Why It’s So Hard for Women to Lose Weight

Women, especially short women, seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to fat loss. Despite seemingly-endless amounts of cardio and dieting, it is really @%&@!# hard for some women to lose fat, especially once they start to plateau.

You’re probably saying “duh they just need fewer calories,” and you wouldn’t be wrong, it’s just that the problem – and the solution – is a bit more nuanced than that.

A Case Study: Jane

Jane is 5’2 and 180 lbs. She was once 200 lbs or so, and through sheer brute force, lost 20 lbs from diet and exercise. She has unable to lose weight in the past few years; no matter how hard she tries, she just can’t seem to break 180. Due to cycles of dieting and binging, she hovers between 180 and 190 and feels like she’s forever doomed to remain within this weight range.

A look at calories burned and metabolism

Before we talk more about Jane’s particular situation, let’s take a look at how people burn a day’s worth of calories.

Total calories burned in a day = Resting metabolism + Thermic effect of intentional activity + Thermic effect of food + Thermic effect from non-exercise activity

Resting metabolism – The amount of calories that are required in order to maintain normal bodily functions, hormones, etc.

Thermic effect of intentional activity – Activities burned from moving around all day.

Thermic effect of food (TEF) – Calories burned from the process of eating your food and turning it into usable substrates.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – Calories burned from spontaneous activity that your body undertakes. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to directly impact NEAT, so we’re going to save this for another day.

In your average person, resting metabolism accounts for somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of total calories burned in the day. Yep, that means most of your calories are spent just “staying alive,” even if you were to stay in bed all day. The thermic effect of activity comes in distant second, making up 15% or so.

Now, there seems to be great variation in one’s resting metabolic rate, some explainable, and some not. The large majority – 85% in fact – of all explainable variation can be explained by fat free mass. Stated another way, people with more fat free mass (or lean mass) have higher resting metabolic rates, and this accounts for most of the explained variation between individuals.

Why women get the short end of the stick

What happens when people over-consume calories with no additional exercise? Obviously, your body will happily store excess calories as fat. What most people don’t realize is that even without exercise, additional increases in fat mass also beget additional increases in lean mass as well.

Yes, this means that some people gain muscle by just stuffing their faces.

Interestingly enough, we can look to sumo wrestlers to see the extremes of how much mass one can accumulate through excess caloric consumption. Traditionally, sumo wrestlers don’t traditionally strength train and instead spend much of the day stuffing their faces. (Sounds like an amazing job, right?) This actually leads to a tremendous amount of lean body mass – more than bodybuilders.

Another study included a portion in which participants were overfed 1000 kcals for 100 days while doing nothing else. Those individuals gained 1 pound of muscle for every 2 pounds of fat. (By the way, do we have any doubt at this point that food is an incredibly anabolic substance? Again, these individuals were sedentary.)

So it looks like in some sedentary individuals, not all excess calories go towards adipose storage. Some goes towards the creation of lean mass.

But who benefits from this gloriously amazing side effect?

Unfortunately, in my experience looking at overweight, untrained clients, it only seems to be men. (In fact, there were no women in the aforementioned studies.) This may be because testosterone is a key player in determining whether excess calories are partitioned towards building muscle or adipose storage. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that it is heavily dose dependent on testosterone.

And this is the crux of why women get the short end of the stick.

When men begin experience weight gain, some of this is dampened by the fact that additional calories are partitioned towards building muscle. Despite the weight gain, this additional muscle also increases his RMR.

The extent to which women receive this benefit is probably far less, if at all.

Let’s look at this a much more dismal way.

A 5’2 200-pound woman might eat like a 200-pound woman, but she burns calories like a 120-pound woman. Her excess weight could ostensibly add an additional caloric burn through exercise, but it’s likely that our subject is sedentary, as overweight, untrained individuals often are.

Back to Jane…

Let’s look at just how many calories Jane burns per day.

To estimate maintenance calories for my clients, I use the Katch-McArdle formula. Unlike other formulas, it takes lean mass into account when calculating RMR and seems to work pretty well.

One thing that’s not frequently discussed is just how high Jane’s (or someone like Jane) body fat percentage is. Whenever I ask women to estimate their body fat percentage, they will often self-report something around 30% max, perhaps 40%. Underestimating this value often leads to an overestimation in how many calories are required to maintain the same weight.

