1. The diet you are eating as you approach your lowest weight is the diet you will have to eat to maintain your weight loss. This is the dirty little secret of weight loss that no one who sells weight loss dreams will tell you. Instead, they make it sound like once you reach goal you'll be able to add in many of the foods--and calories--you had to deny yourself to get to goal.
It isn't true. My experience, and that of hundreds of other people who post on online diet support boards, has been that at goal you can add back between 200 and 300 calories a day without gaining. Exactly how much has to do with how big you are. If you get down below 150 lbs, it will be 200 calories. That's one 2% Greek Yogurt and a handful of nuts. Or a real-world serving of bacon. Or a piece of whole wheat toast with butter. In short, bubkis.
2. Dieting is easy, maintenance is hard. This is the logical conclusion to be drawn from statement #1 above. Most people can lose weight. Very few keep it off. After more than a decade of reading diet support groups online, I'm convinced that the reason for this is because people pursue weight loss diets that are too stringent to be maintained longterm, partly for psychological reasons and partly because these stringent diets slow their thyroids and down-regulate other hormonal systems in ways that make them more likely to gain weight when they return to normal eating.
3. Feelings of deprivation derail maintenance. If you spend a year losing a lot of weight by denying yourself many foods you secretly hope you will be able to eat again once you hit goal, you are setting yourself up for catastrophic regain.
It isn't about willpower or being a weak person. It's about millions of years of evolution that has one goal--to keep you alive in a world where food is hard to find. The changes that take place in your brain when you diet stringently for a long time will eventually impel you to eat. If your brain thinks you have just survived a famine, it will do what it has to do to replenish your fat stores so you don't die when the next prolonged famine occurs. The most successful diets are diets where you eat enough food to reassure your body you aren't starving.
4. There is no diet immune from maintenance problems, including the Low Carb and Paleo diets. After reading low carb support boards for 12 years I can tell you that people eating these diets crash off them with the same frequency as people on every other kind of diet. The research shows this, too. Lose enough weight on any diet, and your brain will go to work doing what it can to replenish those depleted fat stores.
Low carb diets are easier to maintain for the first year or so, and during that early period people often experience a near-religious conversion which fills them with enthusiasm and the desire to convert others. This passes. Almost all low carb dieters stop losing six months into their diets, except for a very lucky few, and once that dramatic falling off of pounds comes to an end, the enthusiasm is very hard to sustain.
There is some evidence, too, that the body interprets a ketogenic state as being a state of starvation and may downregulate the thyroid in response to it, too. This is why many people with diabetes do a lot better at a carb intake slightly over the ketogenic boundary (70-100 g per day depending on body size) than below it.
And of course, once we get to goal on any diet, there's no reinforcement from seeing the pounds come off. The only reward we get is seeing the weight stay the same, which most of us find is nowhere near as motivating. It is when the scale is no longer giving us a reward that many of us become aware of what we've given up and may find it more difficult to stick with our chosen eating plan.
5. Successful weight maintenance requires vigilance and frequent mini-diets. Those who manage to maintain their weight loss usually do it by setting some very low threshold--no more than 10 lbs and for most of us 5. Once that weight is regained, they go back on their diets--immediately. If you let yourself regain more than ten pounds you may wake up one day weighing what you started out weighing plus more. Telling you're going to do something about your weight gain "later" is the best way to ensure catastrophe.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
1. Diet on a diet you really can eat for the rest of your life. We are all different, so what this turns out to be will vary from person to person, but the signs you have found a diet that you can maintain are these:
- a) You don't dream about eating forbidden foods.
- b) You don't feel resentful when you see other people eating foods that you aren't allowing yourself to eat or feel a need to talk others into eating your diet.
- c) You don't find yourself looking at forbidden foods and thinking, "I'll be able to eat that when I get to goal."
- d) You eat what you eat because you like eating it, not because you have to eat it.
If you need meds to allow yourself to nudge up the amount of carbohydrate you can eat without destroying your health, take them. Many of us will find that we can diet (and maintain) very happily eating 20-30 g of carb per meal, where limiting ourselves to 12 grams per meal leaves us depressed and exhausted.
You don't want to compromise on you blood sugar targets--but even there, you'll do better if you allow yourself times now and then when you don't meet them. A few hours a month over your targets won't make you go blind. Eating perfectly for a few years, until you burn out and crash off your diet in a way where you spend hours every day over your blood sugar targets may.
3. Weigh portions and log what you eat Most of us eat more than we think we do, both in terms of carbs and calories. Weighing portions and using software to track what you are actually eating can help you determine what your real daily caloric need is--most of us need less than the calculators may say we do--and it can also help us get a more realistic idea of how may grams of carbohydrate we are eating. Most portion sizes listed on boxes and in software are for unrealistically small portions.
A food scale and software can help you determine what intake levels will give you weight loss, but even more importantly, they will help you determine the caloric level at which you can maintain. This changes, because the more weight you lose the less calories you need to maintain your new weight.
4.Practice going back on plan after you blow it. The biggest mistake I see people making with carb restricted diets is developing a fear of carbs which can become so strong that, paradoxically, when they do go off plan, they go crazy and eating every carb in sight.
This is largely due to not understanding what happens, physiologically, when we reduce carbs and being taken by surprise by the psychological impact of sudden blood sugar surges. It also happens because people don't understand that the first 3-7 lbs they lose on a ketogenic low carb diet is glycogen and that boosting carbs will replenish their glycogen.
The psychological impact of having 3-7 pounds come back on after a single binge can completely derail diets. This is tragic, because the glycogen weight loss--and gain--is a one time thing. After glycogen has been altered, weight gain is really all about calories on any diet.
So learning how to recover from an off-diet overindulgence is essential if you are to succeed at weight loss. If you eat something you weren't supposed to, welcome this as a chance to practice this essential dieting art!
I have written a helpful page about this problem and urge anyone new to carb restricted dieting to read it.
When You Crash Off Your Diet
5. Stop periodically and maintain your weight loss--before you get to goal. Many of us find it a lot easier to maintain a 20% weight loss than we do a 40% weight loss. A diet is only successful if you can maintain it, and the problem with failing at maintenance is that when that happens most of us don't regain just 5 or 10 pounds, we regain all the weight we lost and more.
So for many of us, stopping at an intermediate stage of weight loss and maintaining for a month or two to get the hang of it is healthy for several reasons: It may prevent our brain from thinking we are living through a prolonged famine. And it will force us to reality check our goal.
If we can't maintain a 20% weight loss easily, it's 100% certain we will not be able to maintain the 50% loss we dream about. Settling for a modest weight loss you can maintain, long term, is a lot healthier than setting an ambitious goal, reaching it, and then gaining it all back. I would suggest stopping at 20% and then at every subsequent 10% lost to see if your current weight is maintainable. When you reach a level where maintenance has become difficult, go back to your previous level and stay there. You've just reached goal.
6. The moment you realize you need to go back on your diet, do it! If you are maintaining and notice you have gained more weight than you should, don't think, I'll go back on my weight next month, or after this project is done, or when I'm not so stressed. Start back on your diet that moment. This is the single most powerful "secret" of successful weight maintenance--and successful maintenance is what makes for a successful diet.