Congratulations you have lost weight! So now, why is it so difficult to keep it off?

In long term clinical weight loss trials, it’s a sad fact that the majority of participants regain their initial weight loss.  Both scientists and patients know that losing weight can be difficult but keeping that weight off in the long term is a whole different ball game.  The reasons for this are complex.  Perhaps one of the biggest issues is the challenge in making permanent lifestyle changes.  Although most people set off on a weight loss attempt with high motivation and enthusiasm it tends to drop over time and new habits are abandoned in favour of the old lifestyle.  Even if a new dietary habit is established, something can happen that will trigger a relapse.  We all live busy lives and changes is inevitable so for a lot of people getting back on track after a stressful event or even a holiday and not throwing in the towel is the key.

Researchers also argue that our biology can lead to more weight regain in a formerly obese person.  Studies with rats show that if a rat is fattened up and then sent to rat fat camp to lose weight, there are several metabolic changes that seem to make the rat predisposed to regain the weight – things like a reduced metabolic rate, increased drive to eat, and changes to hormones we know to be involved in metabolism such as insulin.   It’s tempting to be fatalistic about it, but let’s not.  We are not rats after all and evidently there are people out there that seem to defy the forces working against them and lose weight and keep it off for good.

So who are these people that defy the odds and keep the weight off? Luckily for us, researchers are on the case.  The ‘National Weight Control Registry’ was set up in 1994 at the University of Colorado and studies people that have lost at least 13.5kg (about 2 stone/30 lbs) and managed to keep it off for at least 1 year.  There are over 10,000 people on the registry and researchers have found several key things that people have in common:

The 3 key secrets of successful weight loss maintainers are:

  • 78% eat breakfast daily.
  • 75% weigh themselves weekly.
  • 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour daily.

So I look at this list and think, breakfast? Ok I like breakfast, I can do that.  Breakfast consumption is often viewed by researchers as an overall indicator of a healthy diet.  It might not be anything special about breakfast itself but those who are eating breakfast regularly are perhaps more likely to be having a regular meal pattern and eating other healthful foods.  So really it’s no surprise that people who are keeping their weight off are also following a healthy diet.

They are also weighing themselves once a week.  Again, this seems do-able. Self monitoring is one of the few behaviours where there is good solid evidence that it will help with weight management.  If you are weighing yourself regularly you are paying attention to your weight and bringing it into the forefront of your mind to keep yourself on track.  So many of our diet and exercise behaviours are passive, we tend to eat and drink mindlessly and not pay real attention to what we are doing so if you are weighing yourself weekly you can see the weight creeping up and react to it.

But oh dear the third point, an hour a day of exercise! And this is the rub with weight maintenance.  The key seems to be exercise.  When losing weight, research has shown exercise to be quite frankly of little importance compared to food and drink intake.  For overall fitness exercise is massively beneficial but it’s highly unlikely that you will actually lose weight through working out alone (you just don’t expend enough energy). But AFTER you have lost the weight then exercise becomes vitally important.

If you have been doing really well losing weight through changing your diet and you are at a point where you feel like the weight is creeping back on, it’s important to also look at your exercise.  An hour a night in the gym is not realistic for most people but finding ways to increase general activity as part of your day such as going for a walk on your lunch break or taking the stairs instead of the lift will play a part.  The key point here is that if you are struggling to keep the weight off and you don’t know why, it might be that what worked for you to lose weight in the first place is not what you need to do now.  Although our busy lifestyles and even our biology might be making things more challenging there are lots of people that have made 3 key changes that have worked.  So after all that hard work to lose weight, why not grab your weetabix, weighing scales and trainers and take the lead from those on the registry and keep the weight off for good.


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