If you’ve resorted to extreme crash diets in the past, does that make it harder to lose weight this time round? Emma Brown, nutritionist from Nutracheck has the answer

The frustration of hitting a weight loss plateau is something most dieters will experience at some stage. It is a normal biological response to a period of reduced energy intake. If we crash diet, it is more likely that we’ll hit a plateau and that readjusting to a ‘normal’ way of eating again could be that bit harder. But are the effects of extreme diets permanent, or can the metabolic changes be reversed? Let’s discuss!

Does crash dieting make it harder to lose weight in the future?

In a word, no. The metabolic effects of following a very restrictive diet for a period of time, are not permanent. Essentially, if you were to crash diet one year, then regain the weight and then try again to lose weight the next year, you shouldn’t find it any harder than anyone else would, or more difficult than if you’d just followed a moderate weight loss approach.

Crash dieting or any kind of dieting doesn’t permanently damage our metabolism, but there are many factors that affect how well we lose weight at any given time – and these can vary from person to person and from year to year.

So why does it seem harder?

Many people feel that losing weight gets harder each time they try. There can be many reasons for this. Maybe you’re not cutting as many calories as last time, so your weight loss is slower. Perhaps you are now less active than you used to be. If you’ve stopped exercising maybe your body composition has changed (muscle burns calories but fat doesn’t).

If you are perimenopausal or have been through the menopause, hormonal changes could be having an effect. Maybe you haven’t had a period of ‘normality’ in order for your body to reset. And a natural part of getting older is that our metabolism slows by two to five per cent per decade. There are countless possible reasons – but a ‘broken’ metabolism isn’t likely to be one of them.

What does slow down weight loss?

That said, it is true that following a very low-calorie intake for a prolonged period of time will have undesirable effects on metabolism at the time you are doing it – but this can be rectified.

Our bodies are very adaptive and will adjust to survive in the best way. If energy is scarce, changes occur to help preserve energy – but if energy is adequate, the same preservation techniques are not needed. For this reason, following a very low calorie intake is generally not beneficial in the long run. While cutting out 1,000 calories per day should provide weight loss of around 2lbs per week, cutting out 1,500 calories per day does not necessarily lead to 3lbs per week weight loss – which makes the more extreme calorie restriction unnecessary.

This ‘preservation response’ will occur with any level of dieting – but to a lesser extent if calorie reduction is moderate. When we lower our calorie intake, our body uses less energy for various reasons – reduced thermic effect of food as we’re eating less; losing weight means less body mass to support; losing muscle mass causes energy output to be reduced. Loss of muscle mass is particularly likely if we cut calories drastically, as our body starts breaking down muscle as fuel – and losing muscle mass is a sure fire way to reduce our energy output and slow our weight loss!

What is the best approach?

If you’re finding it tough to lose weight, go back to basics. Keep a food diary so you know exactly how much you’re eating and keep to a healthy intake of 1200-1400 calories a day (minimum). You might want to use an App like Nutracheck that calculates an appropriate personal target for you. If you stick to a realistic calorie intake such as this, be as active as you can and eat a well-balanced diet with foods from all the major food groups – you should lose weight at a healthy and sustainable rate.

While the most important factor for weight loss is energy in versus energy out, the type of food we eat plays a crucial role. For example, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will provide all important vitamins and minerals to help our body function at its best (many vitamins are used for nutrient metabolism). Including plenty of lean protein and high fibre foods helps us to feel fuller for longer, making it easier to stick to a reduced intake. So it’s easy to see how choosing the right foods can make losing weight more achievable and enjoyable.

If you’re sure you’re doing everything right and still aren’t seeing a shift on the scales, increasing your activity level is one of the best ways to kick start weight loss. Introducing some strength training (with resistance or weights) to boost your lean muscle mass is an effective way to boost your metabolic rate too – so definitely worth a try.