By: Dr. Melissa Davis
This post was originally created for RP+ members, but it’s such a great article that we want everybody to read it!
The following applies to either weight maintenance between cuts or maintaining weight indefinitely after a cut. These recommendations for balanced eating on maintenance are meant for healthy individuals with no medical conditions.
The important thing to remember is that the end goal of the process of maintenance is to find yourself living a balanced life; a life where you are not constantly concerned with weighing, measuring, and thinking about food; a life where you are not avoiding social engagements that involve food and drink; a life where you can have popcorn at the movies, wine with a nice dinner, an impulse candy treat once in awhile. You are aiming to live a life where guilt and food are never associated, where you eat healthy, normal portions most of the time, but occasionally get the least healthy thing on the menu just because it sounds good.
It’s difficult to put a number on or define exact parameters for maintenance since the idea is to be looser and less regimented. I hope to outline a good general idea here to help people navigate this sometimes-tricky phase of dieting.
A general recommendation in terms of food balance by the end of 8-12 weeks of maintenance would be: get most of your calories from healthy sources (lean protein, healthy mono-unsaturated fats, whole grains, fruits and veggies) about 80-85% of the time and spend the other 15-20% of your intake on whatever floats your boat. Be that french fries, beer tasting, sushi, extra salads, chocolate, wine, and so on – foods that make you happy. In moderation, there are very few foods that can do harm to your health or physique. Read that again. In moderation, there are very few foods that can do harm to your health or physique. That means that if you are eating a mainly healthy diet, you should have no guilt at all about having treats in moderation.
Let’s get into the nitty gritty details of how to get to this wonderful place where you are eating healthily but indulging in moderation and enjoying life while maintaining your weight. Maintenance should be something someone on a cut looks forward to, and yet many people express fear and dread when it comes to this phase of the diet. Why is that? Well, quite simply it’s because people are not familiar with how to transition out of a diet. Most of you familiar with RP or dieting, in general, know that ending a diet with celebratory binge eating or by diving directly back into normal food intake results in rebound weight gain and lost progress. So let’s go over how to prevent this and other end of diet dangers!
There are two major dangers as we transition into maintenance:
The danger of too much and the danger of too little.
Danger 1: Too Much
What: Diving back in and upping average daily calories faster than your body can adjust. At the end of a cut you are burning less total calories and are more primed than any other time to gain weight. (Great time to start a muscle gain phase, but if you want to maintain, a slow increase is key).
Why this happens: People who have pushed the diet a bit too long or too hard are more prone to this. Psychological and physiological fatigue make willpower weak and increase the brain’s propensity for addictive behaviors –meaning binge eating and uncontrollable cravings not related to hunger are facilitated.
Too many back-to-back diets or insufficient maintenance periods between diets can also contribute to the likelihood of this outcome.
Prevention: When cravings get crazy or weight loss has slowed despite low calories, end the diet, even if it is early or you are not yet at your goal. If you find yourself cheating on the diet regularly or have lost motivation, end the diet and maintain early rather than pushing and rebounding. Cravings will only get worse, and you ideally want to jump into maintenance before they are out of control so that you have the capacity to ease in slowly.
Do nice, long maintenance periods between diets with substantial calorie increases and relaxed eating. Don’t push too hard, too fast, or too often. Its better to get to your goal a little slower than to find yourself on a hamster wheel, always trying, rarely moving forward.
Danger 2: Too Little
What: Maintaining end-of-diet low-calorie intake. Failure to ramp calories back up at the end of the diet and a lack of enjoyable eating or relaxing after the diet has ended.
Why this happens: People are afraid that adding food back after a diet will result in weight gain or rebound. They continue to keep a strict regimented diet as they think this is the only way to maintain. Often after enough restriction, they end up binge eating because of profound cravings, resulting in weight gain and reaffirming their incorrect conclusion that continued restriction is needed to maintain their new weight. Chronic dieting can result and is a surefire way to eliminate long term progress. Read more about chronic dieting here.
Prevention: Add calories back in slowly, add relaxed eating in slowly.
Longer maintenance and slower increases are an option for those particularly afraid of rebound, but calories should return to at or close to starting diet calories with treats and indulgences in moderation by a few months post-diet.
