“Phantom Fat” May Linger After Weight Loss

By Mike Howard

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Naturally, we focus on the wonderful benefits of losing weight (fat) – the health boost, the self-confidence, the ability to move around with more ease and less discomfort. For many however, the self-image that accompanied being fat lingers long after the weight is gone.

While at first glance this sort of phenomenon may be surprising, when we uncover the layers of body image and self-esteem, the issue makes more and more sense. There are physical and emotional issues that linger when large amounts of weight are lost.

Here are some of the theories of “phantom fat”

  • The excess fat is gone when people reach their goal weight, but they may have sagging skin, cellulite or a body shape that they still deem undesirable.
  • People who were formerly overweight often still carry that internal image perception with them,” says Elayne Daniels, a psychologist who specializes in body-image issues.
  • The above is especially true for those who were overweight for years and lost a lot of weight quickly.
  • Another contributing factor can be fear of regaining the weight, says psychologist Joshua Hrabosky. This is especially true for yo-yo dieters.
  • Hrabosky authored a study showing that many overweight and formerly overweight women showed a greater “dysfunctional appearance investment” – meaning they put a lot of stock in their appearance being part of who they are.
  • Although people who have lost a lot of weight do have improved satisfaction of appearance, it is not normally as high as those who have never been overweight.
  • A lot of it comes down to unrealistic expectations with fat loss – people expect that they will look like bikini models when all the weight comes off.
  • You have to look at retraining your brain and understanding that you have been reinforcing this negative image for probably a long time,” says Adrienne Ressler, a body-image specialist.

Fat Loss doesn’t make everything right

While losing a lot of body fat has a myriad of physical and psychological benefits, it is important to realize that when people lose weight they may not lose the reasons that caused them to be overweight in the first place.

The “hedonic treadmill” plays a prominent role here. So, as a person achieves a goal or gets something new, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

Whether you are on your way towards a fat loss goal or thinking about endeavoring to do so, here is some food for thought:

  • Losing fat won’t change who you are as a person
  • Fat loss is every bit as much about eliminating self-defeatist thinking and emotional roadblocks, as it is about the scale weight.
  • Be realistic and clear about your reasons and expectations of losing fat. Try and wire your brain to achieve these goals for yourself – your physical and mental health. If you find yourself in a mentality that you need to lose weight and need to look better, try and draw upon some more intrinsic goals, such as adapting an enjoyment for healthy eating and physical activity. This kind of mindset will not only help you with your fat loss goal long-term, it will also prepare you for the emotional complacency and “phantom fat” that often ensues.

Has anyone experienced “phantom fat”?

Source: MSNBC

39 Comments

  1. My Journey

    I’m a 29yr old Female. As a kid I was never over weight until I hit puberty is when I became obese. When I graduated high school I weighed 210 lbs I was a size 18 in jeans. I got married and had a child at 24yrs old and was in grad school. All of this together I felt stressed 😩 and was 289 lbs and a size 24. This was the most depressing thing that I have ever lived. It got to the point where I couldn’t tie my shoes. How embarrassing is this? I couldn’t play with my child because I was always too tired. I decided to change this for my family. I became active and change my eating habits slowly. Now at age 29 I have lost 12 jean sizes and 2 shirt sizes. I honestly feel great. But I look at myself in the mirror and still see the old me, I honestly don’t know why? No matter how much weight I’ve lost I still see my old self in the mirror. Even tho my husband and friends along with family tell me I look great, I don’t believe it. Sometiems I wonder if I need to go to some sort of therapy session to understand my problem?

    Reply
  2. Mr Truth

    I dated a girl that struggled with her weight for a long time. Very beautiful girl even before the weight loss. As she lost weight she was in fear of gaining it back on a constant daily basis. Mood swings and would not even go down the aisle in the store where they had cookies. I started to see her fall apart and could not help her, i tried pushing her to counseling and reassuring her but hear me on this! If you believe in your mind that you are fat when you are not you will be a prisoner in your mind to the old image. She tried to force me to lose weight when i did not need to. She would start to judge others on there weight. She became a very ugly person and became narcissistic. We are not together anymore but still to this day she is obsessed with being skinny and yet acts ugly. Its really sad because on the outside shes trying to look perfect but on the inside shes dying. Social media and magazines do make it worse because you look at an image. If you fall prisoner to this idea and keep telling yourself your fat you are headed down a dark path because now you are not loving yourself and the weight loss now has become something bad instead of good. Women and men hear me on this love yourself first and dont feed your mind false readings. Lose weight to feel better, run, play and have a healthy life. Dont do it to get put into an image.

