Our bodies go through natural phases and have different needs in each of those phases.
As part of a simple fitness guidance approach, we advocate for really listening to your body and adjusting your diet and exercise accordingly. Becoming an intuitive eater and exerciser, as well as practicing intuitive self emotional care, is more beneficial to overall health than following a fad diet program to the T – ignoring your body and mind in the process.
Many people will decide to go on a specific diet because of health or weight concerns they have, but then feel that diet needs to be a lifestyle they maintain indefinitely. This is generally how fad/marketed diets work, or at least how people interpret them. (Whole 30, for example, is meant as a 30 day elimination diet but there are plenty of folks out there trying to eat that way for life.)
While these diets might be intended to correct an imbalance in the body, what happens when that correction is accomplished? It doesn’t make sense to deplete your body indefinitely.
There are certainly times in life that warrant an altered diet and exercise regimen. Examples are:
- Women who are on their period, pregnant, newly given birth, or lactating
- People who are fighting a virus like the cold or flu
- People who have just taken a round of antibiotics
- People who are experiencing a high-stress event in their lives
- People who have spent some time on vacation, celebrating a promotion, etc, and have been (purposefully) overdoing it on the sweets, carbs or alcohol
- People who are on intensive exercise regimens, either cardiovascular (ie runners) or skeletal (ie strength trainers)
- People who have been on intensive diets excluding entire food classes for a length of time
These are all examples of a body that is deficient or in need of extra support. We need to better listen to our bodies and be flexible around our meal and exercise plans. This is what flexible dieting is all about.
Although each of the above cases are examples of specific action plans, we generally cycle through 3 Dietary Phases during the course of normal, day to day life. These Phases are Depletion, Rebuilding, and Maintenance.
People who are carrying excess weight are most interested in the Depletion phase, so that is where we will start.
When you are going through a planned and controlled depletion, you do so through caloric restriction, or an avoidance of certain foods. You are essentially depriving your body of something which led to some health problems you now want to alleviate.
Depletion is called different things to different people – eating less calories, dieting, trying to lose weight, cleansing, elimination diet, or “cutting” (a bodybuilding term). We are essentially giving our body less nutrition than it needs, or omitting specific toxins in order to achieve specific goals.
You may be avoiding certain toxins (cleansing), or taking a break from food entirely (a fast), but most Depletions are simple Caloric Deficits in an attempt to lose weight (specifically fat, not muscle), or Elimination type diets meant to identify and avoid foods causing inflammation (immune responses/allergies) in the body.
All Depletion cycles need to be done carefully and in an informed manner. That’s because eating less calories usually means getting less overall nutrients. However, there are several nutrients that our bodies need minimum daily doses of in order to function. Our body doesn’t really care that we are trying to lose weight or eliminate meat or gluten. It cares about surviving optimally.
Some things we choose to eliminate have no nutritional value, so it amounts to just eliminating junk. Those are the best kinds of eliminations – but done suddenly, are likely to give you some pretty severe side effects as your body goes through withdrawals of addictive substances.
Sugar is the biggest culprit here, which people who have Candida know about very well. Because sugar feeds “bad bacteria” in our guts, when we suddenly deprive them of food, they start to die off. This can cause some nasty side effects from diarrhea to migraines. The side effects subside, of course, but it can make for a really uncomfortable few days.
So take it easy, especially if you find yourself experiencing things like splitting headaches, brain fog, dizziness or light-headedness, stomach pain, diarrhea, heart palpitations, fatigue, or a vague unwellness like you have “the flu”. Going cold-turkey and fighting through the toxin withdrawal for 3-4 days isn’t going to kill you, but it will probably interrupt your life. The other option is to more gradually back off, giving your body time to adjust.
However you go about your Depletion cycle, or whatever your end goals are, you must still keep in mind that Depletion will, by definition, DEPLETE your body over time. Therefore, being in a constant, long-term Depletion mode will end up up harming your body and take its toll on your mind.
