To lose 4lbs during a diet, yet gain 6lbs back within a few weeks of finishing it is a sadly familiar scenario. In the previous article “Why diets never work and what to do” we discussed in detail why fad diets generally have poor results. We also presented some of the best alternatives to fad dieting, with the goal of achieving desired ‘body correction’ and avoiding starving the body. This article is devoted to exit strategies for diets.
Any process embarked on should have an exit strategy.
Dropping a diet without planning is the equivalent of stopping your car in the middle of the motorway, or jumping out of the airplane before landing – not recommended!
In the previous article “Why diets do not work…” we discussed the body’s reaction to various ‘cut’ diets. Here’s a quick refresher:
A decrease in calories leads to metabolic slowdown due to inevitable negative metabolic adaptation. Being adapted to lower calories, the body burns less ingested nutrients for energy. The more you reduce your food intake, the lower your metabolic rate becomes and the lower the quantity of nutrients which are used for body maintenance. Muscle degradation occurs as a side effect of many diets. This is a result of the body using its own muscle tissue for its energy needs when it is being starved, rather than burning fat as the latter is used to store nutrient deposits for a ‘rainy day’. A final and important point is that the less muscle tissue the body has, the lower its metabolic rate. Consequently a decrease in food consumption leads directly to muscle degradation during ‘cut’ diets, resulting in a situation in which the dieter is both eating less and getting fatter.
By instead taking a path of balanced and healthy eating, you could achieve visible sustainable results and reach a desirable body correction. This, in combination with the right training strategy, is the right solution.
Now let’s imagine a situation in which you are a healthy eater and regular exerciser. You have adopted the right nutritional strategy and follow an appropriate fitness plan for your body’s needs, but you want to achieve even more.
In this instance so-called “manageable cut dieting” may be suitable.
Imagine that you achieve this additional goal; fantastic! But what next?
You always have two options: to either return to your normal eating habits, or follow a correct exit strategy. In the first case the pattern will be more or less classic. If you are a healthy eater, you will inevitably gain weight after the diet is over and your metabolism will accelerate due to an increase in calories. Super-compensation will occur and you will come back to your normal body weight and body composition with an additional 1-3% of body fat. This is the most favorable scenario. However, you have to be ready to be slightly “softer” for a while until all your bodily processes are settled. If you are not a healthy eater, you will probably fall into the vicious circle of any diet, described above.
The second scenario, which involves a smart exit strategy, is a bit more sophisticated in terms of execution but at the same time will definitely help to keep your physical achievements for longer. It may even shift your body composition permanently and allow you to be lean all-year-round. This is exactly what happened to me after 3 years of competing.
Exit strategy recommendations:
- Increase calories gradually.
It is always very tempting to start eating all your favorite treats after a diet. However, keep in mind that your body will have become extremely sensitive to all previously excluded food sources. Be careful and conscious with carbs and fats first of all. Lane Norton (one of the most notable experts in metabolic damage) believes that the best way to smooth the transition to a non-dieting state is to increase your carbs by 10%, and fats by 1%, every week. Such moderate increases boost the metabolism and help the body to adapt to a new macronutrient modulation, without drastic changes in body composition.
- Track protein intake
Protein consumption also should be trackable. In the majority of smart fitness diets (not fad diets) protein intake is sufficient at the ‘cut’ stage. Macronutrient increase usually happens on account of carb and fat intake. However, some strategies such as various “detox” programs exclude or minimize protein consumption for the entire duration of the diet. This leads to severe muscle loss and metabolic damage.
Conversely, there are some diets (Dr. Atkins and his numerous imitators) that exclude carbs almost completely. One of the biggest misconceptions behind such an approach is that the human body does not need anything apart from protein. This in turn gave birth to the following misunderstandings of the human body: One is that you can eat any amount of protein and not gain fat. In fact, any excessive amount of protein is converted into glucose by the liver via the neoglucogenesis process. Excessive glucose and fatty acids not used for energy are literally converted into body fat. So keep your protein intake attuned to your body composition, type of exercise you do and your activity level, but be careful with any extra amount consumed. If you want to increase muscle mass the nutrition strategy you follow should be allied with your training and supplementation plans to achieve desirable results. Eating mountains of protein without a smart plan will not bring benefits. On the other hand, excessive consumption of protein can even be dangerous and lead to unexpected fat gain, increased acidity and an additional burden placed on the kidney and the liver. For more details about this, read my article “How much protein should be eaten”.
- Increase physical activity
It is clear that any increase in food consumption provides the body with additional energy. This increased energy should be burned up, in order to avoid undesirable body fat formation after a diet. As the metabolism is still slow after the period of reduced calories the only way to make sure you are on the right track is to increase your physical activity until the metabolic rate is normalized. The question is how we can do this in a more efficient and productive way. Obviously, we can not spend 2-3 hours a day doing low intense steady state (LISS) cardio as some so-called ‘fitness gurus’ recommend. That sort of free time is far too scarce for most of us. The best way to increase activity after a diet is to increase the intensity of your normal workout by increasing resistance (weight), or the number of receptions. Another recommended tactic is to add 15-20 minutes of highly intense interval (HIIT) cardio after your workout.
After any diet all bodily processes are altered. Being excluded for a while, and then re-introduced, some food sources could provoke digestion problems and cause bloating and other unpleasant consequences. You need to help the body to start working properly. Short, 2-3 week courses of digestive enzymes and friendly bacteria will be beneficial.
Metabolic boosters are another useful thing. Two of the most well-known natural metabolites are chili and black pepper. Just add a pinch of those to your meals.
The next possibility is an insulin controller. Keeping going without simple carbs for a period of time increases insulin sensitivity. Add 1-3 tablets of chromium to your meals to avoid insulin spikes. Also be careful with fruit: Those fruit with a high glycemic index such as mango, figs and other exotic fruits likely will be harmful for your six-pack.
- Check your list of wellbeing factors daily
Try to get eight hours of quality sleep, fresh air (and, at least, a one-hour power walk outside) and attempt to keep your stress levels low. These three wellbeing factors should always be checked and whenever possible, observed. High cortisol levels (stress hormones) alone could ruin all your fitness and dietary efforts. Insufficient sleep, excessive alcohol consumption and smoking, and constant tissue hypoxia (lack of oxygen) will make change impossible.
- Check your body composition
This is a pretty obvious point, but very often ignored. After a diet, it is essential to know what the proportion of your lean muscle mass is to your body fat percentage. Check it once every two weeks, a reasonable length of time to let your body react to new nutrients and any adjusted fitness plan. Ideally, both figures should stay unchanged or increase very slowly. Keep an eye on them. If you notice a drop in muscle mass or an increase in body fat of more than 4lbs within a two week period, your exit diet should be reconsidered and adjusted accordingly.