Drinking and dieting done right share a common goal: achieve and maintain.
“Any adage worth repeating is already half-way to being irrelevant”– Ed Catmull
Allow me to simplify how to drink like a boss the consequences and challenges of dieting.
Weight loss advice is a commodity. The real magic is learning to keep weight off.
We’re often so caught up in losing the weight that we miss the fact that the end goal of a fat loss plan is to plateau.
Add on a poignant and cutting truth about the aftermath of dieting — you are more likely than not to regain the weight you lost (and possibly more).
Translated: dieting may be a better long term strategy for gaining, rather than losing, weight.
Weight loss is simple, albeit not easy. Weight suppression, keeping weight off, scores low in simplicity and ease.
So, how am I doing–am I winning you over so far?
To be successful we need to change our attitudes and beliefs about dieting. That’s not to say we have to feel feelings and kumbaya our way to thin—although most people approach with an opposite, yet similar mentality believing it’s luck of the draw.
You can be successful if you are properly equipped with knowledge of what barriers and challenges you are going to face. I will highlight the big players as well as give you some concrete action steps to help you on your way.
Sun Tzu said, “Know thyself, know thy enemy”. If you know your idiosyncrasies and habits and the rigors of dieting, you can keep weight off.
The art of war: Is your body working against you?
Researchers scrutinize the mechanisms behind the question, “Does dieting make you fatter”. There are both short and long term metabolic adaptations that add complexity. As a fitness professional, it’s easy to view this question with rose-colored glasses and assume a long-term mindset and my special super-duper workout will fix it.
Physiology is tricky, but I’ll summarize about 90% of it in a few sentences. First, recognize that your body is not working against your fat loss efforts. It’s a stubborn asshole, but it actually makes sense how it responds. Its job is to help you survive exposure to stressors—environmental, social, etc. It’s all just stress. Like a thermostat your body has processes to maintain the status quo – in this case, your weight.
When we disrupt the status quo, the response by out body is often proportional to the stress placed on it. If you stretch a rubber band, it will snap back. Stretch it further and you get a more forceful recoil. Physiology is similar.
This explains the relationship between dieting and weight regain (or overshooting). It’s also why diets eventually fail to work. Go on a diet and your body minimizes calorie expenditure to keep you in energy balance. Double down on the diet and your physiology will give you a metabolic kick to the nuts.
Continue down this path of shaving calories off our plates, and at some point, mathematically, food will cease to exist. Poof!
So how does your body outsmart you, and how serious are the implications for weight regain when dieting?
How dieting makes you sets up fat gain
When you diet, or cut, the hypocaloric state causes alterations to your metabolism. Negative connotations aside, this is the whole purpose of dieting. We are hoping to alter your metabolism.
Like any physiologic stress, when applied consistently it will come to a point where adaptation ceases to occur. Your body becomes inoculated, in a sense, and we stop seeing fat loss at any appreciable rate.
You can’t force physiology.
The more aggressive the diet and the further the departure from the status quo, the more intense the biologic response of 3 primary weapons:
- Slowing of metabolism
- Reduction of activity
Slowing of metabolism
This is the basket most people (mistakenly) put their eggs into. It’s convenient to blame circumstances and misfortune rather than embrace and own our actions.
A broken metabolism is an outlet. Whether age, hormones, or a side effect of dieting it safeguards us against the truth—we’re not controlling the things we can control as well as we can control them.
Big people have higher resting energy expenditure than smaller people. When you diet and lose weight, you will have a lower metabolism.
The question researchers seek to answer is this: “is the metabolism lower than we would expect after you lose the weight?” In other words, is metabolism damaged as a result of weight loss?
For clarity, let’s examine what people mean by a slowing metabolism.
There are several components that make up metabolism:
- Resting Metabolic Rate/RMR (aka Basal Metabolic Rate/BMR)
- Thermic effect of feeding
- Physical activity
- Non-exercise energy expenditure (some people further divide into non-exercise activity thermogenesis, NEAT, to indicate fidgeting and non-volitional movement and non-exercise physical activity to indicate job, life, or what my parents call “this house is too dirty to be bored” activity)
Your RMR is the body’s cost of doing business—the energy (calories) required to keep you alive at bed rest. As you diet down, this decreases because there is less of you to maintain.
The thermic effect of feeding is how many calories your body burns off digesting food. Physical activity is the most volitional and variable component aside from NEEE.
More studies (Leibel et al 1995, Weinsier et al 2000, Carneiro et al 2016, Rosenbaum et al 2008) and reviews support that adaptive thermogenesis (reduction in RMR) dissipates after cessation of dieting and restoration of energy balance. Basically, as soon as we get out of a calorie deficit, the metabolism returns to normal.
The concept of a slowed metabolism is plausible; it just means there are other components rather than you innate metabolic rate are the primary factors.
Reduction of activity
The longer we apply a calorie deficit the more adept our bodies are at closing the gap.
