The Squiggly Line Effect

One of my most popular post concepts, the Squiggly Line Effect, shows you that maintaining a healthy weight is not solely ruled by a mathematical formula that you must adhere to perfectly every day. Rather, it’s fluid and flexible. When you trust your body and listen to your hunger cues, the math all shakes out as an average. Here’s an updated version of this decade-old post.

carrots with greens on top

The Squiggly Line Effect

I came up with the “Squiggly Line Effect” many years ago when thinking about weight maintenance and teaching myself about intuitive eating.

Throughout the years that I was losing weight, my line was low (a calorie deficit) with spikes for special occasions. I like charts and number crunching, and I tried to think about what this trend would look like if I began to eat intuitively.

Would I overeat every day?

Would I under-eat sometimes?

I realized that the goal wasn’t to eat the exact same amount day after day but to strive for eating patterns that followed a natural up and down flow.  

We all have occasions when we eat past fullness or just eat too many calorie-dense foods (like the holiday season!). These occasions are usually balanced by lighter days before or after. Who has come home from a vacation and craved lighter meals like you crave water on a hot August day? ME for sure. 

I often want to eat less after a weekend of overeating – the body has a tendency to balance itself. And when you follow what you want, your body + mind are in sync.

Here is a visual of an ideal squiggly line of weight maintenance:

This chart takes numbers to an extreme and there are likely other factors involved, but exaggerating the calories in both directions helps to best illustrate the concept.

squiggly line graph

The Squiggly Line Effect happens naturally

Many years ago I was able to give up calorie counting and embrace intuitive eating for good thanks to the Squiggly Line.

Here’s the hypothetical:

Assuming I ate fewer than 1,800-ish healthy calories per day during the typical workweek, I presumed – and later found to be true – that that would lead to a really slow cumulative loss when combined with daily exercise. Then, assuming I ate whatever I wanted on a Saturday night, that 1,000+ calories on Saturday would balance with the -1000 I “lost” during the week and I’d come out even at the end of the week.

These are my personal calorie average that I predicted, but the peaks and valleys may be more or less pronounced for other people. 

Maintaining good health isn’t simply eating 2,000 every. single. day. 

Some days it’s easy to hit 2,000 calories (or whatever your personal calorie needs are) and sometimes it’s hard! It all depends on the context of your meals and activity level. 

What matters most is focusing on healthy habits for the majority of your days. 

Over time, if the height of your peaks is greater than the depth of your valleys, then you’ll probably store some of that weight. 

And vice versa. 

Your body is smarter than you

But if you truly listen to your body and ask yourself what you really want in this moment, you’ll probably find your body is smarter than any graph you could draw. 

Unless you’re under the careful watch of a scientist, nobody (haha – get it no. body.) really knows what happens to food once you digest it.

Some people might gain weight while eating intuitively and others might lose. Your body is probably doing one or the other for a reason. 

And you know what? Your BODY might have its own squiggly line. Your weight isn’t meant to stay exactly the same your whole life. It might go up and down with the seasons (mine does) or following the ebbs and flows of life. And that is totally fine.

Zoom out – look at your entire life (which hopefully is long) as a really long timeline of ups and downs. A pound up or down here to there is not something your body is stressing about. Neither should you!

While I believe in the Squiggly Line Effect and am a Dietitian myself, please speak with your own healthcare team before making any changes to your diet.

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