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Is it possible to diet down 8 pounds and then gain 8 pounds right back and be in a stand still? The same question can be applied to smaller amounts like 5 pounds or 3 pounds. How can this be?
This is one of my most asked questions via email. Directly or indirectly, this is an important topic for most people but especially for women. Women are more concerned with physical number changes and less likely to have successful recomps without very specific attention. Though most fitness professionals will not tell you this, body recomposition is much harder for women than it is for men. This is taking into account both physical limitations and mental challenges. The scale always has been and always will be hugely important to women. As I discussed in the two part series, “The Science of Scale Fluctuations (Part 1 and Part 2),” there are many reasons for an erratic or frozen scale. I encourage you to read those articles.
Still, that doesn’t fully answer the question. Let’s dive into more detail or in this case, a scenario.
Meet Lizzie. For all dramatic purposes Lizzie is going to be our problematic dieter with scale issues. While Lizzie is a fictional character, she is certainly a common cautionary tale with dieters everywhere. In fact, Lizzie represents my common “before” girls who end up finding me through The Fat Loss Troubleshoot or my membership site. Maybe you know a Lizzie? Maybe you are Lizzie.
Weight: 140 pounds
Body Fat%: 26%
Goal Weight: 123 pounds
Lizzie is not largely overweight, but she does have a small amount of physical weight to lose to achieve her goal of 123 pounds. She has determined her goal weight from the percentage of body fat she wants versus the muscle she wants. It is an estimate, but it’s a good start. Basically, this means Lizzie needs to lose roughly 17 pounds of pure fat before she hits her goal. Notice, I said pure fat, not weight. In weight, it is very possible she will need to lose 20-22 pounds of weight before she hits her goal. Confused? Keep reading.
Assumed Water Regain
In a deficit, you should automatically dispose of water when you start dieting down. The more extreme the diet, the bigger difference this will make. People who take part in the wrong type of dieting and exercise methods will not see these normal drops. In fact, they may see the opposite; but that is another topic. The point is, for the average and “fed” person getting ready to embark on a dieting down phase, you should drop a few pounds of water the first week you diet. It will come back.
If you diet for a long time, you will lose some water permanently (if you are truly overweight) and some extra water along the way. In fact, against what some people think, for those who are overweight, weight loss actually is important and needs to happen both in water and in fat. In the case of Lizzie, it is not likely she will lose more than 5-6 pounds of water to get to her goal, and of that, around 3-4 pounds should/will likely come back.
When Lizzie hits 132 pounds, when she is eating, it is possible her weight at maintenance is around 135-136 pounds. Already when she stops dieting, she is possibly up to 136 pounds.
Post-Deficit (Diet) Refeed
You might know it as a binge. Maybe you know it as, “I deserve food, now!” Whatever you call it, it is the post-deficit refeed and it reaps havoc on your body’s current homeostasis. Your body is very smart. It is constantly changing and adapting to situations you cause. So it might take your body a few days, but it will catch on to the fact that you are in a deficit. When it does, it will adjust water, temperature, hormones, etc. Your body will keep these downwards trends the longer you are dieting. Some people can go longer stints than others. I will keep my rant on metabolic adaption short, because the rebound is where we are going to focus.
If you constantly train with intensity and deprive yourself of food, you are turning an unstable environment into a normal occurrence. A physical bad habit is born. When this happens, anything that fights this habit will be read as different or cause panic. The more you throw different things at your body (carbs, large food amounts, different sugar sources), the more your body is going to “puff up” and defend itself. Now, on one hand what you are doing is good: it is going to teach your body that it is going to get large amounts of food again. Feeding helps reset metabolic patterns, temperature, etc. The problem is you likely aren’t doing it the right way, and doing it the wrong way or overdoing it will erase any progress you made.
Back to Lizzie
Lizzie has been diligent; she went hardcore and dieted hard. She hit 132 pounds and decided she needed a break. Well, the break turned into a week long stint to make up for lost time. She ended up eating lots of sweet, tons of carby goodness, more sodium, lots of water and fluids in general, and the next thing you know, she is back up to 140 pounds. She threw her body for a homeostasis loop and the outcome is out-of-the-normal bloat and retention. Just like that, all the work she did for weeks is erased. Or is it?
Did Lizzie really not lose any fat?
Technically in weight, Lizzie didn’t lose; but if you take a closer look at her situation, she could still walk away having lost a couple of pounds of fat. If she could decrease her intake for a few days and be in a proper maintenance state, she would likely lose. Sometimes, water regain can be as stubborn as fat though and patience is your only virtue. The best fix for it is—consistency.
Lizzie’s problem is that she will not know that because the sheer depression of her weight rebound will lead her to more eating and more weight gain, and she will be convinced the system doesn’t work. How can we stop that from happening? Better yet, how can we make it so that never happens in the first place?
8 Tips for Avoiding the Diet Stand Still
1. Set Realistic Weight Goals
Some people need to lose physical weight. Figure out how much weight that is and then adjust your goals accordingly.
2. Choose Cycling Over Straight Dieting
There are some people who can straight diet for months and never hit stalls or problems. I find most people aren’t that lucky. If you are one of those people, deal with what seems to be a slower pace. I promise you, you will get there. Nine times out of ten, you won’t get there at all with straight dieting.
