Let me start by saying that I have nothing against ultra runners - being in a sports bra for more than 24 hours at a time is not my thing- but I respect the discipline. I bring the topic up here because I would like to use this sport as an irrelevant, but illustrative analogy. Bear with me, this is about weight loss strategy, not long distance running, I promise.
Let’s say you had 100 miles to travel on foot. What would be the most efficient, but least damaging way to cross that distance?
Would you run the full 100 miles in one day, nonstop?
Of course not. Even ultra runners who train for this often incur side effects like muscle degradation, toenail loss, severe blisters, stress fractures, and knee injuries. A newb might incur much worse and probably wouldn’t cross the finish line. So, full speed 100 miles back to back, probably not your best choice for making this imaginary journey on foot.
What might be better? Breaking the distance up into 10 mile runs every few days for a month or two?
This would put less stress on your body and give you some time to recover strength and heal from the blisters and soreness a bit between runs so that you could make each run efficiently with minimal injury risk. Sure, it would take a little longer, but you would get there and in one piece.
Then how do you manage each 10 mile run? Do you go all out for the full 10 miles each day and get fully fatigued and risk tripping and falling? That’s probably a little too fast. On the other hand, do you casually stroll and occasionally stop to take a detour and visit some alternative paths making the overall distance longer and possibly backtracking? That’s a bit too slow and might set back your time to goal completion indefinitely. Picking a moderate but doable pace and spreading the runs out would get you most efficiently to your end point without risking injury. The same can be said for dieting.
If you have a good chunk of weight to lose and you try to do it all in one ultra marathon stretch, you risk failure, injury, and rebound. If you try to live a perfectly balanced life while dieting, it is equivalent to taking slow walking detours on all of your 10 mile days – you might never reach your desired destination. Like our imaginary 100 mile challenge, weight loss is best done in moderate spurts spread out with rests in between. Let me elaborate:
Why you need breaks between diets:
Dieting is an imbalance. Remaining in a state of imbalance for prolonged periods is not physically healthy.
After about 3 months of dieting, the amount of calorie restriction needed to continue losing weight becomes oppressive. You begin to risk injury from working out with increasing fatigue. The body’s compensation mechanisms are in full force to make more weight loss harder and harder. You need a break to allow your body to recover from this stress, ramp metabolism back up, and stop compensating for the caloric restriction.
You need a mental break from “running” the diet (see what I did there?) Remaining in a state of imbalance for prolonged periods is not mentally healthy either.
Dieting is mentally stressful in part because of the body’s physiological response to caloric restriction. In attempt to keep you from taking more of its fat, your body will make you feel tired, hungry, and lethargic. Pushing through your daily workouts and life is harder under these conditions. The added mental stress of weighing and measuring food and abstaining from treats and drinks should not be underestimated either. Missing out on fun foods and experiences takes a toll and one can begin to feel deprived and depressed. This suffering and sacrifice are necessary for an efficient fat loss diet, but should be temporary. Hunger and fatigue are both totally normal and fine for discrete periods of time. Just like your moderate 10 mile run, some discomfort is expected to get you there, but it should not be extreme or prolonged. In the case of dieting, about 12 weeks is as long as you should be hypocaloric (eating less calories than you are burning) in most cases.
As you slowly ramp up food intake after your diet, during the maintenance phase, you should feel less and less hungry and fatigued and less and less deprived. By the end of a good maintenance you should be in that healthy state of balance where you enjoy some treats and drinks, aren’t measuring all of your food obsessively, and are in general relaxed and not excessively worried about what you are eating or what the scale says.
Your body needs time to grieve for its lost fat (Set Points):
When you kill your body’s fat, it needs some time to get over the loss and accept its new, lower-fat state. While the mechanism is not clear, data suggests that your body establishes a set point weight that, for lack of a better description, it “likes” to maintain. The good news is that this set point can be changed. The bad news is that it takes time and care to move this point.
It doesn’t end with the diet. To make fat loss a permanent change, a good maintenance phase is as important as the fat loss diet itself.
The changing of the set point actually occurs during the maintenance phase. So when the diet is over, diving back into Chinese buffet, pizza, ice cream extravaganza immediately will just send you right back to your body’s previous set point. You need to give your body some time to grieve over the lost fat and accept its new weight. This time is generally 8-12 weeks following a 12 week cut. Over this period as you slowly increase food intake, your metabolism ramps back up, mental and physical fatigue begin to dissipate, and your body begins to establish a new set point at your lighter weight so that your food intake can increase and become more relaxed without weight gain.
