When your goal is to lose weight, being tunnel-vision focused on dropping those pounds isn’t totally a bad thing. The more you focus, the more likely you are to stick to your plan, even when you hit roadblocks. And that will help you reach your goal faster.
But while thinking short-term can help you lose weight, it can also make it hard to keep the weight off, which is the bigger challenge.
“Evidence shows that people can lose weight on the short term on practically any diet; it barely matters what the diet is,” says Traci Mann, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. “The problem is, nearly everybody gains it back in the long term. I’m not saying it’s not hard to take weight off. But when people struggle to do it, they can, and often do, succeed.”
However, most people do not succeed in keeping that weight off. “The majority of people gain the majority of that weight in 2–5 years,” adds Mann, author of “Secrets from the Eating Lab.” And this has nothing to do with willpower.
Here’s why keeping weight off is harder than losing weight and what you can do to maintain your weight loss:
YOUR METABOLISM SLOWS
In 2016, researchers published a study on former “The Biggest Loser” contestants in the journal Obesity. The results found that those dramatic transformations don’t last. And not only because once they leave the show they’re not doing extreme, hours-long workouts. On average, the contestants regained 70% of the weight they lost, in part because of metabolic adaptation. Because we have evolved to survive during periods of food scarcity, our metabolism becomes more efficient when we lose weight, Mann explains. As your metabolism becomes more efficient, you burn fewer calories, leading to regain.
YOUR HORMONES CHANGE
It seems from puberty until death, we loathe hormones. And here’s another reason: Studies found that after losing weight, levels of leptin, which decreases appetite, decrease, while levels of ghrelin, which increases appetite, increase. Because of this change, “you are more likely to be hungry and less likely to feel full on foods that used to make you feel full,” Mann says.
YOUR ATTENTION SHIFTS
“Data shows that dieters often feel like, ‘I can’t stop thinking about food,’” Mann says. You are also more likely to notice food if it’s present and have a harder time distracting yourself from it. In two small studies, Oregon Research Institute scientists looked at the brains of college students who hadn’t eaten for 4–6 hours. They found that those students paid more attention to photos of palatable food and food cues.
EATING IS MORE REWARDING
On top of being more appetizing, food gives you a bigger high when you do eat. When you have food, your brain releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that’s produced when your brain expects a reward. “The brain releases more dopamine if you are calorie-deprived and you eat, versus if you’re not calorie deprived. So that makes food more pleasurable, makes you want it more, makes it harder to resist it and makes you crave it more,” Mann explains. Talk about a vicious cycle.
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Yes, most of these changes are beyond your control — but that doesn’t mean you are doomed to yo-yo diet. The key to keeping weight off is to think long-term from the beginning. Rather than doing Whole 30 and then having a cinnamon roll the size of a dinner plate for breakfast on day 31, make eating and activity changes that you can stick with for good.
And remember incorporating vegetables at every meal and exercising lower your risk of death, no matter what you weigh, Mann says. So do things that will make you healthier — and as a bonus, those may also help you lose weight — for good.