Eventually, a depletion-based diet will make us weaker, may compromise our immune system, and could leave us at serious risk for vitamin or mineral deficiency. It can also get our hormones, our metabolism, and even our circadian rhythm out of whack. And unpleasantly, those things do not always automatically fix themselves when we begin to eat up again.
Let’s talk about Weight (Fat) Loss for a moment. For optimal, steady fat loss, fitness experts recommend a daily caloric deficit of 10-20%, which will not impact nutritional health and body performance too severely. A caloric deficit of 25% of more is considered aggressive and is likely to disrupt your body’s functioning significantly, resulting in unpleasant side effects for you. So don’t be tempted to get fed up with yourself after a weekend of debauchery and vow to only lick apples for 3 days straight. You’ll only end up worse off. (It’s not like I know this from experience or anything…) 😂
Our Nutrition Pyramid guidance should remain more of less intact during this deficit. You should still aim to get:
- 50% of your body weight in ounces of water or clear unsweetened fluids daily
- 40% high-fiber/high-quality carbohydrates
- 30% healthy healing fats
- 20% high quality protein, mixed between animal and plant based
- The remaining 10%, “whatever the heck you want” – because, Life 🙂
So, instead of eating that ratio of your maintenance calories, you will calculate 80-90% of your maintenance calories, and create your new ratio targets based on that number.
The length of a Depletion cycle depends upon its severity. With a complete restriction of calories, such as a Fast, a Depletion should not last longer than 24 hours in my opinion, unless under advice and care from your physician for a specific health issue.
However, most Depletions are attempted “DIY style”, meaning they are not under the guidance of a medical professional but based on an individuals own decision. There is a lot of great research on the benefits of intermittent fasting, such as giving your body a breather from constant digestive and filtering activity (as per the graphic above).
But because suddenly stopping all nutrients to your body is likely to put it into shock fairly quickly, and has the potential for side effects like headache and nausea, as mentioned above we don’t recommend a DIY Fast lasting longer than 24 hours.
Finally, we recommend any daytime fast to be performed on a weekend with low stress and low physical activity – at least to start.
A Cleanse typically includes a variety of light nutrition (usually liquid). It should not last longer than 2-3 days in our opinion – again, unless under the guidance of a medical professional.
(Note that a medical professional is your doctor – not the “health expert” selling an expensive Cleanse system and promises to “answer all your questions” as you go through it.)
We also highly recommend during a Cleanse that some form of protein be included – usually in the form of a trustworthy (ie organic, local) bone broth or vegan protein.
True, nutritionist-guided Elimination Diets, as well as DIY Elimination Diets like Whole 30 and Keto, all have the same goal: Eliminate specific or large classes of foods (ie just gluten, or all wheat, or all grains, or all carbohydrates) that are causing allergies, immune responses, and inflammation in the body.
In our opinion, Elimination or Rotation Diets should only be done for the purposes of identifying allergens or other acute issues in your unique physiology. They should not be done because your friend lost 20 pounds and told you to try it out. Also, they should not become a chronic lifestyle, even though doing so may be tempting because you’re likely to lose a significant amount of weight in the early stages of one. That initial dramatic reward can become addictive. But unfortunately it often leads to a yo-yo of dieting as you become disappointed with your less dramatic daily results and constantly try to recreate the dramatic scale drops that you experienced at the start.
Beyond that, eliminating entire classes of foods (real, whole foods) from your diet on a long-term basis is very risky. In fact, doing so greatly increases your chances of becoming severely deficient in one or more critical nutrients.
The most recent fad diets have all attacked carbohydrates, and many people have experienced great results by getting their carb content under control. But if you’ve chosen to eat extremely low carb, you’re definitely getting little to no fiber.