    Reply
    • Trazie

      You are absolutely correct thank you for sharing this, it really helped me

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    I’ve been overweight throughout my years at high school, and I decided to lose weight when I was at the university. At the time, I was 220lbs (100kg) and now I am 140lbs (64kg) for 5’7″. But I still feel like I should lose weight and honestly, when I see me in a mirror, I just don’t recognize myself. I feel like it’s not even my own body that I see.

    Though, what I have noticed is a change with people. They tend to treat me more respectfully now that I fulfil the “standards”.

    Reply
    • addy

      i lose 5 kgs in just 24 days but few time i feel that im getting Slim but few times o feel that i regain the weight…why this hpn

      Reply
  4. Sarah Wilson

    This is absolutely true. I lost about 50 lbs in two months my first year out of high school due to my over active thyroid. I changed nothing in my life and had literally given up on weight loss when it all happened. Now I am vegan and spend as much time outdoors and excersizing with my dogs as possible but No matter what, I am not happy and my once “I just need to lose 15 lbs” turned into “I want to become a fitness model”. I weigh 105 lbs and still cannot get myself to wear a bathing suit; the thought almost invokes An anxiety attack. It’s always been so hard for me to understand how others can think I am borderline anorexic in size and all I see are my imperfections; so complicated is the brain wth body image issues.

    I am also a psychology major so thank you for the advice on intrinsic motivation; I see how that could absolutely work and I will try this for myself. The biggest piece of advice I try to give to myself is that you must extend the love you give to others to yourself. They are enough and so are you!

    Reply
  5. Aisy

    Firstly i.d like to apologize if my english hard to understand cs i cant use it well, i do loss weight too, at first month i just tend to decreased my callories consumption and stop consumed fried meals and it happened to loss 5 kilos in a month, at first I just wanted to try cause my friends did so and she did loss her weight, so after that I motivated and intended to loss weight too, after that I started to feel that I’m not thin enough, and I was starting to loss my weight with some hard ways like eat less and do much exercises more. It went perfectly and I get the body I had always wanted. But everyone around me keep told me to stop doing things like diet and eat much. Somehow it getting worse cause I thought they didn’t even understand what I want and they kept thinking that I went diet because they always mocking me for my fat body. But actually that was not my reason and it annoyed me so much how they acted like how much they like me back then when I was fat than me right now. And actually it disturbing me, and made me loss controlled so I back to my old bad habits. I cheat meals a lot, and now I getting more fats at my body again.. But there was something wrong about my weight, I keep eat and stopping my exercise, I got annoyed and getting lazy to go anywhere but I loss my weight.. I don’t know what happening here because my body keep getting bigger, my new thin suits even getting unfit! But how come my weight getting less.. Anyone know what’s happenings to my body?

    Reply
  6. Audra Blue

    I’ve already lost 15 lbs (7kg) by adopting a vegan lifestyle. I’ve never felt better. But I haven’t changed clothing sizes and when I look at myself, I can’t see a difference. But when I saw my sister again after not seeing her for more than a month, she was amazed and proud at how much weight I’d lost! It’s weird. But I do feel lighter and more able to get around. I still have 30 kgs (66 lbs) to go before I’m at my goal weight but I’d be happy with just dropping dress size. I did read somewhere that depending on where your body fat sits and general clothing sizes it can take anywhere between 10-15 kgs (22-33 lbs) of weight loss before you drop even one dress size. I’m not discouraged by this. I’ll keep going and see how it all works out.

    Reply
  7. Rose

    I’ve lost 9 lbs and am shocked at how fat I look. I didn’t think I was that fat as my clothes size is a 6. This is marketing mischief though. I’m really a 12 in the old days. I have just been looking at photos of myself and I can see how fat I look. I weigh 125 lbs, down from 134, but I look fatter than ever, or was I deceiving myself? I intend to keep on with the exercising and diet and keep trying to lose it a bit at a time.

