Sustaining long term dieting is something that is key to making long term and effective changes to your lifestyle, whether you are a bodybuilder or someone looking to improve their health by losing weight. Many people are driven to making drastic changes over a short period of time with only the ‘end picture’ in sight – but this ends up with them bouncing back up to their previous weight (or perhaps even higher). Say hello to the yo-yo diet trap!
This happens because the regime did not account for the adaptations bodies undertake in the dieting process – and it also does not account for the fact that there really is no ‘end’ goal when it comes to fitness. Staying healthy, both in mind and body, is a long-term commitment. Therefore, we must prepare a more careful and considered approach which is not only better for you mentally, but also more likely to work for you to get the life you want!
In order to understand how we maintain our progress, we have to first understand what is actually sustainable. For example, if you’re an ultra-lean contest prep dieter who has just returned from a show with extremely low body fat, it is important to know that it is both unrealistic and unhealthy to maintain these levels of body fat all year round. I’m sure many of you already know that – but it is important to make sure.
A common misconception across the general population is that bodybuilders and models maintain their striated and ‘chiselled’ look all the time. While they may stay very close to this kind of physique so they can reach it when needed, they are far more likely to be maintaining slightly above their ‘contest shape’ to prevent deprivation-fuelled binges and an unhealthy relationship with food and their body.
This is because a certain level of body fat is required for many essential functions within the body. You need fat! One function you may have already heard of is how fat is required to ensure proper hormonal function. This is especially important for women, as their body fat is especially critical for reproductive health and maintenance of bone mass. This is why women have higher body fat percentage minimums than men. For men and women, it is also necessary for the absorption of vitamins such as Vitamin K (a fat soluble vitamin which is stored within the fat cells), as insulation to keep us warm, cushioning of vital organs such as the heart and also as a backup reserve of triglycerides and free fatty acids that provide a long-lasting and effective source of energy. These backup body fat stores are especially useful if you’re an athlete participating in sports such as tennis, running, football or hockey.
It is important to take into account how you feel at different body fat levels as well. One guy might feel great maintaining year round with 8% as his minimum body fat – you might be better off at a slightly higher percentage as your ‘minimum’ one to maintain on. It also depends on your goals – you don’t have to be in single-digit body fat percentages. For girls, someone may be comfortable (and still menstruating – a key indicator of female health) at a bodyfat of 17%, but you may need to be higher than that. You don’t have to be at the lowest ‘safe’ body fat to show your awesome progress in the gym. You can still look lean at higher body fat percentages – particularly if that is what is healthiest for you. As cheesy as it sounds, health isn’t whether or not your six pack is on show – it’s whether your eyes are sparkling, your hair is in great condition and is when you feel at your strongest!
So, body fat is not the problem per se, as much as some people would like you to believe. You can see from the list above that it has a lot of functions which we perhaps take for granted. The only issue with body fat is when it is present in our bodies in excess, where it accumulates and how easily and how likely we are to gain it. Your doctor will know what this ‘upper limit’ is for you and whether or not you need to lose weight.
This is where sustainable dieting practices come into play. By looking at the long term picture, we are not only able to keep our efforts in perspective, but we are also more able to escape ‘dieters’ rebound’ following fat loss.
The first step is to construct a diet that does not create a very large deficit right at the start. While these kind of ‘drastic diets’ (such as the notorious ‘juice cleanses’ which unfortunately still have a huge foothold) may induce seemingly rapid weight loss (particularly in the first week), much of this weight will a) be water and b) come straight back on when you return to your normal diet.
There is no quick fix when it comes to fitness and changing your physique. When it comes to losing weight, I believe the best approach is to keep your calories as high as possible in your deficit while still seeing progress. This is because it leaves tools in your arsenal to utilise as you hit plateaus or ‘sticking points’. If you decrease your calories massively right at the start of your diet – you have very few options remaining to help you bust past those plateaus. Sure, you can add some cardio, but soon your body gets used to that as well and you end up maintaining on ridiculously low calories and ridiculously high amounts of cardio. This is where people get fed up, eat like they used to before their diet and then end up shooting over their pre-diet weight. This is exactly the kind of scenario (the yo yo diet trap) that we want to avoid. The Protein Works has many articles on setting up your macros to diet down safely and effectively.
