At one point or another, you’ve probably found yourself wanting to lose weight, stat. Maybe you overindulged over the holidays, or need to squeeze into a bridesmaid’s dress. You might have eagerly started a juice cleanse or other diet. But fast-forward a few years, and chances are, the pounds have crept back.
While the exact figures vary, studies show that the vast majority of people who diet fail to keep the weight off in the long run. In 2016, National Institutes of Health researchers made headlines when they reported that six years after Season 8 of “The Biggest Loser,” all of the contestants studied, except one, had regained about 70 percent of the weight they had lost.
You can probably relate. It seems the harder you try, the harder weight loss becomes. That leaves some researchers asking if it’s worth trying to lose weight at all. Might we be better off focusing on other measures of health, like fitness?
There are several biological reasons it is so hard to maintain your weight after a diet. But don’t despair, there are also strategies for outsmarting your body to shed the pounds and keep them off. Let’s start by understanding why your body resists weight loss.
Why Diets Fail
The tendency to regain weight after a diet isn’t solely the result of lack of motivation or self-control. Instead, you can blame evolution. Our prehistoric ancestors adapted to a world with an unpredictable food supply, evolving mechanisms to store more fat, which boosted their odds of surviving shortages. But in the modern, developed world, where food is almost always readily available, those fat-storing mechanisms aren’t as helpful — and can make losing weight downright frustrating.
A recent analysis suggests that the human brain views a diet as a mini-famine and tells our body to store more fat, when food becomes abundant again, to stock up for future famines. Researchers developed a mathematical model of an animal in the wild, which could “learn” to recognize patterns of food availability and change its feeding behavior accordingly. The best strategy for surviving and reproducing involved packing on extra weight between famines.
That could explain yo-yo dieting, the endless spiral of weight gain followed by increasingly extreme diets to lose it, says study co-author Andrew Higginson of the University of Exeter. With each diet, “the subconscious brain is getting more convinced that famines are frequent,” he says. As a result, “your drive to put on weight is that much bigger.”
How does your brain tell your body to regain weight? Everyone has a certain weight range, or set point, explains Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist and author of “Why Diets Make Us Fat.” When your weight falls below this set point, your brain uses all the methods at its disposal to pull it back up. This includes telling your body to burn fewer calories, a mechanism known as metabolic adaptation. In the “The Biggest Loser” study, the former contestants’ resting metabolisms slowed by around 30 percent after the competition wrapped.
Appetite-regulating hormones also increase your urge to eat. Fat cells secrete the hormone leptin, which signals to the brain that you’re full. But when you lose weight, your fat cells get smaller and secrete less leptin. Meanwhile, your stomach secretes the hunger-boosting hormone ghrelin, which tells your brain to seek out food and replace those lost calories.
After you lose weight, your brain also experiences food as more rewarding. In one study, obese individuals showed higher activity in the brain’s reward center and lower activity in regions involved in controlling food intake after losing weight than they did before losing weight.
Research suggests that dieting may even trigger emotions similar to those experienced during drug or alcohol withdrawal, further driving you to overeat. In a study led by Pietro Cottone and Eric Zorrilla of the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research, researchers fed rats a diet of chocolate-flavored pellets. Removing the pellets — much like removing alcohol or drugs — made them more anxious and triggered binge eating. An earlier study found that rats that were the most anxious after researchers removed their chocolate pellets also binged the most when the pellets were returned. Like those suffering from drug addiction, we may binge on sweet, fatty foods not just because it feels good, but also because it relieves the negative emotions associated with restricting them, Zorilla says.
But wait, you might say. Only people who crash diet — like “The Biggest Loser” contestants — regain the weight they’ve lost, right? Some research suggests that the rate of weight loss may not matter. In a 2014 study of 200 obese individuals, participants regained about 70 percent of the weight they had lost, regardless of whether they lost it quickly or gradually.
“We don’t have nearly as much control over our weight as we’d like to think,” Aamodt says. “When we fixate on weight as the most important measure of health, we are fixating on the hardest thing to change.” But there's evidence that physical activity and healthy eating can improve cardiovascular disease and diabetes outcomes whether or not you lose weight.
Instead of banging our heads against the wall trying to lose weight, Aamodt says we should focus our willpower on exercise and the quality of our food, including stocking up on more veggies. Focusing on increasing physical activity may be easier, not to mention more fun, lowering anxiety and improving mood.
Before you throw in the towel, don’t despair about losing weight. Studies show that even a 5 percent drop can significantly lower diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk factors. And while our eating behaviors are durable, Zorilla doesn’t think they’re permanent; changing them may just take awhile. In a study he led with postdoctoral researcher Alison Kreisler, rats whose chocolate-flavored pellets were swapped out with regular pellets didn’t eat much of the regular pellets initially, but eventually upped their intake after a few weeks.
So what can you do to work around your body’s weight regulation system and improve your odds of success?