If we assume that in untrained, overweight women, fat free mass increases relatively little as weight goes up, we can actually back into Jane’s approximate body percentage. Looking at personal client data, untrained women usually start out at 1.3-1.5 lb/in. If Jane is 5’2, then she’d need to be about 50-55% body fat in order for this value to hold true.

People rarely guess that their body fat is this high, but in shorter, overweight women, it’s not particularly difficult to reach this range. Tying everything together, remember how we talked about how, unlike women, men accumulate muscle vis-à-vis a caloric surplus, leading to a dampening effect? If our assumptions hold true, then dampening effect acts as a body fat percentage ceiling.

Anyway, using the Katch-McArdle formula and a reasonable activity multiplier, this puts Jane’s maintenance calories at about 1900-2000 calories a day or so.

(Update: I just re-read Evelyn Kocur’s – who is absolutely brilliant by the way – article on a similar subject matter, and she seems to come to a similar conclusion.)

When someone like Jane comes to me, I always guess the following things to be true, and I’m right with eerily high accuracy.

  • She’s a binge eater.
  • She does a ton of cardio. This might actually be required to keep the weight off.
  • She tries to eat a diet low in carbohydrates.
  • Caloric consumption on non-binge days is alarmingly low.

Basically Jane is working with extremely slim margins. That, combined with the fact that it’s incredibly difficult for women to gauge linear, week-to-week weight loss, and you have someone who aggressively cuts carbohydrates, does long bouts of cardio, plummets their caloric output (relatively speaking), craves food insatiably, and inevitably develops a yoyo dieting pattern.

The concept of a weight loss “floor”

When I think about a client’s capacity to lose weight, I think of the concept of a “floor.” A client’s floor is the amount of weight that they can comfortably get down to before they start experiencing a bevy of stalls, hunger, and other batshit craziness.

The problem with Jane is that her floor is quite high compared to where she wants to be. It’s at 180 pounds. She could push further than that, but it would be unsustainable, as it would deplete certain finite resources – willpower, time, resources, etc.

When I see someone like Jane, my top priority is to lower her floor, and there are a few ways to go about this.

The first is that I get rid of the physiological reasons that cause her to binge eat, namely temporarily eliminating all cardio and raising caloric intake. I write more about this here.

The second thing that I do is combine resistance training with the maximum amount of carbohydrates level that will allow her to still continue losing fat, while raising her metabolism and undoing some of the damage caused by long bouts of dieting and cardio. In many cases, weight measurements stay the same or go up while waist measurements go down.

The process of building lean mass alone won’t do the trick to lose weight. As Evelyn also correctly alluded to in her post, the amount of calories burned per pound of additional lean mass is usually exaggerated.

What I have found, however, is that the combination of resistance training and increased carbohydrates tends to lower a client’s floor. This is because this processes increases their capacity to consume additional carbohydrates, and therefore, more calories. (Also, increases in leptin, T3, and all the other fun stuff associated with maintaining a high carbohydrate intake.)

The most important thing to realize is that this process takes a very long time. Remember, Jane is at 55% body fat, and this is not something that will improve over night.

Here is some data from one client of mine who could not lose weight at 137 lbs and stalling out for months at a miserable 1,000 calories/day. (This client is particularly interesting because of the reliability of her data. She’s the type who is OCD about reporting and always hits macros.)


As you can see, in the last 2.5 years, she’s only lost 6 lbs, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to continue to lose fat while lowering her floor. You can see a remarkable reduction is waist measurements, even if her weight has been relatively similar.


The best part? She’s consuming nearly twice as many calories as when she started. You can bet that the next time she decides that she wants to absolutely focus on fat loss, she’ll fly past her previous low weight with ease.

READ THIS NEXT: Weight Loss For Beginners

How to Stop Binge Eating (Updated)

I wrote the first version of this article in 2014. Since then, the article and its various syndications have been read by a few hundred thousand people. I actually encountered someone on Reddit who carries around a physical totem (one of the strategies that I discuss below) as a reminder to himself.

After lots of feedback and hundreds more clients and hours of research under my belt, I believe it’s time for a more comprehensive update.

