Is rapid fat loss better than slow-paced fat loss?

Is it better to lose weight quickly? For as long as I have been interested in health & fitness, I have read that fat loss is a marathon, not a sprint. How true is this? For many years I yo-yo dieted, following fad diet after fad diet. Low carb, glycaemic index, you name it. There were regularly marketed as diets in which you could lose weight quickly. That’s what interested me in the first place. I want to lose fat and I want to lose it now! All these diets failed. After a quick bout of water and glycogen depletion, these diets were too restrictive to keep up. I’d lose a few pounds but end up rebounding, ending up heavier than I was when I started. What was the problem? According to all the articles and experts, I was trying to lose weight too quickly. I needed to slow down. If you push the body too hard, it will fight back.

Now with years of experience under my belt, was this really the reason for my dieting failures? Maybe my body fought back because I was neglecting it of much-needed nutrients. Maybe the body is more resilient than we think; a lesson I have learned many times, and is continually supported by nutritional sciences evidence. Recently I tried to go a few days eating at 1,600 calories. I expected to be totally starving and unable to function. Instead I felt… fine. A bit hungry, sure. But not even close to what I thought. At 1,000 calories below my maintenance level, I had always believe that the body would go crazy and fight back. Didn’t happen. I lost weight quickly and I think I can keep this up with a diet break sprinkled in now and then. Have we been misled about rapid fat loss and what are your experiences of it?

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Kool Aid
August 6, 2022 5:24 pm

I have done several rapid fat loss cuts and I believe it holds some advantages over traditional slow cutting, in particular from a psychological viewpoint. Dieting involves some level of discomfort. Some people want to sell you this idea that you can shed pounds of fat and never be hungry. As much as I would love this, I have never found it to be true. Dieting sucks. There is just no way around it. When I start a cutting phase, I know that I will suffer, for lack of a better word.

Once I get past the fairy tale idea that dieting can be fun and without discomfort, I can focus on the job at hand. This is where rapid fat loss shines. Suffering for a short time is doable. It actually keeps me more compliant than a moderate calorie deficit. The point of having a moderate deficit, say 300-500 calories below maintenance, is to lose fat but not feel too hungry. In my experience this has the opposite effect to what I want because it changes the goal posts.

Assume I need to eat 2,300 calories to maintain my body weight. When I cut at a moderate deficit, I will eat anywhere between 1,800 to 2,000 calories. This is a problem because the goal is to lose fat and not feel hungry. What I have found is, at any deficit, you will feel hungry. So you might as well go hard. Also a moderate calorie deficit means you have to diet for a much longer time. Like I said, I can tolerate discomfort if it is for a short time. But to tolerate hunger for months? No thanks.

Cutting at a moderate calorie deficit is counterproductive to me. I have not noticed a huge difference in hunger between dropping my calories very low to very slightly. I feel a bit more full when eating at 1,800 to 2,000 calories, but definitely not enough to make me want to keep dieting for several months when I could achieve the same result in a few weeks. With a moderate deficit, you are always skirting on the edge. You want to eat enough to be full but still lose weight. At some point even if you are eating at a small deficit, you will experience hunger. It won’t feel good and you won’t be prepared to sustain it for half the year or longer. Hello binge! You could be back where you started, hopping back onto the moderate deficit, and spinning your wheels.

In my experience, it is better to take ownership. Know that there will be discomfort. Accept it. Then go hard with your calorie deficit. It will suck. But at least this time you will be prepared for the suckage. You will lose fat quicker and can get back to the fun process of training for muscle gain.

Last edited 1 month ago by Kool Aid
Sefa Kozan
August 7, 2022 9:43 am

As a kid I was taught the story of The Tortoise and the Hare. A fast-moving hare and slow-moving tortoise decide to have a race after the hare makes dismissive comments about the tortoise’s slowness. Predictably at the start of the race, the hare speeds off leaving the tortoise in his dust. Assuming he is so far ahead and guaranteed to win, the hare takes a nap in the middle of the race. However upon waking up, he sees the tortoise has caught up and crossed the finish line. The moral of the story: slow and steady wins the race.

This moral of ‘slow and steady’ has been ingrained in western consciousness. We have always been told that it’s the right way to do things. Don’t cram for an exam the night before. It’s better to study consistently over the long haul. The same for fat loss. We have always been advised to lose fat slowly and consistently. When we hear it so often from so many fitness authorities, we struggle to question it. We shouldn’t question it. It’s the right way to do things.

When we finally build up the courage to question our long-held beliefs, taking emotion and dogma out of the equation, we wonder why we do things a certain way. Why is rapid fat loss so bad? Because you lose muscle and rebound? The research doesn’t support this hypothesis.

When Martin Berkhan joined the forums in 2007 and presented his system of intermittent fasting to lose fat and gain lean muscle, the first response he received was “Oh dear god…”. This was back when the official bodybuilding dogma was to eat six meals a day spaced out evenly to ensure your body didn’t dip into starvation mode and cannibalize your muscle. The idea that you had to eat often was entrenched very strongly in the literature at the time. When I decided to give IF a go, I remember having read enough about it to be comfortable with the concept. Regardless, I was going against years of fitness indoctrination that told me otherwise. The mind said one thing, the heart said another. I remember being so nervous when I did my first IF, thinking that I might lose all my muscle. Of course that never happened, IF eventually went mainstream and everyone tried to jump on the bandwagon.

Rapid fat loss is a viable solution to lose fat. The biggest hurdle to overcome before trying it is the mental barrier that it’s harmful. For some clients, the best way to get them to overcome the mental barrier is to simply try it for one day. If they feel they can continue with it, great! It’s not for everyone. This is how I overcame the mental barrier against IF. For years I took meals in tupperware containers because I was scared of losing muscle for not eating every 2 hours. When I tried IF and didn’t lose all my muscle, as some publications would have you believe in the 2000s, the barrier was gone forever.

