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When I talk to women over 40 about losing weight, one of the biggest frustrations I hear is that when they first went on their diet or proem, the pounds were coming off. They were excited. Whatever they were doing was working, and the number on the scale was going down.


Until it didn’t.


No matter the approach, weight loss occurs in 5 phases. How you respond to each phase will determine whether you can sustain your weight loss and then maintain your weight.


But first, a clarification: when we talk about “weight loss,” what we’re really referring to is losing FAT. Losing body fat can lower the risk of diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease, joint pain, inflammation, risk of cancer, and countless other benefits. Losing fat will also obviously shrink your body’s overall size. But along with losing fat, we also need to gain MUSCLE, which will improve your metabolism, increase your insulin resistance, and give your body strength, shape, and tone. Unfortunately, if you’re only going by the number on the scale, water and muscle loss can misrepresent your fat loss.


So let’s delve into the 5 phases of fat loss, what you can do to lose fat, avoid losing muscle, and then maintain your overall weight loss.


Phase One: Glycogen Depletion, or Water Weight Loss


To lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit, meaning you must consume fewer calories than your body uses. When you first begin a calorie-restricted diet, water weight is typically the first to go.


Your body stores glycogen, a type of sugar, to fuel your body for anything your body needs to do–eating, drinking, thinking, sleeping, watching TV, exercising. Glycogen is bound to the body by water, so as you glycogen stores are depleted, your body releases that water. Water is the heaviest thing in our body besides our bones, so the number on the scale goes down when we lose water. This is why when you go on a new diet, you often see a drop in weight fairly quickly.You may be losing weight, but you’re not yet losing fat.


Phase Two: Fat Loss 


After the initial glycogen depletion and loss of water weight, your body will begin to dip into the energy stored in fat cells to fuel activity. This is the sweet spot for healthy fat loss. You want to stay here as long as possible until you reach your desired weight. Even though the number on the scale may not be moving much (which will happen if you are also strength training and building muscle), you might still be losing fat.

Here are some signs:


  • Your sense of well-being improves.
  • You have more energy.
  • Your blood pressure goes down.
  • Your clothes fit better.
  • You have more muscle definition.
  • Your body measurements are going down.
  • Your chronic pain improves.
  • Your sleep improves.
  • You snore less.
  • You’re in a better mood.


Phase 3: Plateau


Plateau is the phase you enter when your body gets used to the calorie deficit and adjusts your metabolism to compensate, stopping your fat loss efforts.


Our bodies are hardwired to survive. When our calories dip too low, especially when we combine that with aerobic exercise (“cardio”), our hormones what to put a stop to it. You could be doing the EXACT same thing when you were losing fat, but now your body just says ENOUGH!


When we see the pounds drop from eating less and perhaps exercising more, it’s exciting. It’s easy to take it too far. The problem is that your body will fight back through metabolic compensation. If you start to experience a decrease in energy, look like you’re losing muscle tone, and get more easily tired when you work out or go through your day, chances are you’ve hit a plateau.


Phase 4: Muscle Loss OR Metabolic Recovery


When you hit the Plateau Phase, there’s a fork in the road. You can either start to lose muscle or give your metabolism time to recover and reset so you can go back into a fat loss phase.


When your body is in a calorie deficit, but you continue to engage in in cardio/aerobic exercise, your body things it needs to go into survival mode. That results in holding onto the fat you still have and maybe storing more, especially around the belly. Because the body want to hold onto the fat for “safety,” it will dip into muscles for energy. This results in muscle loss, which is the last think we want. As we age, we already lose muscle tone, so losing even more muscle when we really want to lose fat can be even more detrimental to long-term health.


When you’re on a weight-loss journey, the best way to avoid losing muscle and reset your metabolism is to actually give your body more energy by INCREASING your calories. Do this by adding extra protein from lean sources like chicken, eggs, and fish. As you slowly give your body more energy, it will resume normal function over time. Now, BE WARNED! As you recover your metabolism, your body will rehydrate and replenish its glycogen stores, so the scale WILL GO UP. This DOES NOT necessarily mean that you are gaining weight.


Next, decrease the amount of cardio exercise. This may go against your instinct. For decades, we’ve been told “cardio, cardio, cardio” because it burns the most calories. But cardio stresses the body and will flip the switch from fat burning to muscle burning. We want to keep that switch from happening.


Finally, you need to BUILD MUSCLE. If you’re not resistance training with weights, then start. If you have been resistance training, increase the number of workouts (say go from 2 per week to 3) or the intensity (by increasing your weight). The more muscle on your body and the less fat, the higher your metabolic rate. That’s because muscle uses a lot more energy than fat while at rest. Furthermore, you need to build muscle to offset the natural muscle loss, or sarcopenia, due to age.


Phase 5: Maintenance Mode


Once you’ve hit your target weight, you can go into maintenance mode. This means you find an “Energy balance.” Being in an energy balance means consuming enough energy (food) and expending enough energy (everyday life and exercise) to stay within 5% of your current weight. If you start going up more than 5%, then you know you’re eating too many calories for the energy you’re using. At this point, you might want to check-in with your nutrition.


So this is what happens to your body when you are trying to lose weight. What often happens is that people get frustrated in the Plateau Phase and then throw up their hands and quit. They end up gaining the weight back, and oftentimes more. That’s why it’s essential to work with a health coach who can guide you through these phases.


Shine on,

Dr. Candace



(Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash)


I am a science-based wellness coach with over 30 years of experience specializing in helping people 40+ reduce pain using corrective exercise therapy, get stronger through smart fitness programs, and increase energy and vitality through sustainable nutrition.

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