The reason you gain back the weight so fast following any diet isn’t because your body switched into a magical ‘starvation mode’ – it has simply become more efficient at living. For example, it is wasting less calories as heat. There is also the factor that with a lower body weight comes less effort (and therefore less energy) to make it move. Let’s use some arbitrary numbers; your body may have once maintained on 2200 calories, but following your diet you may now maintain on a much lower number, particularly if your diet was extreme or restrictive in nature. This means if you suddenly increase your calories back up to where you were before (or perhaps even a little below), your now more-efficient body is primed and ready to absorb those extra calories to gain fat again, more so than before your diet. This is exacerbated by feelings of deprivation following a diet that may make you feel like you deserve a reward (you do – but it doesn’t have to all be in one go, or perhaps in food form! Moderation is key, and it’s important to find rewards that don’t instill habits such as emotional eating). This is why many contest preppers can gain 5, 10, even 15+ pounds in the first week after their show as they may end up binging on thousands of calories after their show.
So now we get to the heart of the issue. If our bodies adapt and become more efficient and now maintain at a lower amount of calories… we want to encourage it to adapt again back up the other way.
This is most commonly known as reverse dieting – the alleviation of a repressed metabolism by making small, incremental increases to your intake. It is a pretty slow process as you may be increasing carbs by as little as 5-10g per week and fat may be increased by only 1g every other week depending on how your body responds. It also involves slowly decreasing low intensity cardio (such as treadmill work) that is also contributing to your repressed metabolism.
Depending on how your weight is increasing (or not, as is more often the case, as your metabolism slowly adapts upwards and becomes less repressed), you may choose to increase more aggressively. Some weeks may focus only on reducing cardio by 30mins or perhaps by eliminating a whole session. In other weeks, you might not make any changes at all so your body can settle and get used to the changes you have already made. Protein tends to stay the same from week to week, as you should already be eating a high protein diet (at least 1g per pound of bodyweight) particularly within a deficit.
It’s definitely slow and calculated and requires a lot of individual tweaking from week to week depending on how you are doing. If you think about it though, if you’re increasing your carbs by 5-10g per week, at the end of the month, your carbs are up 20-40g… that is a massive increase (80-160 calories extra just from carbs)! At the same time, you may have reduced your cardio from 5 hours per week to 3, or perhaps even lower! As for the effect this has on your physique, do not fear. There are cases of people increasing their carbs by hundreds of grams and only increasing their weight (while staying the same body fat % or perhaps even decreasing it) by as little as 5lbs. Others who take this approach very slowly and cautiously do not gain any weight at all even with eating hundreds of extra calories and doing far less (if any) cardio. This does of course depend on your own individual responsiveness, but it has potential benefits for everyone – as this method can be used to actually increase your maintenance intake above where it was previously. Even if you can only increase your calories by 200 every day, that’ still 200 more than you were having before.
Over time, you will feel less and less deprived by using this method as it will allow you to maintain on higher amounts and therefore sustain your progress. After a certain point, you may find that you simply feel too full to increase your calories even more – and your strength in the gym will have definitely improved. It will also make it easier should you need to diet down again following the reverse diet, as you have a higher maintenance amount to make a deficit from. This is useful for yo-yo dieters in particular, as many still have weight to lose but their metabolisms are so burnt out that at the moment it is not possible to do so. Dieting is much more than just being told to ‘eat less, move more’ for people with repressed metabolisms – there comes a stage where your body has adapted to the lower calories to such an extent that it is no longer possible to eat less or move more. Reverse dieting will allow you to ‘stoke the fire’ gradually to prevent a huge increase in weight gain. After slowly increasing your maintenance up to a calorie level of 2000+, you will be in a much better position to work towards losing weight again if that’s what you need to do.
There may be small gains you make (and weights fluctuate slightly anyway) by reverse dieting, but they will be nothing like the kind of gains often seen following a diet (tens of pounds and up) if it is not slowly transitioned out of when your metabolism is repressed. However – one thing I should mention is that if you reverse diet and you get to a stage where (even though you haven’t changed your plan for 2-3 weeks) you have gained for consecutive weeks, you may have found where your new maintenance is and may have to taper back slightly by 50-100 calories if you want to maintain where you are. Or – you could use this point as a way of helping you to increase your muscle mass!
There are some negatives to reverse dieting (such as the time it takes and the continuation of meticulous macro counting over an extended period of time) which I will cover in another post, but for those of you simply looking to maintain the progress you have already made, slowly increasing your carbs and fats in the style mentioned here could be just what you need to avoid that post diet rebound. Increasing calories is often the last thing on people’s minds (especially while in the dieting mindset) when it comes to staying lean, but I promise you – it could be exactly what you need.