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Tyler Mendoza
August 9, 2022 9:26 am

If you’re interested in Protein-Sparing Modified Fasts, I would recommend checking out Lyle McDonald’s work. He released The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook in 2005 and it hasn’t undergone any major changes since then, except a change in flaxseed oil recommendations. It so happens that the conversion of flaxseed to EPA/DHA is inefficient, so you’re better off taking fish oil.

It’s also worth listening to some of Lyle’s interviews about PSMF. The concept has been around since the 70s. The belief that rapid fat loss leads to weight regain isn’t substantiated by the evidence. It’s also funny listening to him being baffled at why ongoing studies on rapid fat loss don’t have participants eat high protein. We have known for a long time that protein aids in satiation, so why on earth do more recent studies neglect this aspect of dieting success? Baffling.

This leads to a broader point on how the research has failed us. It’s quite easy to find articles telling us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. They point to studies that show breakfast skippers to be people who overeat junk food the rest of the day. From these results, researchers conclude that skipping breakfast is bad for you. This is a short-sighted conclusion.

Skipping breakfast isn’t inherently bad. If you do it deliberately and watch your food intake for the rest of the day, there’s no reason for you to gain fat. Actually the time-restricted feeding of just having lunch and dinner could help reduce the amount you eat. Instead of blaming breakfast, poor food choices should be the culprit.

This is what’s happened to rapid fat loss. Previous studies have put participants on very low calories, but with insufficient protein intake to help manage their appetite. Participants become ravenously hungry and rebound after giving up on their diet. Researchers conclude that rapid fat loss is bad, but the real culprit this time is poor study design.

August 9, 2022 4:25 pm

I love listening to the wisdom of JM Blakely, a powerlifting legend who competed throughout the 1990s. He is know for rapid weight gain and rapid weight loss between competitions. In the 1999 WPC World Championships his weight in KG was 109.8 (Source: Open Powerlifting). 5 months later at the 2000 APF California State & LALC Invitational he weighed 125. Just 2 months after that at the 2000 APF Senior Nationals he weighed 110. Let that sink in. 15 kilos of weight lost in under 2 months! If that isn’t rapid fat loss, I don’t know what is.

In a brilliant podcast with Dave Tate and JM Blakely, Dave talks about how he was struggling to gain weight, a big deal when you want to put on muscle at the elite powerlifter level, and how JM advised him. Pounding down chicken and rice wasn’t cutting it. JM’s secret bulking diet included 3 McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches with hash browns and mayo, Chinese food with MSG for lunch (MSG was imperative!), and pizza fully loaded with olive oil for dinner. In addition Hershey’s bars had to be eaten every hour throughout the day. He wasn’t concerned about gaining fat because it could come off easily. Gaining muscle was the hard part.

As JM says, muscle isn’t built out of hopes and dreams, it’s built out of food. But to lose fat “You just have to not eat and go run around a little bit. That’s pretty easy”. JM says he could lose a pound of fat a day because would do a great amount of cardio. JM admits that this is extreme, as is anything at the elite level of competitive sports. But his performance didn’t suffer. The concept should be the takeaway here. If you burn more than you take in, you will lose fat. You don’t have to lose 15 kilos in 2 months, but you can lose fat rapidly and not suffer for it. Do a ton of cardio if you like or eat less. Whatever you prefer. Calories in, calories out. 

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Sean Ellis
August 10, 2022 12:03 pm

The biggest problem with fast weight drops is that it is usually done in desperation. Whether we want to drop weight for a photoshoot or a wedding, weight loss is something we don’t like waiting for. I know this all too well as someone who wrestled in high school and had to make weight. It can be a brutal process where you push yourself to your limits. If you push too hard and too fast, it can backfire. Sometimes I’d get fed up of the sweat suits, spitting in buckets and all that extreme stuff and gorge at the nearest Taco Bell. All that progress thrown away because I pushed the dial a millimeter too far.

This dovetails nicely with my next point. Rapid fat loss is rapid, not instant. That is an important distinction to make because although you will be dropping weight much faster than the traditional recommendations will have you doing, it still takes time. Contrary to what the phrase rapid fat loss will have you believe, you still need patience.

Desperation and impatience are a dangerous combo. This combination is why fast weight drops get a bad wrap. If managed properly, not pushing the dial too far, and keeping patient, you can lose weight quickly and keep it off.

Nicole Stratton
August 8, 2022 1:30 pm

Personally I have never tried rapid fat loss so I can’t comment on its effectiveness, though I resonate with the responses here about following the crowd. At some point I plan to try a rapid fat loss diet to see how I cope physiologically and psychologically. I don’t care about long-held fitness truths. Most of these truths have turned into myths. It makes me wonder why there are still so many people attached to a diet like a political party. Maybe an author released a book on keto a decade ago, giving them a financial incentive to keep promoting it. But the average guy and girl? I don’t get it. Have a peruse of nutrition tweets on Twitter. An attack on someone’s diet is perceived as attack on their identity. How strange that the words zealots and fanatics refer to followers of a diet!

This is why knowledge really is power. If you diet without a sufficient understanding of how to keep appetite at bay and how to preserve muscle loss – short answer: reduced calories, high protein, resistance training – then your diet will be miserable. I can’t fathom how horrible it would feel to eat 800 calories a day without huge amounts of protein and vegetables. And therein lies the problem. Dieters with insufficient knowledge will attempt a super low calorie diet without an understanding of how to implement it. Hunger will get the better of them and they will discard rapid fat loss into the pile of many, many diets that have failed them. When it comes to dieting, ignorance most certainly is NOT bliss. Ignorance is the difference between success and failure.