Welcome back to Part 3! As you can see “maintenance” involves a lot more than “just going back to normal living”. It is just as much a process, if not more, than the actual program.
In Part 2, I had mentioned: “life really is an ongoing experiment and the experimenting shouldn’t stop when we reach maintenance.” The concept of experimentation, is something that I strongly feel should be a foundational principle we all learn to live by. Try something new, make mistakes, reflect on what was learned, reassess, try again. It leaves ample room for failure and mistakes and gives us permission to be human.
In this blog, I’d like to discuss what happens to our bodies when we diet and what happens when we do not take the adequate time to prepare for our transition back to “normalcy”.
Dieting protocols typically involve some form of restriction. Whether it’s in the form of macros, calories, eating windows etc. Not to mention, diets typically have a set of “approved” and “disapproved” foods. For this case, I will use a common approach often taken with fat loss programs:
Example: 8 week fat loss program:
Meal Plan (calories often based off of height, weight, days of activity, which typically can fall within the range of 1200-1600 calories. Although some more extreme plans I've heard of reference 800 calories/day)
Exercise regimen (cardio + weights)
Cheat days (maybe)
When we take a closer look at the example above, the plan fails to consider your lifestyle, your stress, your sleep, your habits, your happiness, your values and yes, it fails to address the transition into maintenance. One of the reasons why maintenance is so challenging is because plans often fail to address YOU.
When we diet, we have less energy. Internal stress increases and as a result we tap into cortisol and adrenaline to get us through our days (chronic use of adrenaline and cortisol can lead to depletion and as a result suppress thyroid function, which taxes the adrenals, also known as adrenal fatigue, to be continued in a later blog).
When we eat far to little (ex. Eating within an 800-1000 calorie range), make those adjustments too quickly and continue to exercise, we may notice some of the following symptoms:
Decreased body temperature
Irregular menstrual cycles
Mood changes: irritability, less patience
Lack of restful sleep
Increase in food obsession
Well, our bodies need a certain amount of energy to carry out normal everyday activities: regulate body temp, digest food, break down food, focus at work, menstruate, have conversations etc. When we lack adequate energy, everything slows down: digestion, ability to focus and engage in conversations, metabolic rate, etc.
Typically, at the end of most diets, our metabolic rate is slower. Our metabolic rate is the amount of energy that we expend. The reduction in metabolic rate is a result of the imbalance between caloric output (too much exercise expenditure) and input (too little food). By the end of a “fat loss” program metabolic rate is drastically reduced that if/when calories are added back in the body, the body triggers “survival mode” also known as the sympathetic nervous system (ex. Plans on storing calories for fear of not getting in calories). Often times, because there is not a plan after the plan, people either extend the 8-12 week fat loss program or return to old behaviors. Both of which host their own unique issues.
Continuing to extend a strict 8-12 week plan
Continuing to extend a strict 8-12 week plan, results in moving further and further out of balance. Being “out of balance” results in hormonal imbalances. For instance, hunger hormones like leptin and ghrelin. “Leptin” controls hunger. As someone continues to move further into a program (let’s say around week 2), leptin levels tend to drop, as a result hunger tends to increase (as a result of ghrelin- “hunger hormone”) and maybe a potential increase in food obsessions (thinking about food, dreaming about food, spike in cravings). These are all factors involved in what’s called “starvation mode”, the body fearing when they’ll get food next therefore, holding onto any calories consumed. Think of it this way, if you continue to eat 1000 calories a day, weight loss will most likely stall and/or increase! Why? You’re body doesn’t care about your weight loss goals, your body cares about your survival. Therefore will do anything to keep you alive. Even if that means gaining weight.
What happens when we immediately move back to “normal life?”
So the second common thing that happens, is many finish a program and immediately move into returning to old habits. What happens? Well, most likely the weight returns and in some cases, more weight is gained. Why? Well, going back to metabolic rate, if it’s slower at the end of the 8-12 week program, re-introducing food back into your body will result in a calorie surplus. Too many calories in, in combination with a reduced metabolic rate, will result in weight gain. Slower metabolic rates, also cause a reduction in body temp, which is a tell tale sign that someone’s body is working overtime trying to simply regulate body temp. Cold limbs and in general being cold all the time is a symptom of someone having a slow metabolic rate.
Food Rules and Mental Health:
There are a couple of scenarios that end up happening when we are given lists of food rules. For instance, when we remove food items all together, in some cases, we feel much better. Less bloat, more energy and mental clarity. We start to identify what foods that work for us and foods that may need to be enjoyed less frequently. However, these notes are only identified when we take an active role in the program itself. Meaning, I would encourage you to self reflect and assume more responsibility rather than abiding by food rules. For example, this plan suggests no gluten, let me try it out and see how I respond (keyword “I”).
In other scenarios, many will develop food phobias with too many food rules. We start labeling food as good or bad, health not healthy, clean versus unclean. Our once, untethered relationship with food, has now become an obsession over what I can or can’t eat. We slowly migrate further away from our own intuition, further away from really learning how to eat for our bodies. This is less of a “maintainable” approach. If we’re constantly obsessing over food, we are less likely to not only maintain our new physique but also the quality of our life. I would encourage you to reflect on this question: “Are my current viewpoints on food maintainable?” If yes, awesome! If no, what intuitively feels off? And how would you describe your viewpoints being if it were maintainable?
Please be mindful of your mental health as you embark on any nutrition plan. Mental health should always always trump any plan. If you start to notice you’re more anxious around food or start to feel guilty after eating, these are all signs that your plan is failing.
So to wrap things up, traditional dieting protocols reduce our chances of maintaining our progress because of a few reasons:
Quick and Aggressive plans: The 4, 8,12 week fat loss diets that promise fat loss, instant results, and eluding to happiness. Unfortunately though diets may work, they tend to work temporarily.
Reversing out: With a restricted diet (again, I am more so referring to the 800-1200 kcal range in combination with exercise) and exercise routine, many are left in a very “fragile” and unbalanced state. It will be important to SLOWLY increase calorie intake, however this is a step often undiscussed. It has to be approached as methodically, if not more, than the program itself.
New metabolic rate: Let me say this, extreme dieting protocols typically slow down metabolic rate. Your body may be much more sensitive to external (exercise) and internal stress (hormones, gut health) than before you started. A new and most likely slower metabolism, will make you more lethargic, moody and yes, you will most likely regain the weight.
Bring attention to how you’re feeling: physically and mentally. Brain fog, depression, an increase in anxiety or food obsession are all red flags of a program being too aggressive and less likely maintainable.
Maintenance is challenging and a continued experiment. Be patient with yourself.
If you made it all the way through, I hope you’re now more equipped to start reflecting on whether or not your program is suiting your needs in life, not just in the gym.
Thank you for reading! More to come….