I’ve dealt with binge eating my entire life. In fact, only in the last few years have I felt that it’s been under control.

My binge eating “sessions” came in a variety of forms. There were humorous sessions, like competing with friends to be the first person banned by our local sushi buffet. There were also sessions that weren’t so humorous…like the ones that led to me gaining 50 pounds in two months immediately after a bodybuilding show.

When Overeating Becomes “Binge Eating Disorder”

“Binge-eating disorder” was officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM) of Mental Disorders as a psychiatric disorder in 2013. This wasn’t without controversy, and many rolled their eyes and claimed that the official classification was simply another way to justify an inability to “eat less, move more.” (I call people who reduce the problem of obesity into these four words “eat-less-move-morons.”)

The tricky thing about disorders like binge eating, however, is that it is absolutely natural to engage in milder episodes. Yes, much like pooping, everyone overeats at some point (when the resources are available of course).

There are additional criteria that must be present in order to classify as “binge eating disorder,” which you can find here. Two important criteria that I would like to highlight are:

  • Binge eating must occur once a week for three months.
  • Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.

We’ll discuss why these two are important when it comes to breaking the binge eating cycle.

Binge Eating and the Mind-Body Intersection

Before moving on to specific recommendations, I wanted to touch on the intersection of the body and the mind as it relates to dieting and eating disorders.

As a coach, binge-eating disorder fascinates me for a few reasons. Despite being a psychiatric disorder, in certain cases the root cause might be completely physical. For example, I’ve found that given enough of either of these, especially together, you will eventually experience uncontrolled hunger.

This is a great reminder that when it comes to diet behavior, the body and mind are inextricably linked. It’s why weight loss seems so damn difficult (the way that most people approach it, at least)–your body’s regulatory system will encourage binge eating behavior in order to compensate for weight loss.

This can be good news for many, however. Despite being a “psychiatric disorder,” I’ve found that in cases where clients start binge eating because of things like excessive cardio or a prolonged deficit, removing these factors will clear things up.

As you go through the following steps to stop binge eating, try to keep in mind how it relates to the body and/or the mind.

Fix the Physiological Causes First

Ironically, despite being a “psychiatric disorder,” the only way to stop binge eating for good is to eliminate the physiological factors first. Binge eating needs to be handled at its root–not at the point where urges occur.

Step 1. Eliminate Cardio

If you find yourself binge eating constantly, my first recommendation is to drop all cardio. Yes, even if you like running (or have convinced yourself that you like running), I highly recommend that you discontinue. This is only temporary, and you can always add it back later. If you find that the urge to binge becomes less frequent–or disappears altogether–then you know that it’s part of the issue.

Step 2. Adjust Your Daily Caloric and Protein Minimums

If cardio is not the issue, then the next step is to make sure that you are consuming enough calories and protein.  As a rule of thumb, work your way up to 12-13x your weight in calories for women and 13-14x your weight in calories for men. You should be consuming at least your weight in grams of protein and slowly increasing your carbohydrates to hit your caloric goals after that requirement is met.

Step 3. Add Dietary Fat Into Your Meals

If you still feel the need to binge eat after the above recommendations, try adding some additional dietary fat into high-protein, medium carbohydrate meals. (e.g. Add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil on top of 8 oz of chicken breast, 1 cup of rice, and broccoli.)

This recommendation contradicts existing research around macronutrients and satiety, but I have seen it work repeatedly with clients and am convinced that current research is still lagging.

Low-carbohydrate zealots will frequently cite the fact that “fat makes you full.” Actually, the existing body of research around macronutrients has found that while increased protein and fiber lead to higher levels of satiety, carbohydrates increase feelings of fullness more than fat, assuming calories are equal.

I believe this research to be flawed, or at the very  least, incomplete. Here’s an excerpt from a Reddit AMA that I did explaining my thoughts:

Actually this is an excellent question. You are actually correct–a majority of research shows no benefit to satiety from dietary fat over carbohydrates when protein is held constant. (I try to find the right balance of simple messaging with making sure I explain fully and probably erred a wee bit too much on the former this time.)

That being said, there are a few reasons that I promote dietary fat’s properties re: satiety for a majority of my clientele.

