Have you ever found yourself dieting longer than you should have? Have you ever spent days, weeks, or even months debating yourself on what you should do next - diet or not? Have you ever finished one diet, only to find yourself in a calorie deficit a week later?
If that is the case, then you might be suffering from chronic dieting syndrome.
You see, successful dieting comes down to a few basics - a caloric deficit, enough protein, and strength training. Over the weeks and months, with enough consistency, that leads to fat loss. It’s as straightforward as it can get.
But dieting can turn into an obsession for some, derailing them from their initial goals, and making it difficult to go back to having a healthy relationship with food.
I’ve been there myself, and I understand the struggle. So, if you’ve ever found yourself in that spot, unable to shake the need to keep dieting - despite your better judgment - then you should read on.
Bonus: I've put together a handy PDF that goes over the question, "Should I bulk or cut?" If you're interested in downloading it, click the button below.
The Chronic Dieter
Meet our hypothetical friend, Bobby. An impressionable young guy who’s found himself in a cult, chasing aesthetics. Poor bastard.
You see, Bobby has fallen into a perpetual cycle of dieting. He’s always wondering whether he should keep dieting or resume dieting after a short break. Even if he manages to get himself out of the whole ‘calorie deficit’ thing, it’s only a matter of time before the thoughts of fat loss creep back in.
Before long, Bobby is outlining his next dieting phase, giddy with excitement. “I’m going to get so goddamn shredded this time.”
But here’s the thing. Bobby is unhappy because he sees his lack of progress. He’s never lean enough to justify committing to gaining. If he were, then the choice would be easy. Maybe there’s a wedding he’s invited to and wants to look ‘good,’ or perhaps summer is just around the corner. Whatever the case might be, there’s always a reason, a justification, to diet.
And even if, by some miracle, Bobby puts his foot down and finally decides, “I’m going to commit to this bulk if it’s the last thing I do.” it only takes a few well-placed Instagram photos of shredded people to instill doubt once again.
Bobby decides to diet ⇒ Bobby diets for a few weeks ⇒ Bobby decides he’s lean, skinny (or hungry) enough to stop dieting ⇒ Boddy raises his calories for a few days ⇒ Bobby begins to see himself as a fat slob ⇒ Bobby decides to diet
It’s a cycle of hunger, lack of results, and frustration. The chronic calorie deficit also leads to other nasty consequences.
The Muscle Loss
Any dieting, especially as a natural person, hides the risk of muscle loss. The longer and more aggressive the diet is, the bigger the muscle loss is. Also, the leaner you get, the more your body begins to protect its fat stores and instead burns lean tissue1"As the availability of adipose tissue declines the likelihood of muscle loss increases, thus it may be best to pursue a more gradual approach to weight loss towards the end of the preparation diet compared to the beginning to avoid LBM loss.” Helms et al. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation..
If you continuously find yourself dieting, not only are you sacrificing time that would be better spent toward building muscle, but you are also at risk of losing the muscle and strength you already have.This is primarily thanks to the physiological and hormonal changes that take place. A significant issue here is the lowering in testosterone to cortisol ratio which is often used to measure anabolism and catabolism (source, source, source). This creates a net catabolic state where your body breaks down tissue to meet its caloric needs. At that point, building muscle is near impossible unless you’re a beginner, de-trained, or using PEDs2A process known as body recomposition..
Eating fewer calories also makes it challenging to complete higher volume workouts that are needed for muscle growth. You are forced to lower your volume but maintain the intensity to keep your muscle around3You can technically train with high volumes in a deficit, but don’t expect that to spark muscle growth..
And finally, even if we overlooked most of the above considerations, dieting takes away the time you could otherwise spend in a caloric surplus and building muscle. Rather than spending your time on building a solid foundation of muscle and strength, you are continually chasing aesthetics and finding yourself not much different from year to year.
Eating Disorders and Binges
The even more devastating effects of the chronic calorie deficit are the eating disorders we can develop.
Dieting is stressful to the body and mind. As you lose fat, hormones responsible for satiety such as leptin, peptide YY, and cholecystokinin decrease (source, source, source). Ghrelin, well known as the ‘hunger hormone’ skyrockets (source, source, source).
