January 8, 2011

Weight Loss Tips

By now many of you are one week into your Repentance Diet--the one that starts New Years Day and is done by the Super Bowl. In honor of this annual ritual, I thought I'd post a list of the most helpful dieting truths I've picked up over the twelve years I've been fighting blood-sugar-related weight gain.

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.


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.
2. If you find the diet you are eating is not meeting these tests, change it. If you are feeling deprived eating a diet that cuts your calories too stringently, boost your calories. You do need to eat less than you burn to lose weight on any diet, including a low carb diet, but you may be happier if you eat 300 calories a day less than you need, rather than 500.

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.


Beth@WeightMaven said...

Great tips! I particularly like your idea of periodic maintenance during weight loss.

BTW, my experience sure matches your comments re low-carb diets. Now I am doing exactly as you suggest, which is staying just above ketosis (I try to do ~75g of starchy carbs/day).

Of course, maybe Tim Ferriss has it right in The 4-Hour Body, and all you need to do is eat "clean" 6 days a week and on the 7th you can go nuts. Me, I don't happen to think that's a great idea ... and I wonder whether we'll see the same thing in forums as far as low-carb diets? Folks doing well for several months and then before you know it, 1 "cheat" day a week becomes 7!

Jenny said...

Beth, When I was younger and my blood sugar was in better shape, I dieted very successfully with the "rotation diet" where I'd cut calories for 5 days and eat maintenance on the weekend.

So that approach can work. But the key is to eat maintenance on the off days, not make up for all you didn't eat on the diet days!

Fitnatic said...

Awesome post Jenny.
I have PCOS and so I am going to purchase Relion glucose monitors - one of the brands recommended by you - to track the response to various food items.

Jenny, would you care to share your typical diet? Do you restrict wheat?

Jenny said...


My "typical" diet is always changing. I don't restrict wheat because it's wheat. I've gone completely free of grains for months but didn't experience any health changes when I went back to eating small amounts of wheat that suggested it poses a problem for me.

I eat Nature's Promise Multigrain bread (similar to the Fiber bread sold at Trader Joe's) because it has no transfat or corn syrup in it. But I never eat more than one slice at a time, since that is all I can metabolize without missing my personal blood sugar targets.

I am religious about not eating anything that has the word "Hydrogenated" in the ingredient list and about avoiding high fructose corn syrup.

I cook most things from scratch and do not eat foods that come from boxes. I also don't eat fast food or chain restaurant food. I'm fortunate to live in a region that has a lot of inexpensive independently owned restaurants.

Lately I have been eating a lot of stirfrys with meat and lots of different cut up veggies and different sauces, Greek Yogurt with walnuts, bacon, eggs, a slice of toast a day, often with peanut butter, 70% chocolate--a square or two, fancy cheese from Trader Joe's, pancakes made with Carbquik (a low carb baking mix that has no soy and tastes okay), flax meal cereal I make myself with protein powder and bran, and occasional chunks of meat, though I'm really burnt out on eating meat right now.

When we eat out, I eat duck at the local Chinese restaurant, without eating the rice, or a couple other meals they make have which work for my blood sugar, or else a slice of pizza or half a calzone (leaving most of the crust behind), and occasionally a Thai curry, though the latter always raises my blood sugar.

But I'm eating like this because I'm not trying to lose weight right now, having, through some miracle, come into the New Year still at goal. I keep a close eye on calories. I have to eat no more than 1600 calories a day to maintain my weight. Less than 1400 to lose.

In another couple months, I'll probably be tired of eating like this, and have found something else that excites me. I have gone through barbecue phases, salad phases, and protein powder with stuff in it phases, at other times.

Fitnatic said...

Thanks for sharing your eating patterns. I think that boredom is bound to happen to all of us when eating restricted diet.

Jenny said...


That's why I advise NOT eating a restricted diet. You can cut back on calories and/or carbs and still eat a wide range of food.

Humans are omnivores who evolved to move around following foodstuffs--both animal and plant--and hence seem to be programmed to eat a constantly changing diet, unlike carnivores like cats which, if mine is anything to go by, prefer to eat the same thing every day and resist change.

