Raise your hand if you’ve seemingly been trying to lose weight your whole life.
Keep your hand raised if you’ve lost weight before, only to see it creep back time and again. Now, look around you and see who else has their hand raised. No one. Because you’re the only one reading this near you. I got you good.
But, good news if you fall in this camp. You don’t have to diet all the time. In fact, you’ll get better results if you don’t. Let me explain.
Your metabolism is not a great multi-tasker. It likes to be building up fat and muscle (anabolism) or tearing them both down (catabolism).
Trying to do both at once is like trying to contend for a Stanley Cup and rebuild in the same year (Chevy, are you listening?). You can do it, it’s just far from optimal and primarily reserved for absolute beginners with lots of body fat to lose.
The trick here is to determine which "season" of fat loss you’re in — based on your motivation levels and goals at the time — and embrace it for what it is.
The first season is a full-out sprint to lose as much fat as quickly as possible. Your motivation is high, typically during a time of year with fewer distractions, and you have the energy and focus to commit. You bring your calories down and you get as much exercise as you can to maximize fat loss. It’s the whole "eat less, move more" concept. This creates a wide calorie gap that leads to weight loss.
As a general rule, you should aim to lose about one per cent of your body weight per week, and about 10 per cent of your total body weight before shifting to another season. The diet doesn’t end after you’ve cut weight, but after you’ve maintained the same weight for a few months to avoid rebounding.
There’s evidence that a body weight set point exists in all of us (the weight we’ve held the longest in our adult lives) and if you go right back to your old way of life, the weight will come back. That’s one reason why the metabolism of two 180-pound people can differ if one dieted down to that weight and one didn’t. The latter person can eat more without weight gain.
But there’s hope of keeping the fat off with the right strategy, which brings us to maintenance.
One of the reasons people gain back weight they’ve lost is because they think there’s an end date. That all-or-nothing approach is why most fail. If you go from eating very little to eating a lot overnight — you’re inevitably going to gain weight back, and fast.
This is why ending the diet in the right way is so important. You want to increase calories to maintenance so you can eat more food, take a mental break and allow your hormones to return to healthy levels.
Some recommend slowly increasing calories to maintenance over weeks at a time, but I’d suggest the opposite. The entire point of ending the diet is to take a break from dieting.
So, you still exercise some restraint with your diet, but you eat enough to maintain your new weight. You will need to accept an increase in scale weight in the early going of a maintenance period. This isn’t fat gain, but an increase in water and stored glycogen from the increased calories. As long as it doesn’t continue to trend up dramatically each week, you’re doing things right.
There are benefits beyond the mental break at work here. According to Australian researchers, a group taking frequent diet breaks lost 50 per cent more fat compared to a group dieting continuously for 16 weeks.
The researchers recruited 51 obese men and divided them into two groups. All were put on a diet geared toward weight loss, providing only 67 per cent of the calories needed to maintain their weight.
The first group was the control group who dieted for 16 consecutive weeks. The second group undertook a 30-week diet, alternating two weeks of dieting with two weeks of maintenance calories throughout.
Aside from losing 50 per cent more fat overall, almost all of the extra pounds of weight lost by the diet break group was fat.
Important note about the diet breaks: these weren’t a two-week bender filled with trips to all-you-can-eat buffets. The participants still tracked their calories, with a return to "maintenance" calories 33 per cent higher than on the diet. They also earned this break by consistently losing weight in the prior two weeks of dieting.
But the positive results didn’t end there. The researchers continued to monitor both groups for a period of six months after the study’s conclusion.
Both regained some weight, but weight loss in the diet-break group was 17.9 pounds greater than the control group overall.
One caveat: the diet-break group did take twice as long to accomplish their results (30 weeks compared to 16) but the researchers believed the breaks helped prevent the slowing of one’s metabolism, a common side effect of aggressive diets over the long haul.
What happens to your metabolism when you diet? Well, hormones such as leptin (which regulates appetite) and thyroid drop so you expend fewer calories at rest and experience an increase in hunger. Extended periods of dieting can decrease testosterone and increase cortisol as well. All of this is your body’s attempt to stop you from starving to death. It’s hard-wired into us as a defence mechanism, but it does make dieting in the modern world more difficult.
Now, how long should you maintain?
Everyone should take at least a few weeks break after losing a significant amount of weight. Then you can either decide to continue to maintain and gain or dial it back down again. That depends on your life circumstances in the moment and your goals.
If you’ve lost enough fat and you’re happy with where you are, you can just cruise at maintenance and set different goals like getting stronger or "tightening and toning" (for lack of better words).
If you have some way to go, feel free to go back into a diet sprint after taking a little break.
Now, there are two other seasons I recommend you rarely venture into, but sometimes life makes them necessary.
This is where you take a break from exercise and eat only enough to hold serve. Life is throwing a curveball, and you’re in survival mode. Maybe you’ve started a new job or have a newborn at home. Ideally, you don’t want to be here long, because once you lose your commitment to exercise, it’s very hard to get it back. But accept progress will be slow or non-existent and prioritize other things in your life for a bit. You’ll be OK.
This last season is where you willingly accept going off the rails with the associated weight gain. You don’t want to do this more than a few times a year and keep the window small. Maybe it’s a bachelor or bachelorette party weekend, an all-inclusive stay at a Mexican resort or it’s over Christmas break. You’re not going to stress about it, but you don’t want to be here long or you can undo a lot of your effort. A few days of fun won’t kill you.
The take-home point is this: your journey is never over. But that should be liberating. It means you don’t have to keep pushing on that diet if it isn’t working for you. But you do need to have a maintenance plan for afterwards. You can push hard again when you’re ready. Give yourself a break here. Nothing worth building happens overnight.
You sometimes get fooled into thinking this should happen fast. That’s usually because we confuse water loss with fat loss. Remove carbs and you’ll lose weight because of stored water. (Hi, Keto diet, I see you.)
However, most people want to lose fat, not weight — and fat loss happens over months, not days, and requires a smart approach to nutrition (otherwise you’ll lose as much muscle as anything!).
Give it time and don’t stress about short-term fluctuations. If you ride the emotional roller-coaster with every weigh-in, you will frustrate yourself to no end.
Instead, it must be dogged determination where you focus on fundamentally changing your daily habits and choices. Changing your identity from the ground up through diet and movement.
In the end, those who tend to succeed with this weight loss thing are consistent for months and eventually years, to a point where it becomes a part of their identity. Walk into any commercial gym and the ones in great shape are the ones who are there, consistently, week after week. That should tell you something.
Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based weight-loss coach for men and women like his former self. Obese in his 20s, he now helps clients find their spark and lose weight for life. To get direct mentorship from him in his Drop 2 Sizes Summer Challenge, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to mitchcalvert.com to download his free diet secrets cheat sheet.