Chronic Dieting

by Dr. Melissa Davis, Sport Nutrition & Female Health Coach | Nov 28, 2016

At RP we coach thousands of people through fat loss diets. One of the things we find that best predicts poor results in this endeavor is a history of prolonged restriction of calories. That’s right – trying to diet too hard and or too long makes you less likely to be successful on a fat loss diet. In these cases we very predictably see people require drastic and miserable calorie cuts for minimal weight loss and very often rebound weight gain at some point.  A decent proportion of our 1:1 clients come to us in this position.

Does this sound familiar?

You try various diets and means of calorie restriction, but feel like you have plateaued or been stuck around a certain weight for months or years despite your efforts. Maybe you lost some weight a while ago, but nothing seems to work now. You eat “healthy” all of the time and rarely allow yourself to enjoy a meal out or a treat. Maybe you occasionally indulge, but then feel a great deal of guilt and compensate with exercise or excessive restriction the following day. You feel like you work so hard and no progress is made.  You count, weigh, log, and track everything but nothing seems to change. It will sound counter intuitive when I say, what you need to lose weight is to stop and eat more. I’m not saying eating more will make you lose weight, but if done carefully it will allow you to maintain and prepare you to lose weight efficiently in the future.

Many people won’t even classify what they have been doing as dieting since they are no longer losing weight. They consider the restriction “eating healthy”. The truth is, eating healthy for your body and sanity involves some breaks, indulgences, treats, and balance. Restriction should be restricted (see what I did there?) to brief periods of weight change followed again by periods of balance.

Even when weight loss is no longer happening, the mere attempt at caloric restriction results in accumulated fatigue (psychological and physiological) and compensation mechanisms.  Your body adjusts to prevent weight loss when you diet by lowering your metabolism and down-regulating hormone production.  These mechanisms were helpful for our ancestors’ survival when food was scarce, but make dieting a little more complicated in this age of plenty.  Thus when you reduce calories across a diet, at the completion of the diet calories need to be added back in slowly to allow a return to baseline. Once you are back at baseline, another diet phase can be attempted with more success since your daily caloric burn will have ramped back up and other compensation mechanisms will have been greatly reduced. In addition, you will feel mentally relaxed from having been able to indulge a bit occasionally and ready to be strict on another brief phase of restriction.

Let’s walk through an example scenario to help you understand this process.

Let’s say our example person is a 150 lbs female who starts a diet in January. She reduces calories to 1800 a day and loses reliably for a month, getting down to 145 lbs by February. At this point weight loss begins to slow. This is because her body recognizes the weigh loss and begins to compensate by lowering her metabolism (so she burns less calories at rest), she begins to feel fatigued and moves her body less in general to reduce the number of calories burned per day even more. Hormones that would normally facilitate weight loss are down-regulated. Now that 1800 calories is no longer resulting in weight loss, she drops to 1500 calories and loses a few more pounds. By March she is down to 141, but weight loss slows again.  He goal is to be at 125 by summer so she pushes it a bit more, cutting her calories to 1200 per day.  A few more pounds come off by April, but she is starting to have urgent cravings and occasionally cheat on her diet. During May she goes back and forth between strict 1200 calorie days and days where she eats “bad” food because she is so tired of dieting. Fearing weight gain she tracks her calories and continues shooting for 1200 calories per day for the entire summer. Her weight continues to hover at 136, she is constantly careful of her food choices, has guilt when she eats anything indulgent, and her goal of 125 stays out of reach despite her constant vigilance with her diet. She panics over birthday parties and social engagements and fears going over 1200 calories will cause her to gain weight. Or she indulges for a week and because her metabolism is low and her body primed to gain, she puts on a few pounds – reinforcing her conclusion that 1200 calories a day is her only choice if she wants to prevent weight gain.

The problem with our sample dieter’s plan is a failure to ever take a break from restriction. The chronic low calorie diet is actually what is preventing her from reaching her goal in a sense. A better strategy would have been to cut to 135, take a break for a few months, and then cut 10 more pounds to hit her goal. That break would have given her body the opportunity to recover from the fatigue and compensation initiated by the first diet and be primed and ready to lose weight efficiently again without severe restriction.