    Reply
  8. unknown

    I’ve lost 152 pounds. I’m mentally unstable. I’m physically.. unstable. I’m emotionally unstable. I feel like I’m never going to be good enough. I’ve been obese my whole life, and weightloss has become my addiction and taking over my life. I feel as though there is no way out. Each pound for pound is overtaking me weather I go up.. or down.. i’m lost.. don’t know how to deal with people (for i’ve never had to deal with people) Not sure which way to turn.

    Reply
    • Rose

      Congratulations, you’ve lost 152 lbs. I wish I could lose 2 lbs. Keep at it, I’m sure you look better in the mirror now. If you have more to lose, you’ll look even better. If you’ve had the tenacity to lose 152lbs you’re a champion and can obviously keep doing it. don’t be hard on yourself. Be grateful that you’ve had the courage to succeed.

      Reply
    • Laura

      It would have taken a lot of focus to lose such a lot of weight. Look for ways to move focus away from diet without derailing your efforts. It is important but shouldn’t be all consuming. Honestly, I’ve always dealt with people and it is always confusing! Don’t be hard on yourself. You are normal, you’re just freaking out a bit. It happens to everyone. Find a thing you enjoy doing and do that thing. Get out of your head it’s better than going in circles. Best of luck to you!

      Reply
  9. Shenmue

    I’m in a bizarre situation with this. I’m so irrationally afraid of being pregnant that I’m seeing weight gain that isn’t there. According to my very logical friend Mr. Scale, my inactivity has gained me maybe two pounds. Not to mention everyone else says I look thin. Yet what I’m seeing in the mirror is a woman whose hips and breasts are bigger than they were a few weeks ago.

    …this is impossible. I can’t be pregnant because I’m not nauseous, don’t have food cravings, aren’t peeing a lot,can drink coffee with no problem, and have no exhaustion that can’t be linked to intense stress. My areoulas are the same color they’ve always been. “Mucus” is exactly as expected for someone ramping up to ovulation slowly. So…any suggestions?

    Reply
  10. Jordan

    When you lost that weight did you have loose skin? I would like to loose a similar amount of weight.

    Reply
  11. Erinn

    I’ve recently lost 115 pounds, I went from a size 22 to a size 2. I still feel like that fat girl 🙁 I find myself sarching for approval and reassurance that I’m not fat. Cognitively I know I’m actually quite tiny (I feel a pang of guilt writing tiny) but the fat girl lives on inside of me. I don’t think I was unreasonable with my goals, I was looking at losing weight and getting healthier. I guess I was hopeful my self confidence would go up as my weight went down. At this point I just want to satisfied with what I’ve done, I do want to get some skin removal after kids but besides that I need to be okay with my body. I am just so terrified of getting fat again 🙁 So nice to know I’m not alone!

    Reply
  12. mix

    “Losing the weight was one of the best things I’ve done for myself ever… but after the weight was gone, I was still here. I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m just as unhappy before. Now I have to try to fix me. Something so much harder.”

    My thoughts EXACTLY.

    Reply
  13. Erin

    This is absolutely, positively 100% true – like the rest of you, I recently lost about 30 lbs and wear a size 2 – this morning, while we were doing our P90X workout, my roommate told me I have the WORST self-image of anyone she’s ever met, and it’s starting to make her feel bad (i.e. if I say something out loud about how I want to lose stomach fat, she thinks, “Well if SHE thinks she’s fat, then what do I look like??” – she is so NOT fat). I don’t want my insecurities to rub off on her and we are so close that her yelling at me was exactly what I needed to realize that I have a problem. My other girlfriends, not to mention guys I’ve dated have told me the same thing, so now I’m determined to feel better about myself! I’m going to start saying positive affirmations and even if I have a negative thought, I’m going to keep it to myself.

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels like this and even though it sucks, knowing I do have a problem and admitting it is the only way I’ll be able to start fixing it.

    We are ALL BEAUTIFUL! 🙂

    Reply
  14. olivia

    I’ve gained and lost 10-30lbs, and never have been technically overweight. whenever i’m lowest i always think i’m the fat one. i never have felt better about myself when i was thinner.that being said, it only hits me how good i looked when my jeans don’t fit anymore. ohhh hind sight…

    Reply
  15. Anna

    I only googled this concept after my friends told me that I need to stop being so down on myself, because I’m not fat anymore.
    Losing the weight was one of the best things I’ve done for myself ever… but after the weight was gone, I was still here. I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m just as unhappy before. Now I have to try to fix me. Something so much harder.

