Why slow fat loss is the faster solution

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on April 6, 2012

not enough to eat

Starvation diet? Just say no!

This week at a networking event I talked to a gal who had just gotten off the hCG diet. I was feeling particularly bold, so I told her that I am completely opposed to extreme diets like the one she had been following.

Why? The hCG diet is a 500-calorie-per-day starvation plan with the added twist that people on the plan take drops or injections of the pregnancy hormone hCG. Of course you can lose weight on it–just as you could with any starvation diet–but you’re also putting your health and your lean muscle mass at risk.

(Read more about its dangers here and here.)

My new friend–let’s call her Sally–told me she’d lost 20 pounds, and I responded that probably a good proportion of that loss was muscle. I further explained that every pound of muscle lost means a slower metabolism.

Sally said that the people administering the plan had told her she wouldn’t lose any muscle. When I asked whether they’d measured her body fat and lean mass before and after the diet–which would have indicated exactly how much muscle and how much fat she’d lost–she said no.

Yet despite her apparent success, Sally wasn’t recommending the diet. She said she felt terrible. That she had no energy at all and felt completely flat. I asked her whether she’d been exercising, and she said no–that she was just too exhausted.

She also admitted that she’s lost the same 20 pounds several times before.

Sally seemed like a nice gal, and I didn’t want to go after her with guns blazing. I said, “Look–I’m glad you’ve lost the 20 pounds. But did this plan teach you anything about how to eat correctly so that you won’t regain the weight?”

Of course, the answer was no.

I’m not trying to judge Sally harshly. I’m a survivor of the diet wars, and I’ve had the frustrating experience of losing the same 15 to 20 pounds multiple times. But now that I know better, I hate to hear about people being suckered by plans that are almost guaranteed to fail in the long run.

Here’s what I want to tell the Sallys of this world: The fastest way to achieve your fat-loss and health goals is to take the slow way.

Not to follow a “20 [or 30] pounds in 30 days” plan that screws up your appetite-regulating hormones, leaves you exhausted, slows your metabolism, and dramatically increases the odds that you’ll have to diet again in six months or a year.

The fastest way is to shoot for the one- to two-pound weekly fat loss you can get by exercising moderately and eating normal foods in somewhat reduced quantities.

Think about it this way. In six months Sally is very likely to have regained her 20 pounds–with perhaps a few more besides.

But if instead of doing the hCG diet she had decided to take the slow path, in six months she could have 1. learned new, healthy eating behaviors that can last a lifetime, 2. established a regular exercise habit, and 3. shed that 20 pounds.

The fat-loss research confirms that people who lose weight more slowly are significantly more likely to keep it off.

It’s human to want results fast. But if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

So which do you think makes more sense? The fast way that fails or the slow way that yields lasting results? Please comment and let me know your opinion!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shira April 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

Mary, after years of yo-yo dieting, taking my time to do it right and lose fat instead of muscle is what ultimately worked. I completely agree with you that SLOW is the way to go. Diets like hCG and Dukan are just crazy fads that will only disappoint people who gain lost pounds back and then some. Looks like we could all take a page from that old tortoise and hare story, right? .

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2 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
April 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Yes–the story of the tortoise and the hare is the *perfect* analogy!

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3 Jane Hatton
Twitter: evenbreak
April 6, 2012 at 10:17 am

I think with dieting, as with most things in life, if it seems too good to be true it almost certainly is. We’d all love the idea of a magic pill or injection that will instantly give us a flat stomach, or to think it’s possible to shed that extra stone in 10 days. But sadly, there is nothing to beat slow and steady. It’s the tortoise and hare syndrome. I’m unable to exercise at all, so what I eat is vital in maintaining a healthy weight, and it has to be sustainable (I wouldn’t last long on 500 calories a day!)

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4 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
April 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm

500 calories a day–gosh, I don’t think I could lift my head. And you’re absolutely right–everyone wants a magic bullet. It keeps the diet industry afloat.

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5 Linda Mattacks
Twitter: Linda_Mattacks
April 6, 2012 at 11:18 am

I wonder.

Isn’t there some slimming-type-modern-version of the old fashioned girdle available? If we could say to ourselves: “Wear that for now when you want to go out and look the slimmer version of you and imagine being that shape without the contraption in X months time…” :-)

I’m just watching one of a series of videos and in this one the presenters identify the price we pay when we change: they call it the Switch Cost to the brain. Essentially it’s along the lines that yes, it’s possible to change but we have to believe it’s worth it and we can achieve it. The pain of staying the way we are outweighs the uncertainty of change. And, with the case of weight reduction, the acceptance that what may have take years to put on is not likely to be safely and permanently shifted in minutes! :-(

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6 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
April 6, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Those videos sound quite interesting. The concept reminds me of what 12-step groups say about “hitting the bottom”–reaching that point at which the pain is so great that you becoming willing to face the difficulties of changing your life.

