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To give you guys a little bit of perspective, the picture above was me, but about five or 6kg heavier than the final weight I would be. Now this story of weight loss occurred about two and a half years ago and is actually a fairly obscure one. Not because I was a weight-cutting female athlete, or even a combat athlete but because I was a female MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) cage-fighter in England, which is pretty rare. This rarity is actually what lead to the series of events that caused me to lose about 12kg in the space of 6 weeks. Why? Because unsurprisingly, not that many women have the dream of becoming a professional cage fighter. Shocker.
I am 175cm tall (taller than average for a woman and thus heavy), my comfy, active, try to be healthy but don't scrupulously watch what I eat weight is about 75 kg. BMI would tell you this is just about overweight. I learnt that BMI was definitely not a reliable metric to follow, but more on this in a future article. The point of all my explaining is that I was (and still am) bigger and heavier than the average woman in the UK. You can imagine how with a small pool of women interested, this further narrowed my options.
It took a while, but finally, after three years that consisted of cancelled fights, injuries and two big operations, I was ready to step into the cage at last. I finally had an opponent. Fantastic! What was the catch? This girl was a considerably shorter, stocky wrestler who would fight me, sure, but at 63kg. This was understandably a big weight cut. I knew it, I was prepared for this eventuality. At the time the only women's weight class in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship—the biggest MMA fight promotion around) was Bantamweight (under 61kg, for those of you who read that with some confusion).
Now in professional promotions you are able to water-cut, this involves temporarily dehydrating yourself to the point that you can lose on average up to 5kg of water in one day and evening (though some truly crazy people go as high as 10). Sweating out that amount of liquid through salt baths, runs in cling film and saunas, well it's about as fun as it sounds. It's horrible, unhealthy but bearable and any water weight you lose you regain within a few hours. You can't fight dehydrated like this but by the next day and rehydrated you're as good as new. If you don't lose water weight, your opponent probably will and you'll be facing a bigger, stronger person the next day after they rehydrate. So that's part of the process and most fighters don't need to do such a dramatic actual weight cut, leaving the rest to water-cutting. The particular promotion concerning this story however, was an on the day weigh-in. I couldn't simply get down to 66 or 67kg and cut the rest in water. I had to legitimately be 63kg on the day. In the end, my perfectionist ways and a rush of adrenaline got me down to 60kg on the day of the fight.
I learnt a number of things through this bizarre little journey that consumed my life at that time. I will happily share with you. For some you'll be reading this out of pure curiosity, observing the horrors like someone watching an action film with popcorn in their hands. For some, you will take comfort in knowing that perhaps someone else shared an experience that was at least similar to yours and that you're not alone. For others you will appreciate that this is a cautionary tale and take the warnings and advice given. In bold you will find the most useful lessons I took away from this crazy experience.
Weight loss is a curve, not a straight line.
I started out with great optimism. I just stopped eating junk, excessive sugar, simply moderated my diet and upped my running. The losses, to begin with, were great, quick, and easy. I lost 3kg. Fantastic. I was coasting, expecting the fast and easy weight loss to continue. It did not. The more weight I lost, seemingly logically the less I was able to lose. I had to up my cardio and keep reducing my calories to continue losing weight.
The big drop in weight you experience at the beginning usually comes as a result of dropping any junk or over-eating habits, particularly if therefore reducing carbs, sugar and salt. These all hold water in the body. Get rid of that and you're heading to the toilet at breakneck speed as you quickly lose water weight. Naturally this happened to me. As I later began to lose weight quickly, I was also losing muscle. Muscle also holds onto water, unlike fat, so there we have more water weight loss. Over time as you have less fat and muscle to lose, everything is proportional and there is less weight you can lose at any one time.
A lesson from this. Don't overestimate how much you can lose in a certain space of time whilst maintaining your regime. E.g. leave it to the last minute to fit into the dress for your wedding or make your weight for a fight.
DON'T be disheartened when your weight loss slows down as it always will. Your body likes to keep to a certain equilibrium and is very good at resisting change. This is why you tend to gain those extra pounds or kgs very slowly without you noticing over the years. Your body resists the weight gain. Then when you try to lose that extra weight your body fights back, resisting the weight loss to keep you stable and you find it's become incredibly difficult to lose that weight. Your body is like a boat, you can try to tip it one way or another, but it just keeps bobbing back and floating, much to the relief of the captain.
