Why Slow and Steady Wins the Weight-Loss Race
The concept of dieting is simple: Stick to this food list, consume this many calories and exercise this much. But actually executing this "simple" plan is a lot tougher, because once you're on a diet, everything that's forbidden takes on a new luster, and what was previously just another snack in your cabinet has now become that one thing that you really, really want.
Sometimes it gets to the point where it feels like unless you eat that cookie right now, you might not make it though the day. As a rational adult, you know this is absurd thinking, of course. But in those moments, we're not rational adults. We've regressed to cranky toddlers on the verge of throwing a tantrum if we don't get what we want.
Why does it have to be only all or only nothing? Why are we so good at swinging wildly from one extreme to the other? Why do we have such a hard time settling somewhere in the middle?
Why All or Nothing?
We’ve brainwashed ourselves to believe that dieting has to be painful and torturous for it to work. Upcoming wedding? Juice cleanse. Beach season around the corner? Marathon sessions on the treadmill, duh. First date? Fast for three days straight.
Dedicating yourself to making drastic changes can give you a (temporary) surge of hope and energy. The curse with this approach, however, is that you can’t keep it up. But whether it comes six weeks or three months later, you'll most likely come to a point when you revert to your old behaviors.
This is what’s called "counterregulatory eating," or what’s more colloquially known as the “what the hell” effect. This phenomenon describes what happens with dieters when they set too-strict rules for themselves. All is well as long as they’re abiding by their rules, but when they slip up, all those rules go out the window. "So what the hell, might as well eat the rest of the pecan pie, right?" You messed up, so you’ll start again tomorrow. Or Monday.
This effect is demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Kathleen D. Vohs and Todd F. Heatherton. Chronic non-dieters were instructed to watch a clip from an emotional movie. Half of the group was told to try to suppress their emotions, while the other half was told to let their feelings flow.
When presented with ice cream afterward, the researchers discovered that those who had stifled their emotions had a more difficult time controlling their appetite and consequently ate significantly more ice cream than the other group.
The bottom line: Going all out wears most people down. It’s not the most sustainable approach.
The Moderate Approach
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In a time when immediate gratification and results are expected, adopting a moderate approach can seem ineffective at first. The idea that incremental behavior changes and seemingly effortless fat loss can actually work seems far too good to be true.
But what sounds better: staying lean 365 days of the year or switching between love handles for 10 months and looking photoshoot-ready for the other two?
Stop striving for perfect and instead aim for better. Consider following the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your food choices should come from whole foods, while the remaining 20 percent can be treats. You can use a 90/10 rule, if you’d like. The point is that if you're being responsible with what you eat most of the time, you'll be happy all of the time.
What’s important here is that you’re not setting any food item strictly off-limits. Saying, "I will never eat chocolate again for the rest of my life," may not be a realistic rule to abide by, and in fact, it might make you crave the sweet even more.
Does this mean that you'll always be able to eat whatever you want? Sometimes. There might be days when you're really, really craving some lean beef with a side of rice and steamed broccoli. But there are also times when you'll want nothing more than to inhale an entire large pizza, and you obviously can’t do that day after day and still stay lean.
Ultimately, however, you're sacrificing just a little in return for a lot. It's a way of eating you can see yourself easily maintaining in the months and years to come.
Delegate Your Energies
If you’re too busy nitpicking the details of your weight-loss program, you may exhaust yourself before you really give yourself a shot. For example, should you try intermittent fasting or spread small meals throughout the day? Calorie cycle or use the linear approach? Carbs in the morning or only in the evening? Body-part or upper-lower split? Fasted cardio or no cardio?
There are a lot of decisions to be made. And having too many choices can become overwhelming quickly. So pick your battles.
You may choose to make meeting your macronutrient goals -- i.e. percentage of fat, protein, carbs -- your top priority. Then comes nutrient timing and food choice. After that, mix in your training. Try not to overthink any part of your weight-loss journey.
Do some research, pick a program and stick with it. If this means hiring a coach to take the guesswork out of everything for you, then consider it a worthwhile investment.
If you’re not having fun, then change what you’re doing. If you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing and feel fulfilled with the method you're implementing, then it's all good. For fun, effortless decisions, you should tap into your willpower stores very little (or not at all). The more willpower you use, the weaker it gets, which is the opposite of what you want.
There will, inevitably, be moments when you feel unmotivated, when you want to throw in the towel, when you just want to give it all up and drag your feet home.
But overall, you should be having a good time. If that means throwing in a Zumba class once a week -- then have at it. Who cares that it’s not the "best" way to sculpt buns of steel? Do you smile at the thought of your next training session? Do you look forward to your post-workout ice cream (with a side of whey)? Then keep doing what you’re doing.
How Lisa T. Lost 40 Pounds!
That’s really all there is to it! It’s simple and may look boring on the surface. After all, there are no magic fat burners, no secret supplements, no new, innovative exercise moves that will miraculously get you the body of your dreams. Say goodbye to the all-or-nothing mindset. Moderation is here to stay.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever tried to lose weight? Or are you currently trying to lose weight? What's your approach? Are you drastically cutting out whole food groups? Or are you taking a more moderate approach? What's fun and effortless about your plan? Is it a weekly indoor cycling class? Or your Sunday sundaes? Share your thoughts, stories and questions in the comments section below!
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- American Psychologist: If at First You Don’t Succeed: False Hopes of Self-Change
- Journal of Personality; Restrained and Unrestrained Eating
- Psychology Science; Self-Rgulatory Failure: A Resource-Depletion Approach
- Appetite; Resistance Can Be Futile: Investigating Behavioral Rebound
- Psychological Bulletin; Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ; Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited Resources Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative
Sohee Lee, NSCA-CSCS is a personal trainer, online coach and writer. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in human biology from Stanford University, she interned at Cressey Performance before her current position at Peak Performance as a performance coach. She specializes in women’s fat loss and the fitness mindset.