I’ve been receiving a few emails lately with questions on how to sustain weight loss:
“Sergio, I can’t seem to lose any more weight. What do I do?”
“Hey man, my (weight loss) progress has slowed down quite a bit. Is this normal?”
“How do you know if you’re still on the right track?”
It’s hard to give a one-size-fits-all answer considering the lack of context in the questions. What I can give you however, is a simple guide to help you gauge if your current diet is sustainable or not.
Let’s begin by a short introspection. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you merely following a low-carb program?
- Or are you living a low-carbohydrate lifestyle?
Diet Programs versus Lifestyle
Most diet programs promise fast results. But hefty promises often come with hefty downsides. After a successful month or so of dieting, your progress slows down.
With dwindling progress comes dipping morale. And if you’re not careful, the worse comes to worst: you gain back the weight (or more) you lost early in the diet. It’s as if you sacrificed for nothing.
This cycle is typical for most diet programs. You lose some, you gain some. You gain more if you’re careless.
One cause to this lack of sustainability is the inability to turn the diet program into a lifestyle. You might do well in the first two weeks of Atkins or South Beach, for instance. But as your interest on the diet wanes – perhaps due to the difficulties that come with carbohydrate restriction – you end up conceding the diet.
Other times, the flaw lies in the design of the programs themselves. After the initial phase, diets like Atkins and South Beach allow you to eat more carbs from a wide range of choices. More carbs, of course, mean a high probability of gaining weight.
Another hindrance to sustainable weight loss is your own physiology. This is where context comes in.
Is your body efficient in metabolizing carbohydrates? If the answer is NO, then you are bound to have problems in the latter parts of most diet programs. Weeks of carbohydrate restriction may never change the way your body handles carbohydrates. So when you go back to eating more carbs after a six month program, for instance, you end up gaining back weight as fast as you lost it.
These are just a few of the challenges and flaws that come with most diet programs in the market today.
If you’re currently experiencing these difficulties, you need not worry because I have just the solution for you.
The solution: a low-carb lifestyle. Freedom from carbohydrates. This is the secret to long-term weight loss success.
Willpower and Food Choices
There may be many barriers that hamper your commitment to a low-carb diet, but all of them can be traced back to two factors: willpower and food choices.
Which of the two is more important?
If you’re like most people, you’re going to answer willpower. This is with the argument that, when eating a low-carbohydrate diet, your only enemy is yourself.
However, if you try and defeat yourself with willpower, you are more likely to fail than to succeed. Willpower is abstract. Unless you are working with a coach, it’s so hard to assess your progress.
I will be talking about willpower in more detail in a future article.
A better approach to making your diet easy is to work on your food choices. It’s practical and is far easier than grappling with willpower.
Widening your food choices also makes a low-carb diet enjoyable. This, in turn, helps you develop strong low-carb eating habits.
Habits eventually dictate your lifestyle. So just by paying more attention to your food choices, you’re more likely to ease into a low-carb lifestyle.
Focus on Food Choices
Food choices often baffle diet experts because they call for a balancing act between three essential goals: weight loss, optimum energy, and overall nutrition. This may sound easy, but it’s actually quite challenging.
Let’s do an exercise. Imagine, for a while, that you are developing your personal low-carb diet program. Remember, you need to choose foods for:
- Optimum energy intake;
- Overall nutrition (in terms of macronutrients and micronutrients); and
- Least possible carbohydrate intake for fast weight loss.
Coming up with a food list for #1 is easy. Just come up with a list of high-calorie foods and figure out portions so you don’t end up overeating. Easy, right?
#2, meanwhile, increases the items in the food list. Now you have to consider macronutrient and micronutrient intake. It’s a bit more technical but things should be easier with the help of the internet.
But remember, you’re trying to create a low-carb diet. Let’s say you’re aiming for 20 grams of net carbs daily. Look at your food list and try to cross out all high-carb foods.
Now that you’ve crossed out high-carb foods, you have your low-carb diet food list. But we’re not done yet. You need to go back to points #1 and #2 to make sure that your diet program is not deficient in terms of energy and nutrition intake.
Having a fun time yet? I assume that you now have a problem. By crossing out high-carb foods, you’ve inevitably crossed out valuable energy and nutritional sources.
What do you do now? If you’re like most “diet developers”, you’re going to add the element of time into your diet program.
Experts tackle this balancing act by cutting their programs into multiple phases. In the early phases of the diet, you focus on weight loss. And then as you move into the latter phases, your focus shifts to energy and nutrition.
But as we have tried earlier, coming up with a high-energy and high-nutrition low-carb food list can be quite difficult. Something’s got to give.
Because energy and nutritional requirements are non-negotiable, experts have no other choice but to re-incorporate high-carb foods in the latter phases of the diet.
What does this do to you? In the latter parts of the diet, you’re getting more energy and nutrition from your food choices. But because you’re eating high-carb foods again, your weight loss progress comes to a screeching halt.
A Futile Balancing Act
A more concrete example of the difficult balancing act between weight loss, energy intake, and overall nutrition can be seen in the Atkins diet.
