Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Weight Maintenance is Harder Than Weight Loss, and How to Help it Along

This was originally published in July 2009.

An estimated 80% to 95% of people who lose a significant amount of weight will gain it back. It sounds high, yes, but I believe it. This is because I’m slowly becoming one of those people.

Full disclosure: about four years ago, I dropped 30 pounds to get to a (too) low weight of 132. Between then and now, my scale readout has slowly crept up to about 153 pounds.

On one hand, I think I would have gained the weight back much faster had it not been for this blog. Undoubtedly, it’s helped my eating habits change for the better. I drink water, cook at home, scarf lots of produce, and avoid processed foods like it’s my job. My heart, lungs, and various other organs are in excellent shape, and my sister gets thoroughly annoyed that we can’t eat a meal without me adding some kind of crazy vinegar or seasoning. So there’s that.

On the other hand … I’ve put on 20 pounds in four years. I’m not in crisis mode (yet), but what the heck?

I know my faults. There are ongoing issues with portion control and dining out, and my reliance on cheese has grown from an occasional treat to an everyday occurrence. I just didn’t expect those factors to make this much of an impact on the circumference of my backside.

But, as the opening statistic demonstrates, I’m far from alone. Maintaining a weight loss is difficult for everyone. In fact, I would say it’s even harder than losing the weight in the first place. Why? Well, once you’ve dropped the pounds – once you’re no longer getting measurable results on the scale, and weight loss morphs from a happy goal to a ho-hum product of the past – things change. Over time, enthusiasm fades, behaviors slack, and long-ignored temptations are indulged with abandon.

In other words, eating salad for 40 days is easy. Eating salad for 40 years is hard.

Enter the National Weight Control Registry. Comprised of PhDs, MDs, and other experts in the health and obesity field, it monitors the habits of thousands of people who have lost at least 30 pounds, and have kept it off for a minimum of one year. (The average is 66 pounds over 5-1/2 years.) Workers conduct studies, publish journal articles, and are widely considered The Authority on diet and weight maintenance. And while they don’t claim to have concrete guidelines that will keep the pounds permanently off for everyone, they have discovered a few actions common among successful maintainers. (Note that these findings imply correlation, and not necessarily causation.)

In order of popularity, they are:

1) Exercise, on average, about one hour per day.
90% of successful maintainers do this.
Far and away the most common factor for weight maintenance among respondents, exercise prevents you from binging, draws you away from the television set, and … y’know, does all the good things it’s supposed to. Movement must be for life, not as part of a temporary diet plan.

2) Eat breakfast every day.
78% of successful maintainers do this.
The researchers gave three reasons for this: “First, eating breakfast may reduce the hunger seen later in the day that may in turn lead to overeating…Second, breakfast eaters may choose less energy-dense foods during the remainder of the day. Finally, nutrients consumed at breakfast may leave the subject with a better ability to perform physical activity.” Of the 2959 successful maintainers in a 2002 NWCR study, only 4% never ate breakfast.

3) Weigh yourself at least once a week.
75% of successful maintainers do this.
The NWCR calls this “consistent self-monitoring,” and claims it allows maintainers to, “catch weight gains before they escalate and make behavior changes to prevent additional weight gain.” I have not weighed myself in over a year. This explains a lot.

4) Watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.
62% of successful maintainers do this.
In a 2003 study, the American Heart Association found a strong correlation between the amount of TV one watches, the amount of fast food ingested, and the propensity for obesity. Turning the boob tube off can help sidestep this, as it allows for more activity and less mindless grazing. (Personally, I believe this point is incredibly important for kids, since they develop habits in childhood that they’ll have for the rest of their lives. Subsequently, I’d lump video games and computer time in the same category.)

The good news is, the longer you maintain your weight, the more likely you are to keep it up in the future. So, adopting these behaviors can only help. I would also suggest that beginning the whole process with long-term intentions (“This is not a diet. This is a lifestyle change.”) makes all the difference in the world.

As for me, I have to drop some pounds again. Then, I need to concentrate on maintaining it for the rest of my life. It's gonna be tough, but I feel a responsibility to readers, the Husband-Elect, our future kids, and myself to do so. Fingers crossed, these strategies will help.

Readers, how about you? What’s been your experience with maintaining weight loss?

(Photos courtesy of the University of Maryland and Documenting Success.)

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Randi Blackstock said...

