Cruise Control: The power of maintenance

In last week’s post I discussed how maintenance, or the purposeful ingestion of the calories that keep you weight stable, is where most people should live most of the time.

As someone who works with clients and their nutrition goals, I tend to see people staying around the same weight all the time but the caveat is that many individuals who struggle with their weight  tend to fluctuate above normal, then below normal, then above normal and so on.

Even though the end result is that they stay around the same weight all the time, they do this through the constant process of gaining and losing.  The perception is one of “staying the same” but I guarantee the mindset that goes along with this up and down pattern is much different. In addition, doing really short bursts of weight gain and loss probably lead to more fat and less muscle over time. I cannot say for certain how mitochondria respond to short overfeedings (whereas long term ones result in less receptivity to nutrients) but you don’t see many lean, muscular  people who yo-yo diet chronically. I know I know, bodybuilders and other physique and strength sport athletes WILL change body weight multiple times per year but it is often intentional and systematic, which is much different.

Why Yo Yo Dieting is Still Maintenance

Yo yo dieting also puts you in the Catch 22 Bermuda Triangle, it’s really hard to get out of and many people are never seen again.  Dramatic, yes, but it does serve a point. To lose fat is not usually physiologically hard.  In fact, you are constantly storing fatty acids and releasing fatty acids; after a meal you probably store some, between meals you’ll release and expend some.  The cumulative total is what drives fat gain or loss.

Sustain a long enough deficit and you’ll lose significant amounts of fat.  Sustain a surplus long enough and you’ll do the same storing extra body fat.  But creating a calorie deficit and expending excess fatty acids to make up for the gap in energy is pretty doable for almost anyone, even people with poor genetics, those not strength training, those strength training poorly and huge swaths of other populations. People will say a diet “did not work” but it almost always comes down to what approach is sustainable and of course, if that diet actually created a calorie deficit.

Keto, fasting, Paleo, whatever  - they’ll all work or not work depending on whether they create a calorie deficit.  There’s no magic.  Sure, fasting can have some benefits for mitochondrial health and lower carbs can help lower the insulin load but simply losing bodyfat does a way better job at both.  We don’t like facing that because it means we are still eating too many calories if we aren’t successful.  It’s a tough pill to swallow. This is why finding an approach that works for you is #1.  If you can implement something, it will probably work!

The yo yo dieter actually has no problem losing fat.  They do it all the time but it comes at the tail end of a bingeing cycle.  Each cycle of bingeing brings self-loathing, frustration and inner drive to lose the weight.  But a crash diet in the opposite direction can be just as frustrating.  More often than not, people approach both ends with the same mentality. Go hard, keep it short, make decisions based solely on emotions. Your spectrum becomes such a tight window of gaining, then losing, never really getting beyond the window you’ve created for yourself (if this is, in fact, your situation).

If you have 100 dollars and every week you spend $50 then save $50, you end up with the same total at the end of every week.  You enter periods of spending, then saving but each is so short and extreme that it comes out to a sum of no progress. But each week is a mini high and low of spending and saving that creates the illusion of progress where in reality you never get anywhere.  Those who have a handle on their nutrition and how to “spend” wisely might spend $10 worth every week on off-diet foods, but they might be investing $90 in the good stuff. It’s still spending and saving but the spectrum has shifted.

With your weight, you can’t just lose or gain forever.  The difference here is largely that your body is an adaptive organism.  Eat less chronically and your metabolism decreases, eat more chronically and it increases. I have a hunch though that chronic dieting in BOTH directions actually works against you as it makes it harder for the body to find an appropriate metabolic adaptation.  While a lean and healthy person might go out and slam a pizza once every two weeks without repercussions, the chronic dieter probably has a landslide of emotional, physiological and mental baggage that keeps them from staying on course.

What Maintenance Means for You

Now you might think that maintaining means eating the same exact calories each day but It doesn’t.  Calorie requirements change in the very short term and not many people could accurately eat the same exact amount each day anyway.  Because you are an adaptive system, a small swing up or down in calories day to day is something that even the most strict among us encounter.  But as soon as your day to day changes becomes hundreds or thousands of calories different, you’re going to be pushed out of a weight-stable environment.

The really frustrating thing is that from the thousand foot view, lets say 6 months of time, the person who eats at maintenance each day is weight stable as a whole.  The person who yo-yo diets is also weight stable as a whole over this long period of time.  The difference is the highs and lows between both groups are much different.  Don’t fool yourself that you are really eating at maintenance just because 6 months ago you were the same weight; you might’ve gained and lost 10lbs a few times during that period.  And physiologically, that is much different.

How do we go about eating for maintenance, enjoying a normal amount of food, have very productive training AND come to terms with the fact that we are really trying to make huge bodyweight changes?

Maintain a Healthy Weight

As I’ve discussed before, you probably want to be close to a healthy weight first.  If you have 50lbs to lose, leaning out would be your priority.  And if you are new to training and 15lbs underweight, gaining takes priority.  For most people who have been training a number of years and have already undergone bodyweight changes, maintenance is a great place to be.

For many people, simply training really hard, recovering and sleeping well, getting solid post-workout nutrition and eating to be weight-stable can still see some recomp.  While there aren’t a lot of studies to show this to be a normal result, it happens all the time.  New and detrained people recomp very well.  But because of bodybuilding lore and looking up to the wrong role models (steroid users, elite athletes, photoshopped models) it’s easy to get sucked into the whole, shred, bulk, shred, bulk cycle. In reality most people end up gaining a lot of fat while bulking without much muscle accruement and then losing all the fat after with the same amount of muscle at the end.

While the word on the street is that people have to bulk and cut, I have actually encountered very few intermediate lifters who successfully do either while maintaining their performance.  Fat loss is easier to do in this scenario than straight up bulk but so many people take their calories down so far that is comes back to bite them.

Anecdotally, most lifters gain the majority of their new muscular weight during the first 6-12 months of training.  Time and again lifters gain 15, 20 or even 30 lean pounds during this period.  After that, the majority of their time lifting becomes getting stronger and leaner at around the same bodyweight. Take a quick look at natural male bodybuilders, most of these guys are around 170lbs. Same with competitive Crossfit athletes.  Somehow we’ve gained a distorted view of how much we should weigh and how big (or small) we should be from inaccurate sources.  But those of us who are lean, muscular and not using drugs aren’t usually over 200lbs if you’re a man and much less if you’re a woman.

Instead of trying to hit a certain”weight” get to a leanness you feel comfortable with and then work on maintaining that weight while getting much stronger  You might be surprised that you can slowly lean out along the way. Menno Henselmanns makes a great point that fat and muscle are two different compartmentalized tissues.  They do not rely on the same exact calorie amounts to move in the same direction.  Essentially, fat stores can provide you energy between meals while primarily your protein and sufficient calories can drive slow muscle gain.  Eating a bit more might help the muscle gain but it will put a halt to the fat loss.  If both tissues responded the exact way to calorie status then eating for fat loss would guarantee muscle loss as well, and we know that is not the case.

Lets enter, as Eric Helms calls it, Gaintaining.

Come back next week to finish this series!