The 3 things everyone should know about losing weight
Welcome to Sex and the State, a newsletter about power. To support my work toward decriminalizing and destigmatizing everything sex please buy a subscription, follow me on OnlyFans, or just share this post with a friend or on a social network!
I’m in a Facebook group called [laughs in hoe] and someone in there recently asked, “Any advice on how to lose stomach fat and love handle I don’t fit in my jeans anymore and if I do it’s too tight.. does anyone know any workout tips? Also how do you lose stomach fat without losing your a** and your t*ts? I’m terrified of that happening 🙏🏼🙏🏼”
I’ve always been mildly obsessed with health and wellness. I read a good bit of health reporting and I worked for two wellness startups before my current job.
I don’t write about it often (though I have before: Intuitive Eating is Not the Answer to Wellness Industry Diet Culture and How Medical Misogyny Replaced Hysteria With Depression).
I don’t write much self-help generally. Not because I don’t know a lot about it or think it’s interesting. My bar for when I’ll write advice is generally: 1. There isn’t already a ton of great writing on the topic. 2. I know a decent amount more than the average person on the topic.
My bar is higher for writing self-help than it is for advocating for regulatory or systemic change because I’d rather legalize fishing everywhere than teach a man to fish and tell him good luck finding an available pond.
When it comes to weight loss, I could tell you to walk to the store instead of driving to get 30 minutes of exercise in. But if you’re living in a trailer park six miles from the nearest store, what the fuck good is that going to do you? That’s actually stealing value from you, because I wasted your time and understandably frustrated you. America defaults to self-help to avoid facing systemic disadvantages. Writers write self-help because it’s a shit-ton more profitable than land-use reform.
However, reading the comments led me to believe I do know a decent amount more about weight loss than the average person in [laughs in hoe]. And while I do think it’s hard to overstate how much weight loss advice there is on the internet, it’s generally missing any kind of systemic angle.
So here are the three things I want everyone to know about losing weight:
The link between weight and health isn’t as straightforward as many believe.
The link between lifestyle and weight isn’t as straightforward as many believe.
The link between weight and being a good, beautiful, worthy person isn’t as straightforward as many believe.
I promise I’ll get to the tips eventually.
Despite these facts, our culture heavily stigmatizes being fat and highly rewards being thin. At least doubly so for women.
Fat women earn $9,000 less per year than similarly qualified average-weight women. Obese women earn $19,000 less. The average very thin woman earns $22,000 more than average-weight women. Fat women have to endure a litany of abuse merely for existing, including people yelling insults at them from car windows; “cringe” videos of people making fun of them for dancing, swimming, and otherwise existing on YouTube; harassment on dating platforms; and endless other examples of cruelty. Studies show people assume fat people are more lazy, less intelligent, and more greedy than thin people based on their body size alone. I was going to call fat-shaming “pointless,” but it’s actually demonstrably counter-productive.
Through therapy I’ve started to see myself moralize large swaths of my own behavior. This is especially ironic given that I’m a moral relativist. Yet when I overeat, I feel ashamed. “Was that brownie worth $22,000/year, Cathy?” It doesn’t feel like I simply prioritized short-term gains over long-term gains. It feels like I am an impulsive, stupid person.
ALLLL that aside, thin privilege is definitely a thing. And while my ultimate goal is to abolish it, in the meantime I absolutely intend to keep taking advantage of it to the fullest extent feasible.
Toward that end, here are some things I’ve learned about weight loss in my 35 years living as a woman in a fat-hating cisnormative heteropatriarchy.
1. Losing weight and losing fat aren’t the same thing
Most of us lose water first, muscle second, and fat a distant third. Water and muscle are also heavier than fat. So when you see the scale start to go down, what you’re seeing is mostly your body losing some of your retained water and some of your muscle atrophying. You can lose water literally overnight. Your muscles start to atrophy after just 24 hours of non-use. It takes about a week of calorie deficit to lose enough fat for it to show up on the scale.
This is basically the entire premise of the “diet” industry. Some combination of caffeine, laxatives, or just not eating causes you to lose water and muscle almost immediately, which you attribute to the product working. Then when you get used to the caffeine and laxatives and/or you start eating normally again you end up with the same amount of fat and less water and muscle and start the cycle over again with a different product and worse health.