    Reply
  16. fat girl gone thin

    I have lost 56 pounds and am 1 pound away from goal. Took me over 2 years but I did it the healthy way with Weight Watchers and working out.
    My friends dont get me when I say I am fat. Today I have something on that I regret. I am not fishing for compliments because I dont even know how to accept them.
    However, aside from always thinking I am fat I know that I am a cutie and will never think i am ugly!!

    Reply
  17. d.

    You can’t gain 10 pounds in one weekend. When you see the number rise on the scale it is WATER weight that accompanies eating a big meal. You would have to eat 44,000 calories to gain 10 pounds.

    It takes 3200 calories OVER the calories you need to stay alive to gain a pound.

    Reply
  18. kirsty

    hi i think im pritty simular toyou i used to weigh in at a heavy 10 stone 7 pounds but i took it too far and ended up weighting in at a mear 28kg and had to spend 7 months learning and retraining myself how to eat and enjoy properly, im still in the fase of learning but i now weigh a ‘healthy’ 8 stone 3-5 pounds i sumtimes wish i was as thin as i was before but i dont think that willever change . all i realy wanted to say is dont let faddiets ruin your life i mean im 17 and have been like this for over years and it dosnt make you any happier so please just think of all the love you have around you and the fact that ppl love you for who you are. xxx

    Reply
  19. Holland

    I’ve lost 98 pounds and everyone tells me how great I look and all that, but I still feel like the fat kid you know? I’ve been heavy since I was in 4th grade and I’m 27 now. I still see what’s wrong and my husband says I’m crazy. Hehe. I thought I was nuts but seeing that other people feel the same way gives me some comfort.

    -Holland

    Reply
  20. Mike Howard

    It’s really eye-opening to see all of the stories and feedback. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Reply
  21. Fattus

    gaining 10 pounds over a few meals is possible. I’ve done it easily over a weekend. Can’t everyone?

    Reply
  22. fitness strength training

    Great post… I know when I lost my freshman “30” a few years ago I was still plagued by the fear of gaining again making me diet way too long for no reason. Now i live a healthy lifestyle of clean eating and I am a fitness freak.

    Reply
  23. Heather

    And I’m still shocked when I put on size 2 or 4 pants and am convinced in my head that I am fatter than other people in those sizes though that really doesn’t make sense.

    But the concentrated focus is helping. It started with going out in a bikini and realizing that no one else found anything odd about it. Fake it until you make it, I guess.

    Reply
  24. Heather

    I said of this phenomenah… No matter how much weight I lose, I have 15 lb left to go.

    I’m finally trying to focus on the inside not the outside now on my husband’s recommendation.

    My body fat is in a very desirable range.. but I still see a lot of fat– and the excess skin makes it look like there’s even more.

    And I wasn’t that overweight (most the excess skin is from pregnancy – I needed to lose ~10 lb to get to healthy, I lost 30.) – so I imagine it’s even worse for people who were obese.

    Reply
  25. Rose W

    I’ve noticed people who have lost weight walking like they still have the weight. It’s sad. 🙁

    Reply
  26. Diane

    It’s true. I lost 150 pounds and have kept it off for 12 years. Sometimes I’m still surprised when I need a size small shirt. I hold it up and think, that won’t fit – but then it does! Body image and body perception are very complicated!

    Reply
    • Leticiarose

      What are steps or things you can do to help with a more positive body image perception?
      As comforting as it is to know that there are others out there that are feeling the same way, I still find this to be a major issue for me as unless you’ve gone through it, no one else seems to understand the impact. I almost feel lost at times.
      I have lost a total of 80lbs.since Feb… so in 9 months, however a total of 100lbs since last year. My doctor prescribed a diet plan for me to treat my PCOS. I started working out to tone a few months after I started, however still have some saggy skin issues and am working on them. My new boyfriend is completely fit with a six pack and is quite handsome. He draws much attention for his looks. Before him I have gone on dates with some of the most attractive fit people… but never pursued anything more than just one date with them. And realised that most of them wanted to date me because of my looks. Strange because I never understood what they were seeing. I would and still do blush and don’t know how to take a compliment and this caused further issues for me cause I did not know how to handle it.
      My boyfriend calls me gorgeous all the time, I can not see what they and he are talking about. I still feel like a 300lbs woman. When i shop I try on things that are at least 2 sizes to big and if I have to pass through a crowd…I never think I can fit.
      My friends tell me to get over it as I’m not the same size and that I am bothering them as I am smaller than them. But I see myself as so much bigger than them. Double sometimes. I have tried to research this on the internet to help myself get out of this state of mind, but have not found enough info on self help treatments.
      I am scared to push my boyfriend away as I have a bit already. He has aleady said insecurity is one of the most unattractive thing to him. But even just looking at pics he and I took, I realise my self esteem is completely in the toilet with this weight loss. I’ve never been so self conscious. And I feel like we’re an odd looking couple because I am the fat girl in the picture.
      Anyone have suggested reading material that can help or suggestions?
      HAving a really hard time with the unexpected pshychological effect.

