Why You May Look a Bit Fatter When First Losing Body Fat

March 10, 2008

There is a total mind game that happens when you first begin to lose body fat. At some point when dropping body fat, it is very possible that you look slightly flabbier than when you first began your diet and exercise program. I have never read about this fat loss principle, but I have observed it so many times that I know it is very common. Lets talk about why this happens, so you know what to expect when you start a strict fat loss plan.
woman measuring her waist and hips
[Meaghan isn’t good with the measuring tape. She always gets a much higher number than her actual measurements for some reason.]

“If I’m Losing Weight, Why Do I Still Look Flabby?”

The best way (and only way) to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit. This means you are burning more calories per day than what you consume. When you are in a strong deficit, your muscles are typically depleted of glycogen (the carb energy stored in your muscles). When your muscles are full of glycogen, they are full looking. When your muscles are depleted of glycogen, they look a bit flat. When your muscles flatten out a bit due to dieting, it can actually appear that you have less muscle in proportion to your body fat…you will actually look like you have gained a bit of fat.

Your Muscles Will Lose Glycogen Faster Than You Lose Fat

Have you ever heard of someone who lost 10 pounds in their first week or two of dieting? Many people claim that this is just a loss of “water weight”. What happens is that glycogen binds to water molecules and the more glycogen in your muscle means more water gets stored in your muscle cells as well. When people go low carb or create a strong calorie deficit, they lose a lot of the glycogen in their muscles as well as the water that was binded to that glycogen. Their muscles lose a lot of volume. In contrast, they may only lose 2-4 pounds of fat in that same time period, so it “appears” that they had a fat gain even though the scale shows that they are 10-15 pounds lighter.

The Weight You Lose From Glycogen Loss is Limited

Your muscles can only store up a limited amount of glycogen, so once your muscles flatten out you will cease losing water weight. This will happen quickly, depending upon how strong your deficit is…it happens even quicker on a low carb diet. Don’t worry about the “apparent loss” in muscle mass as glycogen loss is just a temporary cosmetic thing. You will gain back all of this muscle volume once you go into maintenance mode.

Here is the Point When You Will Look Visibly Leaner…

When your loss in body fat equals your loss in water weight, you will begin to look leaner from that point forward. I like to tell people to not worry too much about what they see in the mirror their first month of dieting. Although they are making progress in losing body fat, the mirror will not show that progress yet. Once they reach a certain fat loss level, that is when things get exciting and dieting becomes very rewarding. It is fun to get visible feedback when you are working hard to get lean!

This Illusion of Being Flabby is Even More Drastic In the Gym

When you lift weights in a dieted state, your muscles will look flatter than normal. If you are used to getting a big pump, then this will be a big change for you. The problem with getting a pump, it that it actually hides a lot of body fat. The body fat stays at the same level while the muscles temporarily increase in volume. A “pumped up” person is tricked into believing they are in better condition than they really are. A person in a dieted down state achieves very little pump, so won’t appear to be in as good of condition as someone who is carbed up. This typically happens the first month of a strict fat loss program, and from that point forward your body will increase in definition each and every workout…you will have a tough time not staring at your remarkable transformation in the mirror.

So What Happens After You Reach Your Fat Loss Goal?

My suggestion is to keep dieting hard until your body looks really sharp in a glycogen depleted state. Remember…you still don’t have the benefit of having full looking muscles. Once you go back to eating at a maintenance level, your muscles will go back to their normal state and you will look even sharper and more lean than you did when you were dieting hard! You muscles will still look hard and defined, just slightly bigger, hiding any bit of body fat left on your body.

Note: This is a strategy I use before going on vacation. I am going to write a short e-book or report on how to prep for a vacation and look outstanding the entire time. I keep putting it off, but I promise I’ll get around to it soon.

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Rusty Moore

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{ 111 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine October 25, 2014 at 5:44 pm

The scale says I’ve lost 13 lbs in 2 weeks but my hips and stomach are just getting so much bigger!! I exercise every day( I’m a soccer player) and I don’t know what is going on! Any advice??

breanna January 1, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Rusty,

Here’s my problem…i lift, i do some cardio, and i eat pretty strictly. A about 200 cals for breakfast, maybe 300-400 for lunch and maybe 400 at dinner. I will onkly touch diet anything and i do drink water. I use sugar free things as well. I work out for about an hour/ hour and 15 mins 4-5 days a week. I used to be so faithful and hit it hard with my muscles. I recently have not had time to go about the past 3 weeks. The last 3 days I started back and hit it pretty good but I feel almost fatter. My lil pouches look fatter, and especially my tummy area. But Ive done ab work outs too. What the hecks going on? Is it because im eating too much? Or just because I am pumped up a little from this week? Youd think I feel great hittin git hard again for the past 3 days but I feel like crap! Any advice helps!

Jade April 1, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Great article! I’m about 122 lbs, 5’5″, athletic figure with the exception of a couple problem areas..”banana rolls,” lower abdomen and love handles. I do a lot of Pilates, started endurance/cardio style crossfit have a depleted calorie intake. What is your advice on the banana rolls that are beginning to appear a lot more as saggy fat around the upper posterior thigh, and can you kindly provide a link to your article on prepping for Vaca? :) I know I’m way late on this post but you sound very knowledgeable and hope you’re still blogging!

Thank you!

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