weight loss

Slow or speedy, when it comes to weight loss, it’s up to you

Why? Because when it comes to the long term, they’re both equally bad.

You might decide you want to lose weight anyway. I’ve got some hills I want to climb on my bike. Maybe you’ve got some health reasons that make losing weight even in the short time worthwhile. I wouldn’t recommend losing weight for a high school reunion or a wedding but I wouldn’t judge you for it either.

A recent blog post looked at a new study that showed slow, gradual weight loss and speedy, dramatic results style weight loss had the same effect long term. No matter how you lose it, small changes in habits or drastic measures, the weight returns for most of us. It’s not even the case that weight lost slowly comes back slowly and weight lost quickly comes back quickly.

Mainstream media instantly declared it a victory for Team Speedy.

How so?

Well, in recent years the tide has turned against quick weight loss. The claim was that quick weight loss just leads to quick weight regain. It was thought that slow gradual weight loss, with a lifetime change in habits, had better long term results.

And you can see how the reasoning goes. With long, slow weight loss you have time to consolidate the changes. What was once strange becomes the new normal. The slow losers seem to have taken the moral high ground. They can be anti diet and lose weight the right way.

I confess that I’ve been judgemental about friends who set out to lose weight quickly, whether it’s on the Tim Ferriss diet or the more usual extreme low calorie plans. I’ve also touted gradual habit change over quick fixes.

After all, it sounds so sensible. Give yourself time to make the new habits stick. It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change, blah blah. But here’s something about that that’s never sat quite right with me.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think weight regain is about necessarily going back to your old ways and having old habits creep back. It hasn’t felt that way to me when I’ve regained weight. Indeed, I’ve tracked and counted and weighed and measured all the while gaining weight.

See Weight lost and gained where I talk about the idea of habits and weight loss maintenance.

While debate exists about how many people regain weight they’ve lost (let’s just say most, or lots), how much weight they regain (all of it or more) and how long it typically takes to regain weight (certainly within five years pretty much everyone will have gained it back), no one denies that keeping weight off is much, much harder than losing it in the first place.

When people talk about weight regain one thing they often say, which I think is mistaken, is that people regain weight because they give up the restrictions and go back to their old habits. As Ragen Chastain says, “The myth goes that almost everyone fails at weight loss because almost everyone quits their diet and goes back to their old habits/doesn’t have the willpower to keep dieting/doesn’t do it “right”” But that’s not what the evidence says. People have a hard time keeping the weight off because their bodies have changed.”

This recent study isn’t the first evidence against the claim that slow weight loss is better than fast.

I asked about our preference for slow weight loss in an earlier post, questions and quibbles about weight loss:

What’s better in terms of losing weight and keeping it off, slow weight loss or fast weight loss? The common sense view is that it’s better do it slowly, that too restrictive a diet sends your body into starvation mode. But commonsense isn’t always right and though I like the common sense view, recent research casts some doubt on it.

But see 4 days, 11 pounds in the New York Times.

Losing weight is simple: Ingest fewer calories than your body burns. But how best to do that is unclear. Most experts advise small reductions in calories or increases in exercise to remove weight slowly and sensibly, but many people quit that type of program in the face of glacial progress. A new study, published in March in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, suggests that minimal calories and maximal exercise can significantly reduce body fat in just four days — and the loss lasts for months. The catch, of course, is that those four days are pretty grueling.

In a study, on men, of course, a group of test subjects worked out a lot (8 hours a day) and ate next to nothing (just 360 calories a day) but 4 days. Of course, they lost a lot of weight but what got the researchers attention was that it stayed away.

More surprising, the men did not immediately put the weight back on after the study ended. “We thought they would overeat and regain the weight lost,” Dr. Calbet says. Instead, when the volunteers returned a month later, most had lost another two pounds of fat. And a year after the experiment, they were still down five pounds, mostly in lost body fat.

See also Seven Dangerous Myths about Weight Loss.

“There’s no reason to think that slow, gradual weight loss is better over the long-term compared to losing lots of weight fast. A pooled analysis of randomized clinical trials that compared rapid weight loss and slow weight loss (or, to be more precise, extreme diets and less grueling ones) found that though the extreme diets resulted in the loss of 66% more weight (16% of body weight versus 10% for the regular diets), there was no difference at the end of a year.”

That’s reporting on research in “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity,” by Krista Casazza et al, New Engl J Med 2013; 368:446-454, January 31, 2013.

What this means is, it’s up to you.

If you decide it’s worth it to lose weight for as long as you can keep it off, it’s up to you how you do that. Slow and gradual sounds more sensible but if you prefer the “pulling off a band aid” method then go for it.

I’ve had experience with both kinds of weight loss this past year. I did the Precision Nutrition online nutrition counseling program for a year and lost 15 lbs during our run to up to “fittest by fifty.” Then the year went badly wrong with two deaths in the family and I regained most of the weight I’d lost within a couple of months.

Lesson learned, weight lost slowly can be regained pretty quickly. Also, death changes everything.

But then the summer cycling season hit and my significant other decided time on the bike was excellent grief therapy. I rode 1300 kms in July and the weight dropped off quickly. Zoom! Speedy weight loss.

Normally I get off the bike starving so that never happens but I’ve also gotten better about eating a lot on the bike and so now that happens less often.

I’ve also given up my belief that slow and steady is necessarily better than making progress in hard, fast bursts. I should have known that. On the bike, I’m a better sprinter than I am endurance athlete. Maybe that’s the case with weight loss as well.

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One thought on “Slow or speedy, when it comes to weight loss, it’s up to you

  1. I think it is important to look at fat loss vs weight loss. Another factor that needs to be considered is metabolism. Also, losing 15% is about 30 lbs. for someone who weighs 200 lbs. In 12-weeks (the fast group), that is a rate of 2.5 lbs per week. While that is fast, it isn’t crash diet fast (especially for an obese person). An obese person with a functioning metabolism could probably do that eating 1,800 calories/day and exercising regularly. That said, the study used a wide age range. At least in the summary, they didn’t mention the habits of the people who gained the weight back. I think weight regain often depends on the state of a person’s metabolism after losing weight as much as it does sticking to healthy habits. Although I don’t think it is an inescapable fate that can’t be controlled.

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