Is It Normal To Still Feel Fat After Losing Weight? Understanding Phantom Fat
“The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Is it normal to still feel fat after losing weight? It can often feel like something is wrong when you look in the mirror and can’t really see much in the way of progress, even though the numbers on the scale have dropped significantly and your clothes aren’t fitting the way they used to fit. Perhaps friends and family are commenting about how great you look and how much progress you have made, but you still feel fat even though somewhere in the back of your mind you might acknowledge that you may have lost some weight. But somehow it feels less than what it really is. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of “phantom fat” and still feeling fat after losing weight is surprisingly common. One of my early personal training clients when I was back in Trinidad, (who we will call, Mr. A.), lost a little over 100 lbs. in eighteen months while working with me. To say that I was ecstatic about his progress would have been an understatement, as he was my first client to lose that much weight training just three times a week in conjunction with a set of dietary recommendations that I meticulously put together just for him.
It was quite a validation for me that my brief high intensity protocols and dietary approach could bring about such extreme weight loss, and Mr. A. was very vocal about how happy he was. He was one of my first major ambassadors, telling everyone how much he loved the training, and that everyone should stop what they were doing and sign up for my high intensity workouts! It was perfect, and I was filled with a profound sense of accomplishment to have been able to help change so radically. Then something odd happened. Some days when Mr. A. came in, he would be somewhat moody and withdrawn. A far cry from the jovial and gregarious character that I was used to working with in the gym. I asked him if everything was okay and he said he was extremely depressed, as he felt that he hadn’t lost much weight.
He went on to say that he had done all that hard work for nothing as he felt even fatter than before he first started. I was speechless and utterly dumbfounded. Mr. A.’s transformation was nothing short of miraculous, and (I thought) he looked fantastic. Yet despite losing 102 lbs., he still felt fat and could not see any progress. I left shortly after to come to the United States and I heard, much to my dismay, that Mr. A. became even more sullen and withdrawn, lapsed into old habits and eventually regained most of the weight he had lost. I felt that I had failed him and made it a priority to better understand the behavioral aspects of weight loss so as to prevent this from ever happening again. Over the past 27 years, I have I helped hundreds of men and women lose weight and saw that this phenomenon of not being able to perceive any physical changes after losing weight occurs often enough for me to say that it is normal. In this article we look at why it is that we can change our bodies so much and still feel like we have achieved little and also explore some strategies to overcome this spiral of hopelessness.
It’s not only regular men and women who feel the stress and frustration of still feeling fat after losing weight even if they are in tremendous shape. The phantom fat phenomenon is a constant presence in my work over the years with competitive bodybuilders, figure, bikini and fitness models. Quite a few have graced the covers of magazines in the single body fat digits but still felt somewhat fat. So much so that a major part of what I do with my clients had to be not just helping people lose weight and transform their bodies, but also helping them to transform their minds and positively accept the changes. As it’s the only way to escape the misery and enjoy the fruits of their labor. It’s important not just for your self-esteem, but it’s also critical in being able to avoid the vicious cycle of working hard, not seeing your results and ultimately giving up and undoing all of your progress.
Feeling Fat After Losing Weight Is Also Common Among Fitness Athletes
There is a saying in Latin that I use quite often, “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt.” It’s a rather insightful ode by Horace that translates as those who cross the seas change their skies and not their spirits. It’s a saying that speaks not only to those of us who make the mistake of believing that a change of environment will somehow bring about a change of character, but also to those of us who fail to realize that changing our bodies doesn’t always translate into a change in how we see and feel about our bodies. Body image is a term used time and time again in reference to how badly people feel when they need to lose weight or are unhappy with their physical appearance. However, there is scant literature in the fitness and weight loss world on how often negative body image issues do not change among those who significantly transform their bodies.
Step into a gym filled with well built men and women and you are stepping into a land where a fit body is never good enough. Abs are never chiseled enough, (there is always some self-perceived fat in the region that has to come off), biceps aren’t big enough, shoulders aren’t capped enough, legs muscles aren’t separated enough and muscles aren’t developed enough. Some might argue that this obsessive self-criticism creates a drive for constant self-improvement and is why those who work hard to look exceptional get to where they are. But it is a often a problem, as this type of negative reinforcement behavior can lead to exercise addiction and the use of performance enhancing drugs. And if you spent as much time around really fit men and women as I have over the course of my lifetime, you would realize that most of them are no happier than anyone else. The idea that having a great body means feeling good about yourself is simply a focusing illusion, as in my experience, it seldom is the case.