The Atkins diet is one of the best low-carb diets in history. Developed in the 70s, the program is so reliable that succeeding diet programs would eventually use it as a template.
Atkins’ Phase 1 requires you to eat 20 grams of net carbs a day from green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds. You round up your meals with protein sources, most cheeses, and healthy fats.
The 20-grams-net-carbs rule guarantees weight loss. Fat and protein sources, meanwhile, solves the issue on energy intake. Thus, while you may feel lousy in the first two weeks of the diet, you shouldn’t have energy issues if you eat enough protein and fat.
Phase 1 of the Atkins diet, however, does not allow for optimum nutritional intake. Fats, proteins, and a few carb choices (nuts, seeds, and green leafy veggies) will never be enough to give you all the fiber, vitamins, and minerals you need. This nutritional deficiency will hurt you in the long run.
To solve the problem on nutrition, Atkins moves you to Phases 2 and 3 with a wider array of carb sources: legumes, fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains. But doing so breaks your 20 grams net carbs restriction. So while your energy levels are stable and your nutritional intake has improved, your weight loss stops.
You see, Atkins’ design tackled the concern of nutrition at the expense of sustained progress. This is why most dieters gain back weight in the latter stages of the diet.
So how do you solve the issue on energy AND nutrition WITHOUT breaking away from low-carb restriction?
Lifestyle versus Following A Program
Balancing weight loss, energy intake, and nutrition will never be easy.
Something’s got to give, right? In most cases, it’s the weight loss that’s sacrificed. Energy intake and nutrition are non-negotiable, after all.
So can you eat an ideal diet that helps you lose weight without compromising energy intake and nutrition?
Such a diet would have fewer restrictions. A diet with fewer restrictions is not technically a diet, right?
Right. Going full circle and back to my initial point, the only way to eat without compromising weight loss, energy, or nutrition is to ease into a low-carb lifestyle.
Making the switch to a low-carb lifestyle calls for “open” diet systems like the Paleo Diet.
Otherwise known as the Caveman Diet, the Paleo Diet is more of a lifestyle than a program. In general, the diet calls for just one firm rule on eating: eat real, whole, and unprocessed foods.
Minor rules come in the form of food exceptions – like dairy, legumes, and grains. But unlike typical low-carb diets, Paleo does not involve calorie counting or meal timing. You eat whenever you’re hungry, and eat until you’re full. Whenever and how much you chose all depends on you. Just remember to eat real, whole, and unprocessed foods.
Paleo, however, is still not the perfect system. It does not promise overall nutrition. You will still miss out on some micronutrients from time to time.
But compared to Atkins Phase 1, the micronutrient deficit is a lot less. In fact you can cover up for missed micronutrients by taking supplements.
When it comes to dieting, less is more. If Paleo sounds too good to be true, it’s because it’s not as complicated as run of the mill diet programs.
Less rules means less things to worry about. More food choices means less exertion of willpower. All in all, a low-carb diet lifestyle like Paleo offers better sustainability in the long run.
The secret to sustainable weight loss is to minimize the barriers that make low-carb eating difficult: willpower and food choices.
With food choices, you have to balance three factors – weight loss, energy intake, and overall nutrition. From the simple exercise above, you’ll understand that balancing all three is difficult.
The Atkins diet gives us a concrete example. Atkins’ Phase 1 solves the weight loss and energy intake puzzle. But given the extremely restricted food list, overall nutrition is compromised.
Because overall nutrition cannot be sacrificed, Atkins progresses by allowing more carbohydrate food choices in the latter phases. This however, comes at a cost; less carb restrictions means a higher probability of gaining back weight.
Looking at the Atkins example, you now understand that the ideal diet – one that considers weight loss, energy, and nutrition at the same time – has fewer restrictions. This leads us to the Paleo diet.
The Paleo Diet is more of a lifestyle than a program, working on a core of principles minus typical diet rules on quantity and timing. There are fewer rules to stifle you along the way.
All these things, from the program versus lifestyle conundrum, down to the Atkins-Paleo comparison, should serve as your guide in helping to making your diet sustainable.
You Make Your Own Lifestyle
Take note, this article is not about the Atkins or Paleo Diet. I would personally advise you follow the latter, but as pointed out earlier, it isn’t about choosing a program, but rather about minimizing barriers that hinder you from living a low-carb lifestyle.
There’s more to weight loss success than just going low-carb. How your food choices make you feel is just as important:
- If it’s too much of a hassle trying to find good food with all the restrictions given, maybe you need to explore your food choices.
- If you’re still feeling sluggish after two weeks of carb restrictions, perhaps you’re not eating the right kind of food.
Whatever the case may be, things will be easier if you focus on what you ought to eat, rather than what you cannot eat. This is an easier, more enjoyable outlook. If you turn this into a habit, it won’t be long before you turn your eating habits into a lifestyle.
It’s Fun Talking about Low-Carb Diets
If you have questions about low-carb programs and lifestyles, feel free to post in the comments section below.
Your ideas are also welcome. Who knows, you might just come up with the perfect low-carb lifestyle!