Does Crash Dieting Beat Slow And Steady?

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

Photo Credit: pixabay

You follow your weight loss programme to a tee, doing everything you’re supposed to do, but still that scale won’t budge.

Ever been there?

That scale can really be an enemy especially when you’ve set your best intentions in a well laid out weight loss plan and you’re not winning the losing game.

Have you or your client ever experienced the frustration whilst on a weight loss programme of not being able to see any positive movement on the scale?

Did you ever wonder if there was an alternate to slow and steady, a safe plan that could be quicker and offer a more favorable outcome, like crash dieting?

Wait, crash dieting, isn’t that a no-no?

Think about it – no matter which part of the world you live, any quality, weight loss curriculum recommends the best way to succeed is using the slow and steady pace. Over time your body will adjust, your weight will drop, and on your way to happiness you go. That’s the idea and supposedly there’s a science behind it.

But it doesn’t always happen as enchanting as that.

A new major study out of Australia proposes some pretty compelling results showing quite the opposite of what we’ve been told about the pace and style of our weight loss programmes.

Crash dieting might actually be more successful than conventional gradual weight loss programmes after all.

Can you believe that?

By the time you finish reading this article you too might believe in the power behind crash dieting and how its positive, long term results will contradict mostly everything you’ve been told.

The study that proved people wrong about crash dieting

Many experts recommend gradual weight loss for the treatment of obesity on the grounds that weight lost rapidly is more quickly regained.

But here’s the thing – lots of previous studies suggested that those who lost weight fast, lost more weight and that rapid weight loss is a major motivation for adherence to a weight loss programme.

Conversely, those on a gradual weight loss programme who do not see changes on the scale, become easily demotivated and simply drop out of their weight loss programmes.

New research just published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, involves an Australian study that engaged 200 obese adults. The participants were randomly divided in half and assigned to either a 12-week rapid weight loss programme or a 36-week gradual weight loss programme. Their goal was to lose a minimum of 12.5% of their body weight.

The results were astounding!

This is especially powerful given that the study was a peer-reviewed randomised controlled trial (RCT), the GOLD standard of clinical research, which aimed to compare the effect of rapid and gradual weight loss programmes on both the rate of weight loss and the rate of weight regain in obese people.

It was a considerably thorough study, which included blood samples, hormonal analysis, body composition analysis, appetite levels, and blood pH levels, to name a few.

The results?

81% of the people in the rapid weight loss group achieved their target weight loss, compared to just 50% of those in the gradual weight loss group. (The other 50% dropped out!)

Losing weight quickly may motivate people to persist with their diet and achieve better results. Quicker weight loss can boost your motivation as the rewards appear more rapidly and your brain is able to register those changes (and readjust) faster.

What about weight regain?

This randomised controlled trial (RCT) took place in two phases.

In the initial phase participants either followed a rapid weight loss programme or a gradual weight loss programme. That was followed by a second phase, where those who had achieved the target weight loss (12.5% of their body weight) entered the same longer-term maintenance phase, which consisted of a 144-week duration (2.7 years).

The findings of this research kiboshed the common claim that speedier, initial weight loss is associated with a more rapid regain. That claim is false.

The study researchers concluded:

The rate of weight loss does not affect the proportion of weight regained within 144 weeks.

Weight regain is associated with other complex factors, which can involve your brain, your hormones, and even your gut. Successful weight maintenance assumes resetting your internal biochemistry for the long run: your brain along with your hormonal and gut homeostatic systems that regulate appetite, so maintaining can actually feel natural and effortless.

These findings reinforce the formulas that we have been teaching in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss course where our students learn exactly how to achieve successful weight loss and maintain it (so it’s not regained back).

How do we broadly apply these findings for our own success

The first and foremost consideration before launching a successful crash diet plan is that it needs to be done safely and carefully to avoid severe nutrient deficiencies and harmful health effects.

This is something we also teach in our Detox Specialist programme, where you learn how to identify the best short-term diet for you and apply science-based nutritional strategies to keep things safe yet effective.

Undoubtedly, there are several ways to drop weight. The best one is the one that works for you and that you stick to because you are seeing results. That in itself serves as a powerful motivator.

There is indeed tremendous power in a rapid weight loss diet.

