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Weight loss has a connection to economics in more than one way. In economics, which is where the phrase “diminishing returns” originates, the law of diminishing returns is also referred to as the law of diminishing marginal returns. It states that “in a production process, as one input variable is increased, there will be a point at which the marginal per unit output will start to decrease, holding all other factors constant. In other words, keeping all other factors constant, the additional output gained by another one unit increase of the input variable will eventually be smaller than the additional output gained by the previous increase in input variable. At that point, the diminishing marginal returns take effect”.
In layman’s terms, in most processes initial improvement usually comes quickly, but the closer one gets to the maximum goal possible, the harder improvement becomes. More work has to be done as gains become more marginal.
In sports training this is easy to see. For a couch potato, going from nothing to being able to run a 5k race might only take 8 weeks; to do it reasonably well that is. So a huge improvement in just 2 months. Yet for an elite level athlete, 4 years of hard training might mean an increase of only 0.2 seconds over 100m. So as the body becomes close to the absolute highest levels of fitness possible within that person’s genetic makeup, the harder it becomes to improve; the more work that has to be done to make this happen.
In weight loss, there is a similar pattern. An obese person, for example, eating carefully and exercising in the correct way might be able to lose 4-7lbs a week. We see this in TV shows like the USA’s Biggest Loser. However, the closer one gets to an optimal healthy weight, the harder it becomes to lose weight.
It must also be noted that the closer one gets to optimal weight, weight itself ceases to be a useful measurement. The balance of muscle mass and fat mass will be more important. Size over weight, if you like. The best way of measuring improvement at this point is through body fat percentage.
Weight loss is never linear – even eating exactly the correct amount of energy needed to create a 2lb deficit a week won’t necessarily lead to exactly 2lbs lost in that week – our hormonal systems are the main reason for this. However, the more you have to lose, the more linear it should be as the law of diminishing returns hasn’t kicked in yet. You will also be able to lose more than the recommended 2lbs a week.
The closer you get to that elusive size 10/12 though (32 waist for the guys), the harder any linear weight loss will become. You will also have less leeway in terms of treats and “mistakes”. This is the law of diminishing returns kicking in. At this point the 2lb per week rule should be applied. Any more and your body will start to utilise muscle for fuel. This is disastrous at it will lower your metabolic rate, making further weight loss even harder. The law is even more relevant for someone trying to get from slim to super toned or a six-pack. Almost all the eating leeway has gone; both training and nutrition must be close to perfection to progress and reach the goal.
You must also now take into account that as you near perfection, size and shape become more important than weight. Static weight loss over a week or two that seems disappointing (considering how careful you’ve been with food) may well have translated into size loss, shape change and a reduction in your body fat. At this point it’s important to stay the course and rely not so much on the scales as on a tape measure, a snug pair of jeans that are getting that tiny bit looser or a personal trainer with callipers to measure your body fat.
So beware the law or diminishing returns. Don’t let weight be your sole guide. Remember that weight, size and shape are not always the same thing.