Dr. Mel Davis, PhD
Paul Salter, MS, RD
Most people regain the weight they lose. While a multitude of strategies, diet foods, groups, and resources are available for weight loss, there seem to be far fewer products or recommendations aimed at helping people maintain after a fat loss diet. The lack of weight maintenance information and support leads many to feel like they’ve failed at dieting. In reality, all they needed was intelligent, evidence-based information about how to lose weight in a sustainable manner and maintain that progress.
Post-Diet Maintenance Phase: A period after a weight loss diet, during which you gradually increase calorie intake up to a healthy baseline while maintaining weight. This phase can last as long as your preceding weight loss diet if you plan to lose more weight or forever if you have reached your target!
Core Benefits of the Maintenance Phase:
- Provides recovery from the physiological effects of dieting for weight loss
- Provides recovery from the psychological effects of dieting for weight loss
- Revs your metabolism back up
- Reduces appetite-stimulating hormones
- Increases appetite-suppressing hormones
- Increases thyroid hormone production
- Allows muscle and connective tissue to better recover from training
- Prevents muscle loss from prolonged dieting
- Decreases the chances of rebound gain (when diets are run for too long without breaks)
By the end of a successful maintenance phase, you should be maintaining weight at a daily calorie level similar to your pre-diet intake. As calories decrease across any weight loss diet, your body tries to compensate, lowering your metabolism and daily movement so that you burn less. As you gradually build your caloric intake back up, the opposite happens! You begin to burn more calories and be inclined to move more (adding to your daily burn) and therefor can eat more without gaining weight. As long as your increases are as gradual as your body’s recovery, you will stay weight stable. This is why a maintenance phase of at least the length of the preceding diet is probably a good choice. It took the whole diet to lead to the above described adaptations, so it will take just as long to recover from them!
Sadly, many dieters continue to eat a low-calorie diet for prolonged periods. This usually leads to occasional overeating sessions caused by increasing diet fatigue and mounting cravings (not to mention guilt and stress). Toggling between restricting and overeating often keeps weight stable, but doesn’t allow metabolism to increase or other side effects of dieting to resolve. Other dieters do increase calories, but do so all at once, resulting in rapid weight gain because their bodies have not yet recovered from the compensatory changes that diets create.
Quick Tips on How to Do Maintenance Right!
- Don’t diet for too long in the first place: RP data suggest that 6-9 weeks might be the sweet spot for successful diets, but 12 weeks should probably be our hard limit in most cases.
- Don’t diet too hard: Losing around 0.8% of body weight per week seems to be the pace with the highest likelihood of long-term success. This means losing 1.6 pounds per week if you weigh 200 lb, 1.2 pounds per week if you weigh 150 lb, and so on.
- Ease in with calorie increases when you end your weight loss diet: Add food back slowly in amounts of around 250-500 calories per day every 3-4 weeks until you are around your pre-diet intake (or slightly under if you were gaining prior to dieting).
- Spend at least as long in maintenance as you did on your weight loss diet: This can be a hard pill to swallow for those eager to lose quickly, but there are two important things to remember when you are tempted to rush. First, the more you recover across maintenance, the more efficiently you will be able to lose weight on your next diet. Second, maintenance is ideally where you will spend most of your time once you reach your goal! Think of maintenance not only as a way to prepare for another successful diet, but also as practice for maintaining weight in a balanced, happy, state!
- Try eating a little extra protein and high fiber, high volume foods when you end your weight loss diet: These foods help us feel more full for less calories and can be a great way to deal with the lingering hunger that often exists at the end of a diet.
- Don’t reintroduce ultra-tasty foods until a month or so into maintenance: Tasty foods tend to make us want more tasty foods and at the end of a diet we are most prone to overeating these. Once you get through the first month, you will feel less urgent about food and adding some of your favorites back into the mix will be less likely to result in overeating and weight gain.
- Remember that you don’t have to eat every treat you are able to once the diet ends: Once you reintroduce tasty treats, try rating temptations on a scale of 0-10 with 10 being your absolute favorite. Then, only indulge when the available treat scores a 7 or above!
- Weigh yourself regularly (but keep it unemotional): Our weight increases a bit at the start of maintenance just from the additional water in our tissues and additional food in our GI tract. After this initial little bump our average weight should stay pretty steady, fluctuating plus or minus 2-4 lb from daily water changes, depending on our size. Weighing regularly is a reminder to stay on track with our slow maintenance ease-in, and has been shown to support long-term weight maintenance. Just be sure not to let little changes bring you stress. Staying unemotional about the number on the scale helps prevent unhealthy relationships with food and your body!
Learn more about maintenance philosophy and methodology.