12 Week Challenge Complete – Now What?

It’s 12 week challenge season.

Great! If it gets you eating better and moving your body more, I’m all for it. However, once the challenge is over… Then what?

What are you going to do afterwards?

Will you go buy yourself a whole block of Lindt, just for you (if you do, the salted caramel brownie one is good)? Will you refuse to share your cabernet savingnon with your partner one evening? Will you consume half a loaf of white, crusty sourdough, lathered with butter and vegemite? Perhaps dipping it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar is more your style?

Will you continue to follow a similar eating pattern, just slightly letting the reins go or once it’s over does your whole routine fall completely apart?

I love a good 12 week challenge (or similar), I’ve done them before in the past. I lost my baby weight that way, after my son (now almost 6) was born. It was a great way to focus and get off those last 5kg. I also did one over 10 years ago, when I was young and vulnerable and a new grad in the nutrition world. I decided that because I was a nutritionist I needed to be leaner and really ‘shred’ off my excess fat (which back then I thought was awful but with hindsight know that it was absolutely wasn’t!).

Both times I embarked on the challenges above taught me something very important: Healthy eating and a healthy life is much more than just sticking to an eating plan and ‘enduring’ the program until it’s finally over and I can let go of the reins.

The first challenge I embarked on messed me up big time. I was 20 and newly married. Plagued by the body image issues that many women face, I thought that although I wasn’t overweight, I should be thinner. I thought my body should be better. Better than it was. I embarked on a ‘bikini model 12 week challenge’ with a work colleague. It was very strict and boring. So strict, in fact, that my already small body started bruising easily, bleeding from the nose semi-regularly and getting sick all the time. At the 8 week mark, with some pleading from my new and rather worried husband, I stopped.

During the weeks following the challenge my appetite raged and I binged regularly. Honey on toast, chocolate bars, crackers and dip, hamburgers and chips, massive bowls of pasta, ice-cream every night. I was hungry all the time and I ate all the time. I regained the weight I lost plus an extra 3kg. It only took me a couple of months. My body was now ‘fatter’ then when I first started and I still regret embarking on that silly program to this day. It took me a good two years to recover mentally and regain some kind of balance to my eating.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself with 5kg left to lose, a year after my son was born. I embarked on my second 12 week challenge. Again, it was strict and not enough food for me. I managed to stick to it and lose my weight. At the half-way mark, however, I was losing weight too quickly and my body was starting to look thin. There were lots of comments from people in my world about all the weight I’d lost. I stopped.

Following on from that challenge, I experienced similar food cravings and a heightened appetite from the challenge I did previously. High exercise levels, however, meant that I didn’t regain weight like I did last time, but I felt out of control. If you’ve done this before than you’d know the feeling. After a period of dietary restriction, once you stop, it’s like the bursting of a dam wall – I could smash down the food, it was like I couldn’t get enough.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve learnt a thing or two over the years, both from experience and from further study in my field of nutrition. I’d like to share them with you. If you’re struggling with a restriction/binge cycle after challenges, diets and crazy eating patterns then I’d honestly like to help set you free from that.

1. You must think about what happens beyond the challenge (or detox, or diet)

If you want to participate in a challenge then do a challenge. Find one that’s not too restrictive or seek advice from a nutrition professional to adjust the challenge to your individual needs. Do the challenge as best you can but please, think beyond that.

Healthy food can only nourish your body if you eat it everyday. There’s no point in eating healthily for 12 weeks if you don’t stick to it afterwards. Your body needs nourishing everyday for the rest of your life. If the challenge doesn’t actually build long term habits in you, don’t do it. You don’t want to end up worse for wear.

2. Dietary restriction is physiologically followed by a period of overconsumption

New research actually shows that after a time of strict dieting and restriction, the hormone centre in the brain actually changes and pre-disposes you to overeating by ramping up your appetite. This leads you to putting the weight, that you just lost, all back on.

I know that the thought of losing your weight quickly is super tempting. If I could click my fingers and make you thin I would. And I’d be rich (jokes). The only reason there are ridiculous weight loss products on the market is because we’re so desperate to try anything to get the excess weight off fast. Don’t fall for it. Embrace slow, steady, consistent change through baby steps and habit building. Think about 20 years from now: Do you want to spend them frustrated with the crazy mind games of food and weight loss?

One of my roles as a practicing nutritionist is to sell slow weight loss. It’s not an easy thing to do in the current industry, let me tell you. But I, 100%, absolutely fan-dangled do believe in it! I’d love for you to believe in it too!

3. Change your eating habits because you love your body, not because you hate it

I’m not the first person to say this and I hope I’m not going to be the last. Don’t go your whole life hating your body. Love it. Cherish it. Look after it. Enjoy it. Take it on adventures and give it massages and facials (if you’re into that). Feed it spinach. Feed it chocolate. Take it walking. Make it lift something heavy every now and then.

If you embark on a challenge from the perspective of self-loathing, you will not find self-love at the end. I’ve met plenty of people who’ve hit their goal weight, still absolutely miserable with themselves.

I’ve been spending lots of time researching current online weight loss programs and one in particular had an introductory video that infuriated me. In one sentence the ‘face of the brand’ said: “Love you body. Tell yourself that you’re beautiful and incredible. You have to accept yourself if you want to have a body you can be proud of.” Huh? So you have to accept yourself, but you can only be proud of yourself once your body is ‘good enough’ to wear a bikini. Please. This is utter rubbish.

4. Does the challenge encourage you include nutritious foods or cut out rubbish ones?

I’m such a believer in the importance of the approach you take to applying nutrition advice to your life. Let’s say you’ve embarked on a challenge to cut out sugar for the next month. That’s great, but I believe it’s missing some important details. We know you’re not going to eat sugar, but what are you actually going to eat? Have you thought about that?

Many challenges just focus on what foods to cut out without really offering you the tools and resources to help you know what to eat instead. Like I mentioned earlier, you actually have to consume nutritious food daily for your diet to nourish yourself. Good nutrition is more about what you do eat, than what you don’t eat.

The vitamins, minerals, fibre and other health promoting chemicals can’t help you unless they go in your mouth. You might cut out sugar, but if you don’t consume enough vegetables, then I’d say you’ve missed the point. You might cut out processed carbohydrates but if you live on bacon and protein powder, how is that nourishing your body?

5. Challenges are often a one-size-fits-all approach

You’re an individual. There is no-one else on earth like you. Healthy eating definitely applies to everyone but it looks differently for everyone. Challenges can be great to kickstart new habits and routines, but can often be hard to stick to, socially isolating, excessively strict and assume that you like all the food on their meal plan. It’s no wonder many people don’t find themselves successful at the challenge.

You will successfully maintain your weight long term if you take the time to discover what healthy eating looks like for you and plan and prepare your food each day accordingly.

If you’re a gym owner running a challenge or you’re currently participating in one, this post was not about talking you out of it. I know plenty of people who have found the challenge process rewarding and fulfilling. It’s lead to those people achieving their goals and making long lasting changes. I just want you to really think about it.

I’m not going to pretend I don’t struggle with the same weight/body/self loathing issues that we all do. So from one woman to another, I want you to really think about what it is you’d like to achieve with your body, your nutrition and your life! Decide what is important to you and if you do nothing else, embrace the power of accumulative, marginal gain. Baby steps is where it’s at.

I offer online or face to face consultations is you need help.

Article by Kate Freeman

Registered Nutritionist. Writer. Presenter. Home cook. Mother. Wife. Runner. Hiker. Amateur photographer.