In light of the recent news about The Biggest Loser contestants regaining much (or all) of the weight they lost on the show, let’s address why this happens after extreme weight loss both on and off of reality television.
One of the most important factors is the speed at which someone loses weight. In our instant gratification society, a quick fix is very appealing and it sells ads on TV. Also, the recommended weight loss rate of 1-2 pounds per week might make your goal seem so far away that ‘why even try?’ while a diet or book promising to help you drop 30 pounds in a month sounds a lot more exciting and enticing! However, if you’ve ever gone on a cleanse or a strict diet, there is an end in sight so that makes it much easier to make changes to your diet and exercise plan. You can’t eat sugar for 30 days but then you can have two boxes of cookies in one day to make up for it, right? Well, not if you want to keep the weight off.
“Slow and steady is the best approach for most people to take when losing weight although there are always exceptions to the rule,” says Mike Deibler, MS, CSCS, SGX and Owner of San Diego Premier Training, who adds that the National Weight Control Registry keeps data on people who’ve successfully lost weight and kept it off long-term and the list includes “those that lost the weight rapidly and those that lost is slowly. Most will benefit from slow and steady though.”
Why does the turtle usually beat the hare when it comes to weight loss? Again, it comes back to your attitude and approach. Deibler adds that “When you are losing weight the slow and steady way, it means you are likely making small manageable changes. With this approach you are forming habits that you are integrating into your lifestyle versus rapid unrealistic changes.”
Even if you approach weight loss with a healthy, moderate attitude, you can still get sucked into the initial thrill of the chase…
“When you start any weight loss plan you are usually extremely motivated. This is the ‘honeymoon’ period,” says Deibler, “Things are fresh, new, and exciting. You probably comply with the plan 100% or nearly 100%. As things progress, especially if the changes made were drastic, it gets harder and harder to comply. It starts with a small cheat one day and then a few cheats the next day until you are no longer really sticking with the plan you started with.”
Deibler says that non-compliance is the most common reason that people regain lost weight but that a person’s metabolism also shifts after weight loss (even more after repeated weight loss and gain) which makes it actually harder to lose weight as time goes on and harder to keep the weight off.
This concept, called ‘adaptive thermogenesis’ is when your body reduces your metabolic rate because it thinks you are in a famine and need to store energy to survive. In this state, your body produces less of the ‘I’m full’ hormone called Leptin and your brain will actually produce more hunger signals to encourage you to eat more even though at a lower body weight, your essential calorie needs are lower. This biological function was quite helpful in history when our population went through periods of food scarcity but doesn’t serve us as well in western society where we have too many food options available at all times.
Another reason why it’s a challenge to keep the weight off is because weight loss is a complex issue, especially extreme weight loss which requires a dramatic shift in lifestyle including finding new hobbies and possibly even new friends. This doesn’t just come down to calorie counts or the amount of time spent in the gym. Often those setting out to lose 50 pounds or more, including most television weight loss contestants, receive counseling to help address their triggers, shift their mindset and change their life. After the show or program ends, they might be left with a meal plan and some fitness equipment or a gym membership but, often, the counseling sessions are over and it’s easy to fall back into an old rut.
“It is similar to the stories you hear when someone wins the lottery and then is broke in a few years,” says Deibler
“Often when you hear stories like this, you can’t imagine how someone could let that happen” but it does because a short-term approach will bring short-term results and some will always struggle with weight but he adds that “the more support you have (in the form of therapists, trainers, nutritionists, family, friends or a combination of sources), the more likely you will be successful.”
Given all of the above, weight loss is still not a lost cause. With a slow and steady plan, plenty of support from friends, family and possibly professionals and well-rounded approach to all angles of why you gained the weight in the first place, it is possible to lose weight and keep it off, long-term.