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.
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.
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.
Ashley @ Coffee Cake and Cardio says
Great post Kath!! I look forward to being on maintenance one day. I’ve got to stop maintaining my current weight…. I’m pretty good at that.
Deb @ Dietitian Debbie Dishes says
“The squiggly line effect” – I love that! It’s true that healthy eating really is all about balance. We all have days where we splurge or perhaps indulge too much sometimes! You just have to remember to balance it out with healthy eating.
This is so interesting – a really great way to break it all down. Makes me feel like I just shouldn’t stress about an “indulgent” day here and there.
Kath, I love this concept. I’ve found that this method really works for me as well, and truly promotes in the “lifestyle change” that is weight loss. It is so freeing to realize that you can get to your ideal weight, while still indulging in your favorites every once in awhile. Great post!
That is so neat!
I’ve starting the Biggest Winner (vs. Loser) at work, and am determined to make this a lifestyle change, vs. a ‘diet.’ I’ve said it time and time again, but I’m finally ready, physically and mentally (I’m more mature now at almost 30 *eek!* than I was in my early 20’s). I’m not having any of the major cravings or ‘down’ thoughts that I’ve had with yo-yo dieting in the past, and the choices are getting easier.
I want to lose weight for a plethora of reasons, and I’ve finally learned that I can have a ‘cheat’ day but they do need to balance, so my line isn’t as squiggly as it used to be! 😀 You can go off track, just don’t fall off the wagon!
[email protected] says
This is a great post! I agree that fluctuations are normal and that everything will even out in the end. It’s best to just make good choices most of the time and not worry about the occasional indulgence.
Yay, that’s my way to do it, too! It works really well, but you have to pay attention when holidays or birthdays are around. 😉
Carly @ Snack Therapy says
Fabulous perspective! I seriously love this. I’ve been having lots of peaks lately, and not many dips… Looks like I need to get on that!
Nina @ Too Hottie For That Body says
It’s funny that you posted this because I just got done lamenting over staying at the same weight for the exact same reason. This would be great if I were trying to maintain. However, I’m still in the weight loss phase. This is a great example of the balance it takes to be able to maintain your weight once you’ve reached your goal. I’ll definitely be keeping this as a resource for future reference.
Kelly K says
I love this concept. After many years of issues with weight and food, I finally started keeping a food diary a little over a year ago. It helped me realize this – making up for a splurge by cutting back – is the key to successful weight maintenance and, for me, a healthy relationship with food. It was very helpful, and I’m glad I tried it. Only problem was I kind of became addicted to keeping a food diary! I guess I was scared if I didn’t record everything I would lose track of what I was eating and gain weight. [Note: My husband and I are also TTC, and I have been tracking my BBT and CM and every little cramp or twinge for the last few months, too. This is no way for a person to live!] Thanks to your posts (and the posts of Sarah at The Smart Kitchen), I am no longer counting calories, and I no longer weigh myself. This is huge – I mean, I’ve been weighing myself regularly since I was in 5th grade! I feel so free! I hope to move forward eating more intuitively, keeping the squiggly line in mind, and watching my weight only by how my clothes fit.
Thank you for sharing, Kath! I admire your healthy approach, and it is helpful to me to read about your tricks!
Clare @ Fitting It All In says
Love this approach, kath. Makes total sense and allows for real life.
Elizabeth @ My Neon Running Shoes says
Love this! I think you hit on the key point… overall balance is what’s necessary!
If your “peaks” are so high compared to your “valleys,” wouldn’t that still constitute weight gain? Wouldn’t the highs and lows have to be equal to maintain results of the SLE?
Yes, that’s why at the time I wrote this post I was trying to be more in the valley mode : )
Susan H @ The Food Allergy Chronicles says
Balance is key…when I feel my pants getting a little snugger…I reasses my food intake and energy output. 🙂
Kath, I fully agree with this method, although I call it the “zig zag” method 😉
My last baby is 10 years old and I’ve maintained my weight for 9 years within 5 pounds – after I lost my baby weight by the time he was 1. On days I workout more I eat more, on days I don’t workout I eat less, or if I’m planning for a night out of drinking beers and eating I’ll eat less the day before and the day after, and like you said it has a way of balancing itself out! I believe being fit and in shape isn’t rocket science and isn’t one size fits all, it takes balance!
Sara @ fitcupcaker says
balance is so important…this is a great post
lindsay @ fuel my family says
I often use this reasoning as far as parties and occasions go. If I go to a party around dinner time i seem to eat the same amount if im starving or not. I’ve experimented and found its really true. I dont know why, social eating? i pick without noticing?. So i always have a lighter breakfast and lunch beforehand to even it out. That way I am not beating myself up or starving myself the next day to make up for it because i accounted for it before it even happened.
