This is an aspect of weight loss that perplexes a lot of people – they start a new diet and notice their clothes getting looser, or their face getting thinner – but their weight is staying the exact same! It is frustrating, because you *think* your diet is working but you step on the scale and feel like a big old failure.
Well, I am here to tell you that you can relax! You are not a failure! You are experiencing the wonders of the fat cell in action (I can hear you saying, “big whoop — skinny thighs are what excites me!”).
Let’s start off with a little physiology lesson. In your body you have 10-30 billion fat cells, and that is if you are of a healthy weight. Overweight people can have 75 billion fat cells or more, and it is not unheard of for morbidly obese people to have 250-300 billion fat cells overwhelming their boney frames! That is a LOT of fat cells (adipocytes). Picture each fat cell like a little deflated balloon. That balloon can be relatively empty or filled to the brim and be stretched over 10x its normal size. Now these fat cells are stubborn creatures – you can always make more, but once you have them, they are yours for good. Up until very recently1, it was thought that the only way to get rid of fat cells was to cut them out, but you can deflate them — and this is the key to losing weight effectively.
You see, fat cells are little storage tanks, and despite your most heartfelt desires to the contrary, they are remarkably efficient at storing fat in the form of triglycerides within the cell. When we want to burn fat – it isn’t an easy matter of having your brain tell your body, “we need more energy – let’s burn that love handle”. It doesn’t work that way! We need two enzymes, hormone sensitive lipase and adipose glyceride lipase to break down the triglyceride within fat cell where it is then released into the bloodstream as FFA’s. The more blood supply an area has, the better it can whisk away those FFA’s that are getting dumped from the fat cells. You can see this on your own body — take a second and poke your facial cheeks. See, the fat there is nice and soft because it has a good blood supply. Now grab the fat on your belly or on your butt. Feel the difference? It is dense and hard. It doesn’t have a good blood supply to whisk fat away. This is why when you start losing weight, it usually leave the ‘soft’ places first – your face, breasts, and arms and leaves you feeling like a saggy humpty dumpty for a while. This blood flow issue also leads us to our key point – when you start a diet and are burning fat, the scale often stays immobile despite you noticing that you are shrinking. This happens because the body abhors a vacuum. When the adipocytes dump out their fatty contents, your body doesn’t like to see an empty cell – so it shuttles water into the cell to fill up the space the fat just occupied. This is also why fat loss can be considered an inflammatory process and why you often feel bad, tired, sick, or swollen when you are dieting (there are other chemical factors, but we will discuss those at another time). Your body is literally replacing the fat with water! This process is more extreme for some people than for others, and some fortunate souls experience very little of this water replacement. This is also why your stomach or thighs can feel mushy or spongy when you are losing weight – you are replacing a dense fat with water.
So, what you can do, especially if you know that you have resilient fat or are a water hoarder? Well, there are a few simple things:
- Stay hydrated. I know, you’re thinking, “Why put more water into a swollen body?”, — Well, you need to flush out the metabolites from breaking down those FFA’s.
- Limit Caffeine and Alcohol. A little of either substance is OK, and small doses of caffeine can even be beneficial because it has a mild diuretic effect. Large amounts of either (and by large I am referring to more than 3 caffeinated beverages or more than 1 glass of wine or beer each day) can cause you to swell up like a balloon at the Macy’s Day Parade AND make your hard-earned weight loss come to a grinding halt.
- Shake your booty. Yes, I said it. The largest lymphatic pump in your body is the quadriceps muscles in your legs, so anything that gets those quads pumping — like walking, dancing, or biking, increases your lymph flow and your blood flow. If you work yourself up to a decent exertion point, then you will really increase systemic blood flow, and breathing (and breathing is the means by which your body excretes the metabolites of burnt fat cells!). Dig out those Richard Simmons’ shorts you’ve been hanging onto for the past 20 years — (they are back in style) and get ‘Sweatin’ to the Oldies!’
So there you have it! Know that you are not hallucinating – your face is thinner, your breasts are shrinking, and those bingo wings are real. Your scale just hasn’t caught up with your body! The more you follow the above steps – the faster you will purge that excess water (and inflammation) and the scale will start moving in the right direction.