Your body becomes primed for fat storage, and your endless appetite and dozens of cravings make it incredibly easy to overeat. You get to a point where all you can think about is food. More specifically, how much you miss it.
And if you’ve diet long enough, you eventually reach a point where you’re so hungry that everything looks good. A bowl of chopped up cabbage with some salt and apple cider vinegar? Oh my, bring it here!4Yes, I’ve been there. And it sucked.
On the one hand, you want to keep going because you want to get leaner. On the other hand, you want to eat like a normal human again. But this feeling of starvation eventually leads to slip-ups- like bingeing on ten thousand calories in a day sort of slip-up. And this is where it all goes down the drain.
You enter the binge-purge cycle. You finish a binge session, feel disgusted and ashamed, so you put yourself in a calorie deficit again to offset it. A week or so goes by, and you’re back to your hungry and deprived self. So you binge again. And so you purge again. On and on it goes.
It’s no secret that extreme dieting (e.g., for a bodybuilding show) often make people develop eating disorders, at least temporarily. It is stressful as hell, and it’s why many people find themselves regaining all the weight, and then some.
Spinning Your Wheels
One often underestimated factor about both bulking and cutting is momentum.
Building muscle and losing fat are similar in many regards, but there are key differences with the training and nutrition. Muscle-gaining periods require higher training volumes (which often include more exercises), and more food. Fat loss requires less training volume and fewer exercises combined with a calorie deficit.
This means that you may develop different habits for each goal. For example, I practice intermittent fasting when looking to shed fat because it makes it easy for me to stick to 2500-2700 calories. But I eat from morning to dawn when looking to build muscle because I wouldn’t be able to push down 3600-3800 calories otherwise.
I also train four to five times per week when gaining muscle and only three if my goal is fat loss.
Already there are two significant changes to my daily habits. But once I gain some momentum in either direction, my habits make it easy to continue. It becomes automatic, and I don’t have to put much thought.
But if I were to switch between dieting and gaining every few weeks, I would end up spinning my wheels. Intermittent fasting one week, then eating breakfast the next. Doing lots of volume and having more training days one week, then cutting it all down the next.
There’s also the importance of psychological momentum. Gaining a bit of body fat after dieting can be disheartening and almost make you quit. But if you spend a few weeks in a surplus, you’ll feel much more comfortable and won’t fret about every single pound of scale weight.
The same goes for fat loss. The initial week or two might suck a bit because you’re eating less and feeling hungrier, but that often passes once you gain momentum. Hunger becomes much less noticeable, and you don’t always think about jumping back into gaining.
There is also a case we can make about our hormones. We know full well that both weight gain and fat loss have distinct effects on our hormones.
Fat loss leads to lower testosterone, insulin, and T3. It also leads to lower leptin levels and higher ghrelin and cortisol levels. This creates a catabolic environment, lowers your metabolic rate, and increases the likelihood of overeating and storing fat.
Weight gain has the opposite effect - our testosterone, insulin, IGF-1, cortisol, and T3 stabilize. Leptin increased, and ghrelin decreases. This creates an anabolic environment, our metabolic rate increases, and our appetite improves.
Is it then not wise to give enough time for these hormonal changes to take effect? At least in the case of gaining?5I first came across this idea from Mike Israetel in a podcast he did with Steve from ReviveStronger. I don’t remember which episode it was, but I wholeheartedly recommend listening to all of them.
My Experiences With Chronic Dieting
Being a former fat boy, I was always reluctant to bulk. A solid year went by after my initial weight loss (244 lbs/110 kg down to 170 lbs/77 kg at 6’3”/191 cm), and I was still afraid to eat in a surplus. I always reasoned that I could build muscle without gaining scale weight6Spoiler alert: Nah, I couldn't..
I guess it came with the territory. I was overweight for over five years, and I couldn’t shake off the feeling of being fat so quickly.
But I eventually got over it and managed to do a few pretty decent bulking phases. For the most part, I followed the typical bro seasons of bulking and cutting.
Then, I got to 230 pounds/104 kilos and found myself panicking a bit. I was dangerously close to my old weight and felt like a fat slob. Though I now had a lot more muscle and was training consistently, I immediately found myself dieting.
