Unpleasant fact about weight loss: maintaining your goal weight is actually harder than getting there. It’s hard to lose weight, but lots of people manage that part. Where they stumble is keeping it off: they slowly slide back into their old eating habits after they hit their goal weight and all their hard work gets undone. There's also the very real problem of metabolic slowdown, which is your body's way of fighting back against weight loss.
Don’t let this happen to you! Make a plan in advance for weight maintenance as an ongoing commitment: this should be something you think about as you lose weight, not something you suddenly start considering once the scale finally shows you the number you’ve been waiting for. You don’t necessarily have to keep eating keto in exactly the same way during maintenance: your best weight-maintenance diet might be a little different from your best weight-loss diet. On the other hand, if you go back to eating what you used to eat, sooner or later you’ll weigh just as much as you used to weigh!
The good news is that keto is probably a good choice for kicking off a successful weight maintenance period. At least one meta-analysis has found that low-carb or high-protein diets were associated with better weight maintenance in the long run, even after the study diet ended and people were allowed to go back to their normal eating patterns. So to kick off your planning for life after weight loss, take a look at 4 options for long-term goal weight maintenance.
1. Keep on with keto, but eat a little more food.
Keto is perfectly safe for the long term and there’s no real need to come out of ketosis if you don’t want to. If you feel great on keto and never want to quit - don’t!
Weight loss, keto or otherwise, is all about a calorie deficit. If you want to stay keto but don’t want to lose any more weight, the solution is just to eat a little bit more fat and protein than you had been eating, without raising carbs enough to get out of ketosis. There’s no magical property of ketosis that will cause you to lose weight while you’re taking in as many calories as you use; the trick is just to find that perfect amount of food for your height/weight/activity level. It’s different for everyone and not something that a generic online calculator can predict: we all have to learn it for ourselves based on experience.
The big benefit of this approach is that there’s no risk of extra carbs causing new/more cravings. A lot of people find that if they start eating more carbs, all the blood sugar highs and lows come right back and the sugar cravings suddenly reappear - then it’s a constant willpower battle again, just what you were trying to avoid with keto. You can completely prevent this entire problem by just staying on keto to begin with.
2. Switch from fat loss to muscle gain.
This isn’t technically weight maintenance, since you’ll be (slowly and intentionally) gaining weight. It’s more like “fat maintenance:” you’ll be maintaining a low body fat percentage while adding more muscle. Muscle mass improves metabolic flexibility, strengthens your bones, reduces long-term risk of type 2 diabetes, and makes it harder to regain fat. If you want a body-change “project” to keep improving your health after weight loss, muscle gain might be just the ticket!
To do this option, you’ll need to be doing some kind of resistance training (powerlifting, weightlifting, bodypump classes, bodyweight conditioning, whatever you like). That will give your muscles the signal to grow; the next step is giving them the fuel they need. Two popular choices:
- Add more calories and protein; keep carbs low.
- Add more carbs around workouts only.
Protein should be relatively high for building muscle regardless of which approach you take.
1-2 pounds a week is about as much muscle as most people can realistically gain (unless they’re absolute beginners who have never even touched a weight before), so if you’re gaining much more than that, it’s probably partly fat. You can either gain lean mass slowly, gain a lot of mass quickly and then diet to lose the fat while keeping the muscle, or strike a balance between the two. Adjust your calorie surplus to the amount of fat you’re willing to gain in the interest of putting on muscle and getting stronger.
3. Transition to low-carb (but not keto) Paleo.
Your carb limit for active weight loss might be much stricter than the carb limit you need just to maintain. There’s a difference between “low-carb” and “ketogenic:” some people don’t have to be actively in ketosis to stay at a healthy weight, as long as they stick with low-carb eating.
Why would you want to increase carbs if keto has been working out for you? The advantage of raising carbs is that you get more flexibility to eat extra vegetables, which can help you get a more micronutrient-dense diet and add more variety to your meals. Parsnips, carrots, and butternut squash are pretty tasty, especially once you’ve cured yourself of butter-phobia! If you’re going to stick with this for the long haul, having as many options as possible is helpful.
One potential approach is to raise your daily carb limit by 10-20 grams, hold that for a week or two, and then reassess: you can keep stepping up slowly until you stop feeling good and/or start re-gaining weight (bear in mind that you will inevitably gain a pound or two of WATER weight with more carbs in your diet, but 5 pounds or more is a sign that you’re regaining real weight, not just water).
If you want to experiment with some extra carbs, but you’re scared of falling down a slippery slope into a typical junk food diet, sticking with Paleo foods is one way to put some more objective, specific limits on your diet so it doesn’t totally go off the rails. Paleo carbs are generally nutrient-dense and fiber-rich (with the exception of pure sweeteners like honey or maple syrup), which makes them less tempting to overeat. It’s not necessarily impossible to gain weight on sweet potatoes and plantains, but it’s a lot harder than gaining weight on animal crackers and bagel chips.
4. Experiment with intermittent fasting
This is a strategy for dealing with that feeling of “I’ve worked so hard! Now I deserve to relax!”
If you want to feel a little more laid-back about eating during weight maintenance, intermittent fasting is a good way to turn up the “cruise control” feeling. Basically, you’re only allowed to eat during a specific window, but you have a lot more freedom with your meals during that window. For most people, the compression of the eating window naturally limits the amount of food that they eat, so instead of weighing or measuring food to restrict portions, they can just follow the clock. This is psychologically easier for some people, since when you do eat, you get to feast.
Options for intermittent fasting include:
- Eating normally 5-6 days a week with 1-2 days of total fasting
- Eating in a 6-10 hour window every day (for example, noon to 8 pm), but not at any other time of day. Your eating window can be early in the day (breakfast and lunch, but no dinner) or late in the day (lunch and dinner, but no breakfast), whatever you prefer.
Combine intermittent fasting with maintenance keto, muscle-gaining keto, or low-carb Paleo, whatever works well for you.