All of that is easy to say and somewhat vague. So let’s speak a bit more on the details of the ‘how to’.
ADDING BACK FOOD, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
So now I have told you to “add food back” and that you should be eating a “normal amount” and having treats in “moderation”. So what exactly does that mean in practical terms? How do you do this? As I mentioned it is difficult to set exact guidelines for a phase that is purposefully loose, but here are some general instructions!
– Add in about 200-500 calories per day at the end of the diet (more if you are a bigger person, less if you are a smaller person).
– Add this amount back every 3-4 weeks. If you start to lose weight, add back sooner.
– If fats have been low (less than 1 serving per day in template speak) for a prolonged period, add your calories via fats first. If carbs were cut, add these back next, and then more fats after that.
– Have one celebratory cheat meal at the end of the diet if you can handle that and not have it turn into a three-day binge.
– From there, give it about 3-4 weeks before starting to have a cheat meal once every week or so or when a nice occasion comes up
– Select your off-diet treats carefully – don’t jump on every donut that is offered, wait for treats you truly love or crave.
– Learn to indulge when it will be most satisfying to you – save it for a cool event or date night, or a treat at your favorite dessert place rather than grabbing candy bars that were free at work just because they were there even though they aren’t your favorite. Don’t eat treats just because you can.
– IIFYM is fine for maintaining body composition, it’s not fully optimal as macronutrient timing is a detail that affects results to a small extent. In terms of health, you probably want to make sure the sources of your macros are primarily healthy sources. Learning to eyeball your (primarily healthy) macros and sticking roughly to your template timings most days is a great compromise.
WHAT IF MY WEIGHT MOVES UP?
It will. Just by virtue of eating more food you will 1) have more food in your body at any given time and food has weight 2) you will have full energy stores in your muscles thanks to more food, which means your muscles will pull in more water and water has weight. In other words, most of the weight bounce back is water and food, not fat regain! You should expect to bump up 2-5 lbs across a successful maintenance.
How do you know your weight is moving up? One big mistake people make is to assume that if they weighed in at 154.2 Monday and 154.8 Thursday, they are gaining. This is a mathematical error – the body has several pounds of water weight changes across a given day and more across a given week. Your body will go up and down about 2% from your average weight. In addition, your scale has a variability of 2% or more. That means you could fluctuate up to 4%+ between two weigh ins. To see through this variability, you must take 2-3 weigh ins per week and average them and compare to the next week to determine any change. You cannot definitively tell if you are losing, gaining or staying the same with less than 4 weigh ins across two weeks! Sometimes you may need more weigh ins if variability is high.
If you DO gain and it is more than the expected 2-5lbs, there are two possibilities.
1) You were already severely dieted and getting into chronic dieting. If this is the case it is even more important that you carry on through maintenance and do not try to keep dieting in an overly restricted way. Yes, you are taking steps backward in weight loss progress, but doing your calorie increase correctly and avoiding any further restriction is the only way to get out of this loop and overcome plateaus. Getting there later is better than never getting there. Resist the temptation to restrict at all cost. Carry on increasing your food. I guarantee that as tough as this might feel, it will get you closer to actually achieving your goal in a sustainable manner!
2) You have been overdoing the cheats and extras a little too much and too early into the diet (see earlier sub-header about the danger of adding too much too fast). In this case, calm down cheats, but DO NOT start restricting your healthy foods or trying to lose weight intentionally again. Just seek to maintain at the new weight even if it is a bit higher than you would like. It might seem like backtracking but it will be better for long-term success than playing the yo-yo game throughout maintenance.
In either case, the only thing to do is move forward and continue the maintenance plan from the new weight. It’s a short term set back for increased chances at long term success.
HOW LONG SHOULD MAINTENANCE BE?
