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Explaining the 4 stages of weight loss

Feeling stuck on your weight loss journey or confused by fluctuating numbers on the scale? Discover the 4 stages of weight loss and understand what factors influence your weight loss progress.

Steph Gregory
Steph Gregory
Health coach
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Explaining the 4 stages of weight loss

Losing weight involves more than just watching the number on the scale go down. Understanding the differences between fat loss and weight loss is crucial. While fat loss always results in weight loss, not all weight loss comes from losing fat.

This article will clarify these differences, debunk common misconceptions, and explain the science behind fat reduction. We'll also cover the signs of progress that aren't reflected on the scale, discuss healthy timelines for weight loss, and offer effective strategies for sustainable weight management.

Understanding weight loss timelines

When undertaking a weight loss journey, being able to see the end can feel like the most important part. 

This can also stem from weight loss being seen as a short-term and restrictive process in order to reach a specific goal, and so you set a timeline to see these results. In actuality, when it comes to healthy and sustainable weight loss, putting a timeframe on your weight loss journey can be quite difficult.

Factors that influence your weight loss

You can look at the averages and the timeframe of people with similar body compositions and lifestyles to you, but there will always be different influencing factors in your life, and everyone else's life, that can affect the weight loss timeline in some way. Here are some factors that affect your weight loss:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Health status
  • Hormones
  • Stress
  • Genetics
  • Activity levels

The approach we take at Embla

When you’re on a program at Embla, we work with you to make small changes that are achievable and sustainable for you, unlike other diets or programs you may have been on where you basically change your lifestyle and habits overnight. It would make sense to see a quick drop in weight in the first 4 weeks if you are making a lot of changes at once.

But, with us, we take the slow and steady approach and tailor the changes to make sense in your lifestyle, so that we aim for healthy weight loss that remains pretty consistent throughout your weight loss journey with us.

The rate of a healthy weight loss

Weight loss will naturally fluctuate on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis- for healthy weight loss you should be looking at between 0.5-1kg (1 to 2 lbs) per week as this has been seen through scientific research to be more likely that you lose fat mass instead of muscle mass. 

Although it might seem like a small amount of weight, and maybe disappointing to lose, next time you’re in a supermarket pick up a 1kg bag of carrots, or bag of sugar and that can help to feel that weight versus seeing it as a number. The physical weight can often be a reminder of just how much these weights actually are and boost your motivation for this approach.

What is a realistic weight loss timeline?

It’s completely normal to see weight fluctuations and even having a plateau during your weight loss journey.

Although it seems simple that your body is burning and using fat mass by the changes you make in your lifestyle, and so you would assume your weight would decrease in a linear fashion. But there are many other processes that your body goes through on a daily basis, like building muscle or digestion and these can mean we see the number on the scale increase some days and decrease in others.

How to measure your progress

The best way to measure your progress is by weighing yourself every 3-4 weeks as you’ll get a more accurate representation of the weight changes. And you would roughly see between 2-4kg lost in a 4-week period.

Depending on the changes you are making in your lifestyle, you might be building muscle mass and so the number on the scale may not be the most accurate representation of the fat mass you are losing. As muscle mass is much denser than fat mass, and during this time you might see a much slower weight loss, but be able to see far more physical changes like your clothes feeling looser, your body shape changing and even seeing the muscle growth in your arms, thighs and abdominal area.

The 4 stages of weight loss

To help you understand your journey better, we've broken down the weight loss process into four stages:

Stage 1: Making changes and building your foundations

Stage 2: Maintaining your new habits and routines, adding more movement

Stage 3: Making adjustments to suit your lifestyle and goals

Stage 4: Maintaining your weight loss

One of the most important parts of your weight loss journey is to find the perfect balance between your nutritional intakes and exercise. This is something your coach at Embla can help support you with, to ensure you find the right balance to fuel yourself well, enjoy movement and lose weight. Finding the right balance is different for everyone and so working with your coach  means you get that tailored approach to help you find that balance.

The negative impact of rapid weight loss

There are many beliefs that rapid weight loss is a good sign of your commitment to losing weight and being able to adhere to strict rules, but actually rapid weight loss has many negative impacts on your health, both in the short term and long term.

In the short term, you may experience:

  • extreme fatigue
  • muscle loss, 
  • hair loss, 
  • irritability
  • nutritional deficiencies

These are not pleasant effects to have from a weight loss journey, and can have long-term implications such as weak and brittle bones, metabolic changes, gallstones, and other diseases. For women, they can also experience menstrual irregularities and even loss of the menstrual cycle (amenorrhea) as the body does not have enough energy to support the menstrual cycle.

Fat loss vs weight loss: what’s the difference?

In this section, we'll explore the fundamental differences between fat loss and weight loss, shedding light on the physiological processes that underpin each. When we talk about losing weight, we're not just shedding excess fat; we're also losing fluids and lean muscle mass. It's essential to understand this distinction to set realistic expectations and adopt effective strategies for sustainable results.