Fiber is a crucial substance in our body. It helps scrub clean not just your gut but your organs and blood vessels as well. It feeds your good gut bacteria and increases absorption of every other nutrient by slowing down digestion. It stabilizes blood sugar. Not getting enough fiber increases your risk of all kinds of health conditions from diverculitis to digestive cancers to heart disease and insulin resistance.
CALORIC DEFICIT (IE JUST EATING LESS!)
A Caloric Deficit for the purposes of fat loss may be more aggressive for a short-term goal, or more conservative for a healthier, longer-term outcome. That is, aggressive caloric deficits tend to work for a week or two, resulting in dramatic weight loss, but typically rebounds within the same 1-2 weeks to one’s original weight – and sometimes more.
In general, for maintainability, one should aim for a more conservative caloric deficit, and keep it consistent day after day. This type of long-term deficit can go indefinitely, with the correct “rest” periods. Rest periods are mini-sessions of Rebuilding Phase. They can be weekly or monthly, but they need to be scheduled into your overall health plan in order to avoid hormonal and metabolic dysfunction, weakening performance and injuries due to overtraining/overexhaustion.
Weekly Rest Cadence
Eat a 15-20% daily caloric deficit for 5 or 6 days, and then eat 10% over your maintenance calories for 1 or 2 days.
Example: Let’s say your maintenance calories are 2000 calories per day. Your deficit/depletion goal is 20%, so you eat 80% of 2000, or 1600 calories, Sunday through Friday. On Saturday, you eat 2200 calories and do not work out. This surplus is enough to rejuvenate and reenergize your body for the next week’s deficits (and workouts). This plan is easily enough to lose one pound of fat per week, when combined with even a modest exercise program (a 40 minute brisk walk, 30 minute non-cardio strength training session, or 10 minute HIIT)
Monthly Rest Cadence
Starting on the 1st of the month, eat a 10-15% daily caloric deficit for 4 weeks straight, and then eat your maintenance calories for however many days are left in the calendar month. If that rest doesn’t feel sufficient to you, take an entire week off before you reset the next month.
The Example here would be similar to the one given under Weekly Rest Cadence, but less aggressive with the daily deficit. You’ll eat only 10% less of your maintenance needs for 4 weeks, which on a 2000-calorie diet is 1800 calories a day. And then for the remainder of the month, you’ll eat 2200 calories a day. You should still lose 4-5 pounds of pure fat per month on this plan, along with any additional water weight from inflammation and excess glycogen.
In general I believe supplements are expensive and unnecessary. However, I do recommend that folks who are in Depletion Phase take an Iron supplement, particularly if they don’t eat red meat, as well as a Vitamin B12 or B Complex, and Vitamin D. If your immune system is down, eat lots of garlic and alliums and take Zinc as well.
At the end of a Depletion Phase, or after you’ve been on one for awhile, you may be a little cranky, tired, have unstable/sudden mood shifts, or you may have more fatigue, no energy to exercise, more frequent headaches, etc. In other words….depleted!
This is when you know that you should take a break from Depleting your body. It is time to move into Rebuilding.
Once you have become sufficiently depleted, you need to switch into the Rebuilding phase. Rebuilding is not a “reward” phase after deprivation. It does mean providing your body with more food.
But that food still needs to be healthy and nutrient-rich.
Your Depletion Phase was about taking unwanted things OUT of the body, whether that unwanted thing is fat, excess water, toxins, allergens, heavy metals, candida (too much sugar), etc.
Rebuilding, then, is the process of putting beneficial things back INTO the body. It is not an excuse to eat cake in our underwear every day. (Also, who needs an excuse for that??) Rather, it is eating in a slight caloric surplus with a focus on nutrient-dense foods, particularly prebiotics, probiotics, and micronutrients in a broad, balanced spectrum of vitamins and minerals.
Eating healthy foods in a slight caloric surplus is going to result in you feeling better almost immediately. Your Depletion fatigue or crankiness will lift, and you’ll be left with oodles of vitality and energy. You’ll feel like you could do Beast workouts every day of the week. And this is exactly when you SHOULD be doing Beast workouts every day that you feel like you can! (With the exception of a rest day.)