3. Account for Restrictions
If you are doing low carb, account for what that will do to your weight loss. Also, understand you will likely adapt faster and stall sooner on low carb diets. In my opinion, a very small percentage of people should stay on long term extreme low carb diets. This means keep your carbohydrate restriction to less than 50 grams per day. Cycling should be involved.
4. Don’t Restrict Sodium
You are playing a numbers game you will never win. In fact, in a deficit you should appreciate both sodium and potassium intake and not decrease it. There should be a balance in your electrolytes that will be affected by dieting down. This will also save you from the painful (both mentally and physically) weight rebound that will come the moment you eat a high sodium meal. As long as you are training and drinking water, you are fine. It also helps your body from adapting as quickly. Win-win.
5. Control the Refeed
When you start to refeed, you count less or monitor less. You start to graze more. Your stomach gets larger and easier to fill. This leads to even more handfuls and more mindless eating, and the next thing you know—you aren’t close to maintenance, you are gaining weight. This is a lifestyle, and you have to learn to eat the calories you need. Control the break and maintenance. Get right with your true diet.
6. Sleep, Nap, and Sleep More
Nothing resets your body like rest. Mix rest with the right training and diet, and it can become easier. The problem is people can’t put aside work, family, and social obligations. Sure, there are things you can’t avoid, but put the ones you can on hold right now. Take the extra nap. Work out later instead of losing sleep in the morning. You will see huge changes.
7. Understand the Math
An estimated 60 to 85% of white adipose tissue weight consists of lipids with 90-99% being triglycerides. The remaining weight is water and a slight amount of protein. The weight of 1 pound of stored lipid is roughly 400 grams. If we know through other calculations that fat energy is 9/kcal per gram, then it’s time to do a little math.
9 × 400 = 3,600 calories (rounded figure is 3,500 calories per pound of fat)
No matter what you believe from carbphobia to fat hate, you can’t dispute the amount of energy in stored fat. To remove that energy, you have to be in a deficit of that caloric amount (actually more) in order to remove a pound of fat. Since there is no way in ensure 100% energy consumption in fat, this would take more energy expenditure than 3,500.
In order to remove 10 pounds of pure fat, it would take 35,000 calories of of pure fat energy. Do you really think you deserve those numbers or are you in wishful thinking land?
8. Understand Metabolic Adaptation
I did a great recording on this for the members.
VanessaDecember 13, 2010 at 3:00 am
Neat, I like the idea of the audio. Am I a nerd for reading it AND downloading it?
Leigh PeeleDecember 13, 2010 at 2:58 pm
Yes. But, I only judge you a little for it.
DBDecember 13, 2010 at 5:00 am
I hate the scale.
I love you for understanding it.
Leigh PeeleDecember 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm
The scale is only your enemy if you let it become one. Use it as a part of an equation, or don’t use it at all.
LoriDecember 13, 2010 at 6:34 am
Great article, Leigh … but you already knew that. 🙂
Leigh PeeleDecember 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm
It isn’t easy being me.
Nancy CooleyDecember 13, 2010 at 10:36 am
Leigh, I don’t restrict sodium but I’m sure I don’t have enough potassium. Should I be taking a supplement and if so, how much? Thanks.
Leigh PeeleDecember 13, 2010 at 3:05 pm
@Nancy – You can’t get potassium in supplement for in any decent amount. There is a 99mg cap on it. What you can do is look into electrolyte drinks, their amount is usually higher because it is within a calorie beverage. You can also use Morton’s Lite Salt (No Salt taste horrible) as it has higher sodium amounts. The best is obviously through whole food. Tomato paste has a very high amount of potassium and is pretty low in calories. Here is a good list though. http://www.vaughns-1-pagers.com/food/potassium-foods.htm
SarahDecember 13, 2010 at 2:51 pm
I love the tips. I can really relate to Lizzy. I am constantly feeling like I am dieting then rewarding myself to in the end seeing no results. Honestly I think that my maintenance must be lower than I am hoping.
Thanks for the reality check.
tamesDecember 13, 2010 at 3:15 pm
Dude. You read my mind and maybe my latest post in the forums! Thank you, Leigh! I am wondering if you will follow up with more information on how to do proper cycling or is it totally dependent on the individual?
Leigh PeeleDecember 13, 2010 at 3:51 pm
I have a a lot coming on cycling, but it wont be for a bit. We can talk more about it on the forums though. And yes, your post the the kick in the ass for this article.
Charlotte LDecember 13, 2010 at 3:31 pm
Great post Leigh:) Consistency is real key for sure.
AllyDecember 13, 2010 at 4:34 pm
Great Post! I loved listening to it.
Fredrik GyllenstenDecember 14, 2010 at 2:48 pm
Another great article, Leigh!
i’m glad Alan Aragon recommended your site to me 🙂
jody jonasDecember 15, 2010 at 9:45 am
thank you! I am a newbie here but have been struggling for years….I am looking for so many answers to my dieting ‘problems’ (I seem to be in the same boat as many) so all of this helps!! I get so frustrated when I start dieting, taking all my supplements, stay on a strict training program only to lose a few pounds and then see the scale start creeping back up…..that is when I tend to begin a binge!