Dieting history is both simple and complex. Simple through its definition (basically a sum of all of our previous bouts of dieting), but complex in its seemingly large impact on how we diet following all of that history. It’s an influential factor that not many consider first and foremost.
Why does it matter?
Dieting history is important because of the impact is has on our capacity to diet even further down the line. Ever notice how your very first diet is the one that ran the smoothest or just felt easier? As we enter and exit dieting phases, it becomes increasingly harder and harder for us to respond like we had initially. Many times, we have to get more aggressive over time. Each individual’s history will be vastly different from one another. Some may have only dieted once in their life, while others can have more extensive dieting histories (like yo-yo dieting, for example).
Why does this happen?
Our bodies are smart. They don’t care about how we look or whether or not we’re 10% body fat – they care about survival and they’ll adapt in order to ensure that. This is known as metabolic adaptation. Before modern times, this was a good thing! Being uncertain of when our next meal would be used to be a common problem, so systems that promote storing extra energy and fighting weight loss was needed when the risk of starvation was high.
Essentially the harder or more extreme we diet down, the more exaggerated the adaptations are. This could mean dieting down rapidly (“quick-fix diets”), losing large amounts of weight, or dropping down to the bare minimum body fat percentage needed for survival. This is important to consider, especially if you compete or plan on competing as it does entail losing a significant amount of weight to achieve an unsustainably low body fat percentage. Rapid fat loss is another possibility depending on the individual and their experience, although we always use a slower approach to dieting. I myself have been through the three instances above (less of the rapid weight loss compared to the other two), and I’ve seen this firsthand.
Graph source can be found here. I also suggest reading this article as an amazing reference guide to metabolic adaptation.
Why it’s important to consider
Because #health. Metabolic adaptation doesn’t just refer you your metabolic rate adapting to the diet. There are other important factors like hormonal function, cortisol, anabolism and catabolism, appetite, and energy expenditure to consider when thinking about these diet-related adaptations.
While food drops, our metabolic rate adapts in response in order to resist weight loss (remember, it thinks we’re at risk of starving). Not only that, but our hormone levels drop, our hunger rises, and our extra activity (NEAT and TDEE) drops, which contributes to the drop in our metabolic rate as a result. I’m sure most competitors notice this as they diet down – those little movements throughout the day (whether it be fidgeting, walking your dog, being active that isn’t training or cardio) tend to slowly decline and become harder to keep up with since they require more energy from our already-energy-restricted bodies. I know when I’ve dieted down, naps became a regular part of my day and I tended to spend more and more time wrapped up in blankets on the couch (ha).
Less food = less energy = less movement
How do we mitigate this?
While it is inevitable that out body will adapt throughout the dieting process, we can implement some strategies in order to lessen the impacts of those metabolic adaptations. This is important because it will help us both sustain results for those simply lifestyle dieting and minimize the long term impacts of dieting for competitive physique athletes. Some of these include factors like the rate of weight loss, overall nutrition, NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), diet breaks/refeeds, and taking time off from dieting.
Faster results don’t often equal better when it comes to dieting. Slower rates of weight loss are the most optimal in order to maintain muscle mass and reduce metabolic adaptation, both of which we want when trying to lose weight. This not only goes for the rates that we drop food, but the rates that we increase cardio as well. If we whip out all of the tools in our arsenals (high cardio and dropping food rapidly) to start, we won’t have much more to work with later on, especially when we eventually adapt and hit a plateau. Diet breaks and refeeds are also great resources when looking to diet for a while, since respectively, they allow for longer and subjectively ‘easier’ diets (in the sense that you have a 1-2 week break to look forward to) as well as help spike leptin levels to alleviate hunger and the slow down the rate at which we adapt.
While it is easier said than done, keeping NEAT up throughout a diet will help immensely not only with creating that deficit, but to sustain those activities for when the diet eventually ends. Think about it – the diet is over, your cardio goes down, food definitely goes up, and you’ve gotten used to being less active on top of it all. I’m just as guilty as the next person here (blanket-burrito-mode I mentioned earlier), but the extra activity in and out of the deficit will help lessen the rate at which we may adapt. Additionally, training intensity is often overlooked when dieting. Your intensity in the gym is bound to drop as your energy levels get low and you are deep into contest prep, but again, keeping activity high where you can will help lessen the impacts of adaptations (as well as help contribute to the caloric deficit we want).
Finally, one of the most important things we can do in order to ensure we get the most from the diet while minimizing adaptations is thinking about how we exit the diet and how long we spend away from dieting. Now that we’ve dieted down and we’re ready to eat and transition back to our ‘normal’ life again, we need to start adding back in food and tapering down cardio. With this brings some challenges (maybe even more than prep itself), because hyperphagia (abnormally high hunger) is likely present when at the end of a diet or a competition season and it could be tempting to go ‘all-out’ once you no longer have that goal or stage to look forward to.
I’ve also definitely felt those “post-show blues” where you have that high from show day and now have nothing to look forward to (which is untrue because you have improvements to make for next season), but I can see this playing a role in the “F***-it” mentality many seem to experience.
At a competition level of stage-lean, our bodies are in a prime spot to store extra, unnecessary body fat. After the diet our metabolic rate is lower than when we started and hunger is high, so having a solid plan for exiting the deficit via reverse or recovery diet is essential in order to minimize fat gain here. Both essentially aim to get your food up in a structured manner in order to help get you to a healthy spot metabolically, hormonally, and physically, as well as help you recover from the X weeks of dieting you’ve been through.
Have a post-show plan ready to execute and stick to it
Although it’s important to note, just because you reversed properly from a diet does not mean you can jump back into another deficit soon afterwards. Your body needs time to recover and sit at a place it feels its best and healthiest, and it’s imperative (especially if you look to compete competitively) that you take your time off from dieting seriously and actually spend some time in an off season phase. We already know it’s unsustainable to try to stay stage-lean, but it’s also unhealthy to constantly be dieting down with little breaks from it in an attempt to keep that leanness around longer.
There are so many facets of dieting and competing that we can dive into, but I hope you got some new information about how and why dieting history is so important for us! Feel free to email or message me your feedback on this article and what other topics you’d like us to dive into next.