Guest post by my coaching partner, Sean Flanagan
Everywhere you look there are products that promise fast and easy weight loss. “Just drink this drink and the pounds will just melt off! 30 lbs in 30 days”! Obviously as a reader of this site, you know that there are no such thing as sustainable ”magic bullets” and that EXTREME weight loss can be ripe with a multitude of problems…. But is it possible to have fast or easy weight loss in a psychologically and physically healthy way that won’t set you up for long term failure and disappointment?
I think the answer is “yes”, but with 2 caveats.
1) Relatively speaking. “Easy” will always require some work and “fast” has an upper limit – generally the guideline of “no more than 1 percent of bodyweight lost per week” is a good line to draw.
And 2) You have to pick one – fast OR easy.
The strategies for each are significantly different.
- The “easy” path will generally consist of behaviors close to the form and degree that you will maintain for the long-term.
- The “fast” path shouldn’t consist of behaviors that are absolutely unsustainable, but will likely need to be modified as time goes on.
We can do this the easy way or the hard way!
The Easy Way…
*Props for the Back to the Future II reference? No? Well okay…moving on…
The easy way consists of making changes that are completely sustainable or pretty damn close to it. For example, you may be able to walk 20 minutes a day every day for the rest of your life… but while you have extra time this summer and have a couple pounds you want to lose, you may walk a whole extra 10 minutes each day! See what I mean? No dramatic difference.
An easy version of a “be mindful of portions” habit could simply be using a measuring cup when you have ice cream at home so you don’t accidentally eat more than you mean to – this could save you hundreds of calories per week. Using a measuring cup for one thing isn’t too much of a pain in the ass, and if you do this long enough you’ll be much better at estimating portion size anyway. Okay cool – keeping dessert calories in check to make it easier to be in a slight deficit – easy enough.
So we have ease of implementation and sustainability. What DON’T we have?
With the easy way, we don’t have a promise of timeline. Maybe you’ll lose a pound a week – maybe you’ll lose 3 lbs in a month – and maybe those first 2 lbs just won’t budge for a month or two.
But when you do get on the scale or test your body fat and see the change, you’ll think to yourself “well that was easy!”
And even more important, you will have gotten there purely by focusing on long term health supporting strategies.
The Fast(er) Way
The fast way, if used at all, should always be built on a foundation of sustainable habits. If you’re just getting off of the fad diet wagon, you’ve got some ground work to lay before you can have a reasonable expectation for fast fat loss that is anywhere close to sustainable.
To come back to our “be mindful of portions” habit we talked about before, an example of the fast way version of this would be weighing and measuring of just about everything to achieve that 1 percent of weight lost (or less) per week. If you’re around 200 lbs, this would translate to a 1,000 calorie deficit per day. Now one caveat to get out of the way – how doable-in-a-healthy-way this is depends on how many calories you need for maintenance.
If you’re sedentary and only burn 2,500 calories per day, eating 1,500 calories will likely leave you hungry and miserable. But if you’re somewhat more active and burn 3,000 calories per day, then 2,000 of course is a bit more tolerable. So in no way am I saying “a 1,000 calorie deficit is doable and healthy for everyone” – there’s a difference between on paper and in real life with this stuff. Always test the waters first with a smaller calorie deficit.
So in the context of healthy (relatively) fast fat loss, how is that an example of “a behavior isn’t absolutely unsustainable, but will likely need to be modified as time goes on”?
Being mindful of portion sizes is TOTALLY a habit that is sustainable. Measuring some things is sustainable. But depending on your current weight and your goal weight, maybe you wouldn’t use the same calorie target forever and you probably won’t want to spend as much time and energy weighing and measuring forever.
Now, maybe the calorie target you choose for weight loss WILL be the number of calories that will maintain your target weight. So it’s possible that you start with a calorie target and just keep using it until you reach true maintenance (the more weight you lose, the slower this process will become thus creating the illusion of plateaus).
But for others, you may use a given calorie target just long enough to get some initial relatively fast success so you can feel more comfortable increasing your activity, decrease some health risk factors, increase your energy, etc. You may want (and tolerate) that steady 1 – 2.5 pounds or so of weight lost per week until you get to a point where you’re okay with where you’re at… or to switch back to the easy path.
Choosing Your Path
The path towards lasting fat loss should always be process focused, should minimize excessive wasting of willpower, and have an eye on long term sustainable behaviors.
By no means do I suggest approaching the weight loss journey as a series of sprints – I don’t care what Vin Diesel says, you should not try to live your life one quarter-mile at a time. That stop-go stop-go pattern is a recipe for frustration, disappointment, and the failure to learn sustainable behaviors that allow you to maintain success.
On the other hand, there will be times in your long journey where you press down on the accelerator *a little bit more*. The easy way should be your foundation – and it’s perfectly fine to ONLY use the easy way. But there may be times where you want to be a little bit more precise or ambitious with your calorie intake or do a little bit more exercise. In addition to the prerequisite of having strong habits already in place, you’ll also need to make sure you monitor your psychological response. Because, if you’re pushing the throttle a little bit more with the faster approach, we need to be careful not to drain willpower or cause excessive stress that leads you to wanting to never do any health-related stuff ever again.
Regardless of which approach you take, I always suggest using the self-assessment of “Am I 90-100 percent confident I can do this for the time frame I am aiming for?”
If the answer is “no” and you’re aiming for the easy way, you need to make it easier. If the answer is “no” and you’re aiming for a period of time with the fast way, you either need to make it easier OR shorten the time frame (since you’re probably not going to do it forever, anyway).
I hope this post helped to clarify for you the two ends of the spectrum for the pursuit of lasting fat loss – and what “easy” and “fast” means in the context of approaching your fat loss responsibly, protecting your relationship with food, and keeping the entire journey sustainable.
Oh yeah, and for 21 examples of ways of approaching fat loss the easy way, check out the 21 Habits for Lasting Fat Loss guide that I co-wrote with Amber.
Sean Flanagan is a fitness and nutrition coach specializing in sustainable and totally-not-extreme weight loss. He offers personal training in Oakland, CA (and surrounding areas) and online coaching programs alongside Amber. You can learn more at http://www.seanflanaganfitness.com/