What is body recomposition?

You may have come across the term “body recomposition” and this describes a change in the ratios of different bodily tissues, such as fat and muscle. When we lose weight, we lose a combination of fat mass and fat-free mass.

Fat-free mass encompasses everything else in the body, including organs, muscle, fluids, and bones. While the body doesn't typically lose weight directly from organs or bones, understanding the composition of our total weight loss is essential for comprehending the changes occurring within our bodies.

How the speed of weight loss affects your body composition

The speed of weight loss also plays a significant role in determining the composition of weight loss.

Gradual weight loss allows for a more favorable ratio of fat loss to muscle loss compared to rapid weight loss. When weight loss occurs too quickly, the body may prioritise the breakdown of muscle tissue for energy, increasing the risk of muscle loss and metabolic slowdown. Therefore, adopting a gradual approach to weight loss is often recommended for preserving muscle mass and achieving sustainable results.

The impact of individual factors

The amount of fat mass and fat-free mass lost during weight loss can also vary depending on individual factors, including starting weight.

Individuals with a higher starting weight may initially experience a higher proportion of weight loss from fat mass. However, as weight loss progresses, there's an increased likelihood of the body utilising fat-free mass for energy. This underscores the importance of implementing nutritional and exercise strategies that promote the retention of muscle mass throughout the weight loss journey.



Why does the body keep fat?

So, why is our body so determined to preserve our fat mass?

Throughout our evolutionary history, the human body has been programmed to prioritise the storage of fat as a survival mechanism. In times of scarcity, fat reserves serve as an energy source to sustain vital bodily functions when food is scarce.

This genetic pressure to preserve adipose tissue stems from the unpredictability of food availability in ancient times. Our ancestors faced periods of famine and food scarcity, during which those with greater fat stores were better equipped to survive prolonged periods of hunger.

As a result, our bodies developed efficient mechanisms to store excess energy in the form of fat, ensuring survival during times of adversity. Despite living in a modern world of abundance, this evolutionary trait remains ingrained within our biology, leading to the body's natural inclination to conserve fat mass even in times of plenty.



Water weight explained

Water weight, or fluid weight, significantly affects the number you see on the scales.

When you consume carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose and stores them in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Each gram of glycogen is bound to several molecules of water. This means when your body stores glycogen, it also retains water, increasing your overall weight. Conversely, when you use up glycogen, such as during fasting or low-carb diets, you also lose the associated water, resulting in a decrease in water weight. This often leads to rapid weight loss at the beginning of a diet.

Other factors like hormonal changes, high salt intake, and certain medications can also cause your body to retain more water. Understanding these fluctuations can help you interpret changes in your weight more accurately and set realistic expectations for your weight loss journey. Recognising the role of water weight helps you better assess your progress and stay motivated towards your goals.

How to preserve muscle mass during weight loss

Preserving muscle mass during weight loss is crucial for several reasons. Lean mass, which includes muscle, has benefits beyond aesthetics. It supports better metabolism, improves insulin sensitivity, and lowers the risk of diabetes. Muscle also plays a vital role in whole-body protein metabolism, contributing to overall health and resilience.

Here are 4 key strategies to help preserve muscle mass:

  1. Prioritise protein. Protein is the building block of muscle tissue. Ensure you consume enough protein to support muscle maintenance and growth.
  2. Incorporate resistance training. Strength training helps maintain muscle mass and counteracts the muscle loss that can occur with weight loss.
  3. Think gradually. Losing weight slowly helps minimise muscle loss. Aim for a steady, moderate rate of weight loss.
  4. Balance your nutrition and exercise. A well-rounded diet and consistent exercise routine support sustainable, healthy habits that help maintain muscle mass.

By focusing on these strategies, you can preserve muscle while losing weight, leading to better overall health and more effective long-term results. For more detailed tips and guidance, explore our additional content on this topic.

4 signs you're losing weight (without weighing yourself)

As we've explored the intricacies of fat loss versus weight loss and the importance of preserving muscle mass, it becomes evident that the number on the scale doesn't always accurately reflect our progress. While the scale can provide valuable insights, focusing solely on weight can overlook other important indicators of success. Here are some non-scale measures that can signal you're making positive strides on your weight loss journey.

1. Body measurements

Tracking changes in body measurements can provide valuable insights into your progress.

Measure areas such as skin fold thickness, limb circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. As you lose fat and build muscle, your body composition changes, leading to alterations in your physical dimensions. Regularly measuring key areas of your body helps track changes over time and gauge the effectiveness of your efforts.

2. Increased energy levels

One notable benefit of fat loss is increased energy levels. As your body sheds excess fat and becomes more efficient at using energy, you may feel more alert, motivated, and capable of engaging in physical activity. Improved metabolic function and enhanced nutrient delivery to cells contribute to a greater sense of vitality and well-being.

