Since we are fresh into New Year's resolution territory (something I am not a fan of) I figured this would be a good time to make a case for not going all-in on something with the hopes that it'll produce faster results.
In the game of fitness and nutrition, not many things that come quickly last long. Even aerobic fitness, which you make the fastest adaptations to, is the first physiological quality to go when you stop training. You could argue for power and explosiveness too but those are also relatively genetic.
The same principle applies to fat loss or muscle gain. Aside from "newbie" gains which are the adaptations you make when either first starting any exercise program, especially strength training, or starting a new dietary approach, not much that comes fast will last(hey that rhymed!).
Think of when you FIRST started lifting weights: you put on a bunch of muscle quickly, add 10-20lbs to all your lifts week to week and may even lose fat at a pretty fast rate. But 6 months down the line, things really slow down. This is the typical physiological response to a new stress and you simply can't force adaptations or changes faster than the body will make them. Anytime someone gives you "X" example of "Well, when I first started lifting I ate everything in sight and added 30lbs" or "all it took for me to lose 10lbs was running twice a week", you can be pretty sure they're referring to a brand new endeavor they started and the results are almost guaranteed not to be repeated. Heck, I am a thin guy and I went from 165 to 195 when I first started lifting by "eating everything" but that was just my metabolic and muscular response to new training and not something I could repeat. To add 30lbs now in about the 6months I did it the first time would be almost all bodyfat.
The principle apples to many other things like the first time someones tries a low-carb diet and leans out a lot but when weight starts to creep back on and they try to repeat the initial success, the same approach yields much less results. Even supplements like creatine usually have a first-time effect that is significantly higher than subsequent uses. Many trainess find the first time they try creatine they add 5-10lbs within weeks. In the future it may provide not weight (muscle gain) at all.
See, we are very adaptive creatures. Everything we do is adaptation. We are constantly moving in the direction of positive or negative adaptation. Just sit on the couch for 2 weeks and you'll adapt to that.....poor posture, loss of muscle mass, gains in body fat. Start playing tennis every day and 2 weeks in you'll improve a lot in speed and hand eye coordination. However, the body learns and this is why we get more proficient at things. This proficiency also means we burn less calories at an exercise the better we get at it. We adapt because our body wants to expend the least energy possible to do any task.
This is why many nutrition clients I work with who've lost weight running can't maintain that weight loss. The better they get at running the fewer calories they burn while running and the more miles they need to run to burn the same calories. But have them do some hard interval work and weight training and it's like magic how fast they'll lose fat. But eventually they adapt to that too and things need to change. It's the simple reason that the longer you lift weights the more weight you have to add to the bar because lifting 200lbs from now until you die won't produce any adaptations after a few weeks or months.
So, when it come to fat loss, why is slow and steady still the best way? Here we go...
For a while, science thought that adults don't create new fat cells. Research has shown that we are all born with a set number of fat cells and this determines a lot of what your body composition will be as an adult. In people with fewer fat cells, which are often less sensitive to nutrients, it's almost like they can't gain fat because the fat cells are few and they don't want to store any excess calories. But the opposite is also true: people with a lot of fat cells that are also sensitive to nutrients put it on very easily.
As kids, we have something call brown fat. It actually contains mitochondria which burns energy and this helps to produce heat to keep babies and little kids warm but also we can burn off the brown fat as we get older so it is easily lost. White fat however likes to stick around. There is some debate about how long it takes for a fat cell to die, but it's years.
So if you get lean, the longer you stay lean the better your changes of staying lean, know what I'm saying? If you stay lean your fat cells will lose sensitivity and eventually die off. But it takes a lot of time.
This is why yo-yo dieting is terrible for you. TERRIBLE for you. One more time: TERRIBLE for you.
Ok, lets say Jack is 250lbs. Jack would be lean and healthy at 175lbs so he has 75lbs of fat to lose. He's been heavy for a long time and he finally joins a gym and decides to eat healthy and make a new change. Jack starts coming to the gym 4 days a week and tosses out all his candy and soda and white bread at home. He goes low carb and eats protein and veggies and starts losing fat fast. It's awesome!
In the gym, Jack's trainer keeps pushing him and when he gets stronger they add weight to the lift or more reps. He can push a little further during finishers and he does. He likes getting stronger and having the motivation and direction of the trainer is critical for him and he knows it.
Within 3 months Jack is down to 210lbs. He lost 40lbs of fat really fast. The problem is that his weight loss is starting to slow and he is getting tired of eating so healthy. At work he starts sneaking a cookie here and there and on the weekend he starts eating burgers and pizza because he tells himself "I deserve this for all my hard work". The thing is, Jack DOES deserve to have a free meal here and there.
Within a few weeks, Jack's weight starts creeping back up. He still trains hard and is getting stronger but he is gaining the weight back fast. He gets frustrated so he just says "F- this" and goes back to his old dietary ways. Withing another few months Jack now weighs 260lbs and more frustrated than ever.
So where did he go wrong?
The problem is not that he made improvements or was really excited to make a change. The problem Jack faced, like many, is that he went in all or nothing. This tends to produce some great results off the bat and this is awesome but then it slowed down, and they WILL slow down. But you think- I am training hard, pushing myself in the gym, eating well, saying no to anything thats not a vegetable or protein and I am not losing 3lbs a week anymore!
See, he made huge changes and his body made huge adaptations too. It just took a while for his body to catch up, but when it did it met his current calorie intake with it's own calorie expenditure (because it always wants to normalize things) and then progress halted. The second and most dangerous thing is that Jack then got frustrated, went back to his old eating and gained back MORE than when he started.
This is because he had been overweight for a long time and those fat cells shrunk but they didn't go anywhere. Jack also had really sensitive fat cells so they were just WAITING to gobble up his excess calories when the time came and then some. Now he has 10 more lbs to lose and if he goes all or nothing again, it'll take an even more extreme approach to get the same results, which will inevitably, stall.
You are always better off making the smallest change to get a result and only changing when progress stalls. This not only keeps you sane but it also means you have LOTS of adaptation left to coax out of your metabolism to keep fat loss going for a long time. It also means all those changes will be more "set" so you won't be as likely to gain anything back if you have a cheat meal or unexpected dietary change.
But almost no one wants to hear this. It;s just too much to swallow and hard to believe. But you'll say "so and so said they dropped ALL carbs and they got lean and stayed there". Again, many people giving these examples are either
B. Weren't overweight that long so it wasn't hard to drop the body fat or
C. Misunderstand what it is they actually did and give you a well intentioned but ill informed example.
I find case "C" to be very common. People give the example of how they gained all this muscle from doing x. y or z but they just don't realize they were 18 and had genetics and hormones and brand new adaptations all working for them. This goes for fat loss as well.
If you just dedicated the next year to make a change knowing that it was the start of a lfelong endeavor, it would be much easier to see progress in perspective. We can all try something for two weeks but it's nonsense to think it will produce a lasting result. Not only is slower more sane and managable but it's actually the healthiest way to go.