In this column, I’ve never been shy about pointing out the ways predatory marketing has convinced so many of us that we need to pay to lose weight. As a general rule, almost any product that promises to help you shed weight quickly is nothing more than the modern equivalent of snake oil. In truth, the only thing most of these products will make lighter is your wallet — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t effective ways to lose weight quickly. The problem, however, is that most of those quick weight loss methods aren’t sustainable (or even remotely healthy).

As a fighter, I competed at 185 pounds, though I walked around at about 215. That kind of weight differential isn’t uncommon for most athletes that compete in weight-restricted sports, and within wrestling, fighting, and bodybuilding communities there are a number of secrets employed to aid in rapid weight loss (we usually call it cutting) in favor of achieving a desired aesthetic or coming in within limits prior to a match. Elements of these ploys can even be found in popular weight loss products — many “cleanses” are really nothing more than diuretics, relieving your body of “poisons” by forcing you to expel fluids out of the orifice on your southern hemisphere traditionally reserves for solid waste.

Dropping water weight is indeed one of the fastest ways to drop a few pounds — and that’s often disheartening for folks that are working out with weight loss in mind. After a week of hard work in the gym, you’re astonished to see that you’ve lost eight pounds already, only to step on the scale again a week later to learn (to your utter horror) that you’ve gained all that weight back. The truth is, you never lost that much weight, but what you did do is expel a lot of water busting your ass. As you rehydrated, your weight climbs back up toward its original, well hydrated figure and you’re left feeling defeated, watching your progress slip through your fingers like the water through your pores.

This is one of the reasons I always encourage people to forgo using the scale as the measure of their fitness success. Muscle undeniably ways more than fat, meaning an almost unnoticeable amount of added muscle mass can offset a pretty fair bit of fat loss in the numbers you see. For my money, a far better judge of your progress is the way your clothes fit — broadening shoulders, a fuller chest, and some loose fabric around your midsection will tell you what the scale sometimes won’t: that what you’re doing is working.

In the weeks leading up to a fight, I, like many fighters, had my own methods of cutting weight. I wore sauna suits while doing cardio (effectively wearing a suit made of thick plastic to cook your body into sweating out more fluids), I transitioned my diet into only eating what I had to in order to survive, and then, in the week leading up to weigh-ins, I’d live every nutritionist’s nightmare and slowly reduce my caloric intake until, for three days or so prior, I’d eat barely anything at all. Worse still, for at least 24 hours before getting on the scale, I’d often even cut myself off from water, recognizing that my calorie and hydration starved body would desperately cling to every ounce of anything I gave it in that panicked state. I can’t emphasize enough that this method of making weight was unhealthy, unsafe, and not formally encouraged by my coaches or trainers — I simply had an objective, and I set out to meet it.

I looked fit. I felt hungry.

The thing about dropping thirty pounds in an extremely short amount of time (for a fighter) is that it also makes you weak. Fortunately, weigh-ins were often the day prior to the fight, and you can be sure I was always there at the very beginning of the schedule. I’d hit the scale, make my weight, and head immediately to the nearest restaurant where I’d order a big glass of water and a carbohydrate-heavy meal that I’d almost certainly regret. By the time I actually got into the ring or cage, I often weighed ten pounds heavier than I had 24 hours prior when my weight was recorded for official purposes.

In the days and weeks that followed, my body would rapidly return to my normal, healthy weight as I started eating properly and hydrating again. Often, I’d even develop a bit of extra fat I’d have to contend with next time around, as the relief of making weight left me craving the sweets and snacks I’d banned from my kitchen in the weeks prior. This rubber band effect is real and often happens to those who adopt diets as a means of weight loss. If you tell yourself you’re not allowed to eat cake anymore, your body is going to crave cake. I’m sure a psychologist can explain why, but from my perspective, I think it might just be because my body is an asshole.

“Now that I can drink again, I’d better make up for lost time!”

Rapid weight loss diets, even when they aren’t based on a reduction in water weight, usually rely on such strict limits on your consumption that they prove unsustainable (aside from how often they are also unhealthy). Yes, you can and will lose weight if you spend three weeks eating nothing but celery and drinking water. You also deny your body a number of important things it needs to function and prime yourself for that rubber band effect — where you grow so sick of your dietary constraints that you throw the whole endeavor out the window in favor of the stress relief that comes with satiating your cravings. Three weeks of hardcore dieting followed by two months of eating cheesecake for dinner doesn’t result in a whole lot of net progress.

If your goal is to cut ten pounds by Friday, I can get you there, but you need to understand that those ten pounds will almost certainly be back with a vengeance the week after. If, instead, your goal is to lose ten pounds forever, you need to set a realistic timeline and base your expectations on adopting some changes in your diet, workout regimen, and lifestyle that are sustainable. A healthy goal for weight loss (as in — fat loss) is often one or two pounds a week, and let me be clear, that’s no small undertaking. A single pound of fat can generally house anywhere from 3,400 to 3,700 calories. A net weight loss of two pounds of fat in a week means a daily caloric deficit of somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand calories. When you think about it that way, a few pounds per week is actually a pretty lofty goal. Admittedly, that math is an oversimplification of the process, but the point remains.

You’ve got a lot of forever to work with. Pace yourself and focus on making healthy choices rather than achieving rapid results, and you’ll likely find the results are well worth the wait.

Modified feature image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense