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Diet Challenges Can Be Far From Healthy

Diet challenges rarely lead to long-term success. -Courtesy photo

By Yajen Tan

Shortly after a training session last week, a man came up to me with a question. He was two weeks into a weight loss challenge with a friend, and so far he’d dropped 16 pounds of weight. I was impressed, but also slightly skeptical of how he accomplished that. He asked me how he could speed up this process over the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the truth that I shared probably won’t help him win his challenge, but it may help him achieve real, long-term success.

After asking for more information, I found out that this man had drastically reduced his overall caloric consumption, which also led to a large loss of water weight. Accompanied with running multiple times a week, he was able to drop from 190 pounds down to 174 in just two weeks. Results like that rarely last. I broke down a couple of mistakes that he made and recommended a more stable approach that will pay off better in the long run.

The 3 mistakes:

Extreme Caloric Deficit

We know now that to lose weight, we simply need to consume fewer calories than we exert. If calories out exceeds calories in, then the pounds should start shedding like butter, right? Although that applies well as a general rule of thumb, he hit a roadblock that most people experience with this theory.

The standard energy in vs. energy out model is a simple and useful equation to figure out where to start when fat loss is the goal. I mean, all we have to do is lower the calories in and we’re set to go right? Not so simple. There is a certain threshold that our bodies will hit, where extreme caloric reduction will result in a reduction in metabolism.

In the extreme case of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, subjects showed a 40% reduction in resting metabolic rate after reducing caloric consumption by 40%. Not only that, but the subjects experienced all sort of negative side effects such as irritability, depression, binge behaviors, and emotional distress. These severe side effects are commonly seen, on a lesser intensity, from people who pursue temporary diets.

Malnutrition from diets

The benefit of a challenge is that it gives us a newfound drive and competitiveness that we lack when trying to succeed as an individual. Unfortunately, when people focus too much on these diet challenges, they begin taking drastic measures that can have serious consequences on their health. When caloric consumption is dropped to an extreme, people tend to forget that balance plays an enormous role in a healthy diet. This man lowered his protein and fat intake to nearly negligible amounts, and instead, focused on a moderately-low carbohydrate consumption to get him through his day. This might help temporarily curb the irritability, but can cause muscle degeneration, over extended periods, in addition to a host of other problems

Eyes on the prize

My biggest complaint with weight loss challenges comes from the fact that they rarely bring out the most effective results. With these challenges typically lasting a few weeks to a couple months, there’s way too little time for people to build up habits that last.

I’ve seen, over and over again, people chasing a quick fix to their body fat concerns; the result is the same every single time. People take a few weeks and see amazing results but, upon reaching their goal, they fall back into the same patterns from before and end up right back where they started – or sometimes worse. The reality is that there are dozens of small modifications that you can make to better increase the odds of your fat loss success, but change takes time. A study that focused on habit development showed that, on average, it took 66 days to form a habit, but that time ranged from 18 to 254 days. That’s a lot longer than your typical 28 day challenge.

Finding a better approach

To find a more effective way to help him achieve long term success, I started out with his lifestyle. From a physical standpoint, he loved to participate in recreational sports. Not only can sports be amazing full body workouts, but they can also keep people motivated, and competitive. I recommended that he pairs regular recreational play with two weight lifting workouts per week. These workouts will help develop muscle mass and maintain bone density over time. Additionally, it creates the opportunity for him to equalize any imbalances that may result from playing sports.

From a dietary standpoint, I recommended him to play around with foods and cuisines that he already knows that he enjoys. It’s much easier to stick to a program when you actually appreciate the food that’s going into your mouth. I always stress the same idea over and over to my clients; if you don’t like it, it won’t stick, and if it won’t stick, then the results won’t last. By programming around healthier options that you do enjoy and utilizing flavors that you are accustomed to, you can really make a significant impact in how much you enjoy your food.

One of the additional issues that he noticed himself was that he often got off work late, so he would be having a large dinner and beers late into the evening. A great way that we could combat that would be to try and prepare dinner beforehand, so that, after a long day of work, nobody has to make the heart-wrenching decision between a cheeseburger or a salad.

A big mistake that people make with alcohol is that, after the first drink is down the hatch, the second follows through effortlessly. Generally, we’ve seen that alcohol is acceptable in limited, not moderate or excess, consumption. What you have to be careful of is to avoid the heaping servings of nachos, fries, or other munchies that are normally served alongside a drink.

By changing one small habit at a time, whether it’s one meal or a 20-minute walk, you give yourself more time to adapt to the habit. After 2-3 weeks of trial and error with that habit, you’ll have figured out what works about it and what needs a couple tweaks. Not only is this much easier for you to accomplish, but also leads to better results months and years down the line.

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