Allison Kelly Ph.D., C.Psych

All About Attitude

The Weight Loss Roller Coaster

There's a reason why we keep regaining the weight.

Posted Oct 17, 2019

Written by Allison Kelly, Ph.D., and Kiruthiha Vimalakanthan, M.A.

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve likely had short-term but not long-term success. Perhaps you’ve told yourself it’s just something you did, or failed to do, and that if you do things differently next time, you won’t regain the weight you initially lost. So, you try again, with some success, but as time passes, your clothes start to fit more tightly again and that number on the scale starts rising. “No more carbs starting tomorrow,” you might say to yourself. You vow to return to the gym next week. And so the cycle continues.

It’s like a roller-coaster: Down the weight goes, up it goes again.

If this resonates, it’s because it’s the reality of dieting. Not just for you, but for all of us. There are profound evolutionary, biological, and psychological forces at play that undermine nearly everyone’s attempts at long-term weight loss and that can even cause long-term weight gain.

iStock
Dieting is an endless roller coaster of weight loss and weight gain.
Source: iStock

One of the biggest forces undermining long-term weight loss is our biological set point.

Our set point is our body’s preferred weight. In the same way that our body has a set temperature at which it performs optimally, it also has a set weight range that keeps us functioning well. The set point is largely determined by our genetics and epigenetics—that is, we have no say over its default setting. Our set point is where our weight falls when we are eating intuitively, without the intention of trying to control our eating or weight in any way.

When we reduce our dietary intake by limiting calories, carbohydrates and/or fat, our body becomes unhappy and shows this by fighting to preserve our set point. You may have noticed that after losing a certain number of pounds, you often hit a weight plateau, and it’s much harder to keep losing weight. This is because dieting slows down our metabolism to try and conserve energy. Our body temperature might drop, leading us to feel colder, and we may start to feel more tired and sleep more. In essence, our body develops the impression that it is in semi-starvation mode and will try to use the calories it gets more effectively.

With most diets, there is a point at which we rebound. Whether intended or not, we end up eating a bit more flexibly again and soon weight begins to rise—rapidly. We may blame ourselves for this weight gain but our bodies are just trying to replenish lost energy stores. It’s evolutionarily adaptive: as humans, we are hard-wired to stock up on energy resources for times of scarcity to protect against starvation. When we diet, we essentially convince our bodies that food is scarce. So, when we go back to eating ‘normally,’ our body is primed to go into fat-storing mode so that it can stock up for the next time that energy is hard to come by—i.e., when we go on our next diet.

It’s like when we try to push a flutter board down beneath the water’s surface. It’s hard work. We’re resisting something that naturally wants to happen, which is for the flutter board to float. If we manage to actually push it down beneath the surface, what happens when we let go? The flutter board pops up high out of the water! It doesn’t just stop at the surface.

Similarly, while we may be able to diet and fight our body’s natural appetite for a little while, after a certain point our bodies cannot sustain it. We are pushed back to our normal patterns of eating, and even toward overeating; suddenly, we regain weight very quickly, often returning to a weight that’s higher than where we started. Indeed, research suggests that while it may be nearly impossible to lower our set point, it is entirely possible to increase it. Once we have suppressed our metabolism during dieting, it can take several months or more for it to return to normal. The weight gain that ensues often brings us to a higher weight than our pre-diet weight and this becomes our body’s new set point.

So, not only does dieting deprive of us foods we enjoy, it often causes the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve: long-term weight gain instead of sustained weight loss. We also feel like a constant failure, ashamed of our bodies and ourselves; these feelings can trigger emotional eating and thus further perpetuate the cycle. An alternative to trying to lose weight is to focus on eating and exercising in a healthy but flexible and sustainable way and let our weight fall where it will. Indeed, we now know that weight and health do not always go hand-in-hand. This idea goes against what society and the $72 billion weight-loss industry would have us believe. It may feel scary to consider this new perspective and to abandon the ways we try to control our weight, especially if we’ve invested a lot of time and energy into changing our bodies.

It is understandable to feel conflicted and sad about the possibility of letting go of an “ideal” weight.

Self-compassion can help us navigate this difficult process. Just as when we are compassionate to others, we are sensitive to their suffering and try to help them suffer less, self-compassion involves turning toward our own distress and letting ourselves feel our feelings, while trying to help ourselves make choices that will ultimately help us suffer less. When we try to be compassionate with ourselves, we can truly see the suffering we experience from continuing to try and control our weight. Indeed, the more self-compassionate people are, the more accepting and appreciative they are of their bodies, and the more likely they are to eat in a way that is intuitive rather than disordered.

By recognizing how hard our weight-loss struggle has been on us, we can slowly come to a place of being able to reflect on whether we would like to continue devoting energy to this endeavor or make the courageous decision to step off the roller-coaster and accept our bodies as they are.

How peaceful it can feel to just let the flutter board float.

References

Harris, R. B. (1990). Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight. The FASEB Journal, 4, 3310-3318.

Müller, M. J., Bosy-Westphal, A., & Heymsfield, S. B. (2010). Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight?. F1000 Medicine Reports, 2.

Tylka, T. L. (2006). Development and psychometric evaluation of a measure of intuitive eating. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(2), 226-240.

Keesey, R. E., & Corbett, S. W. (1984). Metabolic defense of the body weight set-point. Research Publications - Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease, 62, 87-96.

Lowe, M. R., Doshi, S. D., Katterman, S. N., & Feig, E. H. (2013). Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 577.

van Strien, T. (2018). Causes of emotional eating and matched treatment of obesity. Current Diabetes Reports, 18, 35.

Bombak, A. (2014). Obesity, health at every size, and public health policy. American journal of public health, 104(2), e60-e67.

Kelly, A. C., Vimalakanthan, K., & Miller, K. E. (2014). Self-compassion moderates the relationship between body mass index and both eating disorder pathology and body image flexibility. Body Image, 11, 446-453. 

Kelly, A. C., & Stephen, E. (2016). A daily diary study of self-compassion, body image, and eating behavior in female college students. Body Image, 17, 152-160.