In this season of "20 Lbs in 20 Days!" other headlines ask "Do You Have to be Superhuman to Lose Weight?" Or, "Are We Programmed to Pack on Pounds?" Unpopular questions, for sure, but ones to which science increasingly answers "probably".
Research from around the world concurs. Once we've carried the weight, our bodies seem to adjust to that new "normal". Our chemistry then seems to fiercely defend the larger body size. We'll experience this as relentless hunger as well as painfully slow losses and discouragingly quick regain. The ramped-up hunger, the sluggish metabolism, the rapid accumulation of fat: all of these are hormonally driven, arising from the extra weight itself. Losing weight, then, becomes at the very least a mighty struggle against biology.
Long-term studies have emerged from obesity labs at Brown, Yale, and other U.S. sites as well as from Britain and Australia. They do agree on the complexity of the problem, and they've identified some hormonal culprits. No one, however, is telling people to stop trying to manage their weight. The health benefits, all will point out, accrue even with small (5 or 10 percent of body weight) losses. Plus, key questions about what might help remain unanswered. It's not entirely clear, for example, whether or not losing slowly aids in permanent loss. It's also not clear whether or not a single episode of gain and loss lead to the "packing on the pounds" phenomena, or whether this requires repeated episodes.
While this news can seem to dash all hope for those who seek slimness, researchers don't necessarily see it that way. "It's helpful for people to know what they're up against," summarizes the concensus. Some dieters do succeed, after all, against the biological odds, even if they represent a minority. And, it does indeed seem that those who keep weight off are those who hold no illusions about the problem. In the "Do You Have to be Superhuman...." article, New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope interviewed people from the National Weight Loss Registry. The registry, uniquely, follows people who've kept weight off. Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., of Yale, points out there that thousands who've kept weight off don't register for the data bank. However, nowhere else can we look at what many (10,000) dieters do to maintain losses. (To register, one must have kept off at least 30 lbs. for at least a year; on average, 70 lbs. have been lost for over six years.)
What's clear is that the work of keeping weight off never stops. Those who successfully maintain losses, whether 30 or 130 lbs., exercise, a lot. They continue to keep track of what they eat. They allow little or no room for "treats" or holiday lapses. They treat weight maintenance as if they've known all along what science confirms: that without such care, they'll regain, plus some.
The "Are We Programmed...." article appeared recently in my local paper. Based on some of the international studies, a smaller sample of anecdotes and case studies suggested, additionally, what many therapists, diet coaches, nutritionists, personal trainers, and physicians tell you from experience. That is, that getting help or support can move the process of lasting change along. And that often small changes, to start with, open doors to new habits. Those who keep weight off for good change how they think and behave, solve problems as they arise, and stick with it despite occasional setbacks.
In the end, we're left with this question: "What can I do then, if my body resists my efforts to slim?" Knowing what you're up against now seems crucial. Then, set out to make habit, ultimately lifestyle, changes. Think of them as forever ones, if you don't want to be stuck with pounds forever returning. Know that you may not reach size 6, and that none of it will happen overnight. Get help if you need it and pick yourself up, again and again, if you fall.
Finally, consider that "Thin From Within" remains important. Whatever weight you can ultimately reach, you'll feel better about yourself if you're not binge eating. You'll feel more confident and peaceful if you aren't medicating emotions with food. And hard as it is, learning to handle feelings and stress without food may prove more achievable than a 70 lb weight loss. Reducing those behaviors alone will shed some pounds and minimize gains, in any case, even if some unwanted poundage remains.
None of this is popular news. But it confirms the difficulty of the enterprise-familiar to any chronic dieter. And dealing with this reality may allow for a freedom from self-blame and a new degree of self-acceptance. You do what you can, and stop making things worse by fighting what may not fully, always, be in your control.