Why is there such silence in the fitness world about the fact that most are miserable, and driven by unseen demons to constantly improve, yet never really able to enjoy the fruits of their labor? Because the equation fit-body-equals-happiness sells and sells well! It sells weight loss products, supplements, magazines, gym memberships, personal training services and monetizes social media accounts. The idea of the fit body leading to a fit mind might be false, but it’s been proven over the years as an exceptionally effective marketing mantra, even though it only increases the frustration of the many who are not necessarily happier about themselves after changing how they look.
Why Some Feel Fat After Losing Weight? Understanding The Psychology of Phantom Fat
For many men and women, losing weight is only part of a battle, and not by any means a full victory in the war of self-improvement, as the painful scars of living for years with a body labeled by society as being less than ideal can linger long after the final layer of fat has melted away. In the 21st century it is considered politically incorrect and distasteful in most developed countries to publicly ridicule individuals with mental handicaps, people of different skin colors, genders and sexual orientations. While discrimination on these fronts has not been totally eradicated, it is far less than it was in years past, as public education and acceptance has gone a long way in taking away the shadows of stigma attached to being different for many people. Yet, in spite of so much progress, being overweight remains one of the most enduring of social stigmas in our society today. Numerous studies report that most people perceive obese individuals as being less physically attractive than their thinner counterparts and that being overweight is a direct result of a moral flaw- be it laziness or gluttony. As insensitive as it sounds, large scale surveys show that overweight individuals tend to earn less money than those who are thinner, accumulate less wealth and are more likely to report interpersonal and institutional discrimination.[2,3] Obese individuals also tend to have a higher likelihood of strained relationships with family and romantic partners. [4,5] What makes this somewhat bizarre is the propensity of such discrimination given that here in the United States Nearly three-quarters of American men and more than 60% of women are obese or overweight.
Weight Loss and Negative Body Image- How Prejudices Can Influence Self Image
Yet in a country where being overweight is the norm, a profit driven contradiction rears its head as the entertainment media inundates us with unflattering portrayals of obese individuals, while advertisers bombard us with the thinner and toned look not only as an ideal but as and what you need to be happy. It’s an inescapable deluge of negativity towards the majority of our society and unfortunately it is not stopping anytime soon because it works wonders for selling products and getting viewers to tune in. One of the first goals of advertising is to create a sense of want in the would-be-consumer. That being said, what better way to stimulate the desire of millions of Americans in a predominantly overweight society than by portraying being slim and trim as an ideal and selling products where those who use them embody the idea as well? It digs deep and churns up the frustrations and anguish many who are overweight feel about their situation and makes them act, often unconsciously, on these feelings. Whether it’s buying a weight loss or health related product endorsed by people in great shape who you would like to look like, picking up a magazine or tuning into a social media feed because the people in them exemplify an ideal that you would like to achieve for yourself. These signals, as overt as they may have some very subtle effects on all of us. It persuades consumers to over consume, keeping our economy strong and prices low (Read more in in my article The Economics of Obesity- Why an Overweight Population is Profitable) but it also creates deeply rooted prejudices and brings even more pain to millions of Americans- females especially.