During Rebuilding we recommend eating 10% over your maintenance calories, keeping the same 50-40-30-20-10 ratio of water, carbs, protein, fat, and fun.
Bodybuilders have a similar phase that they call “bulking”, where they will eat in a more aggressive calorie surplus, for the purpose of packing on muscle. Eating in a calorie surplus is what allows us to become stronger.
The key here is to continue eating your Nutrition Pyramid ratios of mostly healthy food and not junk. If you eat a calorie surplus of junk, you’re likely to gain a substantial amount of fat back along with any muscle gains, and your body will become inflamed and bloated again. This will undo all your hard work from Depletion.
Enjoy this phase for all the yummy food it provides you, that complete lack of feeling deprived, and use that nutrition to fuel some killer workouts (especially in the strength department) or home projects. You should be feeling really happy and healthy and strong by the end of this phase.
But just like Depletion, all good things must come to an end, and eventually, so must your Rebuilding phase. In general, it only takes a quarter to half as long to put on weight or recover, as it does to lose weight/cut/cleanse. That’s because putting stuff INTO your body is a heck of a lot easier than taking that stuff OUT. (The classic “Moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips.” Still find that quote hilarious.)
This means if you struggled through Depletion for 8 weeks, you should only need to Rebuild for 2 to 4 weeks before moving on to Maintenance, unless you have other goals like bodybuilding.
So when you feel recovered, energetic, revitalized, and well-fed, it is likely time to phase out your Rebuilding, and enter your Maintenance phase – the happiest time for your body.
In this article we have been talking about a physical depletion and rebuilding. But these concepts apply equally to emotional health. Depletion is really about removing extra toxins from your life, or just too much “excess”. Excess can apply to any area of your life, such as too much stress.
If you are feeling depleted from excess pressure, stress, or negativity, whether its from a bad relationship, toxic job or just the news headlines – give yourself permission to take a break and Rebuild. It is OK to go through a purposeful Emotional Rebuilding on occasion.
You may find it beneficial to sequester yourself away for awhile, like a long weekend, to take stock of your life, your relationships, your job, and your sources of stress. Take a vacation from your stress, just like you’d take a vacation from sugar or alcohol when you’re dieting. Turn off the TV and headlines. Log out of social media. Put yourself in a physically peaceful environment. Assess what you might need to change or remove in your life in order to be emotionally healthier and happier.
This process is incredibly healthy and rewarding. We HIGHLY encourage it. We typically do it quarterly.
Maintenance is what happens when the body is in balance. It has been cleansed, it has been re-fed well, and now it feels healthy and vital. You should aim to simply eat your caloric maintenance in this phase – maybe a little more or a little less on a day to day basis, but pretty on par for a weekly total.
But because none of us eat perfectly, Maintenance also breaks down over time. The Maintenance Phase, when people aren’t doing anything “specific” about their body or weight goals, is the time most likely to binge on unhealthy foods.
When we aren’t in a mentally disciplined, “adult” mode, our undisciplined “inner children” like to come out and tell us all kinds of stories about fun foods and drinks that we deserve. Yep, it happens to me too, and I guarantee it happens to you unless you’re a robot. And if you’re a robot and reading this, you don’t need to diet – so just stop. 😂
Some examples: We drink a little more wine one Friday night that we intended to, which turns into a whole weekend of drinking. Or we are tired from long days at work, get lazy about meal prep, and start eating out too often. We celebrate good days at work with happy hours, and then we stress-eat our way through large pizzas and 6-packs of beers after bad days. Pretty soon, it’s easy to come up with any excuse not to eat healthy or cook at home.
Adding to this “maintenance that isn’t really” phenomenon is the fact that you are likely to feel at your best at the start of this. You’ve likely lost some weight, so you’re feeling leaner. You may feel like you can “afford” a cheat meal or two. You may feel invincible, like one big meal won’t affect you at all. Or that you deserve it and you’ve worked hard.
