There are many unhealthy ways to lose weight. You’ve probably heard of some of the more bizarre and dangerous methods such as painful tongue implants that keep you from eating solid food, smoking and illegal drug use, or “tapeworm” diets.
Then there are the rapid weight loss techniques used by fitness competitors and weight-class athletes that are far from healthy and can be life-threateningly dangerous. There’s also the whole class of mainstream methods, including juice fasts, low-calorie diets, and meal skipping that most people have tried at some point in their lives.
Although these methods vary in terms of how painful they are, they will all do more harm than good.
All of these weight loss methods lead to a large loss of lean muscle mass, which makes you weaker and reduces the amount of calories your body burns daily. Lack of calories also causes an overall metabolic slowdown that is offset by a reduction in hunger-fighting hormones and an increase in hormones that trigger food intake.
Other negative side effects include nutrient deficiencies, dehydration, insomnia, and in severe cases, even death. So that you don’t go wasting your time on any of these ridiculous diets, this article will review five dangerous ways to lose weight and give you ten recommendations for what to try instead.
#1: Slashing Calories
Slashing calories below your resting metabolic rate (RMR)—the amount of calories your body burns at rest if you were to stay in bed all day—is a common method for losing fat that is way more trouble than it’s worth. When you go below your RMR, your body quickly downregulates your metabolism because it senses the lack of incoming energy as a threat. This means that you burn fewer calories daily, and unless you cut calories even lower, fat loss will stall.
Severe caloric restriction may also lead the body to burn stored muscle proteins as a fuel source, which will lead to the loss of lean muscle mass and a further drop in metabolic rate. Studies show that people who lose a lot of muscle during weight loss tend to regain all the weight, replacing the fat with fat and the muscle with fat within two years.
This is a terrible situation because it means they have a worse body composition and worse health. Weight cycling is associated with the development of inflammation that increases heart disease risk over time. It also causes severe hormonal changes that the body won’t recover from even if you regain all the weight you lost.
#2: Excessive Fasting
For some people, an organized fasting protocol can aid fat loss and have beneficial metabolic effects such as improved insulin health and greater fat burning. But it’s easy to take fasting too far, especially when you’re trying to get lean quickly.
When on a fast, it’s easy for that little voice in your head to tell you to keep going and skip another meal until you’ve gone all day without eating. Your stress levels are sky high and your body is well into cannibalizing your own precious muscle to keep you going.
Any time you don’t eat, cortisol is elevated to provide energy by converting amino acids from the muscles into glucose to provide the body and brain with energy. This leads to the loss of lean mass mentioned in number one, causing your RMR to plummet.
The high cortisol triggers intense cravings for unhealthy foods, often leading you to overeat once you do give in and break your fast. Another result of excessive fasting is that insulin is elevated when cortisol raises blood sugar. Every so often this is not a problem, but when it happens day after day, your cells become less receptive to insulin, which causes inflammation and is the beginning of a deranged metabolism that will make it harder to maintain a healthy weight down the road.
#3: Zero Carb Diets
There can be a time and a place for a very low-carb diet, but zero carb diets are never a good idea. One thing that sets you up for failure when it comes to fat loss is if your diet is radically different from normal. Completely eliminating carbs is too far removed from how people normally eat.
Additionally, removing an entire macronutrient significantly limits variety. After all, people enjoy eating carbs and eliminating them tends to make them cranky and cause more psychological trouble than it’s worth. Carbs also provide a lot of nutrients and fiber that are beneficial for health and weight loss.
The most antioxidant-rich foods are carbohydrates—berries, leafy greens, kiwis, pomegranates, plums, grapes, and cruciferous vegetables, just to name a few. Finally, low-carb vegetables go a long way in filling you up when you’re trying to lose fat because on most sensible nutrition plans, they are free for all food that you can eat as much as you want.
#4: Quick-Fix Supplements
Although certain supplements, such as HMB or beta-alanine, can improve fat loss when done in conjunction with a weight-training program, none of these training aids are the magic bullet for fat loss.
Sure, it would be a godsend if there was a natural fat loss supplement that could help us overcome our bad habits, but the reality is that quick fixes almost never work, and the ones that do legitimately elevate metabolic rate or reduce appetite, such as high doses of caffeine or ephedra, may put you at cardiovascular risk, stress your adrenals, and harm your liver.
