You hear people say it all the time – “that diet worked so well for me, I lost all the weight I wanted, but then I gained it all back – AND THEN SOME.” Indeed, most dieters make the same crucial mistakes that will almost always result in gaining back all of the weight that was lost and maybe even a little more.
Mistake #1: Going on a Diet
I use the word “diet” above to mean a period of sustained calorie deficit, where energy expenditure is more than calorie intake. Nearly all clinical research on effective weight management points to this being the central principle and key to success. The problem is this isn’t how most people view it.
Most people view a diet as a short-term deprivation of the unhealthy things they likely consume in excess (carbs, alcohol, fast food, or similar dietary vice). Dieters simply cut these foods out and replace them with something healthier or maybe nothing at all. What follows? A quick and easy calorie deficit along with a decent amount of weight loss. The problem is deprivation isn’t lasting and avoidance isn’t behavioral change. Once all the weight comes off, they go back to eating the foods they avoided on the diet and then gain back all the weight. Makes sense, right? Cut it out and lose weight, put it back in and you’ll gain weight.
Pro Tip: Don’t diet, don’t deprive, and don’t avoid the foods you like. Subtly and slowly reduce your portions, be consciously aware of what you’re eating (ideally, by food logging), and make healthier eating a lifestyle rather than a diet. This is the only way to lose weight and keep it off.
Mistake #2: Creating too big of a calorie deficit too quickly
We’ve already established a calorie deficit is the only way to effectively lose body fat. It is equally important to understand that a deficit has to be created progressively and over longer periods of time. The human body doesn’t respond to dramatic changes very well and severe calorie restriction is no different. The biggest problems with rapid weight loss is often that you lose valuable muscle tissue instead of the more stubborn fat tissue.
Extreme deficits also wreak havoc on your metabolism causing it to virtually shut down, rendering your body incapable of losing fat. This dramatic reduction in metabolic function is a biological preservation mechanism termed adaptive thermogenesis. Adaptive thermogenesis may eventually stall weight loss or stop it completely.
Pro tip: To avoid this, a slow and progressive calorie deficit should be created, starting at 500 calories per day and increasing the deficit by 50-100 calories per week (by reducing intake or increasing expenditure). This will allow your metabolism to stay high as you cut calories.
Mistake #3: Coming out of a calorie deficit too quickly
This mistake is almost a combination of errors one and two where you increase calories back to normal “pre-diet” levels too quickly. Doing this often causes rapid and severe weight gain due to the adaptive thermogenesis mechanism mentioned above.
Despite the care you might take in progressively creating a calorie deficit, your metabolism will down-regulate during a period of calorie restriction. This means if you were consuming 2000 calories per day before your diet, now you’re burning less (maybe upwards of 500-800 calories less). So if you go back to your old calorie intake right away without giving metabolism time to up-regulate, you will gain weight back very quickly.
Pro tip: To combat this, slowly increase your calories by 50-100 per week after you’ve achieved your weight loss goal. Once you’ve reached a caloric balance, continue with these more stable eating behaviors.
Stop falling victim to bad dieting and start changing your lifestyle. A behavioral change in your eating and exercise habits will ultimately lead to sustained weight loss and continued progress toward your fitness goals.