4 Reasons Why It's Really Hard to Maintain Weight Loss

...and 5 strategies that actually work

Posted Jul 30, 2018

Fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

If you're considering going on a diet to lose weight, beware — research shows that for many people, the net effect of diets is weight gain

This is not to say that diets don't work — they do. Most people who go on a diet lose weight, usually through some combination of eating less and eating differently. 

But the weight comes back — sometimes all of it, and then some. That's what research studies have found for a large percentage of dieters. What accounts for this difficulty keeping the weight off?

I recently interviewed two psychologists who specialize in behavioral change and sustained weight loss: Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh and Dr. Lucy Faulconbridge (both coincidentally from the UK).

I learned a lot during our discussions, especially about why the weight we lose through dieting tends to come back. The following factors stood out to me:

1. Dieting demands deprivation.

All diets are based on what not to eat, whether carbs, fat, refined sugar, other food types, or simply quantity. Placing these limits on our eating may not feel too restrictive at first; in fact, we might enjoy the novelty.

But over time, we start to feel like we're missing out. "If only I could eat that," we think, as we watch those around us eat our "forbidden" foods. Willpower is a finite resource, and eventually we're going to cave in. We may even end up binging on the foods we've been missing. 

When we feel like we're not allowed to have things, our minds tend to fixate on them. Thus our motivation to deprive ourselves is going to erode over time. 

2. Diets are temporary.

If I'm "on a diet," that strongly implies that at some point in the future I'll be off the diet. Indeed, many diet programs are specifically designed to be a fixed length, like "The 17 Day Diet," "The 22 Day Revolution," the 30 days of Whole30, and countless others.

Given that diets emphasize deprivation, inevitably we'll return to our old ways of eating once the diet ends. We may even "make up for lost time" and binge on the foods we've avoided — which is even more problematic for the following reason. 

3. Dieting lowers metabolism.

Aria pointed out that some of the weight lost by dieting will be muscle, and that drop in lean mass slows down our metabolism. Our bodies also become more efficient at extracting energy from our food, which slows metabolism — an effect that may be especially pronounced among people who have been obese, as Lucy noted.

This drop in metabolic rate makes it hard to maintain weight loss, which means we'll have to be extra motivated to avoid gaining back the weight.

4. Maintenance isn't very motivating.

It's exciting when we see progress as we shed pounds, and that sense of progress feeds our motivation to stick with the changes we've made. The people around us can fuel our motivation, too, as they compliment us on losing weight.

But if we reach our target, where does our sense of progress come from? Our motivational system is tuned to relative changes, so it's hard to be inspired by the status quo. Thus our motivation is typically lower for maintaining gains versus making progress.

What's the Alternative?

Thankfully, my interviewees didn't stop with describing the obstacles to sustained weight loss — they both offered evidence-based strategies that are much more likely to work. I was glad to hear that they agreed on the main points:

  • Ditch the Diets: Diets are ineffective in the long term, so we should stop looking to them as the answer. Any program that promises quick results is unlikely to provide anything that lasts. What we need to cultivate instead is a sensible plan for nutrition and physical movement that will work in the long run.
  • Shift Your Mindset: The mind is our most powerful tool for moving toward our goals, and subtle shifts in our mindset can have big effects on our feelings and behaviors. For example, rather than focusing on what we're not eating and feeling deprived, we can focus on how good we feel as we eat truly life-giving food.
    Nathan Cowley/Pexels
    Source: Nathan Cowley/Pexels
  • Change Your Habits: Long-term changes in our nutrition and mindset require practice. Take the long view, making small, incremental changes that build over time. For example, start by making one meal a bit healthier, or add one day of exercise per week.   
  • Embrace Balance: A balanced approach means we eat and exercise in moderation. By avoiding extremes, we're more likely to sustain positive changes. Keep in mind that your balance may look different from someone else's; for example, you may decide to eat a moderate amount of meat, whereas someone else's balance might involve semi-vegetarianism.  
  • Practice Acceptance: Change is hard, and requires accepting that we won't return to the old ways. We may need to accept that we can no longer eat like we did when we were younger, or that movement will need to be built into our lives on a daily basis. Instead of resisting these changes, we can welcome them as part of our evolving reality.

You can listen to the complete interviews through the links below:

Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh - Building a Healthier Relationship with Food and Your Body

Dr. Lucy Faulconbridge - Therapy, Weight Loss, and Nutrition