In the spring of 2006, I began my most successful dieting effort to date, and over the course of 12 weeks I would accomplish the impossible. Beyond the usual insanity accompanying a restricted carbohydrate intake, I was at the same time fighting the symptoms of an undiagnosed case of hypothyroidism that would go undetected until March 2010. I felt like the mashed avocado in my chicken salad–green and a little fuzzy–so let’s just say this diet was a little difficult.
However, my efforts paid off. I finished my diet in a supplement-induced haze that had me shaking so badly I could barely keep my coffee inside its mug. I had cut down to a manorexic 7% body fat, sporting nicely etched abs and 5-mm caliper readings.
On “D-Day,” as I called it, I took my shirt off at a friend’s lakefront party and proceeded to lay waste to an assortment of barbecued goodies. Shortly thereafter, I would move on to the requisite snack fare of the ‘ito’ food group – Cheetos, Tostitos, Doritos – and revel in all its flavored orange wonder.
I woke the next morning famished, and after a few minutes spent admiring my newfound vascularity, I started in on Chinese leftovers. Somewhere around my second helping of General Tso’s chicken, I realized that I had lost all hope of dietary control. I’d been perfect for weeks on end and then, overnight, I had unleashed some gastronomical monstrosity that left me binging for days.
I recovered in the subsequent week through a hasty ‘re-dieting’ effort, but my success was short-lived. The next weekend I was right back at the proverbial cookie jar, setting a pattern that would repeat itself for weeks to come.
I know I’m not the only one who has had this happen: a wildly successful dieting effort unravels after an innocuous dietary diversion. How much potential progress do we sap by not having a plan? Even here, as in war, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and it’s no easy effort to manage the demands of your body. Make no mistake; you are at war with your body and with food and with your environment at the end of a diet, and you’ll need to muster everything you’ve got to fight the siren’s call of starchy carbohydrates.
But fear not. In the next few thousand words, you’ll learn how to make the leap from the despair of dietary restriction back into the realm of normalcy. After numerous successful client experiences and subsequent dieting forays of my own, I have learned a thing or two about “sticking the diet landing.” Here are six guidelines to help craft your post-diet program. Just keep some wet-naps handy to deal with those orange Cheetos stains.
1. Track your calories to help manage post-diet weight gain.
First, let’s address the myth that dieting is somehow ‘natural.’ It’s not. In fact, it’s perhaps the most unnatural thing we could do from an evolutionary standpoint. We are, after all, talking about self-induced starvation. When calories are suppressed, the body makes no distinction between what’s volitional and what’s incidental. While you’re dreaming of a waxed chest and a bronzed six-pack, your body is making every effort to get food back into you. It doesn’t care that you’re dieting for a Hawaiian vacation, your body cares that you’re starving.
This explains why most people fail at long-term weight loss. Dr. Traci Mann, an associate professor of psychology, published research in 2007 showing that amongst the general population, dieting is a future predictor of weight gain. Mann concluded that “most [dieters] would have been better off not going on the diet at all. Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back.”
So how does one avoid becoming another rebound diet statistic? By having a plan. When returning to normal eating, prepare for a drastic increase in your scale weight to the tune of 20 pounds or even more. Just remember, it’s water, not fat, and if you can manage your hunger, your weight will balance out shortly.
Keeping track of calories can help you make heads or tails of what’s water gain and what’s fat gain. If you’re eating 500 calories above what you were eating previously, there’s simply no way you will be gaining that much fat. Keep a food log for the first weeks after your diet target date. Your sanity will thank you and you’ll be less likely to say “screw it” and embark on some self-deprecating binge.
2. Eat more, but not too much more.
Going from a 2000 calorie diet to 4000 calorie diet isn’t exactly the smartest thing to do, in spite of what common bodybuilder canon might say. I know the temptation is there and can be justified if you cruise the internet long enough. You’ll find some contest prep guru encouraging you to down pizzas to optimize the ‘anabolic rebound.’ This works great if you have some drugs to help you along the way, but for us mere mortals it’s best to leave this strategy to the pros
Start slowly by adding an additional 500 daily calories to the diet each week. This will get you to a maintenance intake within a reasonable time frame while giving your body a chance to catch up with the increase in calories. The best way, though by no means the only way, to add calories back in would be to begin by focusing your surplus around your workouts.
