This post is from GRS staff writer April Dykman.
Last week, Robert Brokamp lamented about his not-ready-for-prime-time bikini body, asking GRS readers “whether it might make sense occasionally to engage in some extreme fiscal or physical fitness in order to see bigger results sooner, which could serve as encouragement to keep going.”
Brokamp’s post was highly entertaining to be sure, but I immediately fired off an e-mail to J.D. asking if I could answer his question in a follow-up post. At GRS, we recognize the importance of getting rich slowly, doing the boring stuff day-in and day-out to achieve financial success. I believe weight loss is no different.
Crash diets don’t work
Research published by UCLA in 2007 concluded that diets don’t work. Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study, writes:
You can initially lose 5 to 10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back. We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more. Sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants, while complete weight regain was found in the majority. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people.
We really want to believe there’s a magic bullet, but sadly, weight loss is as unsexy as loading up on veggies and getting some exercise everyday.
When I hear people talking about the latest fad diet, it reminds me of the people that talk about what they’d do if they won the lottery — it’s easier to daydream than to hunker down and do the work. That’s why people are quick to defend their 500-calorie-per-day diets and hCG injections or to pass around studies about how get-slim-quick strategies can yield lasting results. But you lose weight on the nutty hCG diet because you are consuming too few calories, and a little digging into the linked study that seems to champion rapid weight loss shows that the term “rapid” is used to describe participants who lost an average of 1.5 pounds per week, which isn’t fast at all. It’s a realistic and healthy goal for the average person to lose 1-2 pounds per week.
With weight loss, as with personal finance, don’t believe the hype. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Where personal finance and dieting differ
Brokamp wrote, “I tried this once before with my diet, cutting out everything except vegetables and lean proteins. That included no more caffeine or any kind of sugar. After a few days, I didn’t feel so great — kinda like I had the flu.”
Where diet and personal finance differ is that depriving your body directly affects your health. The Weight-control Information Network reports that “many patients on a [very low calorie diet] for 4 to 16 weeks report minor side effects such as fatigue, constipation, nausea, or diarrhea.” While those conditions usually improve, CNN reports some more serious side effects that make some nutritionists dread bikini season. According to the article, studies show that crash diets (under 1,200 calories per day) can lead to the following:
- Slower metabolism (meaning future weight gain)
- Nutrient deprivation
- Weakened immune system
- Heart palpitations
- Cardiac stress
Maybe doing it just once won’t harm you, but since studies show that crash diets won’t work, chances are that next summer you’ll be looking for another quick fix to lose 20 pounds (or more) again.
Psychological Boost: Fact or Fiction?
Do quick results give you the motivation to stay on course? Or as Brokamp asks, “Wouldn’t I see more results by severely limiting the calories and increasing the exercise, which would inspire me to keep going and stick with it?”
It does make sense. If you look great, you’d be crazy not to maintain that, right? But it’s statistically proven that you’ll regain the weight, and maybe even some extra, so that seems unlikely to be sufficient motivation. And some experts believe that losing and regaining is bad for your psychological health, making you feel like, well, a hopeless failure. Studies on the psychological effects are inconclusive, however, with some linking weight cycling to increased psychological distress and dissatisfaction, and others showing no relationship.
A Life Plan that Works
I’m pretty passionate about weight loss and personal finance. I gained weight during college (on a barely 5’2″ frame) that I finally lost for good five years ago. I was in credit card debt from my freshman year until two years ago. Before that, both the scale and the credit card balance yo-yoed for years. I finally stopped looking for quick fixes, and that’s when I found success. So, my advice to Brokamp is to consider J.D.’s original twelve core beliefs about money (he just keeps making that list bigger, doesn’t he?), with a weight loss twist:
- Maintaining a healthy weight is more about mind than it is about math. The math is simple — calories in, calories burned. But that’s obviously not enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a common trait among people who lose weight and keep it off is that they seek support from family members and friends. When your negative thoughts get in the way of your goal, turn to your support group for encouragement.
- Goals are important. Be realistic, and think about process goals. For instance, instead of focusing on losing 20 pounds, make it your goal to eat five servings of vegetables and workout for 45 minutes a day.
- Eat less than you burn. In other words, track what you eat, even if only for a few weeks. You’ll learn about your habits and triggers, which is instrumental for long-term weight maintenance.
- Eat your proteins and veggies first. Before you reach for the bread basket or down 16 ounces of soda, fill up on something nutritious.
- Small amounts matter. If you can’t fit in a two-hour run, don’t get frustrated and give up. Do you have 30 minutes? Consistency is what is important. Likewise, swapping a frappucino for a latte might seem insignificant, until you calculate the calorie difference.
- Large amounts matter, too. It’s just not reasonable to eat a pint of ice cream and expect to make it up at the gym the next day. Learn about portion control.
- Do what works for you. As with personal finance, there is no one answer. I can tell you my secret was eating kale, but maybe you hate kale. You can tell me that running was the key to your success, and just hearing about it will make my knee hurt. There are a lot of healthy foods and calorie-torching activities out there — experiment until you figure out what you like.
- Slow and steady wins the race. To quote J.D. when he wrote about this in a personal finance context, “Recognize that you’re in this for the long haul. You’re making a lifestyle change, not looking for a quick fix.”
- The perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t bother looking for the “best” weight loss plan — there’s not one. Get started and tweak your plan as you go.
- Failure is okay. Maintaining your weight is something you’ll do for the rest of your life. There will be vacations, birthdays, and holiday seasons that throw you off track. That’s okay. Get back into your good habits, and make a plan to have healthy foods on hand and fit in some exercise the next time your routine changes.
- It’s more important to be happy than it is to be skinny. Don’t become obsessed with celebrities diets and models who walk the Victoria’s Secret runway a week after giving birth. As with money, if you’re happy, your weight can be easier to manage, especially if you eat ice cream when you’re sad or reach for potato chips when you’re bored.
- Do it now. It’s easy to put off weight loss until bikini season hits and you can’t hide under a sweater, but the sooner your start moving toward your goals, the easier they are to reach.
Finally, when it comes to paying off debt, it might make sense to cut back for some big wins. But you probably didn’t get to where you are now right out of the gate.
When my husband and I got serious about debt, he sold his motorcycle, I quit buying clothes for sport, and we started to pack our lunch everyday. That seemed drastic to us, but since then we’ve found many more ways to save, implemented over time. Crash dieting isn’t akin to selling some Stuff and building your online savings account or starting an emergency fund; it’s more like trying to go from compulsive spender to Frugal Babe overnight. Not even Frugal Babe did that!
Sadly, successful weight loss, like good personal finance habits, is quite boring. But the payoffs are huge.