I started my weight loss March 27th 2010. It's been a long journey and its taken me a while to get the weight off, as of today I am 45 pounds lighter. I still have 17 more pounds to lose to get to my goal weight I set in March 2010. I'm hoping this year I can do it, but its starting out rough. I have realized my motivation for working out and eating right has slowly faded. I don't have that "I am gonna work out no matter what!" attitude. My weight loss has been at a stand still for about 5 months now! I'm sick of it! It's hard to eat the food I started out eating when I was losing weight because I am so sick and tired of it, it does not sound appetizing anymore. So hopefully I can get some motivation back and start working out and eating right like I was in the beginning. Once I hit goal, I hope I can maintain the weight!

Annie said...

I think maintaining weight loss has a lot to do with seeing changes as a lifestyle choice, not just part of a diet. It's totally okay to treat yourself every now and then, or even know that you need a little piece of chocolate every day; but mostly you should be making consistent, healthy choices for yourself and getting excited about treating your body well. I really wish I could live on chocolate cake and not have to exercise, but instead I try to think about how good I feel when I run a little further can I could before or when I make a complete, healthy meal. And there's no reason to feel like any "slips" are the end. Having a piece of cake doesn't change other healthy behavior.

abbi said...

I enjoyed this post. I lost 50+ lbs. about seven years ago. I actually lost closer to 60+ but I ended up going too underweight and at a healthy level now and have maintained the 50+ for the entire time. I do all of the things listed in that list so I agree with the study! I eat what I want but do so with the heavy stuff in moderation!

Meister @ The Nervous Cook said...

This is a great post, and thank you for sharing the link to the Weight Loss Registry. As another voice in the chorus of people who struggle with weight (and, even moreso, body image), it means a lot to me to read other people's "success" stories and know that, well, I'm one of them.

Live long, eat well, be healthy.

Anonymous said...

Well I am, in fact, a member of the NWCR. Even we lapse.

In 2002, I weighed 182 lbs (I am 5'2.5"). I went on weight watchers and got down to a (too low) 125 lbs (I have a lot of muscle). I leveled off at 127.

Then I tried to have a baby. And failed. And gained weight (up to 141 lbs) because "I can't dieet while I'm trying to get pregnant". Then I realized I might never get pregnant, and got down to 135 (and got pregnant).

I was in the low 140's for 1.5 years after having my son. It's hard to work full time, nurse, and get the weight off. Weight watchers again, back to 127 before his 2nd birthday. Then I went on vacation and gained 5 lbs. That was no big deal. It turns out that 132, while it didn't let me fit into my skinniest jeans, was a healthy weight and VERY easy to maintain. For a couple of years.

Then I turned 40, got injured running, and found that my weight crept back up into the 140's (147, to be exact). I'd gotten back down (thanks to Weight watchers) to about 135 when I got pregnant again (at 41. Um. oops). So that's my story. Hoping I can keep the weight gain at 30 lbs this time around.

I also do most of those 4 things on your list, though I admit that I don't have time for 60 mins a day of exercise. I get 30-60 mins 5 days a week.

The Food Hunter said...

great advice!

Jen said...

I'm with you--I lost about 25 lbs four years ago and have put a lot of it back on. Now that my pants are getting tight I have to honestly face the reality that while I saw the process of losing as a lifestyle change then, I've slowly gone back to my ways--minimal exercise, maximum cheese. :) Time to find a happy place somewhere in between. Losing it is hard; putting it back on is so much easier.

Ashley said...

I actually really disagree. I have lost more than 100 pounds, and would like to lose more, and I know that for me, losing the rest is going to be way harder than maintaining my current slightly-too-heavy weight. It goes back to what a previous commenter said about lifestyle changes. It's so trite now that I hate to even use the phrase "lifestyle change" but it is truly about the way you live, and when you live a healthy and active life, weight maintenance comes mostly naturally.

gray la gran said...

i joined weight watchers in the summer of '09. after the new year, i had attained my goal weight. so, it took me about 7 months to slowly lose about 25 pounds.

i am still maintaining. my goal weight is 130 lbs, and sometimes i'm within a couple pounds over or under.

it is a lifestyle change. i learned that i needed to have a healthy balance of foods (including fats) and i learned what a portion size is.

most importantly, i learned to listen to my body's hunger signals ... to know when i am satisfied vs. stuffed, hungry vs. bored.

i weigh myself 1-2 times each month. i still attend my ww meetings (for free!).

as i get older, i want to be healthier.