Your body will reduce body temperature, slow non-exercise activity, decrease motivation to move, and alter nervous system tone to down regulate calorie expenditure. This means a perceived deficit of 500 calories may actually not be a deficit at all.
The diet didn’t stop working, the deficit has been erased because your body has outsmarted you.
If you’ve ever dieted aggressively for any length of time you know about how laborious the simplest task feels. Also, you become irritable. I once raged at a friend for commenting on my portion sizes about 4 weeks out from a bodybuilding competition. What I needed was this:
Being in a deficit for a lengthy time cocks that rubber band back in an effort to spoil your efforts. If you’ve got an appreciable amount of weight to lose, taking periods to simply maintain your progress is worth your sanity.
Several studies confirm the fact that the biggest changes in energy expenditure occur because of a low-level activity (Liebel et al 1995, Rosenbaum 2008, Carneiro et al 2016). We know a sedentary lifestyle is one of the big two obesigenic factors. It appears to recur in the research as at least one focal point.
While we can set our environment up to encourage more physical activity, NEAT is at least partially under subconscious control.
Hyperphagia (increased hunger signaling)
The greater the loss of fat and muscle mass, the more pronounced the hyperphagia, an extreme drive to overconsume food. The degree of fat loss appears to be the main driver for the severity of hyperphagia (Dulloo, Jacquet, and Girardier et al 1997).
Lose more fat = increased hunger when transitioning back to a maintenance phase. The body is patient with its attack and this makes it a challenging foe.
What’s more, on the rebound there is a preference to rebound fat gain at a quicker rate, yet the hyperphagia doesn’t seem to subside until lean mass is recovered (Dulloo et al 2015).
I think this point alone validates the notion that we should not diet too aggressively. The faster you lose weight the more you increase the likelihood that you will lose muscle mass. Muscle mass doesn’t recover as quickly as fat. With an increased drive for hunger you can easily add excess fat.
This ends up with an overshoot of weight gain.
The plan for keeping weight off?
With this information we can ascertain some ways to combat your body’s efforts to restore fat. It has 3 principle weapons:
- Reduce your metabolic rate disproportionately
- Reduce the motivation to move and subconscious fidgeting
- Increase hunger
And the harder we diet, the more we stretch that physiologic rubber band – the more pronounced the effect.
Depending on how much weight you have to lose, you may not diet to your goal weight in one attempt. Thus our “achieve and maintain” mantra.
Since we typically want results yesterday, this doesn’t settle well. This folks, is the long term mindset and approach to fitness. Although highly variable, especially in women, you can crush for about 12 weeks at a rate of about 1-1.5% loss of bodyweight (not fat %) per week. Much more than this create issues with losing muscle mass, health, sustainability, and psychological stress.
Sustained caloric deficits will halt, so it’s better to be proactive about breaks. Not to mention, one season of the year should yield profound results.
Do both, a little bit.
It doesn’t matter if you create a caloric deficit from exercise, diet, or a combination of the two. To be fair, formal exercise rarely creates enough of a calorie deficit (no matter what you think) to be useful and many times it increases hunger. At will eating combined with ball busting workouts rarely yields success.
Don’t sacrifice your nutritional sins on the altar of exercise. Train hard and eat sensibly.
It ain’t over when it’s over
Many diet studies return subjects to their normal lives with their previous eating patterns. Of course they will gain weight. If you return your diet to a level of calorie balance, the decrease in your metabolic rate should all but wash away.
The end goal is to plateau, but with new habits. Returning to what you did will get you what you had.
Protein may make a difference
Protein has been associated with better weight management (Lejeune et al 2005, Westererp-Plantenga et al 2004). I don’t know a fitness pro worth their salt who isn’t recommending higher intake of lean protein sources. Given my recommendation is to strength train, this carries even greater importance.
Low hanging fruit
Make the easy meals easy. Pack your lunch. Drink water. There are so many simple little things that you can get right. These tend to be insidious in their onset and can inflate our calorie load during the day.
I understand why many people want to complicate the process, rely heavily on supplementation, or otherwise make a mountain out of a molehill.
Food choices need to be sensible. Workouts need to be productive, not treated like everyone is your last.
Idle hands are the devil’s playground
Get moving. Do something, anything. Even browsing the aisles at Target is going to have twice the energy expenditure of sitting on the couch. NEAT and NEPA are game changes in the fat loss equation. Their small contributions combine over the course of a day to be significant enough to dictate whether or not you’ll keep your weight off.
Using strength training and higher protein to maintain muscle mass will help curb the rebound. Keep in mind that what builds muscle will maintain it. With the slow recovery of lean mass you want to minimize the loss during periods of dieting.
The correlation with dieting and weight regain exists. At least, that’s the association scientists have found. But correlation doesn’t equal causation.
The value of NEEE will continue to emerge as an important factor in keeping the metabolism up. Set up your environment to encourage physical activity and healthy eating. Find ways to disrupt bad behaviors. Take a break for psychological and physiological reasons. Get a coach to offer support and an objective eye.