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Cold Turkey vs. Baby Steps: Which Is the Better Approach?

A conversation the other day got me thinking about personality and weight loss/health transformation. Do certain “types” tend to approach health changes differently? For instance, do intense personalities steer toward a cold turkey approach? Likewise, do milder characters lean toward a slow and steady style? And what does the research say? Everyone is always looking for the path that entails the least amount of pain, toil and struggle. Maybe we’re lead by intuition, or maybe we’ve had our share of personal experimentation – with its collection of successes and frustrations. For example, maybe you tried to go cold turkey once and feel like you fell flat on your face. On the other hand, maybe you tried it and it wasn’t a total disaster but was just too uncomfortable. You wanted a different process. (As long as we accept responsibility [1], we always get to choose our process.) The same goes for the slow and steady method. Maybe it just elicited impatience over time. Knowing ourselves is key [2] to undertaking any health change, but how does personal idiosyncrasy merge with bigger behavioral and physiological patterns?

There’s a relatively scant amount of research (but plenty of expert opinion) on the subject, and it veers off in confoundingly contradictory territory. Still, the particular emphases and findings can, I think, inform our journeys [3] when we don’t take them as absolute prescription but illuminating angles. In the end, few things in life are every 100% one way for 100% of people. We’re responsible for knowing how we tend to operate, placing that knowledge in the context of larger statistics.

The Case for Cold Turkey

It’s the proverbial ripped off band-aid, the mercilessly yanked tooth, the instantaneous jump-off-the-cliff approach. For some, it’s the ultimate set-up for defeat (or rebellion). For others, it’s simply the only way.

There’s a certain exhilaration, I think, to facing the change head-on, to feel you’re charging at it, plowing through the physiological blow back with a kind of “make my day” attitude (low carb flu [4] be damned…). The immediate intensity can offer its own form of frenzied gratification for some people. The momentum itself can carry us.

Not everyone who goes cold turkey, of course, takes the warrior mentality. For some, they whine and whimper to the point of driving themselves and everyone around them to the brink of sanity. Nonetheless, they hold fast to their determination to make it through the rough stuff asap and come out on the other side with the worst behind them. The relief – and pride – are worth the condensed transition.

As for the research, one small but compelling study [5] suggests that big and bold weight loss success early on (the kind you get going all-out) can serve you well in the long run. Researchers followed 262 obese women as they participated in 6-month long lifestyle programs designed in fast, moderate and slow groups and during a year’s follow-up after the conclusion of the programming. Participants in the moderate group were almost three times more likely than those in the slow group to have lost ten percent of their body weight. As for those in the fast group, they were five times more likely than the women in the moderate group to have hit that ten percent body weight lost. As a whole, those in the fast group maintained their weight just as well as those in the other groups.

It’s important to understand, however, that these participants went through a program with direct guidance in the first six months and then received follow-up support for another year. Most people who attempt to lose weight or make another significant change in their health aren’t working with that level of intervention. It’s similar to the success of well-designed detox regimens (hint: most are not well-designed or physiologically sound) as well as the reasoning behind the 21-Day Primal Blueprint Challenge [6]. By all means, believe in the motivating power of a big weight loss/physical transformation surge. That said, the intensive/cold turkey approach perhaps works best for many/most people when it’s accompanied by as much routine and support as possible.

The Case for Baby Steps

On the other hand, you have the baby step approach, the inch at a time, wading gradually deeper into the pool style. It’s the approach that feels less scary, less all or nothing, less likely to fail. For some it offers a safe feeling of being in control and fully confident in each step. In comparison to the cliff-jumpers above, people who lean toward baby steps prefer ground under their feet. They think of it as more of an endurance event rather than a sprint and choose to pace themselves accordingly.

Creating change incrementally definitely offers the chance to make each choice your own. You might lean less on regimen and prioritize the full lifestyle picture more. Progress comes more slowly, but you might feel more confident that it’s here to stay once it does. Though you might not feel the exhilaration of the fast paced progress, you know you won’t experience the crash and burn “now what?”

Again, actual studies are few and far between, but it doesn’t keep expert opinion from falling solidly on the side of baby stepping it. Sure, research demonstrates that people who choose and implement small behavioral changes over time will achieve weight loss success, in one study [7] more successfully than those who are given a set “didactic” regimen. That said, what’s the real crux here? Does routine and regimen help when it comes to intense efforts but hinder progress with slower approaches? There’s not really research to say either way, but I think we can come up with our own thoughts on that.

The issue with baby steps, perhaps, is balance. Ownership of choices and changes is one thing. If you go too long without progress, however, that “deep” approach might eventually work against you. Without success, motivation will almost inevitably lag.

The Bottom Line

The Primal Blueprint [8] is a loose framework for a reason. While many basic principles are clear, not everyone needs to fall in lock step. More important is making the plan your own, and that seldom if ever happens overnight. As you begin the PB, if you’re up for blasting through the initial changes, go for it. Embrace the fast weight loss and body composition shifts you’ll see in a short amount of time.

That said, however, don’t feel intimidated by the fast and furious. Steady change when done thoughtfully will get you where you need to go. Want to up your chance of success? Research suggests [9] the more you can dovetail changes across lifestyle areas to merge into inclusive lifestyle change, the better off you’ll be. Modestly and gradually altering one area of your health might be more beneficial than exclusively overhauling a single dimension at a time.

I’m curious about your direct experiences? What approach have you taken in the Primal transition? Have you experimented? What has worked best for you? Offer up your thoughts and anecdotes, and thanks for reading.