Fitness Magazine

Why Do Dieters Regain Weight?

By Danceswithfat @danceswithfat

Ask QuestionsPredictably, after my blog yesterday called out Weight Watchers for having a failure rate hovering right around 100%, people rushed to blame almost 100% of dieters for “just doing it wrong.”  The myth goes that almost everyone fails at weight loss because almost everyone quits their diet and goes back to their old habits/doesn’t have the willpower to keep dieting/doesn’t do it “right”. That’s not exactly what the research says but before we talk about this let’s look at this from a basic perspective.

First, let’s talk about what “dieting” means (so that we can avoid the “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change!” discussion.)  Dieting occurs when someone gives their body less food than it needs to survive in the hope that it will eat itself, thereby becoming smaller.  Call it a diet, call it a lifestyle change, if you are starving your body hoping that it will eat itself resulting in intentional weight loss, congratulations you are on a diet.  (You are completely and totally allowed to diet, I’m just saying let’s call it what it is.)

So why are diets so very unsuccessful long term?  Let’s look at it from your body’s perspective.  Your body isn’t aware that there is social value in meeting an arbitrary stereotype of beauty. Your body can’t actually imagine that there is enough food available, but you won’t feed it because you are hoping that it eats itself and becomes smaller, so it assumes that you live in a circumstance where sometimes you have to deal with starvation. If you add a bunch of exercise to that then your body assumes that there are times when you are starving and have to run long distances.  Your body is very interested in helping you live, and so it reacts to this situation by putting measures into place for the express purpose of gaining and maintaining weight so that you can deal with your life of starvation and running.  And it keeps that up long after your initial weight loss ends.

An Australian research team studied people who had lost weight in an effort to understand some of these changes. A year after their initial weight loss:

  • A hormone that suppresses hunger and increases metabolism – Leptin – was still lower than normal
  • Ghrelin, nicknamed the “hunger hormone,” was about 20 percent higher
  • Peptide YY, a hormone associated with hunger suppression was abnormally low
  • Participants reported being much more hungry and preoccupied with food then they had prior to losing weight

A year after losing weight these people’s bodies were still biologically different than they had been prior to the weight loss attempt, desperately working to regain the weight – and participants had already regained about 30% of the weight they had lost.  One of the study’s authors characterized it as “A coordinated defense mechanism with multiple components all directed toward making us put on weight.”

The evidence that exists shows that almost everyone fails at long term weight loss (yes Virginia, even the National Weight Control Registry.  In fact, especially the NWCR!)   I will never cease to be amazed at people who insist that it’s just that almost everyone does it wrong.  That’s like saying that, since some people survive jumping out of planes when their parachutes don’t open, almost everyone who dies in such a circumstance is just falling wrong.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  the truth is the almost everyone can lose weight short term on almost any program, and almost everyone gains their weight back long-term even if they are able to maintain their diet behaviors, with many people gaining back more than they lost. What WW and other diet companies have managed to do is take credit for the first half of a natural biological response (the weight loss), and convince their clients to blame themselves for the second half of that response (the rebound weight gain.)  Sure it’s disingenuous, but at least it’s highly profitable!  They’ve also managed to spread this myth far and wide, successfully making people into PR machines.  They’ve done such a great job of turning people into myth-spreading marketing machines, that diet companies don’t even have to speak up in their defense because other people will be so very happy to do their dirty work for them.

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