As you diet, your metabolism slows, hormone function associated with regulation of tissue loss and gain is altered, psychological fatigue grows, and propensity for binging and addictive behaviors increases. Calories have to be lowered -often several times – to maintain weight loss pace across the cut. So all of the above-listed diet effects are at their peak by the end of a ~12-week cut. You didn’t get those effects to that level immediately upon starting the diet, it took 12 weeks. You should expect it to take that or nearly that long to get back to a healthy baseline in terms of hormones and metabolism. You also did not start your diet at the calorie level you ended it on. That also took 12 weeks. So you should expect it to take that or nearly that to be able to handle more calories again and feel less stressed and desperate about food. The critical factors in returning to baseline are adding food back and relaxing strictness across a period of time as long or close to as long as the cut lasted.
If you are not planning to cut, maintenance can be forever. If you do plan to start another cut, generally maintenance should be 60-100% the length of the previous diet in most cases. If chronic dieting has been an issue, a longer maintenance is probably worthwhile. If you are losing on maintenance and having to add calories back faster than every 3-4 weeks to prevent weight loss, you would probably be ok with a shorter maintenance (25-50% the length of the previous cut). In the author’s opinion, erring on the side of longer maintenance is the safest way to guarantee you don’t start too soon and end up backtracking.
You are ready to cut when:
- Calories are back up to something close to the chart below (figure from Renaissance Woman)
- Your fats are back up to AT VERY LEAST 0.3 x pounds of lean body mass in grams per day
- Your carbs are back up to 1.5-3.0 x pounds of lean body mass in grams per training day (more for higher volume resistance training or very hard cardio) and 0.5-1.0 x pounds of lean body mass in grams for rest or light cardio days.
(protein amounts should have stayed constant through all phases)
- You are having regular snacks and treats and occasional big “cheats”
- You are feeling ZERO GUILT regarding your food intake
- You are eyeballing most portions
- Your day is not made or broken by scale fluctuations
- Having a treat does not induce binge eating
- You are not obsessing over food, weight, etc
- 80-85% of your food comes from healthy RP meals and 15-20% from fun food
Remember that this fun food can include foods people typically label as “bad”. If you are a healthy person with no medical conditions, eating healthy for 80-85% of your intake, then cheesecake, pizza, beer, and cotton candy here and there will not be detrimental to your health, aesthetics, or performance.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON MAINTENANCE
You can expect to feel “fluffier” and to weigh a bit more. As discussed above, there is more food in your body and more water in your tissue. This doesn’t mean you have gained fat back – though you might gain a tiny bit of that back too. If you are strict and have efficient losses on your cut, the few pounds/kilograms you gain back over maintenance should not be a huge setback. This is an invaluable part of the process and if you do it right, your maintenance will set you up to be able to get even leaner next time around. If you hit your goal weight and maintenance leaves you feeling fluffy, finish it up correctly and then do a mini cut, overshoot your goal a little and the small amount of bounce back on maintenance will leave you right where you want to end up next time around.
You can expect to feel hungry! Yep, more food, but also more hunger. This often happens because your metabolism ramps up as you add food back and your body is sending you the signal that it is ready for even more food. In addition, when you first add tastier foods and snacks back, these foods ignite cravings for more tasty foods. (For this reason, we highly recommend skipping even small tasty treats on the diet –bland food does not initiate cravings in the same way that tasty food does). The initial hunger increases on maintenance will subside with time, try not to let them send you into adding food too much and too fast. Use your steady weight as a meter for when to add food, but know that this initial hunger (especially right before more food is added back) is a good sign that you are on the road to recovering from the side effects of your cut! Hunger should eventually subside and then disappear throughout the process of maintenance as you add food and get your body back to metabolic homeostasis.
Body composition changes cannot be expected on maintenance. Some small changes can happen, particularly if you are new to structured eating and weight training, but they are not common and should not be expected. Maintenance is exactly what it sounds like – you maintain your weight, your fat mass and muscle mass are maintained, things are kept roughly the same during this period.