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7 Pamela Hernandez April 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm

The HCG diet (and it’s fad diet sisters) are something I fight every day as a trainer. I get asked all the time -parties, networking groups, radio show-always does it work and is it safe. I try and try to educate them about the exact problems and issues you’ve discussed here. But it doesn’t seem to do any good. I’ve even gone so far as to issue a challenge to anyone in my area who buys one of the Deal of the Day specials that seem to come out on a regular basis in my town for HCG programs. I will measure them before they start and after. If they lose only fat, as they are promised, I will train them for free. No one has taken my up on the deal. I keep offering and will continue to keep offering it, helping anyone and everyone I can to find the way to real fat loss and real fitness.
Great post!

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8 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
April 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Pamela–oh, I love your special offer (I’ll train you for free if you only lose fat)! It would be such a teaching opportunity if someone does go for it.

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9 Sarah Arrow
Twitter: saraharrow
April 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Ha! a diet I haven’t tried. I was recommended by a Doctor to try a very low calorie diet for just a few days to get myself into the right frame of mind. I never manage it!

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10 Suzan St Maur April 6, 2012 at 2:09 pm

What’s worse about these extreme diets is not only do you lose muscle, you also lose water. Although some of it is probably excess water retained in the tissues, there will be some resultant dehydration which makes you feel even worse. And of course your body works hard to replace the lost fluids later on, so upping your overall weight again.

Slow and steady is certainly the only effective way forward, although I’m not very good at losing weight because like Jane I haven’t been able to exercise much in the last few years due to ill health. But I’m working hard on putting that right!

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11 Angela Boothroyd
Twitter: StudyingOnline
April 7, 2012 at 8:06 am

I know from experience the impact muscle loss has on your metabolism and ability to lose weight – a chronic illness resulted in muscle loss and for the first time in my life I found losing and maintaining weight difficult. The sensible part of me knows that the best thing I can do is keep building up and maintaining muscle mass – even if it is very tempting to effectively starve the weight away on 500 calories day :-)

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12 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
April 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Angela, thanks for commenting!

So sorry about the chronic illness–but you’ve got the right idea. So many women in your shoes would immediately go the starvation route and then not understand why their health and weight were steadily getting worse!

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13 Suzanne
Twitter: WorkoutNirvana
April 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I’ve been wanting to write about this myself and you said it very well. I too have talked to women who lost weight with hCG and have been disappointed that they don’t want to believe the truth. Great article as always!

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14 amanda April 10, 2012 at 10:38 am

I just wanted to say that I myself have done and am doing the Hcg diet for over three months now. I love the diet and I have lost fortypounds on it so far.i do not feel weak nor have I lost muscle.i love this diet and it actually has changed my eating habbits. This diet is different for everybody but I know at least four other friends who have lost a significant amount of weight and have kept it off.

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15 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
April 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Amanda–thanks for commenting. How do you know you haven’t lost muscle? Did you have your body fat measured before you began the diet and at regular intervals since? That’s the only way you could know whether you have or haven’t lost muscle tissue.

Plenty of people lose “weight” on the hCG diet, but that’s only a benefit if the “weight” is fat.

Mary

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16 Anita April 12, 2012 at 10:20 am

Hi Mary,

Very interesting post! I am so glad there are qualified people like you in the world, to help thoes who have lost their way in the dieting yo-you plans. When I was at college I was horrified, by one girl who was getting married, who decided she was going on what I think is called the Cabbage soup diet, she was on it for months! And she certainly didn’t need to be dieting in the first place. It breaks my heart to see how so many lunge after what they think will be the miracle cure. I honestly believe that following a healthy lifestyle starts in our minds. first as so much surrounds emotional eating.

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17 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
April 13, 2012 at 10:18 am

Anita, thanks!

I do hope that horrible cabbage soup diet has gone away for good. And I certainly agree with you that emotional eating is a real problem for so many women. I recently interviewed Beth Novick, an expert on disordered eating, for my blog, and the recording is available here for anyone who is interested:

http://primefit.org/is-your-relationship-with-food-making-you-suffer/

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18 Anita April 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Thanks Mary, will go and read your interview.

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19 Tony Cook
Twitter: fatlossfactors
April 24, 2012 at 8:08 am

Great advice..after all you don’t put on 20lbs in weight in a couple of weeks do you?
Slow is best..2 lbs a week is perfect…that way it always stays off.

it’s about choices and lifestyle changes people!

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20 Alexis May 14, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Mary, you are 100% right about this. I have done the HCG diet about 6 or 7 times. each time i lose a ton of weight, and then each time after such hard core restricting, when i end up eating “normally”, i gain all of it back within a few weeks. then the depression kicks in, and i’m so embarrassed that i’ve gained again, that i end up spending the money to buy more HCG and doing it all over again.. it is SUCH a vicious cycle – physically AND mentally. Im not really sure what the next step is for me at this point.. i only have about 20 lbs to lose and i want to do it healthily.. so i guess its time for me to grow up and stop looking for the quick fix! the new plan is weight watchers and exercise. i think i actually need some sort of “plan” otherwise the desire for extreme dieting usually kicks in and the cycle begins again.

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