Many times returning to baseline simply requires slowly increasing calories over a few months during a period of weight maintenance. Other times restriction has been so long and psychological aspects of restriction have become so dysfunctional that a full diet reset (explained briefly below) is needed. In this case the person often has severe anxiety about eating food and may worry about spending time with family and friends and having to resist eating certain foods or make excuses about refraining. He or she might eat out with friends and then obsessively exercise or restrict to make up for the indulgence. Excessive weighing of food and one’s self and extreme care in logging and counting macros and calories may have been going on for months or years. Many times this person will blanket classify foods as “good” or “bad”.

In order to undo this level of diet stress and fatigue we recommend spending a few weeks to months without any counting, weighing, measuring, or worrying – just eating whatever sounds good and as much of it as desired. This might sound fun, but can be extremely stressful to the chronic dieter who will fear weight gain and loss of control. The period of complete relaxation usually naturally leads into a bit healthier eating – we all tire of cake and peanut butter in excess it turns out. A few weeks to months of slightly healthier, but still relaxed eating should follow. This will slowly transition the person out of chronic diet fatigue and into the start of a healthy diet and healthy midset. (This process is described in detail in Renaissance Woman).

ren woman1

Because we see this pattern so often at RP, being scientists, we decided to look at some real client data.  Below is a graph of 5 women.  We tracked the weight loss and average calories across a cut after having dieted chronically. Then, with the SAME 5 women, we tracked weight loss and average calories after doing a diet reset as described above. In red you can see that on average no weight was lost when trying to cut after prolonged calorie restriction.  In blue, the same women lose around 8 pounds on average across a 2 month period. Even more stunning is the fact that calorie amounts consumed on both diet attempts were equivalent! If anything a trend towards more calories consumed is seen post diet reset, with much better weight loss results. Thus the diet reset process allowed these women to eat the same daily calories as they had in the first cut attempt, but lose weight consistently post-reset.

Big take home message:

Sometimes the longer road is the road to sustainable results. The weight loss below in blue required 8-12 weeks of complete break from dieting, weighing, measuring. Breaks are needed between bouts of hard work and change in almost every instance of life and diet is no exception. We hope that this blog, in addition to some testimonials also listed below will help our clients in this position make a positive change in their habits, relationship with food, and perspective on dieting and get to a place where they are running the show in a healthy, sustainable manner.

Testimonial from a client who did the diet reset:

“When I first contacted her [my coach] she required me to do a "mandatory 8-12 week diet break". WHAT!?!? My world literally felt as if it was colliding. Yes, I'm a bit dramatic, lol. But seriously, the thought of living without any rules pertaining to what I ate sent me spinning in a complete panic. You see, I’ve not really lived without being on a diet, since I was a teen! How in the world do I do this? She told me "if you want cake for breakfast and a jar of PB for dinner, then eat just that". I will never forget those words. Also, no measuring, counting, or weighing of anything! Unbelievable, not doable, ridiculous, i cried that whole day. But, my hubby was 110% behind her and so excited to live with me without restricting my food. I knew I wanted freedom in this area so, after much thought and more tears I decided to do it.” … “I ended up fully embracing this and enjoying life! I healed emotionally and mentally from a lifetime of disordered thinking and beliefs. I tried a few times to start early, lol, but she insisted I wait a little longer. So, when the 8-9 week Mark was up I was ready to begin my cut and she agreed. The incredible thing?? I gained absolutely NOTHING!!! My cut was a little rocky but we found my metabolism was so ramped up from being fed well that we had to continue increasing food to find my base! I lost 8# total, dropped a pant size, and continue to work through the FPT's with great energy. I have loved this process so much that I signed up for another 6 months! I'm continuing to heal from my lifetime of dieting and fully enjoying food each day! So, if a coach suggests a diet break, fully embrace it because the benefits are Immeasurable.”


Linear regression graph: The same five women’s 60 day cut results before and after a diet reset. Significant difference between weight loss before and weight loss after.  (ANCOVA: F = 56.68. DFn = 1, DFd = 29, p<0.0001) Error bars indicate standard error mean for each weigh in. *Some weigh in time points are missing data as a few weigh in days were missed by each client.


Calorie comparison: Calories on average across 60 days of each diet, normalized by individual as calories per pound body weight per day. No significant difference in intake between before and after diet reset.

** We recognize a much larger sample size and more precise control of food intake and other variables would allow for broader conclusions regarding the effectiveness of diet reset. Our intention here was to loosely quantify a trend we have observed across hundreds of clients in order to help others reach body composition goals in a healthy and sustainable manner.**