So strong is the effect of the overweight=inferior formula, that studies show children, adults and even health care professionals who work with obese individuals on a regular basis hold strongly negative attitudes towards them. In the maelstrom of such hatred and negativity it is no surprise that for many this leads to a compromised feeling of wellbeing, including depression and low self-esteem.  We need only look at the prevalence of eating disorders among young women striving to attain a that very media-created ideal or the experiences of friends and family as we all either suffer from or know someone very close to us who is directly affected by these societal pressures. While not as strong a prejudice as being overweight, for many (males especially) the stigma of not being strong and powerful has a parallel storyline. Less than 10% of the US population falls into the category of being termed athletic and yet the media is filled with depictions of strong and sculpted bodies as the epitome of what it means to be a happy and contented. Just as you would (sadly) never see an overweight individual on the cover of a fashion magazine (even though they are the ones who are buying the magazines) you would also never see a less than well biceped male in an advertisement for anything remotely masculine. Except in some form of parody. Such black and white depictions make it very hard for young males to not feel driven to change their bodies in an attempt to identify with the image that they see portrayed as manly and sexually virile. In the same way, images of waif-thin fashion models drive many young girls to try to emulate the image they are presented with as the embodiment of what it means to be feminine and attractive. Beauty, masculinity, femininity and strength all lie far outside of these artificial physical renderings, but these images nonetheless can have a devastatingly negative effect. Pushing many to pursue an ideal that exists only in the realm of Photoshop and computer-generated images as most of the models hardly resemble the iconic portrayals used by the media. See my Article: Being Skinny Isn’t Ideal.
Negative Self Image After Weight Loss & Body Transformation- Why It Happens
According to Reflected Appraisal Theory, individuals tend to develop negative perceptions of themselves if they believe that others view them negatively,  however human beings are complex and this reaction does not apply to every overweight individual since how we create our self-image is not always straightforward. Being part of a perceived negative group does not mean you will always perceive yourself negatively, but it does make it more likely. Since perception of self is developed during the formative years of childhood and adolescence, adults who become overweight later in life after enjoying a slim and trim body in their earlier years don’t always identify themselves as being inferior or stigmatized because of their weight. Stigma theory suggests that the psychological consequences of being overweight are far more severe among those who were overweight all their life as opposed to those who become overweight as adults. [10, 11] The theory further proposes that having a stigmatized and discriminated against identify early on, makes you more vulnerable to the negative emotional consequences of being a member of a stigmatized group.  Modified labeling theory, (a lot of theories- I know-but bear with me) suggests that those who have what they see as a stigmatized identity early on are most at risk for suffering negative consequences of that association. 
What this all means in plain English is that those who were overweight earlier in life but later lose weight do not always enjoy the same positive body image, self-confidence or social ease as those who were thin during their adolescence. [8, 12] And as such are more prone to still feeling fat even after losing weight and transforming their bodies. Just as amputees report sensations in their lost limbs, those who lose weight but were overweight earlier in life, seem to also perceive ‘phantom fat’ that stays with them regardless of matter how much weight they lose or how much their body changes.
Weight Loss & Negative Self Image: Why Some Don’t Get It
On the contrary, some individuals, (more so men than women), who become overweight as adults do not identify themselves as being overweight as they maintain a sense of self that was formed earlier on in their lives.  you might know of someone who was once in great shape when they were younger, but who seem oblivious to the fact that they may currently obese or overweight and such individuals tend to develop strategies to protect their original fit body perspective so as not to identify themselves as being fat. This can sometimes make it difficult for such individuals to eat better or begin an exercise routine as they tend to view their current weight situation as being temporary, or in some cases, will deny the reality altogether and say that any advice regarding weight loss simply does not apply as they don’t see perceive themselves as being overweight.  Also common is the perception that their weight gain is a transient occurrence resulting from an external circumstance; they gained weight after leaving school and becoming less active, they gained weight after having children, they gained weight because they are under a lot of stress and so forth. These factors may indeed play a role in their weight gain, but it can also insulate them from internalizing their position as an overweight individual in a society that frowns upon those not meeting the fit body ideal.[8, 17] This lack of identification could explain to some degree why so many people who are indeed overweight harbor negative attitudes to their obese peers as they are unable to see themselves as part of the same stigmatized group.
Body Transformation & Self Image: How Early Self Perceptions Linger Into Adulthood.