To lose fat without losing too much muscle, try to keep using your muscles while you diet. Whatever exercise you were doing, don’t let up. This tells your body it’s important to keep your muscles and it should use your fat as fuel instead.
2. You need to run a calorie deficit to lose fat
Your body uses food as fuel. When you take in less fuel than you need to keep your systems running, two things happen. First, your body tries to use less energy. You feel tired and your metabolism slows down. You might even find your mood is worse and your libido decreases (true for me). Second, your body starts to burn stored fuel. Again, for most people that’s going to start with your muscles. But then at some point your body will begin to dip into your fat stores as well.
This is the only way to lose fat (without surgery). You cannot decrease the amount of fat on your body without taking in fewer calories than you burn.
3. You can’t lose fat in specific areas
You can’t (without surgery) choose a particular area of your body to lose fat from. Crunches can’t give you a flat stomach. Side-bends can’t get rid of love handles. Your genetics and hormones determine where your body tends to store fat and which fat stores it chooses to raid for energy.
While it’s difficult to influence where your body stores fat, it’s not impossible. You can’t do much about your genes, but you can change your hormone levels through lifestyle choices.
All else equal, you’ll store less fat on your stomach if you live a healthy lifestyle. (Belly fat is the most dangerous fat.) That means exercising, keeping stress low, sleeping enough, and not smoking cigarettes. Higher levels of stress cause your body to release the hormone cortisol, which is associated with storing fat in the belly. Sleep and exercise lower stress levels. Smoking cigarettes causes your body to store fat in your belly.
4. Your probably need to count calories to get and stay in calorie deficit
There’s a saying in fat-loss circles: “You can’t outrun your fork.” Exercise is absolutely wonderful and everyone should do it as much as is practical. It helps you sleep better, lowers your stress levels, improves your brain function, improves your mood, etc. etc. etc. All these benefits can also indirectly lead to weight loss.
But you’re probably not going to lose much fat through exercise. Your body burns the vast, vast majority of your calories just maintaining a consistent temperature and staying alive.
Exercise just doesn’t burn very many calories. And the less you weigh to begin with, the fewer calories exercise burns.
Check out this chart from Harvard showing how many calories 30 minutes of various forms of exercise burn for the average person who weighs 125 lbs, 155 lbs, and 185 lbs:
The most calorie-burning exercise is going super hard on the stationary bike. The average 185-lb person isn’t even going to burn their Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino (550 calories) that way.
The simplest, most effective way to get and stay in calorie deficit is to:
1. Figure out how many calories you’re burning by default. This is based on a host of factors, including your genetics, lifestyle, hormones, medical conditions, age, gender, height, and level of activity. MyFitnessPal has a handy calculator which will tell you based on several of these factors how much you probably can eat in a day and run a deficit. That’s your initial calorie goal.
2. Record absolutely everything you put in your mouth in a calorie counting app. People consistently underestimate portion sizes, so measuring cups and spoons and a food scale are going to be super helpful, at least at first while you learn how small 4 ounces of chicken looks on a plate.
3. Consistently run a calorie deficit for a week or two. If you’re still not losing weight, one of two things is happening. Maybe you’re overestimating your burn rate (perhaps your metabolism is unusually slow) and you need to reset your calorie goal. But, more likely, you’re undercounting your calories. It’s super easy to guess wrong on portion sizes or input carrots cooked in butter as “carrots” when raw carrots have way fewer calories or eat restaurant food with tons of hidden sugar so you need to specify and overestimate to make up for this.
5. Lean protein is your best friend
Most people who consistently run a calorie deficit are going to be somewhat hungry a good portion of the time. The best way to help blunt hunger is to eat way more lean protein. All food is made up of at least one of three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Of the three, lean protein takes the longest to digest, meaning you feel full longest. To feel the most full with the least calories, aim to get about 1/3 of your calories from protein. MyFitnessPal makes it easy to see how your calories break down between carbs, fat, and protein. Carbs and fat are both more plentiful in nature and much cheaper to produce than protein, so eating a diet that’s a third protein is extremely difficult. But if you can manage it, you’ll be way less hungry. I eat steamed shrimp and egg whites to hit 33%.
That’s it for the tips. If you run a calorie deficit for a few weeks, you absolutely will lose fat. The bigger and longer the deficit, the more fat you’ll lose. Being in calorie deficit is not generally enjoyable. If you’re comfortable, you’re probably not in calorie deficit.
