Yaaaaaay! The diet is over!! You reached your goal, you feel great, you’re happy to look in the mirror… and you can finally eat as much of your favourite foods that you had to stop eating!
That’s usually how it plays out. You finish a diet and you’re left in “no man’s land”. There is no immediate goal to reach, and you’re desperately craving the foods you had to avoid. What usually happens is that you buy all your previously forbidden foods, tell yourself that now you’ll be able to control yourself, since you were so good and reached your goal and all, and systematically, but definitely not purposefully, eat all that food faster than even you thought you could inhale it.
I’ve been there. It wasn’t my best moment. I’m guessing it wasn’t yours either.
A different approach would be to systematically and purposefully bring your food consumption up to match the maintenance of your new weight. Give your body time to adjust to a new weight, or set point, if you will.
Ok, we’re done. There’s the answer.
I’m kidding. While that IS the answer, I know it’s not helpful. So let’s take a step backwards so that we can leap forward.
There are 2 things that greatly influence the success of a diet: adherence and exit strategy.
Adherence means your ability to actually stick to it. If you go on a diet that you suffer through for a few days and then need a cheat day to be able to suffer through it a little longer… odds are that this diet will not give you the long term results you so desperately want.
A diet is only as good as your ability to see it through. So before you can look at the finish line, it’s important to look at the diet itself. There are many good diets out there, and there is a best one for you. You need to look at that diet, before you start it, and see if you are able to do it:
. without feeling starved all day every day
. without breaking the bank
. without excessive exercise
. without cheat meals
. while maintaining your social and family life
It seems like a tall order, but these are basic lifestyle things that need to be considered on a diet. And again, there is a best diet for you – you just need to find it. Maybe it’s counting calories, maybe it’s portion control, maybe it’s time restricted eating… whatever it is, you have to be able to see yourself doing this for a long term. Not because you should diet for life, but because what gets you to your goal is a modified version of what keeps you in maintenance. I’ll say that again:
What gets you to your goal is a modified version of what keeps you in maintenance.
If you can see yourself never eating a slice of pizza, a potato, a piece of fruit, or a dessert in your life… you might survive keto. If you can see yourself shelling out $100/month for shakes and workout supplements for life (that’s over $1200 a year, by the way), go for that program. If you can see yourself only ever eating completely fresh foods, then that can work for you.
I know these are some extreme examples, but the point is that adherence determines success. 75% adherence = success for most people.
Exit strategy is probably THE most important part of any diet. An exit strategy is a way to leave your current situation, either because your goal has been achieved, or because you want to mitigate failure. In the case of weight loss, it’s both.
Most people’s exit strategy is simply this: go back to eating like before.
If you think about it for 10 seconds you’ll see that’s not a great way to do it. Also, you’ve probably used that strategy before and gained the weight back. So how can we do better?
Your exit strategy needs to incorporate the foods you want to eat for life, balance the energy consumed with the energy expended, and solidify the habits that will keep the weight off for life.
Your diet should have introduced you to these elements, although with a fat loss application instead of a maintenance application. Let’s take a look:
1. Incorporate the foods you want to eat for life
Foods vary by geography, financial status, taste, cultures and habit. The diet you can best adhere to will seldom eliminate foods that are important to you: either due to your values, preferences, or dietary restrictions.
2. Balance energy consumed with energy expended
Energy balance is the king of weight management. The diet you can best adhere to has put you in an energy deficit because to lose weight you have been consuming less than your body expends.
3. Solidify habits to keep the weight off
The habits that create weight loss also create weight maintenance. A good diet should be putting in practice the lifestyle habits that will make dieting easier, as well as keep the weight off long term, which are:
. eating habits
. exercise habits
. stress management
. sleep habits
Now how can we build an exit strategy?
1. Plan the diet after the diet
There are important questions to consider in an diet exit strategy, starting with the ones that will define what will compose the bulk of your lifestyle diet, meaning what you usually eat. A few questions to ask:
– What are foods you would like to eat again or would like to eat more of
– How much do you control your food — meaning, do you usually eat out or at home, do you usually cook or does someone else do most of the cooking
– Do you often travel for work
These questions begin to design what your lifestyle diet will be like. For the person who didn’t restrict, or in other words, did a form of flexible dieting, one answer is that they simply increase their favourite foods within energy balance. For the person that restricted foods or groups, these need to be gradually and systematically reintroduced.
For the person that mostly eats at home or cooks most of their meals, it’s a very easy shift to volume increase. For the person that eats out a lot, has many events, travels a lot, or does not cook their own meals, the shift is a little different, taking into account the many variables that are out of their control.