Panic and extrinsic pressure is one of the greatest yet unhealthiest drivers.
All together I lost 15kg. I had, in theory, enough time to lose the weight. But I lazily lost those first 3kg easily. Top of the curve. It was the pure panic of realising I only had six weeks left until fight day with nine or 10kg still to lose (though my perfectionist self ended up losing 12) that led to the craziness and weight loss that followed. That's when the real torture began.
I'm not going to disclose my exact diet and regime here as I know exactly how triggering it can be for those with eating disorders. I have also lost weight in a healthy and gradual way and that's how it should be achieved. At that time the regime I took served a very specific purpose and was extreme. I still had to be strong enough to train hard in martial arts almost daily so I had to be very particular about the way I ate.
So what gave me the discipline to cut the calories and up my daily cardio alongside my strenuous training regime? Intense expectation and fear of failure. I could not lose one of the biggest events of my life because I simply hadn't lost the weight. You don't make weight, you're disqualified, no fight. All I could see in my mind was the potential disappointment on my father's face (also my coach), the humiliation when I had to tell my friends who'd bought tickets to watch me that I couldn't fight, I hadn't made weight. All my hard work, training my ass off, getting beat in the sparring ring, living a life of complete solitude alternating between work and training, wasted because I couldn't control myself? There was no way I could let that happen and it plagued my mind daily.
I also told myself that this was a one off, it was for my career and I wouldn't be doing this forever. Which was true. Even though I was never fat albeit at times "chubby," I'd yo yo dieted since I was 15 (I'm 26 now as a reference point and at the time of this massive weight cut I was 24). Yet despite that, this was the one and only time I had ever successfully reached that weight as an adult or ever lost that much weight in my life or since.
That panic and pressure was the only thing that got me to achieve my goal. But at what cost? What I learnt is that when this is your motivator, you stop caring about how you're achieving that goal. You operate out of desperation not wise choices. I don't regret using this at the time but what I do know is that it's never healthy and will never achieve anything long term. You shouldn't be willing to do absolutely anything to achieve your goals, not when your health is compromised. That's a myth and a highly dangerous one at that.
Torture comes in waves.
So with this regime of hard training and calorie restriction, I expected to feel the torture of hunger and exhaustion. I waited for it. I dreaded it. But the positive lesson I learnt in regards to the torture of changing any habit or enforcing any new regime. That discomfort, that torture, it is not one, continuous slog. It comes as a wave. There were times when I felt so hopeless and like a limp rag doll dragging myself through life, every second in agony. But at times I also often felt absolutely OK, happy, and wonderful.
The positive is that with any change of habit. Whether you're trying to quit smoking, suffering from sugar withdrawals as you try to cut that out, trying to study more. Whatever it is. Remember that the torture does come, be prepared, but it's in waves. It doesn't just keep building until it's absolutely unbearable. It arrives, then washes over you, then for a time you're able to deal with it and feel OK.
As you form a new (positive) habit, as your body and brain adapts to the change. It becomes easier and easier. The waves get smaller until they're tiny, gentle ones washing over your feet or the water becomes still all together.
Losing all that weight fast messes with your brain.
There's a reason why many athletes, particularly combat athletes who often have to be a certain weight to compete are prone to developing eating disorders or else disordered eating. They will start out having no psychological problems. The physiological changes then start to mess with your head.
Your body feels it's in a famine so it logically pushes your brain to find food as efficiently as possible. So what does that mean? You. Can't. Stop. Thinking. About. Food. You become obsessed, you have no mental power for anything else. You obsess over calories, over water, you weigh yourself up to three times a day or more. You make yourself sweat to see the number go down.
You get shaky and edgy. Your body is exhausted. Your brain gets tired too. You find it really hard to focus. You feel dizzy. You actually start feeling crazy. Your thoughts are crazy, random, disordered and obsessive. You often feel depressed and anxious. You start to get addicted to the feeling of starving. It becomes your normal.
NONE OF THAT IS NORMAL.