Weight Management Skills to Master
Go slow — and don’t worry about losing weight at first. A 2012 study of 267 overweight and obese women found that those who spent eight weeks learning skills to maintain their weight before starting a weight loss program lost as much weight as those who dove right into dieting. They also regained less weight a year later — about three pounds on average, while women who skipped the weight maintenance program regained around seven pounds.
As part of the weight maintenance program, women practiced eating more or exercising less if they saw their weight drop. It sounds counterintuitive, but learning how to fine-tune their habits better prepared them to continuously navigate holidays and other day-to-day curveballs, rather than thinking of themselves as on or off a diet. “They were really enjoying the behaviors they had to do,” making them more likely to continue with them, says Michaela Kiernan, a senior research scientist at Stanford University who led the study.
Here are a few of the skills Kiernan developed and tips for mastering them.
- Replace high-calorie foods with healthy alternatives that taste just as good — but also mindfully savor your favorite high-calorie foods every now and then.
- Weigh yourself once a day, sans judgment. After a few weeks, set a target weight range of about five pounds to hedge natural weight fluctuations, plus vacations and other occasions when you’re more likely to indulge.
- Fine-tune your behavior to stay within your range. If your weight dips toward the bottom of the range, indulge a little. But if it hovers near the high end, shave about 20 percent off what you would normally eat at each meal for a couple of days. For instance, despite pressure to join the clean plate club, leave a few scraps behind.
- Navigate life’s inevitable curveballs. Be strategic. Drop a few pounds before a vacation or holiday to add some wiggle room to mindfully indulge.
Healthy needn’t mean bland. Our brains evolved to gravitate to sweet, fatty foods, since they tend to pack more calories that our bodies can store as fat in case of a famine, Zorilla says. So it makes sense that, in his study with Kreisler, the rats that alternated between chocolate-flavored and regular pellets strongly preferred the chocolate-flavored pellets. But both types of pellets had similar nutrient compositions and calorie counts, suggesting that the rats had based their choice on the food’s palatability— “how it tastes, smells, feels on the tongue,” Zorilla says.
But it’s all relative. How much we crave something depends on how palatable it is compared with other options. On days they had access to the chocolate-flavored pellets, rats that switched between chocolate-flavored and regular pellets ate about twice as much as rats on a constant diet of chocolate-flavored pellets. “These comparisons are learned,” Zorilla says. “The more they diverge, the more overeating you tend to get.”
What does that mean if you want to lose weight? “If you try to go on diets where the food tastes characteristically not as good as your favorite foods, you’re basically setting yourself up for failure,” Zorilla says. While palatable foods are often loaded with sugar and fat, that’s not always the case; healthy food can taste good, too. Try the Mediterranean diet, which isn’t overly restrictive — meat, healthy fats and dairy are allowed — and, most important, tastes delicious.
Practice mindful eating. While mindful eating is not designed to help you lose weight, research suggests that paying attention to what and why you eat may prevent you from overeating and gaining weight as well as helping to regulate blood sugar.
Before you chow down, Aamodt recommends engaging in a mini-meditation. Take some deep breaths. Are you hungry? How hungry? Check in with yourself emotionally. “Are you eating because you’re trying to avoid something? Because you’re bored?” Aamodt says. If you find that “hunger is not the most common reason you eat, then you better think about expanding your emotional coping repertoire.” Take your time and avoid distractions. Notice how your food looks, smells, feels, tastes, and sounds. Listen to your body. Stop when you feel full.
Eat for your hormones. Remember how dieting messes with appetite-regulating hormones? Some studies suggest that certain foods may help keep them in check. The hunger hormone ghrelin, for instance, drops after you’ve you’ve eaten, which helps signal to the brain that you’re satisfied. To help ghrelin respond the way it’s supposed to, steer clear of foods with a lot of high fructose corn syrup, which studies suggest may prevent ghrelin from decreasing after you’ve eaten. Eating protein at every meal has also been shown to dampen ghrelin levels.
Manage your stress. A 2010 study found that dieting can be stressful. And that can boost levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may result in cravings and weight gain. Besides avoiding overly restrictive diets, engage in activities that may lower cortisol, like meditation, spending time in nature, or hanging out with a friend.
Catch enough Zs. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can result in a decrease in the fullness hormone leptin and a rise in the hunger hormone ghrelin, as well as the stress hormone cortisol, increasing appetite. Keep your hunger under control, and make sure you clock in the recommended seven to nine hours a night.
Steakley, Lia. How Learning Weight-Maintenance Skills First Can Help You Achieve New Year's Weight-Loss Goals. Scope. Stanford Medicine. January 1, 2013.
Aamodt, Sandra. Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet. The New York Times. May 6, 2016.
The Principles of Mindful Eating. The Center for Mindful Eating. August 2013.
Rinkunas, Susan. Why, Exactly, Do Our Bodies Fight Us On Weight Loss? The Cut. May13, 2016.
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