“What feels like forever.”
These are the most common responses that I receive when I ask new clients who are seeking fat loss how long they have been working towards that goal.
Countless women have shared with me that they have been working towards fat loss for what feels like an eternity. They haven’t achieved the results that they want which causes them to continue dieting — and usually with sub-par efforts — for many months, or even years. There are at least a couple of problems with this approach.
First, while dieting doesn’t have to be miserable, it is often uncomfortable. Trying to push through discomfort for a few months is tolerable, but in my experience dieting efforts tend to wane significantly in most people after about twelve weeks.
Next, not every season of the year allows for practicing fantastic nutrition choices, which is generally what is required to achieve results in a reasonable time frame. For example, summers might be more social or involve vacations, while winters may include holidays and family gatherings. Because of this, dieting attempts for long periods of time often aren’t successful. The results tend to come very slowly, which works great for some people, but frustrates others and causes them to give up.
If dieting for what feels like forever doesn’t yield the results that we are looking for, what is the answer? Scheduled maintenance phases.
What Is a Maintenance Phase?
A maintenance phase means maintaining your current weight.
In order to best understand maintenance phases, it’s important to understand energy balance. In the context of this conversation, “energy” means calories.
Energy balance means that you are consuming about as much energy as you are expending. Being in an energy balance means that you are consuming enough energy and expending enough energy to maintain your current weight. Energy balance is where you want to be for your maintenance phase.
Energy deficit (or negative energy balance) means that you are consuming less energy than you are expending. Your energy deficit can come from reducing the amount of energy that you consume, or from increasing your energy expenditure through exercise and movement, or from a combination of the two. Being in an energy deficit regularly over time will result in weight loss.
An energy deficit is required for weight loss.
Energy surplus (or positive energy balance), on the other hand, means that you are consuming more energy than you are expending. Being in an energy surplus regularly over time will result in weight gain.
How Maintenance Phases Speed Up Results
At some point, you may have heard someone talking about dieting slowing down their metabolism. While down-regulation during dieting certainly happens, something equally important that women often overlook is how nice a dieting break can feel, both physically and mentally.
Dieting requires willpower, effort, planning, preparation, and tolerance for some discomfort. Additionally, dieting can zap our energy, and hinder our ability to train as hard as we’d like. While these things can usually be expected during a dieting phase, they start to take their toll.
In addition to increasing metabolism again, taking a dieting break to focus on maintenance can:
- Boost energy, which often declines during the dieting process.
- Restore your ability to train hard, which often takes a bit of a hit while dieting.
- Give you a break to help you prepare mentally for the next dieting phase (if applicable).
- Allow you to fully participate in events and seasons in which you don’t want to diet (vacations, holidays, stressful periods at work, finals at school, etc.)
Recommendations for Dieting and Maintenance Phases
Dieting (i.e., being in an energy deficit) provides best results when fat loss efforts are focused for short periods of time followed by an intentional phase of maintenance, and then repeating that process as needed. This approach allows someone to see results, which can build success momentum and help them continue to put in the work.
We recommend being in an energy deficit for no more than three consecutive months and then taking a break to bring your food intake back to, or close to, your energy balance (maintenance) for one to three months before dieting again. Exactly how long your maintenance phase will last depends on how big of a deficit you were in, and how you’re feeling. A good principle is that the bigger the energy deficit, the longer you’ll want to take to focus on maintenance.
When you are considering when to focus on fat loss, try to select two or three months where you’ll be able to focus on dieting, training, recovery, and sleep in the very best way that you can.
While life will always throw us curve balls, it’s best to plan your fat loss phase during a time in which you don’t foresee any added stress, changes, or commitments that may get in the way of your ability to meet your goal.
Consider scheduling your maintenance phases during busier periods of your life. For example, you may schedule a maintenance phase during back-to-school season if you are an educator, or during tax season if you are a CPA. You may consider scheduling your maintenance phase during the time that you are going on vacation, or over the holidays.
Remember: simply maintaining can be a huge win.
Successfully maintaining will help you with your dieting phase, which will get you closer to your fat loss goal.
How Do I Figure Out My Energy Balance?
If you have been in an energy deficit, increasing food intake for maintenance is as simple as incorporating one to two additional servings of dietary fat per day, as well as one to two additional servings of carbohydrate per day for two to three weeks.
At the end of those two to three weeks, notice how you feel and consider repeating this process by adding another one to two servings of dietary fat per day, as well as one to two servings of carbohydrate per day for another two to three weeks. This guidance is given assuming that you are consuming optimal amounts of protein. If not, you may consider increasing protein intake as well.
Continue to increase your food intake until your weight stabilizes. Once you are no longer losing or gaining weight over the course of two to three weeks, this is your maintenance phase.
Be aware that you may notice that your weight increases by a few pounds when you initially stop dieting and start to consume more food. This is normal and to be expected, so do not panic and decrease your food intake. The maintenance phase is equally as important to your long-term success as the dieting phase is. Stick with your current intake for two to three weeks, and the small influx on the scale should come back down.
Remember that a slightly higher number on the scale doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re gaining body fat; it’s likely from more food volume, or water weight. If this doesn’t come back down during your maintenance phase, rest assured it will come off as soon as you decrease your food intake again for your next dieting phase.
It’s also important to mention that the more food you can consume during your maintenance phase without fat gain, the better. This will provide a lot more wiggle room during your next dieting phase. That is, you will be eating more food while still in an energy deficit, which can make the dieting process a lot more comfortable, which leads to improved consistency and therefore, better results.
Will I Backslide?
One of the biggest concerns that I hear regarding scheduled maintenance phases is a fear of losing the progress that has been made. Maintenance is simply consuming a bit more food to maintain your current weight; however, choosing to indulge to the point where you are in an energy surplus often enough during an intended maintenance phase will lead to weight gain, so it’s important to find your sweet spot without overdoing it.
Maintenance phases are a wildly untapped tool that so many women could benefit from. Allowing ourselves to take a dieting break can feel so good, especially when it’s timed right with your unique life. Simply maintaining can be a big win, and can set you up to go into your next dieting phase feeling refreshed and motivated again.