Losing weight is a difficult enough task, but keeping it off can be an even greater challenge. Many people will lose weight through a quick fix such as starving themselves or going on a fad diet, but as soon as they return to their old habits, the weight comes straight back.
Even dieters who take the slow-and-steady approach to weight loss sometimes can go back to square one. Permanent weight loss requires a lifelong commitment, and anyone who wants to lose weight but can’t make that commitment is in for a struggle.
The cycle of losing and regaining weight multiple times, which many people fall into, is called “yo-yo dieting.” It can be extremely frustrating, and has been linked to health risks such as lower levels of “good” cholesterol and gallbladder disease.
One theory is that a reduction in calorie intake causes a drop in the metabolic rate so that the body adapts and needs fewer calories to function. This makes it increasingly difficult to lose weight after each episode of losing and regaining. Whether this happens is still unclear, but in any case, physicians do not recommend extremely low-calorie diets and rapid weight loss. However, it is not true that yo-yo dieting increases the amount of fat tissue or fat distribution around the stomach.
Experts suggest losing no more than two pounds a week, as well as making long-term lifestyle changes. This approach increases the chances of successful long-term weight loss.
Maintaining weight loss is essential to get the full benefits of a healthy weight over a lifetime. Benefits include lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, lower blood pressure, less stress on bones and joints, and less chance of stroke or heart disease.
But keeping excess weight off takes effort, and the strategies that are needed for weight loss also are central to weight maintenance. Changes in diet, eating habits, and exercise must continue once the goal is reached.
With this in mind, support from others can help to maintain the weight loss. Belonging to a formal or informal support group leads to better weight maintenance than trying to go it alone. It is even more helpful if group members exercise together. Classes or team sports certainly will contribute to weight maintenance, and the commitment to a group can provide that elusive motivation.
Even gentle exercise such as walking has a beneficial effect. The most recent guidelines for Americans, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2005, recommend that everyone gets a minimum of 30 minutes each day of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or bicycling.
Losing weight requires 60 to 90 minutes of more vigorous daily exercise, the guidelines state, and maintenance of weight loss and preventing weight gain needs 60 minutes of exercise a day.
Moderate physical activity includes gardening or yard work, dancing, golf, yoga or Pilates. Vigorous physical activity can be running or jogging, swimming, aerobics, fast walking, or most team sports. The important thing is that the activity causes an increase in heart rate.
In terms of diet, a sensible course of action is to gradually add about 200 calories of healthy, low-fat food to the daily intake, once the goal weight has been reached. Take it slowly to ensure weight is maintained rather than continuing to drop or inching up. Adjust calorie intake and exercise levels up or down as necessary.
It’s also important to keep aware of eating triggers and to retain alternative strategies such as calling a friend or taking a bath instead of eating due to boredom or stress. These strategies need to become a habit in order to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. Remember that regaining the weight would only contribute to a difficult situation.
So if you’re overweight, don’t let the fear of yo-yo dieting prevent you from trying to lose the weight. Use extra resolve to keep weight off once you lose it, and bear in mind that maintaining your weight can become harder as you age because of hormonal changes and natural changes in body composition.
Any metabolic adjustments that may occur through repeated weight loss or aging do not mean that successful weight maintenance is impossible. All the evidence supports regular physical exercise and high motivation as the key factors to success.
Olson, M.B. et al. Weight cycling and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in women: Evidence of an adverse effect. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Vol 36, November 1, 2000, pp. 1565-71.