It certainly can be a better approach since more people can achieve their target loss and less people will prematurely abort their plan based on their own frustration of not seeing results quick enough. This is especially true seeing from this study that crash dieting is better than the gradual loss in the short term and truly no worse in the long term.

Join the conversation!

Why do you think that slow and steady may not always win the weight loss race? What do you think it takes to achieve successful maintenance?

Let us know and join in the conversation below.

Every other Thursday we share our research and actionable advice to help you and those you care about. If you enjoyed this, join our FREE updates.


  • Laura

    Reply Reply December 3, 2014

    Thank you for a well written article and for helping us understand this study. Most people i know crash diet anyway but they do it the wrong way. I think that a sound short term diet that works but prevents deficiencies has something to do with the results and the maintenance. But i also think that it is the maintenance that counts, more than what you did to lose the weight in the first place. I am glad the myth of fast weight loss has been finally debunked! It’S what you do to maintain what matters most. Though losing safely is also important i think!

  • Sally Wyatt

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    Thank-you also for the interesting reading. What I am also interested to know is how many people keep their weight off after a crash diet or slow diet? It would be an interesting study!

  • Hajar

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    Yes, it is true, I have allways wondered, why are they seying it is not good to lose killows faster a.t.c…when infact, I’ve allways felt better when I fast feu days, or when I restrict from any food exept some vegies, or some apples…it is not logik, to try to remove peoples adiction to food while seyng to them:”but you see, you actualy cant do without it, you must eat not to get sick…bla….bla….it is actualy making them more adictive in my opinion….and the problem is, that we live in a time of abundance, in which it is hard to restrict from food, because it is allways infront of our eyes…so, I absolutely agree with this….sory for the broken english, it is not my native language as you see…

  • John Hegarty

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    These finding are as expected in my view. The problem with crash dieting and short term weight loss plans is that when they come to an end most people don’t have a proper follow on maintenance strategy or plan to transition to a slower rate of weight loss approach. Thus, a short term but highly successful weight loss plan NEEDS to be followed by a lifestyle change to maintain weight or achieve further weight loss.
    I followed a very restrictive nutritional plan and training plan for 4 months and got quite lean but it wasn’t sustainable.
    Therefore, I then switched to amore flexible approach that fitted in with a more balanced lifestyle and 2 years on I am even leaner, more muscular, more energy, enjoy my food etc…

    • Alex

      Reply Reply December 4, 2014

      2 years, John, that’s a huge achievement, well done!

  • Tina Buchheim

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    Another great article! Thank you!
    My impression is that a fast crash diet only ends in a crash if:
    – The ‘crash diet’ barely provides the body with the nutrients, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, etc. it needs
    – The dieter hasn’t learned to love nutritious food for longterm maintenance and returns to junk, soda and ‘senseless’ eating
    It would be good to learn more about what crash diets work best and I am definitely considering the detox course, as It seems to cover that?
    Thanks for your great courses! Just what I was looking for!

  • Kim

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    I agree with this article from personal experience. I’ve tried several slow diets/just eating the right foods and lost motivation as results was painfully slow to see. Fairly recently I did a 1 week detox (I still ate 3 meals a day and had 1 snack a day, I was just eating only fruit, veg and meat products). I lost 6+lbs in that week and was fully motivated to continue with a healthy lifestyle to maintain what I had achieved.

    Thank you for an interesting read.

  • Cezara

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    I do think that a rapid weight loss at the beginning of your diet will motivate you to keep going . On the other side not sure if is good for a long term .

  • Dale Preece-Kelly

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    Great and interesting article – I always understood that crash diets were just a quick fix, but they obviously do work. I think the problem does lie in sustaining the weight loss. A lot of people who go on crash diets get to their target weight, and immediately revert to their old diet. The key to sustaining weight loss, whether is is quick or slow and steady, is the lifestyle change that should come when you reach that target – eating a healthy diet 90% of the time that provides the right balance of nutrients for that person. Fast weight loss is probably more successful than slow and gradual, because psychologically, when the weight really starts to come off you can SEE pretty quickly how it is working. When it is slow and gradual, it is less obvious visually and when weighing oneself the weight loss is not so large and may even be a weight gain, especially if the person has been exercising and is starting to add muscle. This weight gain would cause the person to become demotivated and possible quit the diet

