If you find losing weight for the long haul exceedingly difficult, you’re far from alone—despite what celebrities, quick-fix marketing ploys, and the latest social media trends might have you think.
“The main reason fad diets and quick fixes don’t work is because they send the body into starvation mode,” says Michelle Tierney, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T. “This causes the ancestral part of our brain to fear famine and hold onto energy (calories) rather than burn it as fuel. This increases hunger signals, reduces fullness cues, and causes intense cravings for high-sugar and fat foods.” Ultimately, this response can derail someone’s weight loss efforts and inadvertently cause weight plateaus and even weight gain.
Beyond the actual pounds of body fat lost, there are plenty of other reasons to play the long game.“Taking a steady, non-extreme approach to weight loss is a good strategy for protecting yourself from muscle loss and vitamin deficiencies,” says Arika Hoscheit, R.D., a dietitian with online medical practice Paloma Health.“It will also help you to stay satisfied and have enough energy to see your fitness and weight loss goals through for the long term.”
Thing is, it’s not always obvious that your weight loss plan has zero chance of sticking. Here, dietitians break down seven signs that your weight loss isn’t sustainable—and how to correct course.
Trying to lose any more than two pounds in a seven-day span (unless under the guidance of a medical professional) is typically considered to be going overboard.“Generally speaking, you should be losing no more than two pounds per week,” emphasizesHoscheit.“While it can be exciting to see the scale go down quickly, it’s essential to keep a conservative pace. If you’re losing more than two pounds per week, it likely means you’re not eating enough and that you’re losing a fair amount of muscle mass. Muscle is a big calorie burner, so that muscle loss could hinder your weight loss efforts in the long run.” In fact, research shows that losing weight at a more gradual rate allows you to develop a leaner body composition (a.k.a. more muscle versus fat).
Read More: How To Set Achievable Weight-Loss Goals
Hoscheit recommends people never dip below 1,500 calories or 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight (that’s 54 grams for a 150-pound adult) per day “to help conserve muscle and keep your metabolism humming along.”
Feeling constantly hungry is a key indicator that something isn’t right in your diet plan, according to dietitian Roxie M. Calloway, R.D.“This shows that your body is lacking nutrition and that you need to revise your diet or adjust your workout schedule,” she says.“Instead of forcing your body into becoming a calorie-burning machine, focus on increasing your nutrition.”
To that end, Calloway advises incorporating more fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins, and healthy fatsinto your daily routine, as well as minimizing out highly-processed foods.“This way, you can focus on health and weight loss rather than obsessing over food choices,” she says. This approach also ensures your meals leave you feeling satisfied, instead of ready for a snack.
According to St. Louis-based dietitian and gym owner Kim Yawitz, R.D., this is a huge predictor of weight regain. “Thirty-day challenges and 28-day detoxes are generally short because they ask you to give up a lot in the process,” she explains. “And a common pattern for those who can stick out the entire challenge is to celebrate on the first day after completion with a decadent meal, which turns into a decadent week, and then a decadent month.”
As appealing as these short-term challenges may seem, don’t just dive right in. “Think long and hard about signing on for a super-strict short-term program if you want to keep the weight off,” she urges. You might just find yourself exhausted, devoid of willpower, and ready to take on an entire pizza by the end of it.
Lusting over s’mores or a pile of greasy nachos like it’s your full-time job? This might be a harbinger of weight-loss efforts gone awry. “These kinds of cravings usually indicate someone is reducing their calories too much or exercising too vigorously,” says Tierney. “The body perceives this as a threat and elicits biologically protective mechanisms that lead you to seek out quick and calorically-dense energy.” Read: Nachos, burgers, potato chips, and all the sweets will be calling your name.
To avoid hardcore cravings, your eats need to offer enough calories (even if you’re cutting down), as well as fiber, protein, and healthy fat. No amount of desire to shed pounds can drown out those intense cravings in a shouting match!
Feeling constantly deprived or peeved about all the foods that are “off-limits” is another solid indicator your weight loss won’t be sustainable. “You do need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, but giving up everything that’s fun in life is a major red flag for weight regain,” says Yawitz. “My most successful clients find a balance that allows for a scoop of ice cream every now and again with their kids, an occasional happy hour cocktail with friends, and other foods and drinks they enjoy,” she continues. As long as your primary focus is on eating balanced plates of whole foods, you can have your cake and lose weight, too.
Tank totally depleted? No surprise here: Your approach to losing weight may be to blame.“If you find yourself feeling dizzy, lightheaded, low energy, or having trouble thinking clearly during the day, you’re likely not getting enough calories to sustain your daily energy needs,” says Hoscheit.“It’s possible to create a respectable calorie deficit allowing you to lose weight without feeling drained.”
To optimize energy, Hoscheitrecommends about five small meals or three meals and two snacks spread evenly throughout the day, with each including a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats to keep you full.“Listen to your body and eat when you get hungry. Don’t wait until you feel shaky and lightheaded,” she says.“Keeping your blood sugar balanced will better control your appetite and cravings and lead to better long-term results.”
Weight loss won’t be sustainable if someone is too tired to make it through the day easily. “You still need enough energy and mental juice to tackle your responsibilities and enjoy life,” she says. “After all, weight loss should make someone feel more vital, not less.” You’ve also got to have enough energy to be motivated to plan and prepare healthy meals instead of succumbing to the drive-thru.
Though practically falling apart when faced with comfort food can indicate that you’re depriving your body of ample energy, it can also reflect that your emotional relationship with food is out of balance, which can thus indicate your weight loss isn’t sustainable. “We’ve been conditioned to eat for comfort, and so many people eat for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger, like boredom, stress, or loneliness,” Yawitz says. “You have to address the root causes of those feelings if you want to nip cravings in the bud and stop eating in the absence of hunger.” Otherwise, emotional eating can derail your efforts every time stress, discomfort, or another triggering feeling comes your way.
One way to start working on this: Pause for a moment before eating and ask yourself if you’re physically hungry. “If not, it’s best to come up with another activity to fill that need,” Yawitz suggests. “Call a friend if you’re lonely, try meditation if you’re stressed, or get out of the house if you’re bored.”