Science explains why most dieters regain any weight they lose. But you can fight this trend.
Losing weight is the easy part. Keeping it off is what’s really hard.
By some estimates, 85 percent of people who lose weight gain it all back, and one review from the University of California–Los Angeles found that, after successfully losing weight, about two-thirds of dieters regained everything they lost – and then some – within four to five years.
Why blow it all after you’ve worked so hard? While a “finish line” mentality (“I’ve lost the weight, now I can stop dieting!”) can certainly contribute, the bigger issue may be biological.
“Your body undergoes various metabolic and hormonal changes after weight loss. These physiological changes can increase one’s appetite, slow metabolis and stimulate hunger, all of which can hinder weight-loss efforts,” explains New York City-based registered dietitian Rachel Stahl. “Specifically, a hormone known as leptin, which tells the brain that you have enough energy stored, falls when people lose weight. When leptin falls, appetite increases and metabolism slows. At the same time, ghrelin, termed the ‘hunger hormone’ because it stimulates hunger, is increased after people have lost weight and can increase food intake and promote fat storage.”
In fact, in one 2011 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, one year after losing weight, participants’ metabolic rates and hormones hadn’t returned to their pre-diet levels. That means to maintain your new, lighter weight, you actually have to consume fewer calories per day than would someone who weighs the same amount as you – but has always been that size, explains registered dietitian Jennifer Christman, clinical nutrition manager for Medifast.
Basically, your body is genetically wired to gain weight, not lose it, says Jeffrey Johnsrud, a bariatric surgeon and weight-loss specialist with St. Joseph Hospital in California. Once you’ve lost weight, your body fears that food is in short supply, and that slowing your metabolism will keep you from wasting away.
So how do you beat your biology and keep the weight off? Follow these tips:
When it comes to fighting your body’s urge to regain, exercise is your biggest metabolism-boosting ally. “Diet helps people lose weight, but incorporating physical activity, especially resistance exercise, helps to maintain weight loss,” says Christman, who notes that a pound of muscle burns between five and seven more calories per day than does fat.
“Building more muscle is a win-win situation,” she says. What’s more, research published in the American Journal of Physiology - Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology suggests that exercise may also prevent weight regain by reducing hunger, preventing the growth of fat cells and encouraging the body to burn calories from fat rather than from stored carbohydrates.
Watch Your Weight
“People who have lost weight should weigh themselves once a week for the rest of their lives,” Johnsrud says. It might sound daunting, but knowledge is power in the fight against weight gain. Regular weigh-ins – opt for the same day and time every week to prevent any weight fluctuations caused by food and liquid intake – can alert you to weight regain as soon as it starts. Likewise, trying on the same pair of jeans every week will flag any increases in size, which, if you are trying to put on muscle, may be a more accurate predictor of fat gain than weighing in, Christman says.
“If one or both start creeping up, take a close, honest look at your meal plan and exercise regimen,” she advises. “Have you been struggling to make healthy choices? Are you drinking water? What about your exercise regimen? Are your current habits getting you closer or further away from your values?”
Receiving social support and being held accountable to someone else can help motivate women not only to lose weight, but to keep it off, according to a 2014 study from The University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. “Surround yourself with friends, family and colleagues who will support your efforts and with whom you can be completely honest about how you’re doing,” Stahl says.
If you don’t want to recruit your friends and family, consider reaching out to an online support community.
“Keeping a food journal can increase awareness of how, what and why you are eating,” Stahl says.“Monitoring what you eat and your physical activity has been shown to help not only with losing weight, but keeping it off. With advancements in technology, it is becoming easier to keep track of food intake and exercise.
You can blog about it, photograph pictures of your meals or log updates in your smartphone. These strategies help identify trends that are responsible for any weight gain so that you can make any appropriate adjustments.”
Get More Sleep
Weight loss isn’t the only thing that can throw off your levels of the hunger-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin to promote weight regain. So can poor sleep. That’s why, in one study presented at the American Heart Association's 2011 Scientific Sessions, the day after sleeping only four hours, women consumed 329 more calories than they did after sleeping nine hours.
Most adults should shoot for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
“One of the biggest tips I emphasize with my patients to retain weight-loss results is to practice mindful eating. Most people don’t think about this aspect, but it can be one of the most profound ways to transform one’s relationship with food for lasting success," Stahl says. "It’s important to pay
careful attention to the two ‘Ws,’ the what and the why. What you’re eating and why you’re eating. This helps to not only enjoy and savor your food more, but prevent overeating.”
Likewise, slowing down and focusing on the taste, smell and texture of your food – and without distractions such as work or television – can help boost your satiety, prevent overeating and improve your long-term relationship with food.