One of the lines that you hear all of the time when it comes to losing weight is that it’s better to do it slowly. The threat is that if you lose weight quickly that it will come back quickly. In my experience that generally is true, but probably not for the same reasons you think.
The question is, why does this happen? I mean, it’s not as if there’s some sort of cosmic weight rubber band that stretches when you change shape and then suddenly snaps back. Or is there?
The body has what’s called a “set point” and it’s something that dieters, lifters, and trainers spend most of their time fighting. This set point is basically the point where the body likes to sit as far as weight, composition, and movement when it is not being prodded by environmental factors or lifestyle.
A lot of weight loss and bodybuilding literature talks about this “set point” as if it’s some sort of mystical thing that nobody really understands and nobody can really mess with. Well, that’s simply not the case. Let’s take some common weight loss situations for example. So you’re sitting pretty even at 200 lbs and 35% body fat. You eat generally the same stuff, you take the same route to work, you mow your lawn once per week, and you don’t exercise. You do this for years. Well, your body gets used to that and is generally fat and happy. This becomes your set point.
Then you get all excited about losing weight. You start exercising like a mad person. You stop eating your pizzas and cheeseburgers and instead are subsisting on tuna, cucumbers, and green beans. Lo and behold, you drop weight like heck! For the first couple of weeks, you’re down about 15 pounds and going strong. All of a sudden it comes crashing down and your weight loss comes to a grinding halt. You aren’t losing any more weight, and you feel like crap. What happened?
You aren’t battling some mystical set point. What happened is that you threw everything except the kitchen sink at your body and now it thinks that it’s facing the end of the Earth (no food, lots of exercises). So, of course, it’s going to batten down the hatches and try to keep you alive (and fat). You’ve induced a hormonal crash. Testosterone and leptin are way down while cortisol (which eats muscle and promotes fat storage) is way up.
Think of another scenario. How many people do you know who’ve lost 30, 50, even 100 pounds reasonably quickly, only to pack it all back on (usually with reinforcements) after a while. While everyone says that they’re going back to their set point, chances are it’s because they’re going back to their set lifestyle! Think about it for a second. You gained weight by eating pizza, McDonald’s, and by not exercising. Now that they’ve lost the weight and are feeling great, what has happened? Sure enough, they start eating some more bad food (they’ve “earned it”). Then life starts getting busy and they don’t spend as much time in the gym since it’s not a priority anymore. Sure enough, there’s the weight!
A slower, more gradual weight loss helps minimize these situations. The gradual weight loss not only allows the body more time to acclimate to the situation, but it also allows the head to wrap itself around the situation and let the new lifestyle become a habit. Rapid weight loss usually comes with an unsustainable lifestyle, both physiologically and mentally.
As a closing note, take from this that slow, gradual changes result in greater success. The body responds best to acute exercise, but in the long term responds better to a gradual lifestyle shift. In my experience, I’ve found that clients do the best when they start their weight loss journey by incorporating their fitness component and only making very slight changes to their diet. As time goes by the diet can tighten up.