Right on, Kath…I totally subscribe to the same principle you’ve been advocating for years. I definitely have my share of indulgences, but I do also listen to my body’s signals for moderate eating days. Though I am always mindful of ballpark calorie figures, mostly so I’m sure I’m eating enough at meals given my energy needs, I never stress or “count” precisely – for me, that just feels obsessive, brings back bad memories, and takes the joy out of eating. It’s actually easy for me to maintain my “happy” weight also b/c I don’t strive to be unnaturally thin. (BTW, I’ve noticed in your more recent photos, you are clearly getting your squiggly line mojo back 😉 )
Great post! as always! 🙂
…a question: I still remember that cute cradle chair you bought for the nursery. I’m debating buying it. Do you use it? Is it any comfy?
Yes and yes! It’s perfect for reading a story or rocking a little to calm down before bed
I like it because when I’ve been there, we’ve even brought it out into the living room. Very light weight.
Thank you ladies!
hillary | nutrition nut on the run says
Did you go to Africa!? I’m thinking this is an example? 🙂
I did!! Check out my travel page!
Interesting. I’ve never heard of this concept before but it does make a lot of sense. The other day I ate way too much of a home-cooked Mexican meal I had with friends, but the next day I ate much less than I normally do.
Dana @ Conscious Kitchen Blog says
Love this concept. I’m such a visual person, so being able to put moderation and balance into a visual works wonders for me. I feel like the squiggly line is an image I can keep in my head and refer to as I go about daily life, whether it’s a dinner cooked at home or a special event.
[email protected] says
Great concept and approach Kath! Avoid the extremes and we’ll all be alright, just about finding that balance 🙂
Don’t forget that you DID have a baby!!!
I DO love this concept though. =)
Kath states in the beginning it was an article she wrote in 2009, not as of today
Just realized this. Oops!!
Samantha Hall says
Hey! I’ve been to Africa on a few different occasions! The people there are so sweet :).
There is so much truth to this post. I feel as though I’ve been up and down with my weight my whole life (which as you said, is fine as long as you keep it together). Although I haven’t been keeping up with the maintenance too well *cough*..
This is interesting though. I’m obsessive when it comes to stats and analysis. Maybe I’ll go ahead and make my own charts to track my weight loss!
Erin @ The Elliptical Chronicles says
I love this concept and completely agree. I love even more how you verbalized and even visualized it for us 🙂
Excellent send-off too “Here’s to a life full of tall mountains and lush valleys!” 😀
Thank you for writing this! As much as I think that this is naturally what we should be doing, it is sometimes so hard to realize that you need to compensate for indulgence. I know that I at least feel that I should have a right to always indulge. For me, the trick is to make sure that the lighter days feel indulgent in other ways — something non-food related, or having foods that seem indulgent (because they’re delicious), though not caloric. It’s always a work in progress. Thanks for this great perspective!
I love the graph, Kath! It’s such a great visual of what I assume a lot of people do to maintain. I also have my boring weekday meals and peaks on the weekend. Love your blog and insight 🙂
Jane @ Not Plain So Jane says
Great visual! I think the “Squiggly Line” effect can definitely help maintain a weight loss over time with some mindfulness.
Love this! Definitely a new way of thinking about moderation. Thanks for another insightful post!
The idea of the squiggly line effect makes absolute sense in terms of weight management. As a mathematician I have to ask, however, what variable is on the vertical axis of your graphs? Initially I assumed calories, but that makes no sense given that the horizontal “maintenance” line intersects with a negative number (which would indicate that your maintenance intake is negative calories–unlikely).
It’s calories over or under maintenance level. So under would be a negative number. Does that make it work?
I believe what Kath is trying to say, is that the vertical line is the number assigned to her personally for the daily caloric intake necessary to maintain a specific weight. For example, say she needs 1300 calories to maintain her weight- the vertical line would be at 1300. The sine wave function, or “squiggly line” as Kath referred to it would be plotted at the calorie amounts where she was either over or under her goal of 1300 cals/day. The goal is to have the graph oscillate evenly above (more than 1300 cals) and under (less than 1300) with the net effect being you are always within reach of your maintenance weight.
I don’t think she means “negative number”, but rather under her caloric goal for the day.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, Kath.
You are right Annie! “sine wave function” <---- takes me back to high school -ahhh!
Love this. I am very close to my goal weight and this is sooo helpful. I like that you realize people indulge on holidays, eating out etc. but it is possible to maintain by balancing!