This behavior extends as well to those at the opposite end of the spectrum- as many who enter adolescence with the feeling that they are weak or powerless retain such attitudes into adulthood. Most bodybuilders come from a place of low self-esteem and poor body image developed at a very early stage of their lives, thus in keeping with the above-mentioned theories, and in spite of working hard to develop strong and impressively muscular bodies- they often fail to see themselves as such since they still identify with the smaller, weaker and powerless identity they formed in their adolescence. Such conflicts between how they appear and how they see themselves can easily lead to abuse of anabolic steroids and other physique and or performance enhancing drugs. It can also create an environment ripe for addictive exercise behavior (See my article on Exercise Addiction) and such actions often prompt outside observers to wonder why they would feel the need to push the envelope to such an extreme when they already look great. Yet an understanding of how we create our identities makes it far easier to understand. The commonly associated practice among physique athletes of constantly looking in the mirror isn’t always a simple expression of vanity and narcissism. For most, it is less about vanity and more about insecurity. Namely a need to constantly reassure themselves that they are indeed in great shape, as they don’t always feel that way on the inside. Many such individuals have problems building and sustaining relationships the same way overweight people do, as their fit physiques serve only as a tenuously fastened exoskeleton that hides the shy and introverted boys and girls who felt isolated or insufficient earlier in life because of a perceived physical shortcoming. Conversely, as we mentioned earlier, those who enjoyed adolescence as athletic and physically strong individuals tend to retain this self-confidence and elevated self-esteem, even when they get older and lose those physical attributes.
How Others Can Reinforce Behaviors That Make You Still Feel Fat
Sarte once said that hell is other people, and with regards to weight loss or any other form of changing your body, this adage often rings true. We do not live in a vacuum, and our actions and changes, can have profound effects on others, often in ways we might not expect. Many find themselves utterly frustrated and bewildered by the outright lack of support from family and friends when trying to lose weight, but such actions usually have roots in the fairly complex issue of how people see you being sometimes different from how you see yourself. We all have roles that are assigned to us, often without malice or ill intent, but this can make it difficult for some to be supportive of your efforts to change. For example, behavioral theory proposes that an overweight child plays a very distinct role in the family, (one that can sometimes deflect attention from other issues or behaviors), and so the child’s weight loss can disrupt the status quo. Leading other family members to criticize and or sabotage their fitness endeavors as a way of maintaining stability in the family relationship. [18,19,20] The same dynamic occurs among friends. If you have always been “the overweight friend” and lose weight, it might be hard for your friends to accept the new you the same way it can be hard for you to accept that you are no longer fat after you have lost weight. Unfortunately, people who have a hard time accepting the new you can also make it harder for you to see your own progress, which can in time make you more likely to go back to bad habits that brought about the weight gain in the first place, as a way of dealing with the discomfort of people around you who prefer you to be overweight. Similar pressures occur in romantic partnerships. Studies find that people tend to date and marry partners who are similar in terms of (perceived) attractiveness, so those who are overweight on tend to become involved with partners who are also overweight, and those who are of normal weight tend to date others of normal weight.[21, 22] Thus, when an overweight partner loses weight, it can create tension in the relationship even if the decision to do so is not a unilateral one. Men especially tend to feel threatened when their formerly overweight partner loses weight and thus becomes more attractive to the opposite sex,  while for women such changes tend to create perceptions of inadequacy. 
I remember working with a young woman several years ago who lost 60 lbs. after 10 months of working with me and she was absolutely delighted with her new body. Her self-confidence soared as did her self-esteem— and for a while all was well. Then one day her husband came into the gym and demanded that I stopped training his wife since he did not like the fact that she had lost so much weight. Her improved sense of self and the physical health benefits of her accomplishment were of little interest to him— he wanted his old wife back. Sadly, despite her joy at being able to transform her body, she chose to stop training and went back to her old eating habits and sedentary lifestyle. In time she regained most of the weight that she lost as it became less about losing weight and more about maintaining a sense of equilibrium with her husband. Dissuasion is not always this overt— friends can feel threatened when after years of identifying you as someone who is out of shape, the balance shifts when you get into shape. As hard as it may be to hear, it isn’t necessarily malicious when others try to derail your attempts at self-improvement. It is simply a reaction that some people have to change. They know you and love you as someone else and in the same way that you may struggle with relating to the new you, others can have similar difficulties as well.
