“I lost 10 pounds and vowed to stop them, but no such luck. I’m so frustrated.”
“I hit my desired race weight, and BOOM, I regained all the weight I lost after the marathon.”
“This is the third time I’ve lost 40 pounds…”
If any of these stories sound familiar, you’re not alone. Research shows that dieters tend to resume losing weight within five years, if not sooner. This includes many joggers, runners, triathletes and elite athletes who struggle to maintain their target weight.
If you’re afraid to regain the weight you’ve worked so hard to lose, this article will help you understand why it takes effort to keep losing weight.
Dr. Paul MacLean, professor of medicine and pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, takes a closer look at weight regain. He points to three reasons dieters regain their weight: biology, behavior, and environment:
- biology: As indicated by increased appetite and slower metabolism, the body has a strong biological drive to regain weight. As a reaction to dieting, the body learns to store fuel very efficiently in the form of fat.
- Behavior: After three to nine months, dieters tended to be less strict about low-calorie diets; they frequently reported that they had reached a weight plateau. These dieters may become discouraged and less persistent despite self-reported claims that they are trying hard to diet (but just maintain the weight). (Note: Anecdotes of dieting efforts are hard to corroborate.)
- environment: We live in an obesity-prone environment with easy access to ultra-processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, and chemicals that contribute to weight gain, including those found in upholstered furniture, pesticides, cosmetics, and more Does anyone know what else. Weight is more complicated than self-induced overeating and lack of exercise. You shouldn’t blame yourself for 100% excess body fat!
When increasing exercise, some people lose weight and some gain weight. Running daily does not guarantee fat loss. Runners who lose weight tend to maintain their weight loss if they stick to their exercise program. Higher levels of exercise are associated with greater success. This is great news for regular runners! That said, there’s a fine line between compulsive runners (who exercise to burn calories) and dedicated runners (who train to improve their performance). Fear of weight gain affected both groups.
There was a problem:
1) Is weight maintenance more about following a restrictive eating plan than exercising?
2) Do those following a strict diet avoid weight gain?
3) Are people who exercise more likely to stick to a diet?
4) Does exercise produce metabolic adaptations that are beneficial for maintaining weight loss?
Related: Online Nutrition Information
For biological, behavioral and environmental reasons, it is difficult for humans to find answers to these questions. So McLean turned to studying formerly obese rodents that lost weight and were then allowed to eat ad libitum for 8 weeks (the recovery phase). Some rodents who lost weight were happily sedentary, while others got exercise.
• Fancy cages accurately measure rodent energy intake and energy expenditure. MacLean was able to see how many calories the rodents were burning and whether they were prioritizing carbohydrates, protein or fat for fuel.
• Exercised obese rodents ate less and regained less weight than sedentary rodents. Exercising seems to suppress their urge to overeat, which means they reduce the physical stress of dieting. By exercising, their appetites are more in line with their energy needs.
• Exercise promotes the burning of dietary fat for fuel. As a result, exercising rodents converted less dietary fat into body fat. They use carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen stores. Note: Carbohydrates are not efficiently converted to body fat. That said, converting carbohydrates (as well as protein) to body fat consumes about 25% of your calorie intake to pay for energy deposition. Converting dietary fat to body fat only requires about 2% of your calories. Taking into account the calorie burn of exercise plus the metabolic cost of converting carbohydrates to body fat, exercised rodents gained less weight.
• Sedentary rodents are well fed and content with inactivity. Their bodies efficiently convert dietary fat into body fat; they use carbohydrates and protein to meet their limited energy needs. They regain weight easily.
Over time, the longer the formerly obese rodents lost weight, the stronger their appetite and drive to regain their weight. When allowed to eat ad libitum, they quickly regained their weight.
“At least people can be taught to change their eating behavior compared to rodents to help combat these biological pressures,” McLean noted. For example, people who are losing weight can stop buying potato chips, store food out of sight, limit restaurant eating, etc.
More depressing news for women: Much of McLean’s data came from obese male rodents. Women who exercised showed more weight regain than men who exercised. Female rodents seem to know they need extra energy for exercise, so they eat more and regain their weight. More research is needed to understand the clear differences in the biological drivers of weight regain, MacLean said.
Related: Sports Nutrition – Fads, Facts, and Myths
The best way to keep your weight off is to not gain weight in the first place. Yes, it’s easier said than done (as mentioned earlier), but at least runners who maintain a consistent exercise program can curb weight gain. We can also change our behavior to minimize weight gain by prioritizing sleep, curbing mindless eating, choosing least processed foods, and more.
Can running culture change so that runners focus less on weight and more on performance? Runners, like dogs, come in many sizes and shapes. Some runners are like St. Bernards, some are like Greyhounds. Hungry St. Bernards don’t turn into greyhounds, but poor St. Bernards.
By activating your genetic body type and focusing on your performance, you can enjoy stronger runs, stronger movements—and achieve your time goals. If being thinner means life in food and exercise prison to keep losing weight, you might want to think again?
Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD counsels Boston-area bodybuilders and competitive athletes (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling sports nutrition guide is a popular resource, as are her webinars. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for information.