The Maintenance Game

Left: Aug. 2015. Right: May 2016.

Left: Aug. 2015. Right: May 2016.

The health and fitness world is overwhelmingly preoccupied with fat loss, but what happens when you actually reach your goal and have to learn how to maintain it?

So I gained 20 pounds. And then I lost most of it. But this isn’t a story about how I put on the weight (fried food, alcohol, and unhappiness) or lost it (diet, exercise, consistency). This is a story about learning to KEEP the weight off.

Weight maintenance isn’t discussed nearly as often as fat loss and understandably so. Losing weight is hard! It’s a whole process trying to figure out what you should and shouldn’t eat, meal timing, what exercises to do, how many days of cardio, and so on. On the other hand, reaching your goal and maintaining it is often seen as crossing the finish line to eternal and effortless slimness. But it’s not quite that easy.

If you want to keep your results, you can’t go back to the way you were eating before. Resuming a sedentary lifestyle isn’t going to cut it either. Your journey does not end once the scale hits a magic number.

I know first-hand how hard it is to keep the weight off after losing it. I had lost 20+ pounds in the past and I gained all the weight back plus more. Granted, it took a long time. But I still ended up being one of the 80% who regain weight. I’m determined to not fall into that again.

I’d also like to add that I still want to lose a little bit more, but I’m stepping back from it for a while and enjoying life. When I eventually get back to losing the last few pounds, it’ll be easier to cut back on calories after being in a maintenance/”fed” state for a while.

I decided to go into maintenance mode because weight loss was getting harder for me and I was starting to plateau on a low amount of calories. And according to my significant other I was “cranky.”  I also did not want to add any more exercise to what I was already doing (which was plenty). It took me six months to lose 15 lbs and I was feeling burnt out. Going into maintenance was as much of a mental break as it was a physical one.

 

So what happens when someone loses weight?

They are in a caloric deficit for a certain period of time most likely through a combination of less food and more exercise. As they lose weight, their metabolism adapts to less calories and a lighter body and thus needs less energy to run.

Now let’s say this person has happily reached their goal and starts to loosen the reins a little bit. It’s understandable to want to enjoy the things you missed out on while losing weight. Maybe weekly happy hours work their way back into their schedule (who doesn’t want to flaunt their new hot body at the quintessential meat market–a bar?). Dessert becomes a little more frequent, and exercise is just a little less of a priority. And that’s totally fine. Treat yourself!

So now we have a person who has lost weight and is returning to their normal habits. It’s expected for them to gain back a few pounds due to the extra calories, water weight, and increased glycogen stores in their muscles. But, if care is not given to letting their body adjust to more calories those pounds can continue to go up. And if the person was extremely restricted during their weight loss period, they might fall into a binging episode that lasts for weeks or months. When you are coming out of a deficit your metabolism is in a vulnerable state, and in the interest of keeping your results, you may not want to push it with an overload of extra calories.

 

You reached your goal. Now what?

Just to be clear, what I’m going to share with you is anecdotal. This was my plan of action, and it may not be right for everyone. All I can say is that it worked for me.

If you care about your metabolism, you are going to need to increase your calories back up to maintenance. I’m small so towards the end I was eating in the lower range of healthy calories for my weight, not counting my one cheat meal. I sure as hell was not going to spend the rest of my life eating so little. The trick is to increase your calories slowly to give your body time to adjust. This is called a reverse diet. You can start off by adding 100 calories to your diet every week or two and monitoring your weight.

If you count macros you can also increase macros instead of focusing on calories. I eat a lot of protein and am pretty good about carb intake, so I don’t obsess over macros.

Please note that how many calories/carbs/protein/fat you can add to your diet without gaining weight is going to be different for everyone.

 

What I did.

I started off by keeping my daily calories on the lower level (still increasing them over time, but slowly) and added more cheat meals. I had become accustomed to eating in lower calories on my regular days, but what I really missed was nights out with indulgent dinner and drinks. So having a couple of cheat meals a week is what kept me sane during my transition back into maintenance. I bumped my “regular day” calories up by 100 and moved up to 2 cheat meals a week. After a couple of weeks I added another 100-200 calories a day with 3 cheat meals a week.

Keep in mind that I was not perfect with this. Some days I would be over my calorie goal and some days I would be under. Some weeks I had four cheat meals instead of three. But overall I remained consistent with gradually increasing my calories and not letting days where I overindulged turn into weeks.

That’s what worked for me, but if you feel deprived daily then upping your everyday calories is probably a better option. To give you an example, let’s say you are coming out of deficit eating 1400 calories. You could increase your calories by 200 or 300 a day and stick to one cheat meal a week. It’s all about what works for you.

Some people recommended going straight to your (new) maintenance calories after a deficit. This is also another way to do it, although you may see more of a fluctuation on the scale. I chose not to do this because I wanted to ease back into maintenance eating. I wasn’t sure how my body was going to react to increased calories so I took it slow.

Remember, there is no magic number of calories or macros to add during a reverse diet. Everyone is different and it’s up to you to figure out your body. As I said you will probably gain some weight. Don’t freak out; it’s normal. Continue to increase slowly and if you feel your weight is going up too much back off on adding to your calories/macros for a couple of weeks, then resume when your weight has stabilized.

I’ve been maintaining for about three months and it’s going well. I’m in the groove of things and I definitely don’t feel deprived. My weight fluctuates between 2-3 pounds which I feel is pretty normal. So that’s where I’m at right now. I’ll keep you updated on my maintenance game as it progresses.

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