I want to leave you with two thoughts.
1. People are extremely variable
Some things are pretty universal. As far as I know, everyone needs to run a calorie deficit to burn fat. As far as I know, everyone loses water and muscle before they burn fat. But that still leaves room for so much variation. People range wildly in how hungry they are by default, how quickly they lose fat, how hungry they get when they diet, their baseline metabolism, how much their metabolism slows down when they diet, etc. etc. etc. If it seems like it’s more difficult for you to run a calorie deficit compared with other people, or that you have to restrict calories much more than other people, you’re probably right!
Fat shamers want you to believe maintaining an average weight is equally easy for everyone because they’re pathetic people who need something to feel superior to other people about and all they have is their waistlines. The diet industry wants you to believe maintaining an average weight is equally easy for everyone because they want you to believe if their products worked for the people in the ads they’ll work for you.
If you’re having trouble losing weight or keeping it off, it’s not because you’re weak-willed or lazy or stupid. I mean, don’t get me wrong. You might be all of those things. But your weight is absolutely not a referendum on your character.
2. Everything is connected.
I spent six months researching how to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease as the biggest part of my full-time job. I looked at the evidence for all the drugs, supplements, brain games, and everything else on the market.
There are six things that have robust empirical support for being able to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s Disease:
5. Lifelong learning
Each one of those factors influences the other. People who have stronger relationships have lower levels of stress. People who exercise more sleep better. People who have healthier diets have an easier time learning new skills. So on and so forth.
If you’re trying to lose weight but you’re only sleeping six hours a night, you’re going to have a harder time. Same if you’re in an unhealthy relationship or exploitative job. Stress and sleep loss, for example, cause your body to release hormones that cause you to feel more hungry and make you feel less full when you eat. Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking.
Health and weight are both really complicated and extremely simple. It’s complicated in that our health and weight are multi-factor, dynamic systems over which we don’t have anything remotely resembling complete control. But they’re simple in that there’s no supplement you need to buy, no program you need to follow, no drug you need to take to lose weight or be healthy.
To lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit. To be healthy, you need to maximize the six things above. You need to eat nutrient-dense foods with a low glycemic index. You need to get at least 30 minutes of exercise that gets your heart rate up at least three times per week. You need to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night, on average. You need to maintain strong, close, interdependent relationships with a handful of people and weak ties with a larger community. You need to challenge your brain throughout your life by learning new skills, languages, and topics. And you need to keep your stress levels within a healthy range. No sweat, right? Ha.
The wellness space tends to vacillate between two extremes: Victim-blaming and victim mentality. The people with something to sell say you’re unhealthy because you’re a lazy piece of shit but if you buy this thing, listen to this podcast, read this book, etc. everything can change. The people who are tired of being blamed for shit over which they have little control say you’re unhealthy because your genes and environment have conspired against you.
Well, your genes and environment have conspired against you. Our bodies hold onto fat for dear life and make calorie deficits extremely unpleasant because most humans who lost fat quickly and enjoyed being in calorie deficit died before they could reproduce. We are absolutely not adapted to a world in which calories are plentiful.
The entire world, including animals, is getting fatter. Big Agriculture and food manufacturers have lobbied to fill our food with steroids, antibiotics, plastics that mimic hormones, and other additives banned in Europe which evidence suggests makes us fatter and less healthy.
And yet, each of us has some small sliver of control. We all have a bunch of small choices we can make each day to fight back against cronyism and entropy.
I want every bit of energy people put into shitting on fat people for existing to go into holding food manufacturers accountable for not literally poisoning us for profit. I want it to go into creating safe, walkable communities. I want it to go into guaranteeing every American a baseline level of economic security so they don’t have to take exploitative jobs or stay in unhealthy relationships and can afford healthy food.
In other words, I want people to stop getting rich by making it harder for already disadvantaged people to make the choices that will make them healthier. From zoning to food additives to corporate welfare to highways, we have set up a system that makes the poorest among us fatter and less healthy in order to make the rich richer.
But, in the meantime, if you want to lose fat, I want you to count calories, run a deficit, and eat a lot of protein. And if you want to be healthy, I want you to do what you can to optimize your diet, exercise, sleep, relationships, lifelong learning, and stress.