If you’ve ever lost weight only to gain it back, you’re not alone. Weight loss is difficult, but maintaining weight loss is even more challenging. Research is very clear that no matter how much weight is lost, within two years, most weight is regained, and within five years, the majority of people are back at their pre-diet weight.
It doesn’t matter what kind of diet is followed (low fat, low carb, etc), the results are the same. Weight regain happens for most people. They blame themselves for not being able to maintain their weight loss, but it actually has very little to do with willpower and a whole lot to do with biology.
What happens when you lose weight?
When we restrict our food intake, our ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin increases and leptin, a hormone that signals satiety, decreases. The result of this is an increase in appetite and feelings of more intense hunger – sometimes even after a meal.
The other major change that leads to weight regain is a decrease in the amount of energy (calories/kilojoules) your body needs to function. In part, this is because a lighter body requires less energy to ‘run’, but it is also related to changes in metabolism. Effectively, the body becomes more ‘efficient’ – using fewer calories than someone the same weight who hasn’t dieted. The body sees dieting and weight loss as a threat to survival, it doesn’t know the difference between an actual famine and a diet, so your metabolism slows so you can function on less energy. In the Biggest Loser study, participants used, on average, 500 calories a day less than someone the same weight who hadn’t been on a diet. That’s a significant difference!
As well as metabolic changes, restriction of certain foods can also lead to increased thoughts of those foods. Because many weight-loss plans involve cutting out foods or even whole food groups, it’s common for dieters to find that food even more desirable. This is known as the ‘ironic processing effect’.
As a society, we need to stop blaming individuals for their failures in weight loss. Weight-loss interventions do not work long term for most people, and it’s nothing to do with willpower.
So what should you do about it?
Let go of the weight focus. Throw away your dieting tools and start to focus on learning to listen to your body. This means learning to listen to your hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues. Improve your relationship with food if you need to. Focus on health-promoting habits. They promote health regardless of weight. Behaviours such as eating fruits and vegetables, keeping your alcohol intake low and keeping active on a regular basis are all related to improved health outcomes. Not having to worry about the number on the scale can provide more energy to focus on what really matters for well-being – those health behaviours.