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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