  • For some reason, people who are overweight/obese act differently than other groups of people. Replacing carbohydrates for fat may be beneficial for this group from an appetite perspective. Obesity researcher Stephan Guyenet (who’s actually very pro carbs-for-satiety) talks about this here.
  • I’ve tested different ratios of fat/carbohydrates with a fixed amount of protein. The larger the client, the better their satiety seems to fair when fat intake is higher. To be honest, I’d say this is still a bit too inconclusive at the moment for me to say something definitive.

Third reason is fairly anecdotal/bro-y, but I’ve seen this enough to think there’s something there. Most fat people/former fat people have appetites different than your average person. When hunger strikes, they’re often insatiable and will eat past the point of physical discomfort. There’s a much larger disconnect between physical satiety and mental satiety.

I’ve found that dietary fat seems to be the only thing that can actually quell this feeding frenzy. Any other people with insatiable appetites out there know that feeling of having too much fried chicken and just feeling kind of gross? That gross feeling is the only thing that is capable of flipping the off switch. In particular, the next time you feel ravenous, try to consume a meal of whole foods with 50g protein/40g carbs and then add 20g of fat from olive oil.

Research hints that dietary fat negatively impacts hunger at the gut level (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15998659, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23509106)

Again, probably not an issue with those who don’t feel that physical/mental hunger disconnect–i.e. people with normal appetites lol. Anywho hope those thoughts help!

Fix Your Psychological Binge Triggers

Strategy 1. Plan to Fail

Whenever I travel home to my family’s house, I always feel the urge to binge. I haven’t figured out exactly why, but I suspect that it has something to do with going from my New York apartment’s paltry pantry to my sister’s cooking – which, if I had to use one word to describe, it would be “crack.” (My sister runs epicureanbb.com)

About a dozen times over the last three years, I tried to will myself to abstain from binging. Almost all dozen of those times, I failed. It took far too much willpower to abstain. Each time that I failed, my self-esteem took a bit of a hit.

The last few times, I tried something different. I planned to fail.

I dieted perfectly the week leading up to my trip home and then fasted all the way up until I got home. Once home, I binged on as much as I wanted and tried to practice moderation. (Tried being the key word.)

The result? A much lower intake in overall calories (There was barely a blip on the scale. Compare to the usual five-pound increase in water weight.) without needing to dip into my precious willpower stores, as well as the feeling of control throughout the entire trip home.

There is a world’s difference in planning a binge vs. attempting to abstain from binging and losing self control. The latter will tax your motivation and willpower far more than the former.

You should always err towards planning to fail for a special occasion, rather than leave adherence to chance. In particular, birthdays, holidays, and big feasts should be planned. Don’t assume that you’re just going to will yourself to get through these events unscathed.

Strategy 2. Use a Totem

I want you to think about the phenomenon of dreaming for a second. In particular, the fact that when you’re dreaming, you never know that you’re in a dream.

Think about just how incredible this is. Seriously. Your dream might contain pink elephants walking around, pigs flying, and Quest protein bars growing on trees, all while you’re trying to finish your last exam to graduate from school, and you still won’t know that it’s a dream.

Amazing, no?

Binge eating is no different. Before every binge begins, it is preceded by a psychological trigger. Think of this trigger as a little voice inside your head saying something along the lines of:

“It’s ok to eat one more pistachio, Dick. It’s just one more.”
“You had a great week of dieting, Dick. Time to gorge yourself with cake.”
“I know that you’re super hungry now, so go ahead and binge. You can always fast the next day.”

If you take note of the thoughts that precede every binge, you’ll only end up with one or two. These are binge-inducing thought patterns.

If you examine the times that these thoughts have occurred, you’ll realize that their rationale is completely false. Examine them objectively; historically, you’ve never benefitted from giving in to these thoughts.

Guess what. These binge-inducing thought patterns are no different than dreams in that you don’t know that they’re occurring while they’re occurring. That is, your binge will seem just as rationally justified as stopping at a red light or taking out the garbage when it smells too much.

So how do you stop these thought patterns from occurring? You can’t. You can only disrupt them.

In the movie Inception (which, by the way, might be the best movie of all time, and I will fight you to the death if you disagree with this statement) the characters all have a “totem” which tells them whether or not they’re in a dream. A totem might be something like a spinning top or a Rubik’s cube. Characters are extremely familiar with their totems and can sense the difference between their totem within a dream vs. their totem in real life.

