Chronic Dieting

At RP we coach thousands of people through fat loss diets. One of the things that very often predicts failed weight loss attempts, is a history of prolonged calorie restriction. That’s right––too much dieting makes you less likely to be successful on a fat loss diet. “Too much dieting” means either overly harsh diets, dieting too often, running extended diets or off-and-on diets, or running “maintenance” with low calories. In such cases, we very predictably see people require drastic and miserable calorie cuts for minimal weight loss. This very often comes with rebound gain of any weight lost. 

Does this sound familiar? : 

You try various diets and means of calorie restriction, but feel like you have plateaued or been stuck around a certain weight for months or years despite your constant efforts. Maybe you lost some weight a while ago, but nothing seems to work now. Or you lose the same weight over and over, gain it back and feel like you are perpetually worried about and trying to get it off. You eat carefully all of the time and rarely allow yourself to enjoy a meal out or a treat. Maybe you occasionally indulge, but then feel a great deal of guilt and compensate with exercise or excessive restriction the following day. You feel like you work so hard and no progress is made. You count, weigh, log, and track everything but nothing seems to change. 

If this sounds familiar, it will sound counter-intuitive when I say this: What you need to lose weight is to stop trying to diet and eat more for a while. Please note, I am not saying that eating more will cause weight loss directly, a calorie deficit is always the way to lose weight. If you increase your intake carefully, however, it will allow you to maintain your weight and prepare you to lose more efficiently and sustainably in the future. 

Many people won’t even call what they have been doing a “diet” since they are no longer losing weight. They consider the constant restriction “eating healthy” and assume that is what they need to do just to maintain. Not realizing that with some work, they could eat more, enjoy more, and still maintain weight. The truth is, eating healthy for your body and sanity involves diet breaks, occasional indulgences, and some treats here and there; it involves balance. Restriction should be limited to brief periods of weight change followed again by periods of weight maintenance and balance. This also helps prevent black and white thinking about food––there are not good foods and bad foods, only foods you might want to eat more often than others and types of foods you might temporarily avoid to reach a goal more easily.  

Even when weight loss has ceased, continued caloric restriction results in accumulated fatigue (psychological and physiological) and compensation mechanisms. This means that even if your weight loss has plateaued, ifyou keep trying to diet, your will continue to accumulate fatigue and your body will continue to try to compensate for the low calorie intake. Your body adjusts to prevent weight loss when you diet by lowering your metabolism by a small amount, decreasing your tendencies and inclinations to move your body and burn calories, and by down-regulating some hormone production. These mechanisms were helpful for our ancestors’ survival when food was scarce, but can make dieting more complicated in this age of plenty! Thus, when you reduce calories across a diet, those calories need to be added back in slowly after the diet to allow all of those changes to return to baseline. Once you are back at baseline, another diet phase can be attempted with more success since your daily caloric burn will have ramped back up and other compensation mechanisms will have been eliminated. In addition, you will feel mentally relaxed from having been able to indulge a bit occasionally and ready for another brief phase of restriction.

Let’s walk through an example scenario to help you understand this process.

Let’s say our example person is a 150 lb female who starts a diet in January. She reduces calories to ~2000 a day and loses consistently for a month, getting down to 145 lb by mid-February. At this point weight loss begins to slow. This is because her body recognizes the weigh loss and begins to compensate by lowering her metabolism (so she burns a hundred or more less calories per day at rest), she also begins to feel fatigued and moves her body less in general to reduce the number of calories burned per day even more. Hormones that would normally facilitate weight loss are down-regulated. Now that 2000 calories are no longer resulting in weight loss, she drops to 1700 calories and loses a few more pounds. By mid-March she is down to 140, but weight loss slows again. Her goal was to be at 125 by summer so she pushes it more, cutting her calories to 1400 per day. A few more pounds come off by April, but she is starting to have urgent cravings and occasionally cheat on her diet. During May she goes back and forth between strict 1400 calorie days and days where she eats 2200 calories because she is so diet-fatigued, hungry, and has begun to feel compulsive about food. Fearing weight gain she tracks her calories and continues shooting for 1400 calories per day for the entire summer. Her weight continues to hover at ~135, she is constantly careful of her food choices, has guilt when she eats anything indulgent, and her goal of 125 stays out of reach despite her constant vigilance with her diet. She panics over birthday parties and social engagements and fears going over 1400 calories will cause her to gain weight. Or she indulges for a week and because her body is primed to gain from all of the restriction, she puts on a few pounds––reinforcing her (incorrect) conclusion that 1400 calories a day is her only choice if she wants to even maintain weight. She is unsure how to lose and starts doing more and more cardio, but feeling worse and more stressed about food, weight, and fitness. Food begins to be a source of fear and guilt and she is unsure how to progress.

The problem with our sample dieter’s plan is a failure to ever take a break from restriction. The chronic low calorie diet is actually what is preventing her from reaching her goal, in a sense. A better strategy would have been to cut to ~135lb (moving from ~2000 calories, to 1700 when weight loss slowed mid-February, and then perhaps to 1400 for a few weeks in March for a final push to finish out a three month diet) and then move into maintenance. Across maintenance she could have moved her calories slowly back up from 1400 to 2000. After a few months of increasing calories back up to ~2000 per day, she would likely be able to indulge in some fun food and drink occasionally on top of that 2000 calorie base without gaining any weight back. This would have given her body the opportunity to recover from the fatigue and compensation initiated by the first diet and be primed and ready to lose weight efficiently again without severe restriction. Then by the end of the summer after that first diet, she could start a second diet at maybe 1800 calories per day and no extra indulgences and begin to lose. Notice the difference here––end of summer in the first story our dieter was still struggling to lose at 1400 calories and feeling guilt about food. In the latter story she has been having some treats and relaxing while maintaining weight on 2000 calories a day all summer and is about to start actually losing weight eating 1800 calories per day. Sounds like a better plan to me! 