I lost roughly 14 kilos in several months, so I decided to get back to gaining. Only now I found myself wondering, “Should I go back to bulking or diet a bit more.”
Every time I would convince myself to get back to gaining, I would go about it for a week, then start dieting. This went on for just under a year. I thought about whether I should start gaining or keep dieting at least several times per week. The mental effort of going back and forth alone was exhausting.
This constant wondering also cost me a lot of progress. I wasn’t making gains in either direction: no significant fat loss or muscle gain. In fact, I probably lost some muscle and strength.
As time went on, I eventually got back to my old self and could bulk for over a week without going crazy.
In retrospect, I’d say my biggest issue was the fact that I was overweight before that. But I’ve found from clients, readers, and friends that there could be many reasons why that happens. Vanity seems like the culprit here.
How I Broke Out of the Cursed Cycle (and How You Can, Too)
I’m by no means an expert here, but I’ll share some things that helped me break out of the chronic dieting cycle. I hope they are useful to you, too.
1. I decided to stop wasting my time.
It all starts with a decision. No amount of talking to myself and looking for excuses was going to help me. I had to make a decision and stick with it.
It wasn’t without its ups and downs, but I looked at the facts, saw that I wasn’t getting anywhere, and gave up the pursuit of leanness. Of course, making a decision could never have worked as a stand-alone strategy. I also had to make a plan. So I did:
2. I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t getting anywhere.
The back and forth became almost infuriating. Even though I was training consistently and borderline obsessing over my nutrition, I hadn’t made any noticeable progress in a whole year. My strength hadn’t improved, I wasn’t leaner, and I wasn’t more muscular.
I was stuck. And I made sure to remind myself that I wasn’t getting anywhere. Any other path would have more productive than this.
3. I stopped weighing myself on the scale.
Up until that point, I had spent the previous three years weighing myself almost every morning and writing it down. But I realized that fixating on the arbitrary scale number was the main thing that always kicked me back into dieting.
Every time I gained a couple of pounds, I would decide that I should lean down first before committing to a bulk. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of back and forth with my calories and goals.
So I took a break from weighing myself. I spent a full five months without stepping on the scale once and instead went by visual tracking and made sure to increase food conservatively. I was near maintenance or slightly over for the most part, and I made some significant progress7I’m not saying that tracking calories and body weight are bad. But if it gets to the point of obsession, you should take a step back..
For the first time in over a year, I didn’t feel tempted to jump back into dieting. I didn’t know how much I weighed and, frankly, I didn’t care.
4. I stopped obsessing over every single calorie.
Much like weighing myself daily, I found that tracking every calorie also made me doubt myself all the time. Eating felt like my full-time job. I was in bulk mode or cut mode. Nothing in-between.
Every time I would go into a ‘bulking phase,’ I felt uncomfortable. Like it couldn’t lead to anything positive. Every time I dieted, I felt good about myself. Of course, that also lasted until the hunger from dieting began to catch up.
So, I decided to give myself a break from tracking. I still had a rough idea of my caloric intake, and I still tracked my protein, but I tried to get myself out of the mindset of ‘bulking’ or ‘cutting.’
I was eating to satiety and training hard.
5. I got off social media.
I’ve written about the destructive effects social media can have on us and our perceptions of what the human body should look like - you can check it out here. I’ve experienced it first hand, and I know how inadequate it can make me feel.
Comparing yourself to other people is self-destructive at worst, and counterproductive at best - it goes double for doing so on social media.
Because of that, I quit social media for a while. No Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram. And the fact is, I didn’t feel pressured to live up to some unachievable standard. I felt happier and more comfortable with how I looked.
This allowed me to pursue a productive gaining phase without feeling guilty every time I ate.
I hope you got a lot of value out of this article. Having been there myself, I understand the struggle. I know full well how frustrating it feels to want one thing, but to always push myself in the opposite direction.
With that said, I’ve also put together a handy PDF guide on how to determine whether you should bulk or cut next. Of course, if you feel comfortable, you shouldn’t try to live up to some arbitrary standards.
If you are interested, click the button below.