Similarly, I want you to create a “totem” around these thought patterns. Rather than an object, your totem will be a checklist of characteristics belonging to a particular thought pattern.

For example, I’ll often feel the urge to binge when I accidentally go over my caloric maintenance during a diet. This urge/thought pattern has the following characteristics which I will use as my “totem:”

  • It’s triggered when I’m approaching caloric maintenance on a day that I should be at a caloric deficit.
  • It’s justified by the notion that I can just fast the next day.
  • I’ll feel the thought pattern start to “egg me on.” It will tell me that I could benefit from binging, because if I have a mini-binge then fast the next day, I’ll consume less overall calories.
  • It’s usually accompanied by the feeling of anxiousness, loss of control.
  • I’m usually with someone else.

Let’s say that I feel this urge coming on. I mentally go through this checklist and objectively think about whether it meets the characteristics. For the most part, I realize that this thought pattern matches my totem. Aha!

I then objectively examine the historical results by giving in to this thought pattern and see that binging will leave me feeling worse off overall. The sheer examination of this thought pattern acts as a disruptor, and I am less likely to binge because of it.

It’s important to realize that urges to binge eat may never completely disappear. The important thing is that you make improvements and decrease the frequency in which binge sessions occur. Just like weight loss–or fitness in general–this may be something that needs to be constantly managed at some level throughout your life, and that’s okay. You can still make progress and the fixation over food from impacting your quality of life.

Image by Daniela Brown.

Fitness Psychological States And The Problem with Motivation

(Note: This is a slightly longer version version of Dick’s Lifehacker post “The Five Fitness Mindsets” that you can find here)

As human beings, we like to think we’re rational, but unfortunately we’re not. As a person whose self-control could go from high to “feed me all the things” in the matter of seconds, I found my own decision making to be fascinating.

The reality is that when it comes to fitness, we all have a multiple personality disorder of sorts. I call these “fitness psychological states.”

Objectivity and The Danger of Motivational Reliance

If you were to take a survey asking people who have failed to get fit exactly why they have struggled with fitness, most would say it’s because of “motivation.” But motivation is fleeting. It waxes and wanes. By relying on it, you’re putting your success in the hands of a volatile factor that you cannot always control.

In reality “motivation” is particularly dangerous. Motivational reliance reeks havoc on your decision making, because it gives the illusion of objectivity. Think about your typical person who makes a New Years Resolution to get fit. They’re excited about getting healthy and they can’t wait to hit the gym every single day and consume organic salads for the rest of their lives. They think that they’re being completely rational in the process.

When March rolls around and they’ve failed–probably due to a poor effort-to-results ratio–they rationalize their failings…perhaps work got in the way, they wanted to “accept themselves for who they are,” or some other baloney. Yet, they believe themselves to be rational throughout. Hell, let’s look at a completely different example. Many people can identify with being on a diet, rationalizing your way to getting wasted, and then justifying scarfing down thousands of calories worth of McDonald’s at 3am.

When it comes to fitness decisions, no matter what state of motivation we’re in, we assume ourselves to be rational. This means that we’re not being rational at all.

The Five Fitness Psychological States

I’ve observed that at any point, someone is in one of four psychological states when it comes to fitness. While there are a lot of factors that go into deciding which state you’re in–and sometimes it’s completely random–your state is highly driven by your motivation and the amount of energy that you have at the time. This can last anywhere from days to a matter of minutes, depending on the individual.

The “Objective” State

Energy: Normal
Motivation: Normal

In this state, you are being objectively rational. You absolutely understand the tradeoffs of fitness decisions (do I join my co-workers for an unplanned happy hour or do I just go home?) and make the best decision for both your fitness goals and short-term needs. We’ll focus a lot on this state later, because this is the state that we would ideally be if possible.

The “Determined” State

Energy: High
Motivation: High

There’s nothing that can derail you from your fitness goals when you’re in this state. You’ll do whatever you can to execute your diet and training program, and nothing can get in the way. This is a good time to make sure that your fitness regimen is sound so that you’re maximizing your productivity while you’re in this state. Ride it out while you can.

