shows that you can potentially swing 5lbs easily. How much fat loss do you think a 130lbs female can expect in 4 weeks? Let’s say you take it conservative, and say 4 lbs in 4 weeks. Even if it is 8 lbs in 4 weeks, that 8lbs fat loss may have 5lbs that are completely ‘masked’.
That means that for 4 weeks at least, you can potentially see zero progress, especially in females. Males typically do not have the same problem because for one, they don’t go through the water retention nightmares of the menstrual cycle. This means that: for females, practical assessments are only valid after 5 weeks of constant assessment. For males, you still need at least 3 weeks.
The next practical consideration of this, is to keep the rest of the factors in dieting the same.
The most common problem is basically seeing no weight loss, and then increasing training, specifically increasing cardiovascular training. Particularly with women, cardio at the wrong times in the cycle exacerbates cortisol production. This increases water retention further. You can literally gain some weight after an intense exercise session. I hope you see why this is dangerous.
Remember one thing to never do: Increased exercise (from your regular levels) on decreased calories = muscle loss + potentially killed metabolism.
Knowing about the random things that can happen in a way keeps people from doing such things, since they were already expected.
Now, let’s get on to the next issue, expectations and self-perceptions.
I don’t trust myself, and for good reason. I’ve got my own biases, my own ideals and most importantly, my own notion of the ideal body.
You do too. I’m not here to argue about where and how these ideals are formed (media), but they do exist. I’m sure we’ve all seen the anorexic who still thinks he/she is fat when he/she is obviously not. But this occurs at much subtler orders of magnitude. Someone who has dieted down may perhaps feel that he is now thin, while at ex-athlete at the same body fat percentage feels that he is fat.
Again, it doesn’t matter what you feel or why you feel that way. The real issue is that you will inaccurately assess your own progress.
As a good rule of thumb: Always have someone else assess your progress for you, and if you can’t do that, at least rely on pictures.
For some reason, people manage to screw around with the tools of assessment. Perhaps they pull the tape measure slightly tighter, or only step on the scale after a hard workout (when water is lost). Somehow or rather, people can find ways to tell themselves what they want. Frankly, I don’t know if I do this, though I’d wager I do. Hence, the best approach is to not trust yourself.
The Methods of Assessment
This is my preferred method to assess progress during a diet and I think it will be a good enough method for anyone.
First and foremost, weekly weigh-ins and measurements, first thing in the morning after going to the toilet. Measure your weight and selected measurements. In my case, I take my weight, and measurements at the upper arms, waist, chest and thighs. Since I’m male, and tend to store fat in my lower belly, the waist measurement is the one I will track.
Every 4 weeks, I take a set of pictures semi-nude (in underwear, able to see muscular definition in most body parts) of my front, back and side. I then compare these to the previous set of pictures and see if there are improvements.
The last and ongoing assessment is just looking in the mirror on a daily basis and feeling how clothes fit. If my jeans are fitting more loosely, and I look slimmer this week compared to last, I know I’m on the right track.
Taking into the random stuff I’ve discussed earlier, I know not to assess like this more than once a week, and even then, not trust any judgement just yet.
Once I have at least 3 weeks of data (5 weeks for females), I look at it as a whole and if the trend is downwards, I know I’m successful.
Of course, this doesn’t have to be nearly this complicated, and I’m probably exaggerating the extent of pedantic behaviour going on. But that is still the ideal way. Does your assessment need to be Ideal? Certainly not. I think if you are happy with what you see in the mirror after a month, it is all good. (That’s what you’re dieting for after all right?)
The final point I want to make in this article is: There is nothing you can do about these random things
No, you will not be able to turn on a tap to drain that excess fluid out of your body (unless you go for liposuction, something I hope you never consider).
The only way around this, is that there is no way around this. The best we can do, is to accept that such things happen, plan out a course of action according to sound principles and past experiences, and then trust that it is going to work. Assessing on a daily basis is the best route to disappointments. *(see end notes for interesting discussion)
Now try to tell that to the neurotic female dieter. It’s hard to face the fact that your body is not responding the way you’d like to. Biased yes, but also true. Stopping this tendency to want to see immediate results and ‘get fit yesterday’ is the true indicator of adherence to a plan, and thus success in dieting.
True success in dieting combines an ability to not sweat the small stuff while sticking to the main principles.
*Some End notes for those interested:
This is taken from the Book, Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Example: A person is expected to earn a return of 15% in excess of Treasury bills, with a 10% error rate/annum. 100 sample paths, 68 will fall within +-10% around the 15% excess return. In this optimistic situation, 95 sample paths will fall between -5% return and +35% return.
Probability of making money at different scales
A minute-by-minute examination of the performance would yield 241 pleasurable minutes and 238 unpleasurable ones. (60688 vs 60271 a year) Draw it out to a month-by-month inspection, and you have 8 great experiences and 4 bad ones in a year. Draw it out to a yearly analysis, and you have 1 bad experience in 20 years.
Thus, assessing your diet progress everyday will only lead to more and more bad experiences! Best do it every month.
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