Natalie said...

Thank you for the ideas! I lost 20 lb. by reducing carbs, but I'm stuck at 150 lb. which is 10 lb. above my goal.
I'm not dreaming of carbs, and I don't feel unacceptably hungry or deprived, so I think I'm doing OK.
I like the idea of just going for maintenance for a while -- just changing that concept is encouraging!
Natalie Sera

Terry Rayburn said...

Great article.

I've lost 45 pounds (6 months), and kept it off, by not eating grains (to speak of) or sugar (including things like high fructose corn syrup, etc.).

I don't count carbs or calories, but find that it's a natural appetite suppressant.

I stave off carb cravings by eating fruit -- apples, oranges, bananas, berries, etc. -- and vegetables -- corn -- technically a grain, but I find it okay -- sweet potato, spinach -- a whole can with butter as a "snack" is not unusual :)

I have lost weight previously on ketogenic a low-carb diet, but as you indicate in your article, the restriction eventually always caused radical backsliding, and very rapid weight gain (not to mention the harmful effects of falling back into grain/sugar addiction).

Anonymous said...

For diabetics, I think part of the problem on maintaining a diet that works is the emphasis on weight loss. As you said, once you reach a goal, the lack of further weight loss is not giving you any positive feedback to continue. Diabetics should use their meter for positive reinforcement. controlling the blood sugar is the goal, not a particular weight loss.

I am not at this a long time - entering my third year on very low carb. But I have not had any trouble sticking with it so far because my meter encourages me.

Kurt said...

re: #1. It took my 45 years to discover this. Here's the way I put it: There's no point to making any changes to your diet that aren't permanent.

Unknown said...

Definitely low carbohydrate diet is the best solution to lose weight. And of course self-discipline is needed for us to be able to control what and what's not to eat. Low-carb is a diet for diabetics because we also get a percentage of sugars from carbohydrates. If we decrease our carbohydrate intake means less sugar intake and this will help us to lower our sugar blood level.

Unknown said...

I have to agree with you assessment of "dieting". It is a permanent lifestyle change. You can eat less calories than you burn to take weight off. If you consistently eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. So, you have to find a way to eat balanced and satisfying meals that provide the calories you need to maintain your weight.

The caveat: "burning calories". If you are burning calories by cooking, eating and watching TV, I believe you are doomed to fail. A lifestyle change geared towards losing weight and controlling your blood glucose levels must include exercise in some form, at some level.

Do I have to become a triathlete? Reminds me of the old joke: A guy goes to the doctor and asks if he will be able to play the violin after his surgery. The doctors says "of course". The man responds "that's funny, because I never could before". My most successful exercise philosophy has been, when staring out, do more that you did yesterday. If I did no exercise yesterday, do 5 minutes today; if I did 5 minutes yesterday, do 10 minutes today. At some point, sooner than you think, you'll be at the "if I walked for 45 minutes yesterday, I can jog for 10 minutes and walk for 35 minutes today" level. Whatever the exercise, low/no impact, treadmill, elliptical machine, weights, walking down the sidewalk, yard work, gardening, etc., etc., etc... Do some.

I don't know any percentages, but I lost 8 lbs in 3 months with no real exercise regimen. I lost 20 lbs in 6 weeks doing just what I said. I now exercise for 1.5 hours a day 6 days a week. My friends are shocked. Heck, I'm shocked. And the best part, I got here in little digestible increments.

Thanks for you site, I have found a wealth of great information. I also appreciate being able to share my thoughts and experiences.


Sara said...

One of the major factors causing obesity today is processed foods. I lost 63 pounds with the detox diet. Most of us now get the majority of our food from cardboard boxes and plastic containers. Which means we are getting way too much highly processed foods, stuff stripped of the natural ingredients that keep us lean and healthy, and pumped full of unnatural ingredients that make us fat and tired. It is about detoxing and replacing processed foods with real food and you will lose weight and be healthier.

You also need to plan out and track your Weight loss goals it will help you to succeed because when you write things down you are now accountable for your results.