How To Not Feel Fat After Losing Weight
Step 1: Have A Plan
To be forearmed is to be forewarned. With all the noise surrounding the physical aspects of weight loss and body transformation there is alarmingly little in the way of how such changes affects us on a psychological level. That being said, it is important that we understand where we are starting from and where we are going whenever we take it upon ourselves to embark upon a path of physical transformation. The tangible elements of exercising regularly and eating right are important but are by no means any important than the more subtle aspects of really working on accepting yourself. I tell my clients all the time that they have to make a conscious effort to accept that they can indeed get into shape and that these changes will affect the way others will perceive them as well. Self-acceptance and self-awareness is as crucial as not having the slice of cake with the extra thick frosting- perhaps even more so. As you will never enjoy the fruits of your labor if you don’t first take the time to accept yourself for who you are going to become. On the other hand, some people who were in great shape earlier in life and find themselves overweight need to find a path towards accepting their current situation. Not necessarily as a way of identifying themselves as part of a stigmatized group, but as a way of seeing that steps must be taken for their perception of themselves to match their true physical form. Clinging to the glory days of our trimmer and slimmer youth does little to help us in the present if we find ourselves stuck in an unhealthy state. The plan towards self-acceptance needs to have an external component as well, as you should have very frank discussions with friends and family to reassure them that while your body may change you are not going to change. (Which itself is a complicated issue because perhaps you may change and find new friends and ways of interacting socially in your life?) Either way, loving another person means giving them the freedom to make their own decisions and you have to do your best to find supportive relationships where people love you for who you are and not for who they want you to be.
Step 2: Get An Objective Evaluation From Someone You Trust
The other important point is to have people who you can trust give you an honest evaluation. When I was preparing for a natural bodybuilding competition there were only two people on the planet whose opinions on how I looked mattered, as I understood clearly that I could not objectively see my own progress. Friends and family aren’t always the best source of feedback, as they may not have the discerning eye of a bodybuilding enthusiast or someone who spends a significant amount of time looking at people’s bodies. The dedicated folks at the gym saying that you have lost weight means a lot as they tend to be able to notice even the most minute changes. Changes that the average person might not see. As someone who has been involved n every aspect of bodybuilding, from being a competitor to a judge, I can easily spot as little as a 2 lb. weight reduction, often long before my clients realize it. As a trainer, though, it’s important to never give false feedback and be always 100% honest and upfront with clients regarding their weight loss, and it’s crucial that if you are working with someone to lose weight, that it is someone who you can trust. And someone whose word you are going to work to take at face value as they may be able to see changes when you can’t. Some help from a therapist or clinician doesn’t hurt either as it’s one more pair of eyes that can help you work on seeing yourself as you really are.
How To Tell That You Really Lost Weight
Don’t spend too much time trying! If you are feeling good from exercising and eating healthy, let that be the main reward and give yourself credit for keeping it up and stop trying to “see” the weight loss, let it just happen as a consequence of living a healthier lifestyle. Focusing on the process, not the reward is perhaps the single most important factor among men and women who are able to lose weight long term and keep it off. By avoiding the “how-much-weight-I-lost-party-line” they focus instead on their training and diet, and over time are always rewarded by amazing results. Weight loss takes time and being process focused helps you not only overcome the maddening sense that nothing is happening fast enough, but also can distract you from having the anxiety of still feeling fat, as your goal becomes feeling good and living well. (See my article How Goal Setting Can Make You Gain Weight) This was a very personal article as I also struggled for years with my own self image. Having started out as a 125 lb. teenager standing at almost 6 feet, having a successful career as a natural bodybuilder at anywhere from 210-225 lbs sometimes meant little to be as at the end of the day I still saw myself as that skinny, shy and somewhat vulnerable boy. No trophy or compliment could penetrate the shell and it was an inner conflict that made it very difficult to truly enjoy and take pride in my accomplishments. It took a long time and a lot of work to be able to change but it was an important change and my own struggle was invaluable in helping me understand on a very intimate level what many of my clients experience when they change their bodies. Making it paramount in my personal training practice to promote self-acceptance and help guide my clients towards a path where they would work on their minds as much as they worked on their bodies, so as to be able to appreciate the fruits of their labor. Finding it difficult to see any progress after losing weight isn’t that out of the ordinary, but you will have to approach it with the same amount of effort and determination as you put into your physical weight loss endeavors, as feeling this way won’t just go away by itself. At the end of the day, it really isn’t about how you look or how much weight you loss — it’s all about how you feel. Thanks for reading.
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