The partitioning advantages of workout nutrition are well documented. When discussing his personal growth as a nutritionist and bodybuilder, Men’s Health Weight-Loss Coach and WannaBeBig contributor Alan Aragon, M.S. waxed philosophical on nutrient timing in his 2008 interview with Lyle McDonald. “Basically, I had no nutrient timing,” says Aragon, “I just trained as hard as I could, and ate when it was convenient. Talk about taking one step forward and one step back. If you can remember as recently as ten years ago, it was all about post-workout nutrition. Improvements in size and strength really didn’t exponentiate for me until I grasped the ‘sandwich your training bout with protein and carbs’ concept.”
As one of the foremost authorities on sports nutrition, Aragon further suggests that the energetic demands of the body should be met with proximal nutritional considerations.
In lay terms, you can eat more when you exercise, and you should eat that food as close to the workout bout as practical. Adding in more calories before your workout will help fuel your weight training or cardio sessions. Adding in more calories after your workout will take advantage of the inherent partitioning advantages of exercise and help to spur recovery and refill glycogen while providing a convenient calorie sink so you can enjoy all those treats you’ve foregone for the past months. Furthermore, you’ll end up with more muscle and less body fat than when you started your diet if you take advantage of these nutrient timing principles.
3. Increase your training volume to offset the extra food you’ll be eating.
Most people think training is work that needs to be done in the gym, so they fail to consider all of the metabolic churn they can get by taking care of errands and day-to-day needs. Low-intensity cardio burns more absolute calories than high-intensity for the simple reason that low-intensity cardio can be sustained for a longer duration. Extrapolated out, you can net quite a lot of caloric turnover by just walking around all day.
If you want to get really sexy with your non-exercise activity, try getting up from your chair as often as practical. The unspectacular act of standing up generates a huge spike in metabolism, and if done enough times throughout the day, can be more calorically costly than a 45 minute cardio session. Those of you with metabolic monitors like the BodyBugg or GoWear Fit can verify this unexpected fact for yourselves.
Under dieting conditions, most people unconsciously reduce how much they move in a day. By virtue of being tired, folks are less likely to mill about or twitch off calories. Combined with a suppressed metabolic rate, this tends to make end-stage fat loss particularly difficult. The precisely opposite phenomenon occurs when someone increases calories and comes out of a diet. The person will unconsciously move more.
Be careful though; appetite tends to outpace activity, so this by no means gives you a free pass to eat ad libidum. Elevated cortisol at the end of a diet means you’ll have your hands full trying to manage your hunger. That’s why it’s a good idea to add cardio in if you weren’t doing it already, or to up your cardio if you have been doing it. In particular, relaxing activities like yoga can help curb spikes in appetite through a reduction of cortisol levels.
Epel et al. found that women who secreted more cortisol during and after novel stressors chose to consume more foods high in sugar and fat. It has been long thought that cortisol influences food consumption by binding to receptors in the brain. Therefore, it’s best to avoid cortisol-provoking cardio like HIIT that can make a bad problem worse and to instead focus on relaxing activities that reduce cortisol, like walking, easy cycling, yoga, or pilates.
Is this you the day after you have achieved your diet goal?
4. Cycle off thermogenics and other diet-specific supplements.
If you’ve been using an aggressive fat loss supplement or thermogenic to aid your dieting efforts (or maybe visiting Starbucks multiple times per day), it’s time to start lowering down your doses. Long-term thermogenic use has its downsides. People who go for years without tapering off their EC stacks increase their susceptibility to a psychotic episode. In a 2000 study by Jacobs et al that reviewed the long-term effects of ephedrine on mental health, he and his team discovered a strong correlation between EC use and psychiatric disturbances and manic-like symptoms. It’s best to keep doses low when using any thermogenic because the costs can rapidly outweigh the benefits.
As with any drug, don’t go cold turkey. It’s best to reduce your intake in a sane manner until you’re down to a non-diet dosing. Excessive stimulant consumption (at least in the short-term) can inhibit the body’s ability to replenish muscle glycogen. Why mess with your body’s want to preferentially store incoming carbs in the muscle by continuing a thermogenic protocol?