If you have more to lose, a break will make the next round of weight loss less painful and more efficient.
Just as running a second round of 10 miles right after the first 10 miles would be daunting, painful, and dangerous – back to back dieting after 3 months is brutal and usually counterproductive. The second round of dieting with no break will require insane caloric restriction to make weight move, and you will feel terrible, stressed, and excessively deprived. Taking time to rest and recover fully between 10 mile runs makes the second 10 mile run barely harder than the first. Likewise, taking a break between diets means the second diet shouldn’t feel all that much more difficult than the first. Your metabolism will ramp back up so you will not have to cut as many calories to lose weight. Your mental fatigue will diminish so it won’t feel as horrible to be a bit deprived for a little while again.
What if I start to gain weight on maintenance? Should I cut again to get back down and then go back to maintaining?
Nope. This is not maintenance – this becomes a dysfunctional roller coaster of overeating and cutting to get it back off. If you have jumped too fast into eating more and not done maintenance carefully you might find your weight is up a bit. If this is the case, just start maintaining at that weight. Don’t try to cut back down or you lose the benefit of maintenance. On top of that, get yourself in the unhealthy “eat-regret-make up for it” cycle that is as fatiguing if not more fatiguing than prolonged cutting. Maintenance is defined as a period of maintaining weight – but this is not its sole purpose. Maintenance is the equivalent of your rest days between 10 miles runs. If you run a few miles here and there on your rest days, you end up accumulating fatigue and making your next 10 mile run unnecessarily harder. This strategy generally does not lead to more efficient weight loss, but certainly results in more regular stress and suffering.
Do I need maintenance if I didn’t lose that much weight?
If you were trying to lose weight for 2-3 months, this still requires a subsequent period of maintenance / rest. If you wandered in circles for 8 miles, but only got 1 mile closer to your 10-mile-away goal, you still accumulated the fatigue of running and need to rest. This is extremely frustrating for most people – when you haven’t reached your goals there is a strong impulse to just keep going until you make progress so that you aren’t wallowing in a feeling of failure for 8-12 weeks maintaining what feels like zero change. It is absolutely necessary if you don’t want your next cut to go exactly the same way though. This is another reason that trying to find balance during a diet is a serious pitfall. You want to accomplish as much as you safely can over your cut so that you don’t spend maintenance regretting your slow progress or get tempted to continue the cut after that 3 month mark and end up in a dysfunctional, inefficient, eternal state of dieting. Go all in and do each phase and you will get to your personal “100 miles” in one piece in a reasonable amount of time. It’s a long haul but it’s not a marathon or a sprint. It’s focused bouts of progress punctuated by needed rest!
What if I want to mass after cutting, should I maintain first?
No maintenance is needed going from cut to mass. The goal of mass is to gain weight. After cutting you are primed to do just that, so this is really the only time maintenance can be skipped. Maintenance should however follow mass so that you don’t cut your new muscle, but that is a topic for another article.
Some related side notes:
Why each round of dieting should be neither break neck nor “balanced”:
- Dieting too hard, too fast
Trying to cram too much weight loss over your 12 week diet is as detrimental as running your 10 miles at sprint speed. In the case of dieting, trying to lose more than about 1% of your body weight per week for most people will result in muscle loss. Lost muscle means less strength, less aesthetically pleasing final result (skinny fat is not really anyone’s goal), and decreased metabolic activity, which will slow potential fat loss. Further, running the diet at break neck speed increases physiological and mental stress, makes cravings stronger and ups your chances of quitting the diet all together. It also ramps up fatigue at an accelerated pace increasing chances of injury that will take you out of exercising and end up slowing losses. In short, it not only really sucks to diet that hard but it also decreases your chances of overall long term success.
- Dieting too slow or trying to mix a perfectly balanced lifestyle with your diet
We’ve said this before – dieting is not a lifestyle. It is a temporary state of imbalance. It works best that way. Trying to have perfect balance when dieting is like walking your 10 mile distance and taking miles of detours down side paths and backtracking occasionally. If you just set up a moderate pace and go directly towards the goal, you will make maximal progress each bout and spend overall less time running / dieting to achieve your end.
To facilitate progress, try to pick your 3 month diet time when you have minimal distraction.
Have a vacation to an all-inclusive resort, two weddings, and a birthday this spring? Maybe run your diet in the summer when you won’t have to miss out on as much to be efficient. Otherwise you end up trying to enjoy life while dieting and end up “running 20 miles to get the distance of 10,” or dieting twice to lose the weight you planned because you had a “balanced life” during the first cut.