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Why It’s So Damn Hard to Transition Off Your Diet — And What to Do About It

The stricter the diet, the more likely the negative side effects. The good news is, there’s a way to manage those side effects so they aren’t a nightmarish tour of every bodily protest imaginable

You’ve conquered the diet, or you’ve just given up. Perhaps you’ll be traveling or otherwise unable to maintain it, and now you need to eat “normally” again — whatever that means. Whether it’s low-carb or moderate-carb, keto or dirty keto, all-milk, GOLO, or just not eating at all, if we put that much thought into the diet itself, shouldn’t we be putting just as much thought into coming off of it? If you don’t want to return your previous state, or one far worse than you ever imagined, the answer is yes.

In some ways, your particular approach will have a lot to do with the point of your diet. If it was to lose weight, you’ll naturally wonder if you’re just going to pack the weight back on. If it’s an elimination diet (and what diet isn’t, honestly), you may be concerned about whether your body can handle the old food — if hives will be the price to pay for reintroducing a little gluten. If your diet has given you a gravity-free lightness, you may anticipate feeling like a pile of bricks hit your stomach when you start ingesting the old stuff — carbs, fruit, alcohol. No one wants to feel like shit again just for having a slice of pizza after months of abstinence. And that’s to say nothing of bloating, digestive issues and general discomfort that occurs when we fall back into old patterns.

The bad news is: All that stuff is possible and likely, and the stricter the diet, the more likely the negative side effects. The good news is: There’s a way to manage those side effects so they aren’t a nightmarish tour of every bodily protest imaginable.

“As with any strict diet, transitioning back into your normal eating style can be difficult,” dietician Keri Glassman told Shape about ending the keto diet. “After restricting your carbs for so long, you’re more likely to overdo them once you allow yourself to have them again.”

Here’s how to avoid the major pitfalls.

Weight Gain

As long as a diet is only a diet, and not a permanent lifestyle change, weight gain is the natural response to eating more again, especially if you’re eating more of whatever made you gain weight. In part, it’s literal intake. In another part, it’s because hunger is a natural response to having lost weight in the first place. One study found that we crave 100 more calories for every two pounds of weight we lose. When you add this to the fact that your metabolism has probably slowed down from eating less, researchers say this is a perfect storm of putting the weight back on. So much so that about 80 percent of people who lose weight will gain the weight back and then some, particularly those who’ve lost 10 percent of their body weight.

It’s sometimes called the rebound effect. If you were eating 1200 calories a day before, and now you’re eating 2,000, you’re going to rebound back to an old weight. So the more restrictive the diet, the more likely the weight gain.

To avoid this, you can do a few things:

  • Exercise
  • Eat breakfast
  • Eat a lot of protein
  • Drink a lot of water
  • Watch the carbs
  • Watch your weight

But if you’re dead set on reintroducing the old stuff that caused the weight gain in the first place, do so gradually. Weight gain isn’t inevitable after a diet unless you start pounding pizza where salads once went. Glassman recommended to Shape that one way to do this is only having, say, carbs again at one meal per day if you’re coming off keto or a low-carb diet. And to stick with this for a few weeks to see if you can handle it. If the goal is to eat them throughout the day, then make each additional carb serving per meal or snack a couple weeks long trial. That way you can see how quickly you’ve started tipping the scales.

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Gut Changes

Dieting rapidly changes the gut bacteria, sometimes in as little as a day. But we also know that high-fat diets reduce the good bacteria in your gut, too. So does dropping the gluten. And we also know that your gut bacteria changes daily even when you have a fixed diet.

That can mean bloating and discomfort when you start dieting, but also bloating and discomfort when you stop. Unless the food itself is problematic, the changes should only be temporary.

“When you start normalizing your eating and including those foods you’ve eliminated, you’re going to have gas or abdominal pain or bloating,” dietician Nancy Farrell told U.S. News. “That’s a given, and it should be temporary.”

The only way around it? Re-introducing foods gradually and in small doses. Expect fibrous foods, as well as dairy, to bring on a massive bloat attack, so limit them to smaller quantities. You can also use probiotics to minimize the effect.

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Feeling Like Shit

You feel like shit when you start dieting, but you feel like shit when you stop dieting, too. That seems counterintuitive, but when you go from eating light, lean meals that nourish and hydrate, and pick back up on heavy carbs, fat, salt and the like, the bloat, digestive issues and even headaches that come from re-upping your trouble food intake can make it feel punishing to enjoy once guilty pleasures.

Unfortunately, there’s probably some of that to negotiate no matter your best efforts, but experts say that there are a few things you can do to ease the transition: sleep, drink water, exercise, and eat real food. If nothing else, returning to the worst foods will remind you that your old diet was probably bad. So by adopting new, good foods again, and the occasional bad food, you’ll establish an equilibrium you can live with.

The best way to maintain a good relationship to food and your health is to not diet at all, but to simply adopt an eating lifestyle, one you can manage at all times, that permanently keeps you at the desired weight, desired digestive routines and a desire life. One you actually want to live. And isn’t living the point?