When we think about the word “diet” we often associate it with weight loss. Many people have a goal of weight loss but that goal should not be pursued CONSTANTLY. Any “diet” we follow should have some degree of sustainability and therefore it should have various phases. There should be phases of weight loss, maintenance, and maybe even weight gain. Using these phases at the correct times will improve your results.
When people come to me they often ask when they should start a diet for weight loss. I suggest finding 2-3 months of the year that you think you will be most successful in.
This varies person to person but generally you would select a time period that has the following:
Structure/schedule. Many people are more successful when they are in a set schedule that might be determined by work/school. Chaotic schedules often decrease the chance of success.
Low stress. Avoid losing weight when in high stress situations such as moving, changing jobs, or just generally busy times of the year.
Fewer social situations involving eating/drinking. Starting a weight loss diet right before the holidays or a summer filled with weddings will make it way more challenging and probably frustrating. Find a time of year where you have more free weekends or fewer social gatherings that are centered around food/drink.
Most people want to be in their best shape for either a vacation or for summer. I also think the months before summer are generally easier to lose weight during because they are after most of the big holidays and there is a lot motivation!
I would suggest a maximum of 2-3 months of focused weight loss per year. Losing weight is stressful to the body and the mind. I’ve found that those who can perform a strict weight loss diet for 2-3 months make excellent progress and have a better chance of maintaining that weight than those who attempt to lose weight for longer. Those 2-3 months must be strict and you must stay consistent. Most people have enough motivation to stick to a plan for that shorter amount of time. Those who perform longer weight loss phases will generally run out of motivation/energy.
Weight loss should occur at around 0.5 - 1% of body weight per week. If you lose weight faster than this, you will likely result see a weight gain rebound at some point. Remember, we are in this for the long run and we have many more years ahead of us. We have time to lose the weight and get to our ideal body weight.
Most the year is spent maintaining body weight. If you are interested in losing weight and spend 2-3 months doing that, you should spend the rest of the time maintaining that body weight (9-10 months).
It is much easier to maintain body weight than it is to lose weight. You have more freedom to enjoy foods/drinks that you like and you’ll have more energy. When you end your weight loss phase, you should try to maintain your body weight within 1 - 2% of your lowest weight. This means you will likely move up a few pounds but if you go up too far you will need to be a little more strict.
For those interested in performance, this is the time of year where you really get to focus on training. As you train more, you will likely need to eat more to maintain body weight. You will be fueling your body correctly and making great improvements. The maintenance phase is a great spot to be in if you are training for something like a marathon or a CrossFit competition.
This is a dieting phase that most will not be interested in. For others, like young athletes, it is very important and necessary. I would also argue that many people would benefit from a short weight gain phase every now and again.
If the goal is to become strong and muscular, the weight gain phase is likely necessary at some point. The body can become leaner (more muscle, less fat) during the maintenance phase in the beginning years of training/dieting. However, after one has trained and eaten well for a while (1-3 years) they may find it’s much harder to build muscle. These individuals should spend some time gaining weight.
When you gain weight, the goal is to gain as much muscle as possible. Most people will also gain a bit of fat during this time. This scares some people but remember you can shed that fat later in the year if/when needed. To minimize the fat gain and maximize the muscle gain, you should follow a style of training that coincides with those goals. This is generally a strength training program that has a frequency you can handle (2-5 days a week), plenty of volume (2-6 sets per exercise) and reps in the 8-12 rep range. This article doesn’t focus on the training but that is a very brief description.
Similar to weight loss, you should only focus on weight gain for 2-3 months. Much longer than this and it appears that the body is likely to create more fat instead or more muscle. Weight gain should also be taken at a slower rate than weight loss. Those looking to minimize fat gain should gain between 0.25% - 0.5% of body weight per week.
Putting it together
Using these ideas I have developed the following calendar for myself. Everyone will be a little different but this works for me based on past experiences. I like to be leaner in summer so I start my weight loss phase in February or March. In summer, I try to stay active and maintain body weight because I am out and about quite often with plenty of food/drink. In winter, I train more and eat a lot so I attempt to build muscle. I have essentially looked at my lifestyle and made my diet fit with it. I suggest you do the same for better results.