We don’t just want it, we want it now.
The modern world is based upon instant gratification. You want something, it’s probably accessible pretty quickly, and you can often pay a premium rate to speed it up. Next day delivery, movies on demand, food cooked and brought to your door in 30 minutes or your money back. It’s convenient and it’s how we like it.
It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to losing fat we don’t want to take a moderate approach. No, we want abs yesterday and the idea of taking our time just seems odd. You don’t have to look very far to find evidence of this, with meal replacement diets, modified fasts and diet pills being something everyone has heard of, and with celebrity exercise DVDs that promise rapid results selling more copies than the leading winter Disney movie over Christmas!
We think “ah it’s ok, I’ll suffer a little more but it’ll work better. No pain no gain!”
Clearly, this is something that effects a lot of people.
But is it a good idea? You’ll usually hear two sides, one saying that it’s great and will help you look awesome on the beach in no time, for 5 easy payments of £9.95, and the other side telling you that all of your muscle will evaporate and you’ll never have a sex drive again.
Well, in truth, there are both pros and cons to crash dieting which both need to be addressed if you are going to make an educated decision. To keep things positive I’ll start with the pros.
The main benefit of ‘crash dieting’ is that it’s incredibly motivating. We all love to talk about looking long term but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that it sometimes feels hard to continue with the plan when your weight hasn’t moved this week, or it’s crept in the wrong direction. With a properly managed very low calorie plan you will see changes on a daily basis, which is very motivating in an of itself. Another positive along these lines is that there is a very clear and close-by end point. A long diet of 1-2 lbs per week can take over half a year of dealing with hunger and feeling lethargic to lose 5 stone, contrast to a much shorter period of crash dieting.
Think of it like an Elastoplast. Pulling it off is going to hurt no matter what – fast hurts more for less time, slow hurts less for what seems like an age. Your personality type dictates which one is preferable to you.
This comparatively short amount of time dieting allows for more time training and eating for performance or muscle gain. 12 months of slow dieting is 12 months in which your muscle mass isn’t going to get much greater, which is a lot of wasted time if your goal is to carry appreciable muscle mass!
The final pro is that, if done properly, crash dieting is physically harmless. More on this below.
So far it sounds pretty damn good! Unfortunately it’s not all so peach and, as with anything good, there are a hell of a lot of things one must take into consideration.
Dieting on very low calories is the method of fat loss which carries the greatest risk of muscle loss, without doubt. Your body works on a fine balance, with muscle being broken down and built up 24/7 at varying rates. When in an extreme calorie deficit it’s very easy for breakdown to exceed creation over time – meaning you lose both strength and size quite easily if the diet is prolonged. Combatting this is vital if you intend to try it out, but the sad fact is that, realistically, complete prevention is all but impossible for most.
Nutritional deficiency is quite likely with this sort of plan. It’s incredibly difficult to consume sufficient protein, micronutrients and essential fats as you need for basic health and hormonal function she you are eating less than the average housecat. In medical settings you require close monitoring when put on a diet providing fewer than 1200 calories, but crash dieters do this in their own home without any medical supervision, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Issues such as organ failure, blood sugar related unconsciousness and seizures, hair loss and other horrendous complications are associated with very low calorie dieting – so be VERY mindful of how you are feeling, and seek medical attention if considering this approach.
Of course it can’t be ignored that you will also feel like crap. Absolute crap. Your body seeks what is known as homeostasis, which means it tries to fight against change. The bigger the change, the stronger the fight. One way in which your body seeks homeostasis in this context is that it reduces sympathetic nervous system output to try to save energy. This causes reduced muscle tone, less general energy and slower thought processing as well as tiredness and irritability. It can also down regulate sex hormone production for the duration of the diet (and possibly longer if you are dieting for a very long time) meaning no libido!
Your metabolic rate may also take a hit. As well as reducing the amount you move, your body is capable of reducing your calorie burn at rest by dropping your core temperature amongst other things. This slows down your progress, meaning you have to suffer for longer. The effects reverse very quickly when you increase calories again, with no recorded incidence of permanent damage, but it sucks for the time you are dealing with it.
Reducing your calorie intake increases the release of the hormone ghrelin amongst a few others. These hormones are the chief trigger for HUNGER, meaning that as soon as the diet ends you will be driven to eat more than you need, so the ‘rebound’ period can be rough, as well as you having an increased risk of binging whilst the diet is still in full swing when you cave in and eat a box of cereal in the middle of the night.