Avoiding dysfunctional relationships with food and the scale:
Some people experience dysfunctional thoughts during maintenance. The lack of a goal to work towards or lack of change to track can be difficult to deal with for some people. If you find yourself having dysfunctional thoughts, make a conscious effort to get rid of these. Dysfunctional relationships with food and eating make life miserable. No point in being lean if you miserable! Here are some thought patterns to watch out for:
“I need to run off that meal I had” or “Better do a bunch of cardio to prepare to binge tomorrow because I know I can’t control myself around pizza”
Food should not be treated as something you pay dues for or are punished for. Considering an indulgence something that must be made up for is not functional – it facilitates labeling of food as good or bad and labeling yourself as good or bad for having eaten it. This mindset also contributes to the idea that you must always be dieting or making up for not dieting. A healthy life with a healthy metabolism and moderate indulgences mean you won’t gain weight from one cheat meal or night out. If you are in a healthy place with food, you won’t binge. You might eat a big meal one night, but you stop when you are full. This kind of surplus here and there will not lead to weight gain. If your cheat meals always lead to binging, cardio is not the answer – a reevaluation of how you view food is needed.
“I overdid it the first couple weeks of maintenance. My weight was going up, so I went back to Cut 3 ”
If you are reducing calories from your current template on maintenance, you are not maintaining, you are cutting. Even if you don’t start losing, you are putting your body and mind back into a cut, which will defeat the purpose of maintenance and put you that much further from recovering from the cut and being able to cut again. If mistakes were made, it’s time to live with them, carry on maintaining from there and then lose what’s needed on the next cut. If you went a little out of control at the end of the cut, it’s probably a sign you needed a shorter cut and really need the maintenance. Cravings and the propensity to treat food like a drug will only increase with extended / increased restriction. Neither of those things is good for long term success!
“I feel really guilty whenever I have an off meal on maintenance”
It’s important to make a conscious effort to talk yourself out of these feelings. Food is not bad, you are not bad for enjoying it. Try to find liberation in not having to be 100% strict. Know that there is a time and a place to eliminate snacks and treats, but maintenance is a time to allow yourself to enjoy your life a bit more and be so regimented. You worked hard and you deserve to go out to dinner or have your favorite cereal now and then. Think about the big picture and the long term. You know how to make progress and you have and will again, maintenance is the time to maintain and enjoy a bit and find some balance.
We talk a lot about scheduling your cuts for periods when you don’t have vacations or many events like weddings or social engagements to attend. The flip side of this is timing your cuts so that you are on maintenance during periods where you DO have such events. Being able to relax and enjoy dinner, cake, and drinks at a wedding of a family member or special friend is both wonderful and possible on maintenance. Vacation is definitely not a good time to try to cut (dieting on vacations ruins diets and vacations!). So setting up your diet phases so that you are well into maintenance for a vacation can make the vacation a lot more enjoyable and prevent any guilt or resentment regarding the time away since you should be able to enjoy and easily maintain if you head out for vacay with a month or more of maintenance under your belt.
As hinted at above, it’s also a good idea not to have your maintenance timed such that you end the cut right before something like a vacation. Early in maintenance, you are more prone to gaining and on vacation, it is always easier to go over board. Jumping from a cut into all inclusive buffets and happy hour is a quick way to rebound a good chunk of your cut weight. A vacation 4-8 weeks into maintenance should not be such an issue!
THINGS THAT CAN MAKE YOUR NEXT CUT DIFFICULT TO IMPOSSIBLE:
– Eating regimented and 100% healthy and clean full time during maintenance
– Lack of calorie increase from the end of the last diet (what will you cut to continue losses if food is already low??)
– Denying yourself social eating or drinking and missing out on events. There is time for restriction on a cut, but if you do it on maintenance it’s a permanent state of missing out on life!
Maintenance can be a frustrating time for those with more to lose, antsy to continue seeing changes and results. Know this: results will be substantially improved and chances of sustainable changes substantially increased by doing maintenance right and doing it for long enough. Like all things in life, it has its benefits and difficulties. Try to focus on the liberty of enjoying a little more relaxation and freedom that maintenance brings. Allow it to remind you that life will not be an eternal diet and give you the break you need to hit another cut full force when the time comes. Think of it as a good night’s sleep before another productive day and respect its importance in your journey.
Your life should not revolve entirely around food. Maintenance is a part of establishing both a permanent weight change and a healthy outlook that allows you to enjoy food without being dysfunctional. A cut might take off some weight, but a healthy relationship with food and understanding of how to navigate all phases of diet will change your body composition and your life.