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Can't Lose Weight? Blame Homeostasis

To avoid the weight-loss plateau, you'll have to kick your diet (or your workout) up a notch.



Would you like a word that explains a lot of the mysteries of life? Here it is: homeostasis. If you’re trying to lose weight, build muscle or get athletically fit for summer, it’s a word you definitely should know.

According to Dr. Jim Walker, the director of sport science at the athletes’ haven The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (TOSH) in Murray, “Homeostasis means a biological balance exists. In terms of fitness improvements, it means that this balance must be altered. An overload must be added in terms of training (increased volume and/or intensity; change in type of training, etc.) in order for fitness to progress.”

In other words, you have to get out of your physical homeostasis. The word can also be described as, “resistance to change.” Walker explains that most fitness exercisers fall into a plateau achieved from doing the same thing all the time. If you’re doing the same exercises, sets, reps and resistance, your body will soon adapt and stop progressing.

When it comes to losing weight, Walker advises getting back to basics: “In terms of weight loss, there must be a change in the caloric intake/energy expenditure equation.” That means fewer calories than normal need to be taken in and/or more calories than normal need to be burned.

The key term here is calories—not carbs, etc. Walker has nothing against a low-carb diet; he just knows that the science behind such diets rarely produces long-term weight-loss success. He says, “The reason low-carb diets produce quick weight loss is because there’s an accompanying water loss associated with glycogen depletion,” because carbs are stored in the body as glycogen, a sugar.

“Every pound of glycogen stored in the body is accompanied by three pounds of water,” Walker says. “So, if you eliminate carbs from your diet, a reduction of one pound of stored glycogen results in a total of four pounds of weight loss. This is not real weight loss, but a reduction in muscle energy stores and water.”

He offers more scientific insight when it comes to dieting: “Another important example [of homeostasis] is seen when the body is deprived of food. The body then resets the metabolism to a lower-than-normal
value. This allows the body to continue to function, at a slower rate, even though the body is starving.

Therefore, people who deprive themselves of food while trying to lose weight would find it easy to shed weight initially, and much harder to lose more after.” But he explains that dieters can re-ignite their metabolism by increasing metabolic demands through exercise. However, that may be difficult due to the lower energy of the dieter’s readjusted metabolism.

Homeostasis is a strong force of nature and necessary for survival. For example, no matter how cold or hot it is, the human body will maintain an average temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Any time that temperature rises or falls, it can be life-threatening.

It’s also important to know that homeostasis can be psychological as well as physical. If you’re getting back into shape after being sedentary for a while, it’ll be hard. Your mind will resist. Your body doesn’t want to change from couch potato to lean mean machine. It will take a real effort of will to make that change.

Even those who know you may show a kind of psychological homeostasis once you start changing and will resist adapting their image of you to match a new reality. That’s why, when you begin losing weight and getting fit, friends, family and even co-workers sometimes engage in (usually sub-conscious) “diet sabotage,” presenting you with gifts of food and candy, or suggesting stopping for fattening food more frequently.

Being aware of what homeostasis is, and how it presents itself on so many levels, is useful. It’s worth studying, both in a scientific and a meditative fashion, especially if you want to make your body faster, stronger or thinner.