It all comes down to habits and what you do every day. Supplements will never outweigh a propensity for overeating or the bad news caused by a sedentary lifestyle.
#5: Combination Rapid Weight Loss Techniques
Weight-class athletes and fitness competitors alike use a combination of rapid weight loss techniques to prepare for competition that have the potential to harm health and compromise performance.
For example, simultaneously cutting calories and carbs leads to an increased reliance on stored muscle proteins as fuel during training. This results in poorer performance and the loss of muscle mass, and may be accompanied by nutrient deficiencies over time.
Dehydration by restricting water and often doing activities that cause excessive sweating is a common practice used by both fitness competitors and weight-class athletes in preparation for competition. It won’t directly lead to fat loss unless combined with calorie restriction, but “drying out” has been shown to easily produce weight loss ranging from 7 to 10 pounds in a week.
For fitness competitors, dehydration accompanied by sodium restriction helps pull subcutaneous water from underneath the skin into the muscles for a fuller but tighter appearance. For weight-class athletes, like judo and other martial arts, weight loss is just for weigh in and then competitors typically have 24 hours to refuel and rehydrate.
But, there are many downsides: Just a 2 percent drop in water weight can compromise athletic performance, increase mental fatigue, and cause sleepiness, nausea, vomiting and apathy. More extreme dehydration increases risk of heat-related illness and has even been implicated in death in weight-class athletes.
The combination of rapid weight loss techniques often leads to a double whammy of negative physical and psychological effects including decreased short-term memory, depression, fatigue, poor self-esteem, increased heart rate, impaired temperature regulation, muscle glycogen depletion, and reduced buffering capacity.
Ten Recommendations For Successful & Sustainable Fat Loss:
Tip #1: Shoot for a gradual weight loss in the range of 1 kg a week. Be sure to eat a wide range of foods to avoid nutrient deficiencies and consume adequate protein to preserve muscle mass.
Tip #2: Don’t shy away from intense strength training. Strength training will help maintain strength and muscle mass during fat loss.
Tip #3: Do short interval workouts instead of long-duration cardio. Sprints and high-intensity training boosts calorie expenditure in the recovery period and triggers protein synthesis so you build muscle, preserving metabolic rate.
Tip #4: Minimize muscle loss and dehydration when trying to lose fat by eating a high-protein diet and getting adequate water and electrolytes.
Tip #5: Try taking branched chain amino acids in conjunction with a weight-training program to avoid muscle loss. Creatine supplementation has also been beneficial for preserving muscle mass, however, body weight may stay the same because creatine increases cellular hydration.
Tip #6: When going low-carb, take the long view. Short-term low-carb diets of a few days often lead to decreased physical performance whereas longer-term low-carb diets allow for metabolic adaptation so that body can efficiently burn fat, producing more positive results.
Tip #7: Don’t rely on the scale. Test your body fat using a reliable skinfold test. You can lose 8 to 10 pounds in as little as two days by restricting water and carbs, but none of this will be body fat. On the other hand, if you ramp up your training so that you build muscle and increase energy substrate storage, such as glycogen and creatine in the muscles, you may be improving body composition while gaining weight. Therefore, the only easily accessible method that will reliably measure body composition is a skinfold test.
Tip #8: Don’t be afraid of dietary fat. Very low-fat diets tend to yield less than stellar body composition results because they don’t supply the nutrition necessary for the body to synthesize hormones. Additionally, they require strict calorie counting—an approach that is a headache and increases level of perceived stress, unnecessarily elevating cortisol.
Tip #9: When cutting weight for sports or a fitness competition, never go below your resting metabolic rate (RMR) and always use an increased protein intake. The Cunningham equation has been validated for athletic populations to calculate RMR where RMR = (lean body mass in kg X 22) + 500.
Tip #10: Focus on pre- and post-workout nutrition to get the most out of workouts and enhance recovery. Use whey protein for its greater muscle building and higher thermic effect than casein or soy. Post-workout is the best time to eat carbs because the muscles will be hypersensitive to insulin.