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Why is it So Hard to Keep Weight Off?

frustrated woman on scale


Losing weight is only half the battle. Keeping it off is where most people fail. How many times have you vowed not to put those pound back on … only to see the scale creeping up? And you’re not eating nearly as much as you used to. Weight regain occurs for numerous reasons but some of them are insidious. The body has sneaky ways of trying to put that weight back on. The good news is that you CAN keep the weight off.  But it helps to understand why it is so difficult – forewarned is forearmed.

Lately I’ve quite a few successful losers in my private practice who have lost 30+ pounds.  I have the utmost respect for someone who can stay so disciplined for extended periods of time to achieve this loss. But what a cruel trick the body plays on you when you have to fight to keep this weight off.   

Reasons for weight gainblinders

The obvious:

1. You take the blinders off.  Most successful losers have their “blinders on” when they’re in serious weight loss mode. No bread in restaurants, sauce always on the side, no bites of their spouse’s dessert.  But once they get to their goal weight, those blinders slowly come off.  The little bites start to sneak back in …  (pic credit) 

2. You get comfortable. You feel pretty good as the compliments continue to roll in. “Come on – you’re so thin. You can have a bite of this”. It’s pretty easy to let your guard down and have that little extra. The problem is that one or two little extras often turn into a few more.  And your rationalizing that you can make up for it next week doesn’t work … see below.

3. Not so fast. In the past you could get the pounds off from a weekend of overindulging in a week or so. This doesn’t happen anymore. Combine the “getting comfortable attitude” with the metabolic adaption (see below) and you are now a hamster on a wheel. It’s really difficult to catch up from over-indulgences. teenagers-eating-pizza 

4. Smaller body needs fewer calories. Your smaller body needs fewer calories to maintain than your larger body. For example, a 250 pound person might need 2700 calories to maintain this weight. After losing weight down to 170 pounds, this same person needs only ~ 1700 calories to maintain that weight (takes into account metabolic adaption – see below).

The not so obvious
5. Metabolic adaption. Here is the part we forget … the act of losing weight actually slows your metabolism. What kind of cruel joke is this?  Metabolism slows down by 15% after you have lost 10% or more of your body weight. Assuming that you keep the weight off, this slow down persists for 3-5 years. Crazy! This same response happens in both lean and obese people. But it does not occur if you lose less than 7% of your body weight.  And it isn’t greater if you lose really large amounts of weight (like over 20%) This suggests that the metabolic adaptation to weight loss is triggered by either a very narrow range of weight change or by some hormonal signal, and reaches its maximal adaptive capabilities by 10% of weight loss. man on scale 2 Reference.

Prior research by Drs. Leibel and Rosenbaum in humans had shown that the brain fights fat loss partly by making our bodies, especially our muscles, more efficient at using calories. Loss of 10 percent of body weight will require someone to cut the number of calories eaten daily by 22 percent (this research says 22%. Above research 15%)  A woman who drops from 150 to 135 pounds, for example, needs to eat about 250 calories per day less, or exercise 250 calories per day more, to maintain her new weight compared with a woman whose stable weight is 135. Dr. Rosenbaum says, “Whatever lifestyle changes you make to lose weight must be continued indefinitely beyond the period of weight loss if you want to keep the weight off.”  This paragraph comes from cumc.columbia.edu

6. Exercise doesn’t save you from metabolic adaption. Approximately 25% of the weight that dieters lose is from muscle. Adding exercise, especially weight training, to a weight loss program will slow loss of muscle mass. This is important because muscle burns more calories than fat. But studies have shown, that despite relative preservation of fat free mass (muscle), exercise does not prevent dramatic slowing of resting metabolism out of proportion to weight loss.

biggest loser
Food for thought: I’ve always wondered what happened to the contestants on the Biggest Loser. They lose massive amounts of weight. How many of them actually keep the weight off? In researching this article, I came across an interesting blog post by Yoni Freedhoff, MD on his blog Weighty Matters. Check it out! 

 

Bottom line
This not meant to be a depressing blog post but more of a warning that it can be difficult to maintain a large weight loss. Difficult but not impossible by any means! You will just need to stay on your toes.
Stay tuned for my blog post on How to Live in the Grey Zone (how to maintain your weight loss)


References:

Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss

Biological Mechanisms that Promote Weight Regain Following Weight Loss in Obese Humans 

Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass

The Biggest Loser Destroys Participants’ Metabolisms 

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