Be Prepared for a Fight
A quick reminder about the content of this and other posts: I'm not doling out specific dieting advice. I might be able to commiserate with you on your own journey, but these are just observations of my own efforts. I'm sure our experiences will have plenty of overlap, but you will see plenty of your own special variations from these experiences.
Among the trials and tribulations you encounter upon this noble endeavor, there is one that you don’t really hear too often from people that are trying to cheer you on. It’s often only mentioned by pessimists or those who would use it as an excuse to not even try. It manifests in many forms but you feel its influence constantly. I’m sorry that it might be a bit scary or daunting like a demon in the shadows, but I really don’t want to minimize this. I believe that knowledge is power and being armed with the knowing, you will be better able to go to combat with: your own body. As Thufir Hawat once said, “The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence.” This trap being that your body will do it’s damnedest to constantly work against and sabotage your efforts.
Sure, when you’re watching those post-Saturday morning cartoons about this meal plan or that exercise regime, the whole deal is really simple. You just follow these easy super easy steps (as well as buy whatever thing they’re hawking) and you’ll basically be slapped on a golden record and blasted into space to show aliens what humans really look like. They never really mention that, oh yeah, your effort in that regimen is kinda the easy part. They don’t want to mention this uphill battle that you’ll be “enjoying” for... pretty much ever. Of course, they wouldn’t say that since they’re not REALLY about your well being and more about the sales. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s no shortage of naysayers and pessimists who love to no end to bring up this study or trial that shows that any effort is for naught and it’s impossible to stay on the path.
What is this inner demon that I’m talking about? What is it like and what should you be prepared for? I alluded to this in previous posts, but I’ll elucidate slightly more here. To paraphrase a bunch of literature, when you’ve settled at a certain weight after puberty, your body becomes pretty comfortable with that weight. Extremely comfortable. It’s what’s known as a “set point” or the weight at which your body is happy to maintain, mostly. I say “mostly” because it’s also quite happy to move… up. You can pack on those lbs and keep getting a new high score for that set point. But guess what? Like some demonic ratchet, you can’t ever go back down.
Once you finally decide to make that plunge and make an honest effort to eat with purpose and to move enough to make it a little harder for a zombie to catch you, you’ll notice that the first 10% or so of fat loss is somewhat easy. Sure, you’re a bit out of your comfort zone but it’s nothing you can’t handle. But under that ~10%... something starts happening. Your body decides to stop being bamboozled by this newfound tomfoolery and decides it needs to put a stop to these aspirational shenanigans and it has a lot of tools in its shed to complete the task. Mostly in the form of hormones.
I won’t bore you with the mechanics but essentially your body decides that you are now starving. Crisis mode activate! It’s life or death here, people, and it’s time to bring out the big guns. Millions of years of evolutionary memory has taught it these techniques: first we’re going to run low and slow. Slow down that metabolism so that your internal furnace stops burning all those precious calories so quickly (literally -- check out thermogenesis). That’s step one. Now you’re tired and cold all the time!* Where is all that energy fitness boosters said I’d have?? Also, your digestive system slows down. It seems to really want to slow that conveyor belt down to make sure it’s squeezed every last Calorie out of that meal.
Once the energy preservation mode is activated, it’s time to focus on energy harvesting as well! And this means that, wow, you are hungry. All the time. Forever hungry. People ask you if you want to eat and you just have to laugh at yourself. “Friend if I ate when I was hungry, you’d probably never know I could talk.” Because you are now running a calorie deficit at all times. The body has decided that now you’re under your set point you’re running a deficit until you’ve gotten back up to where it wants. Your brain is now just marinating in a hot mess of hunger hormones.
The crappy thing is that your body has much more stamina to get you back up than you have to keep it at bay. You will not win this staring contest. Imagine Pandora’s box is actually a suitcase you’ve overpacked and it’s bursting at the seams and, by the way, the clasps are snapped right off. It is now your job for eternity to hold that thing closed by sheer might of will. If you sleep, it busts open. If you waver, it busts open. And you will waver.
So this does sound pretty hopeless, right? Well, the one thing that was managed with Pandora’s box was to close it before hope escaped, so there is still that! I learned a couple things that help me keep that hope and maybe it’ll be useful to someone else.
When you inevitably get bucked off the horse (to continue the tradition of abusing multiple metaphors per post), the first time it’s real hard to get back on. You feel so guilty and you feel all the effort was for naught. But you get back on in a heroic show of a steely resolve. Then you get bucked again because, damn, it’s still just as hard to ride that horse. But guess what? You do see an improvement: it’s actually easier to get back on the horse this time. And each time after that gets a little easier. You will learn to get really good at the recovery, and as long as you recover you’re still in the fight.
But the big thing is just knowing that it’s going to happen. It’s like bracing yourself for an impact. If someone punches you in your gut without giving you a chance to clench your abs, you will get the wind knocked out of you (or worse). But if you stiffen your abdominal wall before the fist hits (not that this has really ever been an issue for me since I’m a lover not a fighter), the blow will still hurt but you have a much better chance of being able to keep your feet.
So going back to Thufir’s quote at the beginning, take heart. You’re not crazy, your body really is that desperate. But now that you know what’s coming, you can prepare yourself for it. It was a difficult lesson for myself to learn so stay alert. STAND FAST! SECURE THE RIGGIN!
*These are effects I’ve seen. Your mileage may vary