They did a study a few years back on male athletes who had no reported issues with food, putting them on a low calorie regime. During the experiment most of the men experienced that altered way of thinking about food and their weight. Some time after the experiment the same men were interviewed. Some of the men went back to their normal way of thinking about eating. But some retained the obsessive thoughts they'd never had before the experiment about both food and their own perception of their weight (i.e. being too heavy).
It's something for us to be conscious about. What we put into our body (or don't) affects the mind as well as the body. These effects have the potential to be long term. It's a hard problem to kick when it's all in your head, so if you can avoid going there, avoid it. Going to the extreme I did for a set period of time might not affect you so badly, but is it worth the risk? I don't think so. You don't want an unwelcome voice in your head that wasn't there before. I can say from personal experience that despite being back to my previous weight, the little voice never fully went away.
It's not as sexy as you think it will be.
You see those sexy models draped like ethereal waifs all over the place in glossy magazines and you imagine how glamorous and sexy you would feel at that weight. Now I'm not going to lie, you do feel "beautiful," because you see yourself reflecting the Western images of beauty that are thrown at you constantly.
But I have never felt less sexy in my life. Two reasons. Number one, my bountiful booty went from melons to measly raisins and my chest began to resemble an ironing board. My body was not sexy at all because it no longer showed any signs of sexual maturity in its shape. I "lost my curves."
Number two, my abnormally high sex drive shrivelled to basically nothing. I know not everyone wants to be sexy. But if you do, please please please don't mistakenly think that losing a tonne of weight will make you that. Because it will almost certainly do the opposite.
Adrenaline seems to make you keep losing weight.
The funny thing is cortisol, the stress hormone apparently causes you to hold on to weight. Adrenaline however, wants you to be light to run away, it makes your heart beat faster, it puts you on high alert. Now this is not a Scientific thesis but based on this knowledge I can make a few correlations based on my own personal experience. I have lost up to 2kg in the car journey to the venue of a competition or fight on the day. This has happened many times, not just in this particular instance and I know that the adrenaline rush I felt almost certainly had something to do with it. All I'm saying is your weight is not a stable, finite thing. But if you're a little over your weight (a couple hundred grams) on a competition day. I'm pretty sure you'll be fine by the time you get there. A bit more of a niche lesson but there we are.
Extreme weight loss doesn't last.
It got to a point where I seriously considered needing a whole new wardrobe. None of my clothes actually fit me anymore. Long story short, I'm glad I didn't. As mentioned earlier your body wants to bring you back to its most stable state so whatever weight you'd stayed in for the longest. Your body panics when it's in a state of famine. When all of a sudden you go back to your normal eating habits, your body doesn't know how long that's going to last. It wants to fill it's storing cupboards in case a famine happens again, it thinks that your next meal is an uncertain, questionable thing. So what happens? You binge. You binge a lot. Many people have experienced this helpful little survival hack first hand. From those who indulge in crash diets to those recovering from an eating disorder. Many experience the binge stage as the body fights back against the unhealthy restriction.
In the process you usually gain back more than you originally lost. This is exactly what happened to me within a mere two weeks of my fight. Two weeks undid a good eight weeks of losing weight. I think you've got the picture by now, gradual weight loss that keeps you at a healthy weight and doesn't make your body fear for its survival is what actually lasts in the long-term.
You'll always wish you could do it again.
But you can't and you know you shouldn't. I look back on pictures of myself then and think wow. I can't believe I did that. Seeing my slender frame, I have to remind myself that I was miserable, anti-social, energy-depleted, depressed, and most importantly, unhealthy. A very specific situation lead me to lose that weight. Only that extremity of pressure would lead me there again and the truth is that's not what I truly want or need. The little voice wanting to return to that weight only actually appeared in the process of losing weight. You have to remind yourself that the little voice is not you.
I don't regret doing what I needed to do to fight. It was a good fight and I won. I do regret the way I did it. I do wish I'd planned it a heck of a lot better and made smart and healthy decisions to lose the weight naturally, even if it was difficult and boring. I did realise that 60kg is not a sustainable or attractive weight for me to be. I wanted to share my experience so that others might learn from it and not make the same mistakes. I also wanted the people—particularly the weight-cutting athletes—going through the same thing to know they're not alone and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.