The point is that you need to know what your lifestyle is, and plan for it. I realize that life changes, and we go through seasons, but your exit strategy is for THIS season, and this diet that you did. After you’ve been in maintenance for a while, when life shifts, you shift with it to continue managing your weight in maintenance.
2. Balance energy consumed with energy expended
Many, many, many people are afraid to eat more after a diet. This fear is not unfounded, since it’s probably happened before where you dieted, then ate more, and gained it all back and then some.
The reason this happened before is likely because the diet you were on did not have a clear exit strategy. When you reach your goal weight, you will need to increase the amount of energy (food) you consume in order to maintain that weight, or else you will continue to lose. However, this should be done in an organized manner.
You don’t need to methodically reverse diet (increasing about 100 calories a week until you get to maintenance), although that works for many people, but simply jumping all the way to daily maintenance calories backfires for a lot of people.
The middle ground is to gradually reach your maintenance calories – and the how of this is largely based on what diet you did. If you did a flexible diet, this means your portions, calories or macros will change over a period of time to reach maintenance. If you did a restrictive diet, this means that the consumption of previously banned foods needs to be monitored to adjust for energy balance.
Maintenance is where you want to live your life. It’s not sexy, it’s not catchy, it doesn’t sell transformation programs, but it is where you want to live, because dieting sucks, and it’s hard, and it’s no fun. The point of a diet should be to reach a place where you can then move on to maintenance… and stay there.
Maintenance means more food. That’s always a plus in my book!
3. Solidify habits to keep the weight off
Hopefully when doing your diet you were pairing it with some habits that made dieting less daunting, and also build the foundation for your exit strategy and maintenance. These are what I call the Solid Rocks.
– Eating Habits
What you eat matters. It matters when you diet, it matters when you maintain, and it matters when you don’t even have a weight goal. What you eat matters for your physical health, your longevity, and your mental health. Your Exit Strategy needs to take into account what you will eat for life.
– Exercise Habits
70% of people who maintain weight loss (3+ years) do some form of exercise. Any exercise is counts – walking is absolutely life changing, but it can be anything you enjoy doing that is a structured exercise (yes, it includes martial arts, group sports, and yoga). A side note is that building muscle should be a part of your exercise habits, it optimizes your metabolism, it improves your bone and joint health, and it helps regulate hunger. But again, any exercise counts.
– Stress management
Stress is equally overused and overlooked. Too many things seem to be swept under the rug of “it’s just stress”, but at the same time, we don’t seem to be making a conscious effort to decrease stress levels, especially around food and weight. If your diet puts you in a state of stress or anxiety around food, I highly recommend you talk to a coach to work through that so you can have better results and better maintenance. Among others, stress increases cortisol – which increases water retention, and stress makes our hunger signals out of whack. Managing stress around and with food is important for a life that will not revolve around dieting over and over again.
– Sleep habits
Sleep plays an essential role in health. When it comes to weight management specifically, people who get sufficient sleep lose more fat as opposed to lean mass (mostly muscle). People who don’t sleep enough lose weight, but it’s mostly lean mass and not fat. Sleep also has a role in regulating hunger and satiety hormones, and not getting enough sleep really does make you hungrier (even after eating) and it makes you more prone to eating comfort foods. Good sleep habits are of high importance in living a life of weight maintenance.
Don’t leave yet! This is important. Our mental health has been more openly discussed and this is a wonderful thing. As someone who lives with anxiety, it’s incredibly helpful to now live in a world that acknowledges these struggles instead of simply attributing them to drama. Your mindset, and if you have a faith, your faith, are a huge foundation for weight loss and maintenance. From here come your strength to push ahead on the really tough days, your belief that you are a person that can achieve your goal, and your anchor when you’re navigating the storm that is going from a diet mentality to a maintenance mentality.
It’s hard. We are bombarded with diet culture, the next best diet, an obsession with thinness, and now an obsession with what is supposedly health. It’s enough to drive anyone up the wall.
Going from all that comparison, guilt and feelings of inadequacy to loving your body, peace and feeling of contentment… it’s a storm. It’s a process that needs to be done if you are to get off the diet hamster wheel.
All right! That’s it. I talk about exit strategies ALL THE TIME because for me it’s the single most important part of a diet.
I hope this helped you think about your current diet, and that it gave you some tools to create a strategy of your own.
If you would like to talk more about this and see what your next step would be, or have some direction as to where to go next, you can fill out this 1 minute form to book a free discovery call with me. Fill out form here.
I hope to hear from you soon!