We live in what feels like the peak of a fad diet culture, where media outlets are full of “detoxes” and every “lose weight fast” diet scheme you could imagine.
But if there are so many magical diets to choose from, why is obesity at an all time high?
A whopping 30% of people who attempt a diet will actually gain more weight long term. This is due to a phenomenon that’s been dubbed body fat overshooting (1).
Body fat overshooting is a term used to describe the potential to regain fat in a greater amount than before a diet. Sounds pretty awful, right? But you’ve probably heard someone experience this or even gone through it yourself.
It happens way too easily in today’s “fad diet” culture…
You undertake the hottest celebrity’s latest diet and dramatically change the way you’re eating. Maybe you even add in a new, intense workout routine. A few weeks pass, you feel awful because you’re hardly eating anything, you’re miserable, you hate your workouts, and you decide to cave to your cravings. You go a little overboard that weekend bingeing on anything deemed “bad” by that diet you just ditched. Come Monday, you realize you’re actually heavier than when you started the diet in the first place!
How the heck did that happen?!
When you undertake a new diet, weight loss will occur if you’re in a proper calorie deficit. But while you might enjoy the weight loss, your body interprets the calorie deficit as a major stress. To fight against this new stress (the diet) your body fires up its defenses to “protect” you from the perceived famine.
These defenses (also called adaptations) include:
→ A decrease in your Basal Metabolic Rate
→ Less energy expended during exercise
→ Less energy expended in NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis – think fidgeting, blinking, carrying your groceries, etc.)
→ With less food coming in your thermal effect of feeding (TEF) also decreases, meaning fewer calories burned through digestion
The above list of adaptations that your body employs to try and force you to return to your homeostasis is frequently compared to the thermostat in your home. [Click Here for a more in depth article on an adaptive metabolism]
When the temperature moves too far above/below from where you set the thermostat, your HVAC system kicks on. That is exactly what your body is doing when you start a diet, (unfortunately) working against your fat loss desires to bring you back to homeostasis.
This is also why when you diet, you have to continuously cut calories further and further (or increase energy expenditure) as your body adapts to each new stimulus over time.
When you diet, your fat cells shrink. Body fat regain comes not only from your fat cells growing larger in size after a diet, but additionally the creation of new fat cells.
Think of body fat overshooting in terms of caveman days. If you are short on food and have to go on a long hunt, your body wants to survive that hunting period by adapting to the food shortage. When you finally do have some fresh food to eat, your body is scared another famine might occur soon so it wants to store as much as it can. Your body is stocking up reserves in case of another food shortage.
Great survival strategy in those days, but terrible news for anyone on a crash diet in 2019.
How do we avoid body fat overshooting?
The easiest way to avoid additional weight gain after a diet is to first not fall victim to fad diets that sound too good to be true… Because they probably are.
If you have fat loss goals, DON’T:
→ Take The Short Term Fix
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all get to our goals overnight? Unfortunately, pushing yourself to your ultimate goals and sustaining those goals takes a well thought out plan that includes an exit strategy to come out of the diet.
→ Plan Hop
It’s pretty common to hear people say they’ve tried every diet under the sun. The cycle goes something like: try the newest fat loss trend for a few weeks, realize you can’t live with the restrictions, try the next week’s hot diet, and the plan hopping continues. This might be why diets have less than a 5% success rate – yikes!
The best way to prevent body fat overshooting and manage the adaptations that come with dieting is by creating a periodized plan that fits your lifestyle and goals.
→ Consider Your Lifestyle
Instead of changing everything about your life and likes/dislikes to conform to a strict, new diet, find a way of eating that you can stick with long term to see real results.
→ Use A Periodized Approach
Use tools like refeed days and diet breaks to help mitigate some of the metabolic adaptations caused by calorie deficits, while also making the diet easier to adhere to long term.
Work with a coach to create a periodized plan that takes into account what happens before your calorie deficit and also how to move out of the calorie deficit after you reach your goals.
Let me say that again – have a plan for after your diet. Whether that is a slow and steady reverse diet or an aggressive recovery diet, make sure you do restore homeostasis to your body and remove the stress of dieting after you reach your goals.
If you recently spent a few months in a controlled calorie deficit and reached a sustainable leanness for your body, maintaining those results is very possible.
On the other hand, if you dieted to get “stage lean” for a physique competition or photo shoot, putting some fat back on your body is an important part of restoring your general health.
The length of your post-diet will depend on you as an individual, but minimizing fat gain after a diet can be achieved with the proper transition. If you don’t have an exit strategy, the probability of body fat overshooting is greatly increased.
Bottom line – Dieting doesn’t have to be miserable when done in a controlled and periodized manner. Diets should always be temporary and include an exit plan to help you maintain your results.
The biggest take home lesson from today, is that you have to stop diet hopping and start educating yourself on the process of achieving long-term sustainable results. Click Here to do just that.
- Nutritional Coaching Institute Level 2 Manual by Jason Phillips and Travis Zipper
- “Weight regain after sustained weight reduction is accompanied by suppressed oxidation of dietary fat and adipocyte hyperplasia.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18287221
- “The Metabolic Adaptation Manual: Problems, Solutions, and Life After Weight Loss” https://www.strongerbyscience.com/metabolic-adaptation/
This is a blog written by Caroline Ofenstein. Caroline is Certified With Precision Nutrition, NCI, CrossFit, and is also a Boom-Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Caroline is our go-to source for CrossFit Nutrition AND bridging the gap between Aesthetics and Performance, which is where she has recently pushes a lot of her focus in order to help people understand how they can achieve both performance and the lean physique we all strive for.