If you're trying to make progress towards your 'goal body image', or just generally feel and look better then there's several ways in which your body will try to fight back and prevent you from making progress. That's right, I'm saying that even though you want to achieve something, you body is actively fighting against you, that's what I'm going to talk about in this post.
Homeostasis & Why Your Body Will Fight Back
All organisms will strive towards homeostasis. It's always aiming to bring itself back to a stable condition in which it has balance of bodily functions and energy intake. You may think this is nonsense, that you're a human being with free will, but unconsciously this is a very powerful mechanism that stops a lot of people from gaining or losing weight and prevents them from making progress towards their goal.
Have you ever had that friend that eats like crap, yet somehow never actually puts on any weight? They put away an entire roll of Oreos but their waistline never goes up or down? We all know someone like that and it's not magic, their body is compensating by trying to achieve homeostasis.
Let me explain. When you intake more energy than your body needs there're a couple of things that your body does to help regulate your energy intake and energy output:
- NEAT or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. (See, I can use big words.)
To put it simply, when you eat a large meal you feel full and satisfied, and your body down-regulates your hunger. It has enough energy for now and hunger will only spike again when it needs more. This is maybe a gross over simplification and there're a lot of other external factors that can contribute to the feeling of hunger, such as the instant gratification of food and food marketing. i.e When you see that juicy hamburger on a bus stop for McDonald's.
For your friend who ate that entire roll of Oreos and continued to eat like crap for the rest of the day: I would argue over the course of the following days their body would reduce their hunger levels to compensate for this so they don't gain any weight. And unless they are tracking everything they ate (which most of the population aren't) then they'd think that they ate a lot of crap but in reality they had one day of gorging and a few days of under eating.
Similarly, people who are trying to lose weight need to be in a calorie deficit, meaning they need to eat less than their body requires to maintain it's weight. It's doesn't like this and so it jacks up that hunger to get you to eat more. This is a contributing factor as to why it's so damn difficult to lose weight—adherence becomes difficult without implementing some strategies to make it easier.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is all of the activity you do when you are not actively exercising. This may be things like fidgeting, twiddling your feet, or just generally having a bit more oomf in your step. This is basically all of the stuff that happens without you thinking about it. Similarly to how your body regulates hunger to achieve homeostasis, it also regulates NEAT without you even thinking about it.
When you eat more than your body needs, you may find yourself restless, unable to sit down and relax, or you find yourself fidgeting more. Likewise when you eat less than your body needs you'll typically fidget much less, and be much more sedentary. I have found that generally I become far less active when I'm dieting and end up just sitting down on the couch watching Netflix basically motionless, whereas when I'm bulking (in a calorie surplus to gain muscle) I'm far more likely to twiddle my feet and sit up right.
What I'm getting at is that your body has mechanisms to make it harder for you to stay in an energy deficit, and stick to it longer term.
Self Image & Why Your Mind Will Fight Back
The other important factor that I wanted to talk about is your inner self image. This is even more important than any way your body can physically fight back. Our mind has an ego identification with how we act, what we do and the kind of activities we engage in. It doesn't like to change that. Whenever we try to stray from our self created image of who we are, our ego or self identification feels threatened and fights back, trying to bring your actions back into line with our self image. This is a very powerful mechanism.
For most people, they know exactly what they need to do to achieve their goals. Whether that be study for an exam, eat less and move more, or finish that report for work they don't do this. Why? Because that's not what you envision yourself as doing, that's not who you are in your mind.
I learned this idea from Eckhart Tolle, who talks about our mind forming an ego identification with things that aren't really us. Like our job, our car, our family, our religion. This is kind of akin to one of my favourite movies Fight Club, which is shown here. In the scene, the character Tyler Durden is taking a jab at the rampant consumerism that plagues a lot of the population, such as identifying themselves with the furniture they chose to decorate their home with like the main character played by Edward Norton.
How Self-Image Manifested Itself and Sabotaged My Journey
Because I was always a little bit overweight growing up, I wanted to be lean, I wanted to be chiseled, and have the kind of physique that turns heads. Not unlike the kind of shape Brad Pitt got into for his role in Fight Club. But I never saw myself in my mind this way, I had always identified as a chubby little fat kid. It was only when armed with the right knowledge about how to achieve these goals and started making some progress towards it that my self image started to get in the way.
I would follow the right diet, hit my macros, and I'd workout at the gym, but whilst performing an exercise I'd have this voice in the back of my head, almost whispering to me.
You're weak, you're not getting stronger because you're not eating enough.
I pushed this out for a long time, and sure I leaned down because I was following a sound nutrition and exercise plan, but I never got to what I deemed my goal, I wasn't lean enough.
You need to build muscle, you're not the way you look because you're too skinny.
Sure enough, I convinced myself this was the case so I actively went on a bulk with the aim of gaining muscle. I looked pretty good, maybe I deserved to eat more. And within a couple of days.
You're getting too fat, you need to cut down
Damn, I wasn't lean enough and I was trying to gain muscle, I convinced myself I had lost the definition that I had worked towards and needed to cut, so I Yo-yo'd for some time, never really making progress either way. It took me a long time to realise that this was just my ego identification with the way I looked, and I finally found a way to fix it.
Just Follow the Damn Process
This is the best advice I could give for anyone trying to make progress towards your goals: trust the process. Given that you are following a well structured training program and that you are hitting your macro targets (or even just calorie targets), that's all you need to do. You need to find a way in which to make the journey towards your goal more enjoyable and stick to it, without second guessing.
That's all fine and well, but it doesn't give me any concrete things to help me with this.
Some Practical Advice
Dealing with hunger issues? Try different meal timings or fill your diet with more foods that truly satisfy you. I've written a post on Intermittent Fasting here, which changed the game for me so I could eat much larger meals and stay full and satisfied for longer.
Not getting in enough activity each day? Just try to get 10,000 steps in each day, and you don't need to go buying a Fitbit, most smartphones these days will track for you. You don't need to splurge.
Having trouble with self-image? As mentioned before, just following the process that you know you need to follow to reach your goals will help with that. Everyday that you take one more step towards that goal will help your image align with what you want it to be whether that be just getting a workout in, getting enough activity in, or choosing to make a home cooked meal rather than getting take out. All of your actions compound towards your self image.
Your body and ego don't want to change
Your body is going to make it difficult for you to make progress towards your goals. It doesn't want to change and it has mechanisms to bring it back in line with where it feels it should be.
Follow the process
Really the only way to combat this is to do the things you know you need to do, day in and day out. And make small wins that compound on each other. Before you know it, you'll be exactly where you want to be on this journey.