It's harder than you might think!
There's a ginormous problem with dieting that nobody talks about. Weight loss is easy compared to keeping it off. Millions of people regularly lose 10-15% of their body weight doing various diet programs, but within a year most have gained nearly all of the weight back and only 5-10% of dieters manage to maintain a 10% weight loss for more than five years.
To examine this effect, researchers in Providence, Rhode Island set up an experiment (Ross, 2018). The team recruited 75 obese men and women to go on a diet and then track their weight for a year. The 75 “guinea-pigs” were all employees of a large healthcare organization; the weight loss portion of the experiment was designed as a workplace challenge with modest monetary rewards ($1-10/wk.) and other small perks. The dieters were given specific instructions on how to eat, calorie and fat limits, exercise requirements and details about how to track their weight using a “smart” Wi-Fi enabled scale that reported directly to the research team.
The weight loss diet was an intensive lifestyle intervention, each dieter was given a tailored diet specific to their starting weight and health, taught to eat specific foods, and given instructions on exercise. The participants engaged in walking, jogging, swimming, and strength training. As the diet progressed, each person logged-in to to a website for 12 weeks and tracked calories, exercise, and weight loss and were given feedback and help with challenges encountered from a team of dieticians.
The dieters all did great! The average weight loss was about one pound per week as expected. After the 12-week weight loss phase, the dieters were instructed to maintain the healthy habits they learned, but were given no further incentives, support, encouragement, or instructions. As the dieters continued to log their weekly weights for 9 more months, they regained the weight they had lost at a near linear rate of ½ pound per week until nearly all of them ended at or near their starting weight.
This experiment showed that without a support network, weight maintenance is nearly impossible. This quite clearly shows the experience of the 150-million dieters each year who regain their weight upon completion of a diet. Why can’t people help themselves? We do we require a support network to maintain?
It’s no secret that weight loss occurs much more easily when the dieter is on display and has announced his or her weight loss intentions to friends, family, and co-workers. The people around a dieter are an important part of the weight-loss effort, giving encouragement, compliments, and removing tempting treats from the dieter’s reach. The weigh-ins of The Biggest Loser™ and Weight Watchers™ are famous examples of social accountability tactics used in diet programs.
If you've lost weight recently, your battle has only just begun. One researcher describes weight maintenance for formerly obese patients as “uneven combat.”
“However, weight loss is not a milestone, but rather part of a dynamic process. Following weight loss, the weight-reduced individual enters an uneven combat, commonly resulting in weight regain (Poulimeneas, 2018).”
In fact, people that maintain over 10 pounds of weight loss for more than five years are so rare that the governments of several countries have started tracking these people to learn how they do it. Some common themes from these so-called “Significant Weight Loss Maintainers” are that they are “required to exercise more than a dieter,” and they must eat “300–400 calories lower of that expected of their body mass” (Poulimeneas, 2018).
There aren’t any diet plans that will ensure long-term weight loss. None. Nada. Zilch. Despite what the authors claim, more than 90% of all people who try any diet will fail to maintain weight loss for more than a year. Whenever you read a diet book that focuses on one style of eating such as Paleo, Keto, Low-carb, Low-fat, or any incarnation of a weight loss diet or eating style, you might as well just throw that book straight in the trash.
Diet experts consider it to be a “great achievement” to maintain a weight loss of 5-10% for more than a year. In fact, just maintaining a 3% loss in body weight for more than a year is quite rare (Soeliman, 2014). To put this in perspective, it’s not uncommon for first-time obese dieters to lose 15-20% of their body weight, for instance, a 250-pound person dieting down to a target weight of 200-pounds represents a 20% loss in body weight.
Diet forums and websites are filled to the brim with stories of people who lose up to 60% or more of their body weight. These big losses sell. The Biggest Loser is all about massive weight loss through diet and exercise, and attracts a viewing audience of over 7-million people during each episode. What would a diet book be without pages of before-and-after photos showing how the fat just melted off and revealed a svelte, younger looking person inside?
Take-home message: Losing weight is very easy compared to keeping it off. If you are on a diet, you'd be better off quitting than continuing on without a plan for maintaining your weight loss. We'll explore ideas for weight maintenance in upcoming posts.
Are you a Significant Weight Loss Maintainer? Share your story and tips in the comments!
Soeliman, Fatemeh Azizi, and Leila Azadbakht. "Weight loss maintenance: A review on dietary related strategies." Journal of research in medical sciences: the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences 19, no. 3 (2014): 268.
Poulimeneas, Dimitrios, Mary Yannakoulia, Costas Anastasiou, and Nikolaos Scarmeas. "Weight Loss Maintenance: Have We Missed the Brain?." Brain sciences 8, no. 9 (2018): 174.
Ross, Kathryn M., Peihua Qiu, Lu You, and Rena R. Wing. "Characterizing the Pattern of Weight Loss and Regain in Adults Enrolled in a 12‐Week Internet‐Based Weight Management Program." Obesity 26, no. 2 (2018): 318-323.