We seem to be on a never-ending quest to conquer weight loss and find a way to maintain that weight loss for the long-term. The journal Obesity recently published a study looking at long-term weight maintenance and metabolic changes in 14 Biggest Loser participants and found that most of the participants regained a significant portion of the weight they lost.1
Six years after the competition, 5 of the 14 study participants were within 1% or heavier than their pre-competition weight. Of equal importance is the fact that participants had significant declines in metabolism after the competition. Additionally, participant’s leptin levels, a hormone responsible for letting you know you’ve eaten enough, were below baseline after the contest, and never returned to normal. Essentially their bodies were fighting them to gain the weight back because of their reduced metabolism and increased hunger. This left many everyday dieters with a “what’s the point of trying?” attitude.
Sure, the study points out a lot of concerning issues, but let’s consider some of the positive things we can still do for our health and weight management. I have long said that dieting is what makes people gain weight. Dieting essentially triggers a survival response in your body because it interprets a diet as a decline in food availability. It doesn’t know you’ve withheld food on purpose. To survive, after going through a food shortage, the body overreacts with increased hunger and ability to deposit fat so it can gain back what it has lost, and sometimes more, in order to prepare for the next food shortage, or diet in this case.
If diets make us gain weight, then what should we be doing?
Focus On Sustainable Changes
My approach to weight management has always been this – if you can’t do it for life, don’t do it to lose. Even if your metabolism does slow a little, by selecting methods of weight loss that you can stick with, you already have sustainable actions in place that will keep up with any metabolic changes. This clearly wasn’t the case for those Biggest Loser participants as I’m sure having personal trainers and chefs by their side wasn’t sustainable once the show was over. I personally have lost about 20 pounds and have maintained the loss for over 10 years. However, I didn’t set out to lose weight. I focused on eating to be healthy and reversing my prediabetes. Additionally, I worked on improving my relationship with food as I used to be a chronic dieter and stress binge eater.
Basic Common Sense Nutrition
This really goes a long way. We have over-complicated healthy eating in our quest for the “perfect diet”. I like to strip things down to basics. Try to get a variety of food groups at each meal with an emphasis on protein, healthy fats like nuts/seeds, avocado and olive oil, and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Don’t over-analyze your points, macros, calories, or whatever people are counting these days. To keep your portions in check, try to start eating before you are too hungry and stop before you are full. It’s okay to fit in fun foods too. Bottom line: Don’t over-complicate healthy eating; you’re not perfect and your diet doesn’t have to be either. Let it be easy. If you need additional coaching or support, reach out to a professional; the right one can help make the process easier.
Focus On Your Mindset
As a mindful eating coach and someone who used to have a terrible relationship with food and my figure, I know this is huge. When your mindset is “today I’m dieting so I must (fill in the blank)”, and a few days later you find yourself saying “I’m so over it today, I just don’t care, I’ll start over Monday”, then it’s time to start focusing on your relationship with food. Going back to finding sustainable changes, even if you find healthy recipes and a fitness routine you like, your efforts can be sabotaged by stress, boredom, or celebration eating. Then we end up in a cycle of eat, repent, repeat. Often when we are in our repent stage we are “too good”, which leaves our body feeling deprived and primed for another over-indulgence. Once you remove guilt from eating, recognize that you need to eat balanced, adequate meals throughout the day and most importantly, slow down to enjoy whatever you are eating. That’s when things become a lot easier.
Try to fully embrace the motto: “Eat right and exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it”. Once I accepted myself at my current weight, stopped actively trying to lose weight, and began focusing on my health and loving myself unconditionally, I eventually lost 20 pounds over a 2-year period. If I had still been focusing on losing, I think I would have continued to get discouraged, self-sabotage, and probably ended up gaining more weight, since dieting is what made me gain weight in the first place.
Be Realistic But Don’t Give Up
While a 100-pound sustained weight loss for someone who is morbidly obese may be possible, that goal also puts a lot of pressure on someone. Often times, when we put too much pressure on ourselves, especially if it’s something we have struggled with for years, we will subconsciously self-sabotage. Accepting yourself as you are and just making healthy choices you can feel good about will help take the pressure off. Even if you never lose as much weight as you’d like, you will feel better and be healthier because of your consistent actions. In my book, a consistently balanced but not perfect diet trumps a perfect diet that you can only follow some of the time.
The Fitness Factor
The study commented on the participants’ increase in appetite from low leptin levels as well as slower metabolic rates. I read the study top to bottom and didn’t see a mention of it, or what type of exercise the participants did in the 6 years following the show. Even without this information, I do know that regardless what your resting metabolic rate is, if you move more you will burn more calories. Exercise is a great way to burn more but so is just moving more throughout the day. If you have a sit-down job try to get up and move (stretch, take the stairs, walk, do lunges, etc.) at least 5 minutes out of every hour you are sitting. I do this myself, not with the intention of losing weight, but rather because I know it is good for my physical and mental health.
Value Sleep And Stress Reduction
Sleep and stress are two of the biggest weight and health factors that often get ignored. Poor sleep habits and high stress not only lead to poor health outcomes, they also lead to weight gain. Not to mention, most people don’t feel their best when they are sleep deprived and stressed. In many cases, I find it more important to start with improving sleep and stress management than to work on diet and exercise. If you are struggling with making the changes on your own, consider working with a dietitian-nutritionist or coach who focuses on behavior change.
The bottom line – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In other words, focusing on being healthy and developing a positive relationship with your figure from the beginning, will make it much easier to avoid excessive weight gain because you won’t be fighting against your body’s own survival defenses like a drop in metabolism or altered satiety hormones that can result from dieting and weight loss. Shift the focus of food from weight to health and remember – it’s important to take the time to enjoy eating.
As a society, we really need to shift our prejudices towards people who are overweight or obese. I can say first-hand that many people aren’t overweight or obese from a lack of trying, but possibly from trying too hard and ending up in the diet cycle of deprivation, followed by the body’s survival mechanisms kicking in to overcompensate for the deprivation. Start by focusing on self-love and doing healthy things for yourself because you love yourself and your body deserves to be fed healthy food.
|↑1||Fothergill, Erin, Juen Guo, Lilian Howard, Jennifer C. Kerns, Nicolas D. Knuth, Robert Brychta, Kong Y. Chen et al. “Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition.” Obesity 24, no. 8 (2016): 1612-1619.|