Muscle-weight loss myth

When I tell my clients that exercise is not a useful weight loss tool, they seem genuinely miffed and utterly confused.

I have proven with absolute certainty that, for myself anyway, weight loss has NOTHING to do with building/losing muscle and even less to do with exercise.  And yes, I know this is utterly contrary to the Eat Less/Move More weight loss gospel that has failed us all for generations.

Please do not misunderstand.  Exercise has many health benefits – and we should all do it, regularly.  It’s just that weight loss is NOT one of those benefits.

This is my story.

Several years ago, obese, stressed, hypertensive, prediabetic with weekly migraines and chronically tired, my family doctor gently suggested I needed to make some changes.  She did not tell me anything I did not already know, but she articulated the growing worry (pun intended) which prompted me to take action.  Plus, I believe we should listen to our Doctor!

Embracing the ‘Eat Less’ part of the doctor recommended, Eat Less/Move More weight loss gospel, l joined a popular weight loss program, and rather easily lost 30 pounds.  But as time passed, weight loss slowed, then plateaued, then started to creep back.  Yet another failed weight loss attempt to add to my pile.

Shortly thereafter, quite disheartened, at the hair salon, staring at my reflection – black cape, hair wrapped in foil, close to tears – I thought, “How the hell did this happen?”  Right there and then I decided I was going to take control of my weight.  I went straight to the gym next to the hair salon and completed a brief assessment with a very muscly guy, who in less than 3 minutes concluded, this 50 something woman with nice hair and no gym clothes, who was completely unable to do anything that even remotely resembled a squat or a lunge, was not his client. He passed me off to his colleague, a wonderful personal trainer with an interest in rehab.  Best thing ever! More determined than ever – embracing the ‘Move More’ part of the Eat Less/Move More weight loss gospel – I was going to win this battle of the bulge.

Five years later, consistently meeting 3 – 4 times per week with a personal trainer one on one for resistance/strength training, I lost the weight I had regained plus an additional 15 pounds.  I was stronger (for sure!) and more flexible and I got to know some really terrific ladies!  Even more, I reversed my prediabetes, was no longer hypertensive and rarely had migraines.  My family doctor was impressed.  I had actually listened to her suggestion and lost weight!

Success!!!! WHOOP!  WHOOP!

Sort of – I guess, not really.  Always hungry, always either cheating or behaving, always obsessing/thinking about food I was completely ‘stuck’ unable to break through a nasty weight loss plateau for many months (probably four and a half of those five years.)  In fact, I never did break through that plateau.

Then I retired.  And given the financial constraints that accompany retirement, and since I didn’t enjoy resistance training without a personal trainer, I stopped training.  And… the weight returned, this time not so slowly.  Disheartened, again – I resigned to my fat fate.


About a year and a half ago, hidden deep in the googles, buried amongst mountains of nutrition nonsense I stumbled across the writings of Dr. Jason Fung claiming the Eat Less/Move More weight loss gospel is quite simply wrong.

Say what?  Outrageous claim!

Everyone KNOWS more calories in than calories out equals weight gain.
Everyone KNOWS a high fat diet is clogging up our arteries, making us prone to heart disease and premature death.
Everyone KNOWS hunger is awful and we must snack throughout the day or risk over-indulging.

Nope.  Not true.

Obesity is a hormonal disorder centered predominantly around insulin (utterly fascinating, but an entire blog series on its own!)  Not the girly hormones estrogen etc, the appetite regulation and energy storage hormones.  Armed with this new information, I changed my approach.

I intentionally stopped exercising.  I wanted to know that any weight I might lose would be due to the changes I made in my way of eating.

Within 3 months, I was down almost 40 pounds, breaking through that nasty plateau my five years of personal training could not budge.

Less than 6 months of this new way of eating,  I surpassed my previous weight loss goal by an additional 25 pounds!  And all after menopause!  I weigh less now than I have in 35 years!  No exercise.  No obsessing about food.  Minimal hunger.  Better sleep.  A brain fog I was unaware existed lifted, and my inner critic was tempered.  So many benefits over and above some random number on the bathroom scale!  Seriously.  For the first time in almost 40 years, I am not trying to lose weight.

Did I lose muscle?  Absolutely.  But not because of my new way of eating.  I lost muscle because I stopped resistance training.

If you want to build muscle, simply eating more protein won’t help.  Excess protein gets converted to fat eventually since our body cannot store protein for later.  If you want to build muscle, you must stress your muscles and create a little muscle tissue damage.  Your body will ‘fix’ the damage and you build muscles.  If you never stress your muscles, you won’t build muscles.

It’s really that simple.  Building muscle has nothing to do with calories-in or calories-out. The converse is also true. Losing muscle has nothing to do with calories-in or calories-out.  Our body stores excess calories (energy) as fat, not muscle, for future famine.  Should an unlikely famine occur, we have lots of energy stored as body fat (even if you are at an ideal body weight.)  If you want to lose weight, you must access your body fat.  If your body cannot access its’ body fat stores, it will make you hungry, not cannibalize your muscles.  And hunger – is an extremely powerful drive, most of us cannot resist.  (This was my problem during my Eat Less/Move More years.  I could not access my body fat, because I was always ‘snacking’ effectively keeping my body in energy storage mode.)

The widespread belief that weight loss will cause muscle loss is a myth.  You lose muscle because you do not stress your muscles and you lose muscle because we lose 10% of our muscle mass per decade as part of the aging process, unless you do something (like resistance training) to counter that effect.  If you want to build muscle, you must stress your muscles.  You MUST exercise.

The widespread belief that exercise works for weight loss is a myth.  Exercise has many amazing benefits – building muscle is one of them, weight loss, is not.

Buff on my friends!
Dr. Karen

If my story sounds a little familiar, let’s chat and get started on your final weight loss journey!