Lots of people lose weight. Of those that do, most of them gain it all back again, often gaining more weight in the long run.
The 3 factors I’ll share aren’t just philosophical ideas for how to prevent that from happening, they’re practical steps you can take to set up your defense.
At the Heart of It
If a person in Australia wants to get to the North Pole, it makes sense that they’d need to head, well… north.
On the other hand, what wouldn’t make sense would be to buy a compass, grab your keys, and attempt to drive there.
Yet that’s the equivalent of what most people do when going on a diet.
If you want to lean out, it makes sense that you’d need to eat less calories. What doesn’t make sense is stepping on the scale, seeing the number go down, and assuming you’re losing fat.
Cutting calories is part of the equation, but if you don’t consider the three factors I’m about to discuss, a high percentage of the weight you lose may come from fat free mass (this includes water, muscle, bone density, and in extreme cases, it can even affect your organs).
This mistake is a major contributor to why you yo-yo right back up in weight after your diet is over.
Think about it.
If you lose fat free mass — material vital for survival — why wouldn’t your body do everything in its power to promote weight gain? It can accomplish this through increased appetite, as well as less calories burned throughout the day.
There’s a bit more to it than that when it comes to losing fat in a sustainable way, and I’ll go over that in the following sections.
(Side note: this is not groundbreaking information, but the data backing all this up was organized and very well communicated in MASS, a research review I subscribe to. They cited multiple studies, such as this and this. But if you enjoy science, you’d be better served just subscribing to MASS.)
#1 — Resistance Training
One of the biggest factors for maintaining fat free mass is exercise. However, in this regard, not all exercise is created equal.
Resistance training (such as lifting weights, or bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats, etc.) builds up fat free mass. Whereas many forms of cardio can tear it down.
Cardio isn’t bad. Resistance training just needs to be prioritized when trying to lose fat.
Even if you master the following two factors, if you don’t include resistance training at least twice a week in your fat loss plan, you’ll lose a higher percentage of fat free mass, making it more difficult to sustain your results.
(Resistance training isn’t just important for fat loss, as you can read more about in “7 Reasons Everyone Should Lift Weights.”)
#2 — Rate of Weight Loss
I always cringe when someone says they lost 20+ pounds in just a few weeks.
It’s usually bad news, temporarily masked as good news.
The faster you lose weight, the higher the percentage of fat free mass you will have lost. It doesn’t mean you won’t have also lost fat, but it will be significantly more difficult to not gain back the actual fat you lost (or more).
Current research says you can lose between 0.5-1% of your body weight per week to maximize fat loss. I recommend that the less confident you are in your nutrition skills, the lower you stay on that spectrum (and keep in mind that fat loss plus muscle gain, for some, may equal not losing weight at all).
(For a more detailed look at this, read “How Fast Can You Safely Lose Weight?”)
#3 — Protein Intake
Your muscle, bones, and internal organs are made mostly of protein.
In case you haven’t been reading thoroughly, that’s a big part of what constitutes “fat free mass,” the thing we’re trying to protect when losing weight.
That means you need adequate protein in your diet (always, but especially in a calorie deficit).
Exactly how much you need varies quite a bit from person to person, but a good starting point is for women to get roughly 1 palm sized serving (2 palm sized servings for men) at least 3-4 times a day.
(We discuss this more in “Is Protein Really That Important?”)
Bonus #4 — Sleep
It’s hard to say whether this tip is an add-on, or if it’s actually the most important factor of all. The other three factors are critical, and yet they could all be negated if you aren’t sleeping enough.
I won’t lecture you on it here, but you can read all about the importance of this in “How Sleep Can Make You Fat.”
Each of these factors is helpful in maintaining fat free mass, but there’s one more reason they’re essential for long-term success:
Resistance training: It happens to be an efficient way to get a lot done for your health. Which means you can get in the habit of exercise, without having to be the type of person who spends half your life in the gym.
Rate of Weight Loss: Being patient, and focusing on a slower approach to fat loss forces you to work on eating habits that are sustainable, not extreme.
Protein Intake: Eating enough protein is one of the first habits Megan works on with most nutrition coaching clients. Which makes this a good first step toward just about any goal.
Combined, you aren’t just working on a more effective way to lose fat. You’re working on skills that can be used for a lifetime, which is what you need if you want to not just lose fat, but keep it off.