But anybody who’s been through this knows that its easy for a cheat dinner to become a cheat series of dinners, a cheat week, or a complete dumpster fire of a cheat month. Hey, I worked in corporate for 20 years – I’ve been there more times than I care to count. Just be aware that cheats, of any kind, are an instant slippery slope.
If something is your weakness then it is likely to have been habitual at some point. And if its been habitual, then your brain will have habitual pleasure patterns for that item. It doesn’t matter if its alcohol or pizza or sugar cookies or bacon – it’s more about the habit-forming. When we have one “weakness” item, it’s likely to light up the same pleasure sensors as it did before, and you’ll want more.
We have noticed a 3-Day Habit Form with Nutrition and Exercise. 3 Days of anything is enough to create a mini-habit, whether good or bad. After 3 days of clean eating, its easier to continue clean eating. After 3 days of drudging through workouts when you don’t feel like it, suddenly you start enjoying your workout. But on the opposite side, after 3 days straight (let’s say, a Friday, Saturday and Sunday?) of sugar and fat and alcohol on the couch, and you are entering the danger zone of continuing to make it a daily habit.
It’s strange how powerful the 3-day habit rule is. This is why one cheat meal is likely to tempt you just a little, but if you follow that up immediately with another cheat meal the next day, its going to be tougher to stop, and if you have 3 days in a row, you’re almost back where you started in terms of the lack of mental discipline. Same with not working out for 1 day versus skipping 2 or 3 days in a row. After just 3 days of absolutely zero exercise, it can feel a bit like starting over, even though it truly isn’t.
I’ve found it easier to simply not call meals “cheats”. For example, because I am a wine collector and aficionado, I plan to have wine 2 nights a week, 1-2 glasses each. I don’t call a glass of wine a “cheat”, although it does fall into my 10%. I just bake it into my nutrition plan.
And because we love to go out to eat, we plan to eat out 2-ish nights a week also. We just have these things baked into the weekly meal plan schedule. That way they feel like more of a balanced lifestyle and less of a naughty thing.
We believe that making food off limits and then calling eating it “cheating”, is setting us up for a negative relationship with both food and ourselves.
The ultimate goal is to become a more intuitive eater, to eat healthy 80% of the time, and to maintain a relaxed and loving attitude toward your body, your mind, your food and your exercise.
The overall effect of any unguided Maintenance Phase is that over the time, we are still going to build up toxins in our systems. Maybe we start to gain a little weight again (and it’s not muscle). Maybe our bodies become inflamed again, or we start getting sick more often, or we start having digestive problems like heartburn or reflux. Maybe we just go on vacation and let ourselves slip a bit.
Regardless the reason, the Maintenance Phase eventually comes to an end as well, and we cycle back to Depletion – either for a quick fix (after an off-the-rails vacation) or a longer time (we need to lose 10 pounds again). This starts our cycle all over again.
These phases are really about teaching you to LISTEN to your body – to give it a rest when its telling you it’s had too much (overweight, inflamed, bloated, indigestion, insulin resistance, chronic fatigue). And to Rebuild it when it’s feeling depleted – chronic fatigue, weakness, anxiety and stress, headaches.
Finally, it’s just as important to know when it’s OK to just live life as normal. This strive to constantly be better can lead to feelings that we aren’t good enough as we are. It’s important to approach every phase from a place of self love and not self deprecation.
The 3 phases of health are about becoming intuitive with our self care.
This is where vital health begins. When we educate ourselves and then listen to OUR BODIES. Not the latest social media phenomenon, fad diet, or supplement marketer. If your body is telling you that its unhappy, then it is. If it is weak, it needs rebuilt. If it is overstuffed and inflammatory, it needs depletion.
By not ignore these signals, we honor our bodies and get in the best shape of our lives. That’s winning, no matter what phase you’re in.