Kylie @ immaeatthat says
Loved this post! I’m recently engaged and getting married this December!! With so much happiness going on I kind of fell off the weight maintenance wagon…I was eating healthy stuff (mostly) but just TOO much healthy stuff. I got on the scale for the first time in a couple months and realized I had gained ~10 pounds…whoops. So now I’m trying to get back to a maintenance weight by May and then just utilize The Squiggly Line Effect until December:))
I will never forget when I first read that post on Breathe! Loved it then, love the reminder now. Thanks 🙂
Sara @my less serious life says
love this post! so true and a great reminder of BALANCE!
I like the squiggly line effect concept. I have quite a hectic lifestyle and find it hard to stay balanced. I think this concept shows that you can have peaks as long as there’s some valleys too 🙂
Sarah (The Simple Dietitian) says
Great post! I love this concept but never really thought about putting it into words (and visualization!) I tend to follow this without really thinking about it, although this winter I definitely had more peaks than valleys (ahem…weight gain!) This seems to happen to me each winter but then the summer rolls around and my valleys and peaks level off once again. Now that I have this picture in my head, maybe I can make it work for me throughout the winter months too. 😉
Thanks for yet another great post, Kath! 😀
Bruna @ morgbu.com says
I pretty much do this without planning… I try to eat lean and healthy as much as I can, so when events occur it’s ok to splurge 😉
Molly @ RDexposed says
Great post! As a child/young adult studying ballet, it was all about calorie restriction. It took me a long time to work on this same method you described. But, when one can learn to go with the squiggly line, It’s so freeing. There’s so much flexibility. It’s really a gentle approach to weight management.
Parita @ myinnershakti says
This is pretty much how I operate as well, except I call it “give and take!” Squiggly line sounds more fun though!
Sone Kotze says
Hi, I am actually from Africa. Hello there 😛
Anyway, this would only work assuming you are relatively mentally strong as this is the way they say binge eating disorders start. You binge, you feel guilty and starve yourself to “make up for it”, but feel so deprived after a while that you find yourself binging again… They always say the key is NOT to starve yourself the next day or over-exercise.
I think there’s a very fine line to be drawn here, I also feel you do need to compensate for it somehow, so whenever I over-indulge I always make sure not to fall into that cycle by eating less calories that are clean (like a detox) but still GOOD so I don’t feel deprived.
Kate (@SweetsandSweats) says
I LOVE this theory! And thanks for the visual representation, it makes it so clear. I think this is so true and works, if you just apply it. I could be better at this theory but I’m definitely working on it ..
Really great post; I have been trying to live like this myself. Thank you!
I think this falls right in line with intuitive eating and mindfulness. When you’re having fun and there is good food available, you just want to enjoy it! But, like you said, during the week, I try to only eat when hungry, prepare my meals in advance to help with healthy choices and portion control, and stop eating past a certain point at night. I also try to really stay in tune with my body and I think that is the biggest thing. If I’m hungry, have a small snack or a glass of water, wait 30 min and if still hungry, a slightly larger snack 🙂
This is a fantastic post! It is definitely true that people’s weight fluctuates, especially before or after a first pregnancy. It looks like you’ve been doing great after giving birth to Mazen. We hope you are enjoying motherhood!
[email protected] for the Soul says
Hmmm this is a pretty cool concept because I think many of us, including myself, tend to naturally go up and down with our intake of food depending on how our week goes. It’s almost intuitive because like you said, your body just doesn’t WANT to eat too much after over indulging the day before, so it’s pretty cool how you broke it down. 🙂
This is a great post Kath!
Hi Kath, have you started planning for your vegetable garden yet? Will you grow from seed or small plants? I absolutely cannot wait to get out there and feel some sunshine and dirt between my fingernails. Btw I can’t believe I am going to say this but…I ate sardines the other day because of you….and I LOVED ‘EM! I am very adventuresome when it comes to trying food, but sardines scared me. But about a year ago, after reading your blog for quite some time I decided to buy some. Well, they sat in my pantry for almost a year before I worked up the nerve. Per your recomendation, I didn’t look at them much, mixed ’em and they were great! No doubt without your encouragement I never would have tried them. Thank you!!!
This is a great concept and a fantastic post. I like that it encourages mindfullness with eating and a natural and healthy balance in weight management. I’ll have to remember your reference to it as the squiggly line effect : ) I think that illustrates so clearly the concept of balance.
Kath, I would love to see more videos!
Do you have skincare/makeup post?
I don’t, but I’ve been thinking about doing one since it’s a FAQ : )
Lauren @ Fun, Fit and Fabulous! says
What a fantastic way to explain finding balance in life! I love this! I am definitely going to use this with clients! Thanks!
Great post as always, Kath! And pretty cool concept, too.Thanks!
