- Transitioning from weight loss to maintenance can be nerve-wracking.
- The best approach is usually to increase your calories gradually, nutritionists and personal trainers told Insider.
- This method is known as reverse dieting.
- Read more Working It Out here.
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I’ve been eating in a calorie deficit for the past three months or so and am really pleased with the weight I’ve lost as a result. I think I’m ready to stop losing weight now but am nervous about how to move into maintenance. I don’t want to regain all the weight I’ve lost and am worried that I’ll go back to my old eating habits if I stop tracking and eat more. But I know I shouldn’t track my food forever and feel comfortable in my body as it is now. Should I keep tracking but jump my calories up to what I assume is maintenance? Or ease out of the deficit gradually?
– Muddled by Maintenance
Firstly, huge congratulations on what you’ve achieved so far. It’s not easy to stick to a calorie deficit and achieve the results you wanted.
I completely understand your apprehension about shifting to maintenance though, because I’ve felt the same in the past. Most people do!
There’s a certain amount of control involved in losing weight – you develop a new lifestyle and routine that leads to weight loss, so it can be nerve-wracking to change that. By relaxing how you’re eating, you fear you’ll undo all your hard work.
That doesn’t have to be the case though. You can transition to maintenance in a way that will allow you to keep the weight off and enjoy your life.
And of course, successful weight loss isn’t really the weight loss in itself, but keeping it off.
Ease out of your deficit gradually
There are various ways to end a diet period (and by that I mean a period eating in a calorie deficit), but experts generally recommend an approach called “reverse dieting,” which has worked well for me over the years.
Simply put, this means gradually increasing your calories over time and easing out of a deficit (rather than jumping straight up to maintenance) which allows your body to adjust gradually.
How much you increase your calories by depends on a few factors. How low were your calories in your diet? How deprived, hungry, and grumpy are you feeling?
If your weight loss calories weren’t that low (which is usually recommended) and you’re not feeling miserable, you could gradually increase them – say 100 calories more per day each week – until you think you find your sweet spot.
Registered nutritionist Kimberley Neve recommends this slow approach because big changes can be a shock to the body.
Nick Shaw, CEO of fitness and nutrition app RP Strength, advises bumping up your calories by around 200-250, waiting a couple of weeks to see how your weight stabilizes, then if you feel good, you can increase again.
Keep an eye on your body and adjust accordingly, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a slow approach does mean you’re in a deficit for longer, which may not be what you want.
Weight gain from eating more isn’t necessarily fat gain
When transitioning to maintenance, it’s really important to be informed about what you’ll see on the scale – namely, an increase in weight.
“This is a mixture of food volume and carbohydrate stores in your muscles that require water to be stored,” personal trainer and sports scientist Emma Storey-Gordon told Insider.
This is not fat gain though, and Storey-Gordon said you shouldn’t freak out and lower your calories if you see the number on the scale go up.
“Your weight will stabilize but also remember that weight fluctuations are normal and inevitable even at maintenance so don’t get tied to a specific number,” she said.
Shaw told Insider it’s normal to gain back about 2-5 lbs from the end of your diet lowest weight: “That’s just from eating a bit more food overall and some water weight.”
Track your food for a little longer
If you’ve been tracking your calories and/or macros while in a deficit, don’t suddenly stop (even though that is of course the ultimate aim) – use it as a tool to help you find your maintenance first.
“I would advise to stop calorie tracking altogether when you feel you can balance what you are eating with your own levels of hunger and fullness,” Neve told Insider.
Your aim is to learn how to incorporate all your favorite foods into your diet in a balanced way – not restricting, but not bingeing. This will help you develop new eating habits for life that make you feel good.
“Include foods you love as part of your planned meals and snacks, so that you start to see that you can have all foods in balance and don’t have to deny yourself anything. This should help you feel in control,” Neve said.
She recommends eating lots of fruit and veggies, including protein in every meal, and having regular, balanced snacks so that you never feel too hungry – try a banana with some nut butter, apple with cheese, or vegetable crudites with hummus, all of which provide a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats.
Aim for the 80/20 rule
“If you worked hard to develop good, solid nutrition habits over the course of your diet then what maintenance should look like is the 80/20 rule,” Shaw said.
This means eating nutrient-dense whole foods 80% of the time, then eating whatever you fancy the remaining 20% – and it’s become my default way of eating since losing weight a couple of years ago.
“It also lets you be able to go out and socialize with friends and family without feeling restricted,” Shaw said. “That is the beauty of maintaining your weight and developing those good, solid habits early on.”
Be patient and kind to yourself though – working on your physical and mental health isn’t always easy.
If you struggle, Neve said you shouldn’t turn to a restrictive diet, but rather consult a professional who can help you work on the psychology behind your eating habits and sustainable weight loss without restrictive dieting or calorie counting.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.
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