3. Improved mood and mental clarity

Fat loss can positively impact your mental health and cognitive function. As your body sheds excess fat, hormone and neurotransmitter levels may become more balanced, leading to improvements in mood and mental clarity. Achieving weight loss goals can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, contributing to a more positive outlook on life. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management further support mental well-being.

4. Better physical performance

Improvements in physical performance are another sign of successful fat loss. As your body becomes leaner and more efficient, activities like exercise, sports, and daily tasks become easier and more enjoyable. This is due to increased muscle strength, endurance, and overall fitness. Focusing on building strength and stamina through regular exercise and proper nutrition maximises your performance and enhances your quality of life.

While the scale can be a useful tool for tracking progress, it's essential to recognise that weight loss is multifaceted and extends beyond mere numbers. By paying attention to non-scale indicators such as body measurements, energy levels, mood, and physical performance, you can gain a more holistic understanding of your progress and celebrate the many victories along the way.

Our top 3 tips for sustainable weight loss

Set yourself up for success

If you can get into the habit of planning your meals and meal-prepping ahead of time, this helps you to feel prepared for the week (or few days) ahead and know what you have, instead of opting for ordering multiple times a week or resorting to convenience foods when hunger strikes. Additionally, incorporating mindfulness practices into your daily routine can help you become more attuned to your body's hunger and fullness cues, preventing overeating and promoting mindful eating habits.

Fuel yourself with whole, nutrient-dense foods

But don’t restrict any foods. There are no "bad" foods; every food has its purpose. Aim to fill your plate with a variety of whole foods that provide sustained energy and make you feel energized and satisfied. Include plenty of lean proteins like poultry, fish, beans, and legumes to support muscle growth and repair.

Choose whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and oats for complex carbohydrates that fuel your workouts and keep you full. Don't forget to load up on colorful fruits and vegetables packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Balance and moderation are key, so enjoy your favorite treats in moderation without guilt!

All movement is good movement

Whether you're new to exercise or used to being active, any movement is beneficial. Break up sedentary time with short walks, star jumps, or even a plank. Focus on what you can realistically achieve in your lifestyle to avoid burnout. Increasing your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) can significantly impact your weight loss journey. Look for opportunities like taking the stairs, parking further away, or doing household chores. Every bit of movement adds up and contributes to your overall energy expenditure.

Find activities you enjoy to make exercise more enjoyable and sustainable. Whether it's dancing, hiking, or playing a sport, doing something you love makes exercise feel less like a chore. This not only makes it easier to stick to but also improves your overall well-being by reducing stress and boosting your mood. When you're having fun, you're more likely to push yourself and achieve better results. Prioritise activities that bring you joy and make staying active feel like a reward.

By incorporating these tips into your daily routine, you can establish sustainable habits that support long-term weight loss success. Remember, weight loss is a journey, not a destination, so be patient with yourself and celebrate your progress. With dedication, consistency, and a focus on overall health and well-being, you can achieve your weight loss goals and live a happier, healthier life.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we've explored the stages of weight loss, the differences between fat loss and weight loss, realistic timelines, the body's preservation of fat, water weight dynamics, and tips for sustainable weight loss. Prioritising long-term health over quick fixes is crucial.

Sustainable weight management goes beyond the scale; it requires a holistic approach. Focus on nutrient-dense foods, regular physical activity, stress management, adequate sleep, and a positive relationship with food and yourself. An Embla health coach can provide personalised support to help you make lasting changes.

Remember, weight loss is a journey towards long-term health. Invest in your wellbeing, work with a health coach, and embrace a balanced, sustainable lifestyle.

References

Shufelt. C.L, Torbat. T. & Dutra. E. Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and the Long-Term Health Consequences (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6374026/

Nackers. L.M, Ross. K.M & Perri. M.G. The Association Between Rate of Initial Weight Loss and Long-Term success in Obesity Treatment: Does Slow and Steady Win the Race? (2010). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12529-010-9092-y

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Losing Weight (2023). https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html#:~:text=People%20with%20gradual%2C%20steady%20weight,also%20contribute%20to%20weight%20management.

Purcell. K., et al. The effect of rate of weight loss on long-term weight management: a randomised controlled trial (2014). https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landia/article/PIIS2213-8587(14)70200-1/abstract

Jorgensen. J. Timeline over which compensatory mechanisms are activated during weight loss with a very-low-calorie diet (2014). https://ntnuopen.ntnu.no/ntnu-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/281707/JeanetteJ%C3%B8rgensen.pdf?sequence=1

Ashtary-Larkey. D, et al. Rapid Weight Loss vs. Slow Weight Loss: Which is More Effective on Body Composition and Metabolic Risk Factors? (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5702468/

Ashtary-Larkey. D, et al. Effects of gradual weight loss v. rapid weight loss on body composition and RMR: a systematic review and meta-analysis (2020). https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/effects-of-gradual-weight-loss-v-rapid-weight-loss-on-body-composition-and-rmr-a-systematic-review-and-metaanalysis/427E2A512D278FC053CEBB73995FEEFC

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Steph Gregory
Steph Gregory
Health coach
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