This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Hacker's Diet" by John Walker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you cycle through losing and gaining weight endlessly? How can you keep the weight off for good?
In his book The Hacker’s Diet, John Walker says that most people who go on diets tend to gain back all of the weight they lost and sometimes more. Walker proposed two methods for keeping weight off: daily weight tracking and meal planning.
Keep reading for Walker’s advice on how to maintain weight loss.
Perfect Weight Forever
The majority of people who lose weight end up gaining back every pound they lost. You might have gone through a few cycles of this yourself and don’t know how to maintain your weight loss. You might feel hopeless that even if you do lose weight, you will inevitably gain it back — so what’s the point?
The reason people regain weight is that they don’t change their eating behaviors after they lose weight. Meeting their goal, they blissfully return to using their broken eat clock.
Assuming that you were born with a broken eat clock and it’s not possible to develop a working one, keeping your weight for a lifetime requires a lifetime of guidance about how much to eat. Specifically, this means continuing the best practices of what got you here: 1) daily weight tracking and 2) meal planning.
Someone with poor eyesight has to wear corrective lenses to see properly. Without them, she is lost. Likewise, you may have to accept that you have genetically problematic eating controls.
This is the cost of being healthy and avoiding yo-yo weight fluctuations. It’s also the cost of earning valuable freedom — in the foods you eat, your meal schedule, and how much or little you exercise. You can return to eating whatever you want — just in limited, predetermined portions.
Remember the pain you felt during your weight loss. You don’t want to go through that again, do you? Look back at your starting photo. You don’t want to look like that again, do you? It’s worth it.
Note this does NOT mean being on a diet for the rest of your life. It simply means eating at maintenance calories forever. You can still enjoy all the foods you like — just in moderation.
But if you’ve failed before, why will you succeed this time? After reading this, you now understand your body and weight to a degree you never had before. You’ve devised your own successful diet plan. You’ve stabilized your weight, rather than yo-yoing back into bad habits.
Daily Weight Tracking
Once you reach your target weight, you must not lose discipline in tracking your weight daily. Day to day variations are hard to detect in the mirror. Without measuring yourself, you can gain 5 pounds within weeks, with the only warning sign being your clothes one day fitting less well. By then you have to endure the painful transition to calorie deficit once again.
The goal is to keep tight thresholds around your target weight. If you go overweight and break a threshold, you have to modify your behavior to lose the weight again.
- Within a band of 2 pounds of your weight target, you can maintain as normal. So if your target weight is 150, then as long as you’re between 148 and 152, keep on doing what you’re doing.
- If you break 2 pounds of your weight target, you must correct your eating plan slightly to bring your trend line back to normal weight.
- Cut out slightly more than the calorie excess from the recent chart. If your trend shows you gaining 1 pound every 2 weeks, that’s 250 calories every day — try cutting out 300 calories from your diet.
- Eating 100 fewer calories each day over a month means losing a pound a month. This is not so much that you’ll be hungry, it just requires judicious watching of what you eat and avoiding eating beyond what you planned.
- Remember if you had a particularly heavy days where you broke the daily allotment of calories. Think about how you’ll avoid that in the future.
- If you break 5 pounds of your weight target, you’ve hit the brick wall. This signals immediate danger of falling back into bad habits and climbing back to your starting weight. Immediately resume the meal plan you used to lose weight, and stay on it until the trend falls to below goal weight.
- The good news is, to lose 5 pounds, you just need to cut 500 calories a day to lose 5 pounds in a month.
(The above is written assuming you’ve gained weight, since this is by far the more common problem, but the same applies to unexpectedly losing weight. If you’re losing more weight than you want, then you need to increase the number of calories you eat.)
The idea is a negative feedback loop, where perturbations from your target weight are nudged back toward your target weight.
Luckily, as you master controlling what you eat, the instances where you hit the brick wall become rarer.
Once you reach your target weight, you have the benefit of increasing your daily calorie intake to your maintenance amount. If you were cutting at a rate of 500 calories per day, then you get to add those calories back to your diet.
However, you must not lose discipline around planning your daily calorie intake and planning your meals. If you return to your previous eating habits (eating more than you burn), you will inevitably gain weight.
Even if you control yourself to a large extent, slipping just a little bit each day will still cause your weight to creep up. An extra 200 calories per day — just a handful of nuts, a second serving of mashed potatoes — means you’ll gain 1 pound roughly every 2 weeks. At the end of a year, you’ll have gained 20 pounds.
These insidious small doses of eating lead to feelings of futility and helplessness. “I didn’t even change anything — I haven’t gone back to my all-out binges, but I still gained weight.” Sticking to your meal plan will prevent this setback.
Luckily, over months, you will develop a good intuition for how many calories a type of food contains. You develop a habit of eating a reasonable amount at a meal, and exceeding this feels inappropriate. You’re still planning meals, but doing it subconsciously, in your head. You know that a dollop of mashed potatoes, with two chicken drumsticks, is the right meal size.
If you follow both strategies, you’ll stay thin for the rest of your life. Others will ask, “how do you manage to stay so thin?” The answer: “When I start to gain, I eat a little less. When I start to lose, I eat a little more.” Simple. And maybe a little easy, once you learn to do it.
Finally, even though you’ve fixed your own weight problem, many still struggle with theirs. Don’t have contempt for those who haven’t achieved enlightenment like you have; also don’t nag them to emulate your practices and convince them to adopt your ways. Your success is the strongest form of persuasion. When they are ready to receive help and when they approach you, only then should you share what you’ve learned.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Hacker's Diet summary :
- An engineer’s approach to weight loss
- Why losing weight is so hard even though it's so simple
- What you have to do to maintain your ideal weight for the rest of your life