The “Spendthrift” State

Energy: Medium to High
Motivation: Low

In this state, your energy levels are high but motivation for fitness endeavors is low. There’s often a need for an outlet, and the spontaneous urge to binge eat/drink (as with the other low-motivation state), or undo progress is common. Ironically, this state is often brought about after a period of continued progress in which you feel that “partying” some of it away is justified. There’s a subconscious desire to increase your fitness motivation levels to match your energy levels, so you may also experience the urge to program hop or do something in the gym that’s not on your program (if you actually make it to the gym).

The “Listless” State

Energy: Low
Motivation: Low

The desire to train and follow your diet is low. If this is an acute period, you may do everything you can to rationalize why you shouldn’t be following your regimen in the next few hours or days. If it’s a longer bout, you may feel frustrated with your progress and want to quit altogether. You may feel the need to binge eat or drink, but from a very different reason than the “spendthrift” state. The justification that occurs isn’t one of rationalizing your progress, but rationalizing failure.

The “Passive” State

Energy: Low
Motivation: Medium to High

You have the desire to make good decisions, but follow-through is a problem. Often that follow-through is because of frictions that may be unrelated to fitness. For example, you absolutely want to go to the gym to train, but you don’t feel like dealing with traffic or the rush hour crowd. Or perhaps you would absolutely stick to your diet, but you can’t because of the three back-t0-back office parties coming up. You may have been on a regimen for a bit at this point and have even seen success, but there’s an element of burnout, even if you want to keep going. This may last a while at the tail end of a diet, or it may come about spontaneously when you have to make a fitness-related decision, particularly at the end of the day.

Switching States and Making Rational Decisions

Unfortunately, you can’t easily switch between states, because much like moods, they involve feelings. You you can’t control your feelings, but you can control what you do with them.

In order to make good decisions when you’re not in the objective or determined states, you’ll need to follow two steps:

  • Catch yourself when you’re in a different state. This requires a lot of mental energy…it’s not easy admitting that you’re not thinking rationally, but it does get easier with practice. You can catch yourself in a different state by using a totem or reflecting after the fact when you know that the decisions you made were not truly objective.
  • Channel how you would think in the “objective” state. This requires a bit of effort. You can’t automatically think in the objective state, but you can think objectively and mindfully about what you would think if you were in the objective state. It may help to think about pretending to be a coach who’s giving you advice, and then following that advice. If it’s a dilemma you frequently find yourself in (e.g. binge eating after a few drinks), you might want to write future you a note when you’re in an objective state, then read it when you find yourself in that state.

Going against your default way of thinking isn’t easy, but it gets easier and is a valuable skill to learn. In Part 2, we’ll examine specific strategies for individual mental states and how you can go back to making rational decisions.

What Weight Loss Success Really Looks Like in Numbers

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One of the largest hangups that clients have is the lack of movement on the scale. Weight loss, however, isn’t linear. Let’s take a look at a sample of a few dozen real-life data points to see what successful weight loss really looks like.

I’ve seen a lack of real-world client weight loss examples, so I thought it would be helpful to share some data–especially for those who are experiencing weight loss stalls.

Below is a sample of a few dozen clients who have lost more than 5% of their bodyweight. Some have lost a tremendous amount in the last year–about 50 pounds or more. Here is an anonymized graph of their weights.

UserWeightsbyMonth (1)

If you look at any of the above lines, you’ll see the following.

1. Successful weight loss isn’t linear, nor is it a smooth curve that slows down over time. For most people it’s almost like a bumpy curve that trends downwards, but is full of localized, short-term peaks and valleys.

For example, this client’s progress looks relatively smooth at a distance.

UserWeightsbyMonth (4)

But if we zoom in, we see that it’s anything but smooth.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 10.29.15 PM2. While their weights clearly show a downward trend, if you take a 1-2 month cross section of any of these users, you will see progress stall and reach a local minima of their weight. Take this client that lost 40 pounds for example.

UserWeightsbyMonth (2)

If you take a three-month cross section of their weight loss progress, it looks like this. UserWeightsbyMonth (3)

The takeaway: Weight loss progress takes time. Be patient and don’t let the number on the scale allow you to become emotional about your weight.