Think about the weight loss before and after images you've seen.
There's a good chance you've encountered them. They're practically everywhere, whether they're in magazine ads, TV infomercials about the latest supposed weight loss miracle product or in social media clickbait.
The before photo is usually a frowning, slumping obese person. The after photo is a smiling, upright, shoulders-pulled-back, muscular, slender person.
For those of us still on the heavy side of the weight loss effort, those side-by-side images can be a source of hope. There's the whispered promise of, "If they can do it, I can, too."
But there's a piece of the puzzle that's omitted in those images.
What the before and after photos rarely show are wrinkled folds of skin, which for some people can be the byproduct of losing a large amount of weight. Skin stretches to accommodate weight gained, and when that weight disappears, the elasticity of skin doesn't always snap back to its original shape.
Some folks win the biological lottery and don't have flaps of skin left behind. Others find themselves looking at the standard before and after photos asking, "Why don't I look that way?"
I'm in that middle ground — as I lose weight, my skin is tightening somewhat. But like an overstretched rubber band, it's not rebounding to its pre-stretched shape. There's a bit of slack left behind, particularly in the arms.
For extreme cases of excess skin, people may opt for cosmetic surgery to remove it. However, for lesser cases like mine, there are a few steps that can be taken during the weight loss process to reduce the amount of loose skin.
1. Lose weight slowly to give your skin time to adjust and recover. Crash diets and losing a lot of weight quickly is likely to leave sagging skin. Instead, health experts recommend losing an average of one to two pounds per week. Follow the tortoise's adage: Slow and steady wins the race.
2. Add strength training to your exercise routine. As fat is shed and leaves loose skin behind, building muscle can help fill the void. Not to mention strength training is a positive addition to weight loss plans — both fat and muscle can be lost through diet-only routines, so strength training prevents muscle loss.
3. Drink enough water. This can improve skin health and elasticity regardless of whether you're managing your weight.
4. Eating the recommended daily amount of protein — about 56 grams a day for men and 46 grams a day for women — has been linked to improved skin elasticity during weight loss. Protein also helps repair muscles worked in strength training.
All that said, there's an important message to keep in mind: Loose skin is normal when losing large amounts of weight, and while it can induce self-consciousness (trust me, I know — I still feel awkward in sleeveless shirts and dresses), the most important thing is becoming the healthiest version of yourself.
Go ahead and look at those before and after photos for inspiration. Just try not to compare yourself to them, and be proud of however far you've come on your weight loss journey so far.
JULIE BARICHELLO is an assistant editor at The Times documenting her weight management and health improvement journey. To share your own weight management story, contact her at 815-431-4072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.