Many times returning to baseline simply requires slowly increasing calories over a few months during a period of weight maintenance. Other times restriction has been going on for so long and psychological aspects of restriction have become so dysfunctional that a full diet reset (explained briefly below) is needed. In this case the person often has severe anxiety about eating food and may worry about spending time with family and friends and having to resist eating certain foods or make excuses about refraining. He or she might eat out with friends and then obsessively exercise or restrict to make up for the indulgence. Excessive weighing of food and one’s self and extreme care in logging and counting macros and calories may have been going on for months or years. Many times this person will blanket classify foods as “good” or “bad”. 

In order to undo this level of diet stress and fatigue we recommend spending a few weeks to months without any counting, weighing, measuring, or worrying–– just eating whatever sounds good and as much of it as desired. This might sound fun, but can be extremely stressful to the chronic dieter who will fear weight gain and loss of control. Nevertheless, it is likely a critical step for resetting someone’s relationship with food. The period of complete relaxation usually naturally leads into a bit healthier eating––we all tire of cake and peanut butter in excess it turns out. A few weeks to months of slightly healthier, but still relaxed eating should follow. This will slowly transition the person out of chronic diet fatigue and into the start of a healthy diet and healthy mindset. (This process is described in detail in Renaissance Woman).

Because we see the chronic dieting pattern so often at RP, being scientists, we decided to look at some real client data. Below is a graph of five women. We tracked the weight loss and average calories across a cut after having dieted chronically. Then, with the same five women, we tracked weight loss and average calories after doing a diet reset as described above. In red you can see that women did not lose any weight on average when trying to cut after prolonged calorie restriction. In blue, the same women were able lose around eight pounds on average after taking a long diet break (weight gain during the diet break was two pounds or less for all five women). Even more stunning is the fact that calorie amounts consumed on both diet attempts were equivalent! If anything, there is a trend towards eating more calories after the diet breaks, with much better weight loss results. Thus, the diet reset process allowed these women to eat the same daily calories as they had in the first cut attempt, but lose weight consistently. 

Sometimes the longer road is the road to sustainable results. The weight loss below in blue required 8-12 weeks of complete break from dieting, weighing, measuring. Many people may not have the full consequences of severe and prolonged restriction or need the full reset, but everyone benefits from taking breaks from weight loss attempts.

We hope that this blog, in addition to the testimonial below from one of the women in this mini-study will help clients in this position make a positive change in their habits, relationship with food, and perspective on dieting and get to a place where they are running the show in a healthy, sustainable manner.  

Testimonial from a client who did the diet reset:

“When I first contacted her [my coach] she required me to do a "mandatory 8-12 wk diet break". WHAT!?!? My world literally felt as if it was colliding. Yeas, I'm a bit dramatic, lol. But seriously, the thought of living without any rules pertaining to what I ate sent me spinning in a complete panic. You see, I've not really lived without being on a diet, since I was a teen! How in the world do I do this? She told me "if you want cake for breakfast and a jar of PB for dinner, then eat just that". I will never forget those words. Also, no measuring, counting, or weighing of anything! Unbelievable, not doable, ridiculous, I cried that whole day. But, my hubby was 110% behind her and so excited to live with me without restricting my food. I knew I wanted freedom in this area so, after much thought and more tears I decided to do it.” … “I ended up fully embracing this and enjoying life! I healed emotionally and mentally from a lifetime of disordered thinking and beliefs. I tried a few times to start early, lol, but she insisted I wait a little longer. So, when the time was up I was ready to begin my cut and she agreed. The incredible thing?? I gained absolutely NOTHING!!! My cut was a little rocky but we found my metabolism was so ramped up from being fed well that we had to continue increasing food to find my base! I lost 8# total, dropped a pant size, and continue to work through training with great energy. I have loved this process so much that I signed up for another 6 months! I'm continuing to heal from my lifetime of dieting and fully enjoying food each day! So, if a coach suggests a diet break, fully embrace it because the benefits are Immeasurable.”

** We recognize a much larger sample size and more precise control of food intake and other variables would allow for broader conclusions regarding the effectiveness of diet reset. Our intention here was to loosely quantify a trend we have observed across hundreds of clients in order to help others reach body composition goals in a healthy and sustainable manner.

Linear regression graph: The same five women’s 60 day cut results before and after a diet reset. Significant difference between weight loss before and weight loss after.  (ANCOVA: F = 56.68. DFn = 1, DFd = 29, p<0.0001) Error bars indicate standard error mean for each weigh in. *Some weigh in time points are missing data as a few weigh in days were missed by each client.

Calorie comparison: Calories on average across 60 days of each diet, normalized by individual as calories per pound body weight per day. No significant difference in reported intake between before and after diet reset. 

Written by Dr. Melissa Davis (@regressive_underload).

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