And 5 simple tips for long-term success.
We've seen it happen with everybody from celebs like Kirstie Alley and Janet Jackson, to former Biggest Loser contestants—heck, even one of the most powerful women in the world, Oprah Winfrey, can't seem to maintain weight loss. Losing the weight is only half the battle; keeping it off for good is another story.
According to a new study published in the August 2011 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, weight loss and weight maintenance require two completely different approaches. Once you’ve reached your target weight, you can’t immediately return to your old habits or you’ll see those pounds creep back on (and in most cases, a few extra too). Several recent studies note that only about 5 to 10 percent of people who successfully lose weight are able to maintain their trimmed-down figure. And more new research shows that the hormones that help regulate appetite can be altered up to a year after losing weight on a lower calorie diet. That means even though you dropped the pounds, your body may be working against you to keep them off.
So why is it so darn hard to keep the weight off? We asked Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Auburn University who regularly studies calorie expenditure, to explain the main reasons it’s so hard to keep the pounds at bay (and how to counteract them):
Reason #1: Our bodies are hard-wired to fight off starvation.
You can thank our ancestors for this one—losing weight used to be very undesirable. A drop in our caloric intake used to mean famine and that food may not be available for a long time. And even though we now live with mega-grocery stores on every corner, our bodies are still programmed to react to a caloric deficit the same way.
“Our bodies were designed to store energy efficiently,” Olson says. “So, even if you are overweight, your body is very attuned to what has been ‘normal’ for an extended time period, and to prevent any possibility of being in a state of starvation, your body has many mechanisms that trigger it to hold on to whatever body weight you’re at.”
Fight back by focusing on portion control, eating well-balanced meals, and making your snacks count. You'll stave off hunger and keep mother nature in check.
Reason #2: Weight loss changes your metabolic needs.
Talk about a double-edged sword: the less you weigh, the less calories you need to maintain your weight. Once you’ve stopped 'dieting,' you can’t go back to eating the same amount of food that you were accustomed to, Olson says. “If you cut your calories to 1800 a day and lose 10 pounds, your new body might only need 1800 calories to maintain your new weight. Lighter bodies have less mass and cells and therefore require less energy to maintain those living tissues and cells."
Maximize every calorie by planning ahead and stock your fridge with foods that will fill you up, not out.
Reason #3: Your body adapts to your fitness routine, so may not be burning the same amount of calories that you did when you started your working out.
Been hitting the gym regularly, but the pounds still seem to be creeping back on? Blame the efficiency of your body for that one. “When you do specific movements over and over, your body 'learns' those movements and is naturally programmed to become better at them," Olson says. "In sports, this is quite helpful: professional tennis players can play brutal matches in the heat for hours six or seven days in a row! They expend nowhere near the energy it would take the rest of us. This is why you have to alternate your workouts and find fresh movements and fresh exercise formats if you want to continue to burn a specific number of calories on a regular basis.”
Reason #4: You can’t stay on a diet forever, and if you cut out certain foods in order to lose weight, adding them back in can cause weight gain.
Been in pasta heaven since going off your diet? Cutting out foods like bread, pasta, potatoes, and other 'carbs' is an easy way to cut calories and lose weight, but what happens when you begin eating them again? The scale will likely take notice.
"It’s not a good idea to cut out a specific food group or stay on a very limited calorie diet," Olson says. "There is nothing magical about cutting out a food group for weight loss. If you limit an entire food group (such as carbs), you are really limiting your overall calories. It is much better to reduce total calories moderately from all food groups to limit normal (and healthy) cravings for those foods and to rid your house of refined snacks such as chips and sweets—food items you can live without (that only add low-nutrient calories)."
Reason #5: Old habits die hard.
Out with friends? They may be more likely to pressure you into old eating habits now that you've "lost the weight." Or, maybe you’re more likely to indulge yourself again, rationalizing that you "deserve" that extra cookie now that you’ve made it back into your skinny jeans.
Set a good example for your friends instead of letting them coerce you back into your old ways. Order up a skinny cocktail and pick smart choices from the menu when out with the girls. And enjoy healthier versions of your favorite treats on occasion. Maintaining your weight doesn’t mean you can’t indulge from time to time, just be sure not to let it become all of the time.