Loose skin. Your skin is an elastic organ, but it’s ‘snap back’ quality can only go so far. Gradually losing weight gives your skin the best chance of almost complete recovery.
*Note – if you lose a LOT of weight, there is a chance that you’ll have loose skin no matter what you do. Staying hydrated and consuming a varied, predominantly whole food diet gives you a fair shot, but even then you stand the chance of falling short. This is unavoidable if your skin genetics deem it so.
Surgery is an option, but the best thing to do is minimise it in the first place by dieting slowly.
The final downside to this dieting technique is the most important, and that is the mental side of things. This dieting technique doesn’t teach you any healthy habits, if anything it teaches that starvation is the way to health – which it simply isn’t. By not learning habits of a healthy eater, it’s very difficult to sustain the fat loss you have achieved.
How do you eat?
What if you go off track?
What if you go away?
These questions remain unanswered, leading to the typical YOYO dieting pattern seen in so many crash dieters.
But more sinister is the way this kind of diet can affect your relationship with food. Food is something which should be enjoyed, providing pleasure as well as sustenance. Unfortunately all you learn from a very low calorie diet is that eating makes you fat and starving makes you lean. If you don’t want to eat again because you are scared that you will gain bodyfat, you have a problem.
This happens a lot. Crash dieters are sometimes referred to eating disorder patients in training, with a huge number of anorexics or binge eaters coming from crash dieting backgrounds. For this reason alone, I generally advise against low calorie plans entirely.
So, my practical recommendations,
Don’t crash diet, just don’t. Take your time to learn your body and how it works. Learn how to eat in a sustainable manner that you enjoy and can afford but which is in line with your goals.
By keeping calories, especially carbohydrate calories, as high as you possibly can during a dieting phase, you increase gym performance and therefore hugely increase the chances you will retain and possibly even gain as much muscle as possible despite the caloric deficit. Protein is important here too, and regardless of what you do, 2.3-3.1 grams of protein per kilo of lean body mass should be consumed on a daily basis to maximise muscle retention and metabolic activity.
Forget the idea that dieting needs to be hard and painful. Taking a flexible approach to your food choices means that you can enjoy the foods which you choose whilst still reaching your goals – social life and sanity in tact! Also forget the idea that slow dieting truly is slow. Just think, if you start today you will look dramatically different in 6 months time. That’s a lot less time than you think it is.
But what if you’re dead set on trying a crash diet?
It’s unfortunate but I know that some of you reading this are going to crash diet anyway, so if it’s going to happen please at least follow this advice so you are safe.
1 – Don’t do it
2 – Ok, if you’re still here. Don’t do it until you have a good set of healthy eating habits. This is incredibly important and I would seriously ask anyone reading this not to skip this step. Crash dieting is for those who know what they are doing, as a kickstart to a long and slow diet (crash 3 weeks, diet for another 3 months) or as a method of ‘damage control’ during a lean gaining phase. If you are in the position of being a total novice, you WILL NOT keep your fat loss, and due to the rebound effect mentioned above WILL gain it all back plus more. This is not a scare tactic, it’s a fact. Learn to eat healthy by the book before bending the rules.
3 – Take care of your recovery from training. You are going to struggle to consume enough minerals such as Zinc and Magnesium, meaning your training will go down the pan. Combatting this is important if you are to maintain energy levels and performance, so I’d always recommend using a products such as Transdermal Technology Recovery Spray www.transdermaltechnolgy.co.uk/order.
4 – Learn how to do it properly. There are crash diets out there which WILL cause harm and/or poor results. There are also methods of doing this right. If you want to find out how to diet quickly but safely, research a man named Lyle McDonald. I will say no more, the reading here is yours to do.
5 – Just don’t do it. Hire a coach. Trust me, the suffering is not worth speeding things up by what is, realistically, 4-6 months, or maybe 2 years if you are very overweight. This amount of time is nothing in comparison to your life, and I’ve never spoken to anyone who lost over 10 stone in two years (just one-two pounds per week) who regrets it, yet half of my business is ‘fixing’ ex crashers.
About the author – Tom Bainbridge is a writer, blogger and a nutrition and strength coach. For more of his work, check out www.transdermaltechnology.co.uk/blog