5. Don’t go crazy with the free meals and turn them into free days or free weeks.
It’s ridiculous to think that when coming off a diet you’ll be able to go right back to cover model-friendly eating. The human mind is powerful and able to rationalize some astonishing acts of nutritional debauchery, so stay vigilant. You should, however, allow yourself some flexibility in the few days after your diet. You’ve earned it.
What’s more important is what happens in the weeks that follow. It’s easy to take that sense of entitlement at the end of a successful cutting phase too far and find yourself in an “off-season” bulk leading you from 5% to 20% body fat. The best way to prevent such catastrophes is to limit the number of off-diet meals you consume following your splurge.
Let’s define free meals in this context. Free meals are any meals that break your diet either in composition or in caloric load. By planning your nutrition post-diet, you’ll be able to focus your efforts on rebuilding strength and making gains in the gym without waffling between the “should I bulk/should I cut?” questions. Limit the free meals to one or two a week and you should be able to stay right in your target caloric range.
6. Stay accountable by measuring progress.
Keep up with your diligent weigh-ins, caliper sessions, and mirror checks. Avoid the temptation to hop into sweat pants or break out your fat jeans after the diet is over. If you stay accountable during your trip back up to maintenance calories, you’re less likely to throw caution to the wind and in the end, you can reap the benefits of your dieting efforts that merit a leaner and muscular physique.
My favorite method of assessing progress is to have clients pick a pair of skinny jeans or pants that flatter their physique. If they start pushing the seams, then they know they need to rein in the calories or increase activity levels. As simple as it sounds, the act of monitoring body composition through any method is linked to long-term diet success. In a review by Wing and Phelan published in the July 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the researchers found that of those who successfully maintained a weight-loss exceeding 10% of their pre-diet weight for more than a year, all used some form of progress charting.
If it worked for them, it will work for you.
So there you go: six easy to apply tips to help you the next time you’re setting up a diet. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all the technical know-how can’t replace the experience of actually coming off a diet. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, you should work on setting physique goals in advance. If you know where you want to be one year from now, you can break that long-term goal into multiple short-term goals. That way, when you come off your diet, you can begin your pursuit of lean-mass toward a three-month checkpoint with defined target metrics rather than founder in a post-diet malaise of pizza.
Goals focus the mind, so be sure to set ambitious ones. With defined aspirations, your unconscious self will begin making the necessary changes to get you to that next level.
One final note: this piece is written without knowing what kind of diet you, the reader, might be following. Based on the available research, if you’re male, you can speedily diet yourself into the 12-15% body fat range without affecting hormones too much. However, this article is aimed at the person who is looking to break into the single digits and keep going. The slower you can diet into single digits, the better off you’ll be in the long run. When I say slow, I mean maybe two-pounds-per-month slow.
Crashing off the weight in the lower body fat ranges wreaks havoc with hormone levels and only serves to set up a binge down the road. My most successful diets have barely felt like diets at all. The weight creeps off week after week and I hardly notice the deficit. I don’t obsess about the end of the diet, nor do I really feel like I am on one – I incorporate refeeds multiple times per week and maneuver into a beach-ready physique without much strain. I get to eat the foods I love on a regular basis, which means I can go out and not become a social pariah.
As crazy as it sounds, body composition isn’t everything, and mental health is just as important as physical health. Keep these principles in mind and you’ll prevent the yo-yo dieting effect that has become so common in our society.
Written by Ryan Zielonka
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About Ryan Zielonka
Ryan Zielonka is a writer, a researcher, and a public speaker.
Ryan struggled with obesity in his adolescent and teen years and decided in his freshman year of college to exercise with regularity. As a result he lost 16 inches from his waistline and discarded his size 44 jeans for a size 28. Ever since, the world of exercise science and nutritional biochemistry has never ceased to capture his imagination.
Ryan is a regular contributing editor and columnist for Wannabebig and his work has been published in T-Muscle and the Alan Aragon Research Review, and you can find him blogging on anything that strikes his fancy at www.ryanzielonka.com.