Let’s talk about chronic dieting.
This is a real thing that plagues so many of us. It can be hard to know that you’re stuck inside of a chronic dieting cycle or how to escape. If you have been ‘watching what you eat’ for as long as you can remember, cycling between restrictive days where you’re ‘good’ and days/weeks when you’re eating whatever you want and being ‘bad’, then this blog is for you.
This situation occurs when people are drastically wanting to improve their figure or health (which is totally within your right!) but keep attempting it in an unsustainable way and/or don’t take the necessary breaks from it. This isn’t their fault of course, there just isn’t enough education about dieting and healthy eating in general.
That’s what I’m going to clear up in this blog.
Dieting and maintenance are different things
I find this is always the hardest message to prove to people or get people to believe. Being on a diet implies you’re looking for weight loss, losing weight requires a calorie deficit, being at maintenance requires calorie balance. These are fundamentally different things. When you attempt a weight loss diet, it should be temporary and there should be a plan for afterwards returning to maintenance.
Do not confuse this with ending a diet and then going back to ‘eating normally’, if things were so great before, you wouldn’t need the diet in the first place. However, in order to lose bodyweight, you will need to eat fewer calories than you expend, thereby creating a calorie deficit. Once you have reached your goal weight, you can then calculate what your maintenance calories would be at this new bodyweight. (I’ll be writing subsequent blogs on how to do this).
What people don’t do is plan for this maintenance phase. Everyone always wants to lose just that little bit more, hence beginning the cycle of chronic dieting. Another issue people find themselves in is focusing on the wrong things when dieting, therefore making the dieting process far less enjoyable and far less sustainable.
What to focus on when dieting
If you cut out all of your favourite foods, you may create a calorie deficit, but you’re also going to create some mega cravings and a terrible relationship with food. We need to understand that there are no bad foods, just bad diets. We can eat a wide variety of foods and reach our weight loss goals, as long as we are conscious of our overall intake.
Processed foods are lower in nutrients and higher in calories than unprocessed food, which makes it harder to stick to a diet with lots of them in. However, more flexible diets have been associated with better results, happiness, and lower levels of bingeing than rigid diets. This means that a good rule of thumb is to aim for 80% unprocessed foods and 20% processed foods within your approach.
This means you absolutely can have chocolate, cookies, wine, beer, pizza and more within your diet, they just shouldn’t be the base of your diet. Base your diet around meats, fish, veggies, fruits, starchy wholegrain carbs (including bread), nuts and seeds and you’ll be good to go.
Do not mindlessly cut out all the joy in your life because you will not stick to it and you’ll crash like a beginner trying to race an F1 car.
Why dieting shouldn’t be forever
I’ve mentioned above that dieting isn’t for life. It should be temporary. With this in mind, it’s worth setting a timeline and a plan when you begin your diet. This allows you to see the light at the end of the tunnel and see your way out of this phase.
Diets are best done for 8-16 weeks, the leaner you are, the less time you should spend dieting. This is because as you get leaner and leaner your body starts to compensate more and more to the energy you are providing it. You see, as you lose more and more fat tissue your body sees this as a threat to survival and will start to subconsciously slow you down, thereby burning less energy and lowering the energy out part of the equation.
Now, this is not ‘metabolic damage’ or ‘starvation mode’, because if you were to continue feeding it less and less it would continue losing weight. But, this is a real physiological change that happens and can cancel out your attempt at creating a calorie deficit.
The body lowers it’s subconscious movement (the non-exercise activity) and will also burn less energy when it exercises. On top of this, because you weigh less, you’ll naturally burn fewer calories and you’re also eating less, which lowers the energy you burn simply through digesting food. This powerful combination works hand in hand with an increased appetite, lower quality sleep, lower recovery, and more, to make dieting for too long a nightmare.
Once you’ve reached the end of a diet cycle, you then return to maintenance. You can do this gradually by adding 100-200 calories at a time, or you can just add back in the original calorie deficit you set. If you’re in doubt, use an online calculator or the Harris-Benedict equation to calculate your maintenance to see the ball-park you should be aiming for.
If these symptoms of chronic fatigue, terrible sleep, poor mood, and low libido sound familiar, then you may be a chronic dieter.
How to break the cycle
If these symptoms sound familiar and relatable, then there is a way out. You need to adopt maintenance and live there for a good while until you feel like your energy levels are back up and your obsession with food has subsided. Only once this has happened will you be ready to diet again.
When you do feel ready, then feel free to action a deficit again, just remember the points above. Don’t be too strict, set a moderate to slow calorie deficit (which should be based on starting bodyweight – blog to come), and then be consistent with your approach. Being in a deficit for 4/5 days a week and then a huge surplus over the weekend is not the same as being at maintenance overall.
Life shouldn’t be lived ‘on a diet’. If you can’t remember the last time you weren’t on one, it’s time to think about maintenance.
Embrace it, live your life, enjoy the muscle and sleep gains you’ll get from it, then return to dieting when you feel ready.
And if you need help with that transition and losing weight the right way, that’s where a good coach can come in…