Robyn @thereallife_RD says
I often quote you with the Squiggly Line Effect because it is such a great illustration of how to ENJOY food and still be happy and healthy! Its so much for fun to enjoy good food with other people in a fun atmosphere [like and event] than sitting at home on your couch on a Monday night. Have a great week!
alice c says
Hi Kath! Really love this idea. Think it’s a very healthy way to look at diet. I was just wondering how you worked out that 1800 was the right caloric number to maintain for you as i’m finding it hard to work out how much i should eat to maintain my weight? alice x
I really just had to estimate and go by trial and error
I love this post! I’m in need of a few lush valleys, personally 🙂
I’ve tried to follow this plan in the past for maintenance and it worked well, but as I’ve hit middle age and am near menopause, it becomes a graph of many more valleys than peaks since I have to work much harder to lose at this point. And being relatively short (5’4) with an extremely small frame, five pounds shows up really fast. For me it means following a diet w/ little variation, and passing up almost all treats. Pretty boring and sometimes frustrating, but it’s worth it for my health.
Neil Butterfield says
Great post Kath. While I have never reduced this to a graph, I have always shared this belief. Everything balances out in the end if you play the game.
I have recently started using an app to track my calories, and have noticed that I have a squiggly line!!! 🙂 I don’t know if you’ve answered this before, but if you do track anything anymore, do you use an app? If so, what?
I use Lose It and LOVE it!
I don’t at this point
This is a great visual! I’ve heard of something similar to this in which people will eat 1,200 calories one day and 2,000 the next, alternating to help break plateaus etc. I always follow a similar method – rather than try to limit myself to 1400 calories over Christmas, I enjoy the holiday and make up for it on other days!
That first diagram is what my FitDay chart looks like at the moment! When I started tracking on FitDay, I put in my current weight and desired weight with a goal date. Then it puts in how many calories less you need to eat each week to reach your goal. When I first started, I really struggled to keep the calories down below the “goal” line. After a couple of weeks, I noticed that I had started to “squiggle” and had some overs and some unders. At first, I thought, I’d better get a hold of myself! But after 2 weeks, I noticed I had started to lose weight. Then I did some reading on the subject of intermittent fasting (not that I’m a big fan!), and discovered that it is better to keep your system “guessing” so it doesn’t think famine is on the way. When you eat substantially less all of a sudden, your body thinks famine is coming so it tries to hold on to the fat. But when you eat more on some days and less on others, your body supposedly gets used to your food supply being cyclic and doesn’t react in famine-mode. Anyway, that’s what I got out of it, and it seems to be working. Some days, I am quite a bit under, and other days, I’m pushing the top limit, but the weight has started to come off, so whatever is happening, it’s working! Hurrah for the Squiggle Effect!!!
I love this post – loved it when it originally came out.
Recovering from an eating disorder has left me, for now, unable to experience intuitive eating BUT I am making progress and that’s what it’s all about.
And oftentimes, the eating disorder is disguising the real issue – figuring that out is more than half the battle!
Thanks for sharing Kath!!
Kath Younger says
Man, that last bit about your entire weight over your life can have a squiggly line and be healthy really hit me. Two kids under 4 + coming out of a year and a half of pandemic and work from home, I’ve put on more weight than I typically carry. I feel sad sometimes because I know if I only had more time and energy for exercise this would not be the case. I’m not “happy” with the extra pounds (don’t look great, clothes are a bit too snug), but I also try to give myself grace because truthfully there’s not a whole lot I can do about it at the moment! I really like this idea of weight ebbing and flowing with life’s seasons.
Kath Younger says
Totally hear you!! I am sure when life lets up a bit it you’ll get back to your more comfortable body with relative ease <3
I really appreciate this post, as I’ve been eating intuitively for the past few months. My goal is vegan teetolaer at home, and pescatarian with drinks when out. Becoming a part time vegan, and eating mostly REAL food and not a lot of vegan products, has helped me learn more about how my body works. I knew calorie counting was not sustainable for me in the long run; paying attention to nutrients and portion sizes works. I also had a really good suggestion from a workout coach = have a five pound range. While trying to lose, every time you get to the bottom of your range, it slides down two pounds. So if your range is 150 – 155 and you hit 150, then your new range is 148 – 153. Because we all know our weight fluctuates, and it can be really depressing to see the scale go up. If you’re in your range, you’re good. Once you’re in maintenance, same thing. It’s easy to pay a little more attention when you see yourself in the top part of your range for more than a day or two. Some lighter meals and an extra workout will get you right back where you need to be!
I eat whole , healthy foods. Never was in to soda, candy and thankfully beer/booze/wine. I never think of weight or calories, just make healthy choices. I’m a bit older , at 54 . That may be why my attitude has changed from over caring to calm these days. Great post. Have a great week