    • Alex

      Reply Reply December 4, 2014

      Exactly, Dale. Long-term maintainers may continue with some behaviours that helped them lose the weight, but not all. Maintaining needs to feel easy and not as hard as losing. And to achieve this, you need to focus on habit forming – where you maintain naturally with zero willpower and no mental effort. I think you might enjoy reading this:

  • Greg

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    The idea of crash dieting is appealing because you focus on seeing the scale read less each time you stand over it. What if it wasn’t just your weight you had to worry about. Your weight is a measure of your body balance. The more delicate the balance the more weight you carry. Once you understand that a better body balance will automatically decrease your need for fat buffer and bring down your desire to eat and increase your desire to move.
    Focus on building a better body not just a thinner one. Gravity will not take a break so don’t expect your body to manage the same stress with less unless you give it an alternative. Balance is the key to long term health.. crash diets may work if you eat very badly but long term issues are unlikely to be fixed by a short term approach.

  • Necore Murphy

    Reply Reply December 4, 2014

    I totally agree with crash diet and also slow and steady.. Sometimes with crash diets you may not learn important things like proper eating.. Some people may miss the whole changing your lifestyle concept and just get caught up with the weight flying off so quickly..but sometimes with slow and steady its hard to stay motivated because the progress is slow but if people decided to change their lifestyle they would not have to diet.

  • Darlene Kraushaar

    Reply Reply December 6, 2014

    I can only speak from personal experience. But last year, I went on a diet. It was awesome! In less than two months, I lost 36 pounds. It had been over 15 years since I had been at that weight!! The rapid weight loss was absolutely instrumental in my keeping with the strict diet. Not only that, but a year later, and I am maintaining my weight. Every once in a while, I will do the crash diet for a week or two, just to drop 5 pounds and make myself feel better in my clothes! So this week’s topic definitely hit home with me. Thank you for your research!!

  • amanda

    Reply Reply December 12, 2014

    I can speak from my personal experience i had always been a overweight teenager and as a teenager i decided to make a change I began research about healthy eating and I began to focus my eating based on a diabetic diet considering both my parents are diabetic i assumed correcting my eating early and to make it a life long change for health became my priority. I lost the weight very quickly :) seeing the results had boosted my self esteem and i had more energy to continue on that path. I had one child and still maintain a healthy bodyweight. i also graduated as a nurse in 2007 and I took the nutrition therapist course from the health sciences academy. I enjoy helping others feel good about making healthy changes but most importantly getting to know your body and having a healthy relationship with it because it is truly a gift.

  • suz

    Reply Reply December 13, 2014

    Great article, but can I find more on what exactly is “safe”?
    Also, an answer to the “you are only losing water” argument and also to “you will lose muscle tissue” when you crash diet.
    Thanks, keep the info coming!

    • admin

      Reply Reply December 14, 2014

      Glad you enjoyed it, Suz! We examine the science answering these questions in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner course. Best wishes, Maria

  • Ellen

    Reply Reply December 29, 2014

    I am not sure what safe is, in order to maintain good nutrition. Also, I read in above responses that self esteem is growing with the pounds shading off, but what about the self esteem when all of that comes to a stop? We all have diet probably once or more times in our life time. In our 20’s it’s easy to shad a few pounds by not eating a meal or reducing the calorie intake. In our 30’s we have to do this a few more days to see the same results. In our 40’s we need to add additional exercise to see the same and we all know when we hit 50’s and 60’s it’s really hard because you not just deal with calorie intake, but with hormonal changes. So, it would be great to see a plan that let’s you eat (I guess, mainly veggies, fruits and whole grains. Little meat, just enough to give you the protein but not enough to add calories from Fat – or you take a lean meat like tenderloin or just fish)

  • Sharon

    Reply Reply June 27, 2015

    Facinating, definitely goes against everything I have ever heard or read!

  • Greg Clark

    Reply Reply June 30, 2015

    Crash dieting can only work if you improve your body balance by doing it ! If you challenge your balance by starvation then you will binge to try to get back the balance lost. Losing weight that is there because you have worked hard at eating dreadfully is very different to shifting long term weight built into your balance. Activity and water intake must be maintained to help keep your balance and prevent cravings driving you to the fridge. It does say there was a phase after rapid weight loss to regain stability and maintain the new weight.. this is just slow and steady with a cliff jump start !

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