      Reply
  27. Spectra

    This is indeed very true. I lost around 90 lbs about 7 years ago and have kept it off. When I first lost the weight, I definitely did not feel thin for a long time. I would look at smaller clothes and figure that I’d never be able to squeeze into them, but then I’d try them on and they’d fit or be too big.

    I never had the saggy skin problem, but I can see how that would be such a bummer if you were trying to lose a lot of weight. I think it’d be a huge stumbling block to lose weight yet still be dealing with lots of saggy skin and stuff.

    Reply
  28. Laura

    Simon, I am exactly the same way. I lost almost 30 lbs. last fall and still adjusting. I fluctuate up or down about four or five pounds all the time, depending on what I am eating, how much exercise I am getting, etc. I am about 10-15 lbs. away from my goal weight. I don’t know about you but although 30 lbs. might not sound like a lot to have lost, it made an enormous difference to me. I look “normal” again but have to fight off the irrational feeling as if I will eat one bad meal and shoot right back up to my former size. Yesterday for example I ate fried shrimp, french fries, cole slaw for dinner and feel so guilty about doing that. The solution? Get right back on my healthy diet and after work I will take the dog for a long walk. Also planning to go swimming this weekend, and not indulging in any “bad” foods for at least another week. Let yourself have a treat once in awhile, just don’t get carried away. If you are like me you probably ate a lot of bad stuff and did not get any exercise in your heavier days. As long as we continue in the behaviors that caused us to lose the weight in the first place it won’t come back.

    Reply
  29. linstin

    This is so true! I lost over 100 lbs. in ’02 and I still check out the plus sizes when I go shopping even though I am now a US size 10. It really is difficult to adjust reality with what is in one’s own head even though the reality is so much more positive than the image in the brain. I am happily working on though!

    Linda

    Reply
  30. James

    You have to eat foods which make you feel good from the inside. I have been eating a raw food diet and the energy it gives me is tremendous. This helps with increasing the metabolism which KEEPS the weight off. In addition if you can get in the habit of drinking plenty of water, that helps with both your energy level, as well as feeling satisfied (not hungry) all day.

    To Your Health!
    James Reno (editor)
    Raw-Food-Repair.com

    Reply
  31. Simon Owens

    I’ve had to deal with it. I’ve lost close to 30 pounds and other people around me tell me that i look normal and thin, and while I agree to them to a certain extent, if I so much as eat one or two big meals I feel as if I’ve gained 10 pounds, even though gaining that much weight because of a few large meals is impossible. Also, I’m probably between 7 to 10 pounds away from my target weight, and they’re proving to be the hardest to lose, so anytime I remain above that target weight I can’t feel thin, even though most people would look at me and say I look normal

    Reply
  32. Yum Yucky

    This is exactly why people need to change from the INSIDE out! Forgot about all the superficial beauty crap. Be well on the inside first!

    Reply
  33. Jody - Fit at 51

    Good article & true! I lost my weight way too many years ago but I sometimes look in the mirror & still see that fat kid. The psychological hurt from the teasing & more stays with a person for a long long time…. for me, it has not gone away & rears it’s ugly head too often.

    Reply
  34. Katie

    Oh yes. I’ve never heard the term before (or at least only vaguely), but it makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, I never quite got rid of that belief. It’s strange, when what you see and what you feel are so radically disparate. So you can see that you are fine in the mirror but when you’re sitting down reading or something similar, you feel as though you are taking up so much room and you shouldn’t.

    Reply