Many of us have personal experience with losing weight, then gaining it back. Losing some more then gaining it back. Then two years later losing again, then gaining it back. This pattern aloriean go on for decades (there’s even a term – career dieters.)
Research has actually shown that only 20-30% of those trying to lose weight actually maintain 10% weight loss after 5-7 years (6).
(While it may sound small, losing 5 or 10% of your body-weight when you’re obese is nothing to scoff at and comes with significant health benefits. However, it’d be nice if you didn’t lose say 30% only to maintain 10% but lost about 10% from the get-go.)
If every time you lose weight, say you lose 10 pounds, yet every time you gain back say you gain back 7, and you repeat that cycle 3 times, then you’ve lost a total of 10×30 = 30 pounds but because you’ve gained back 7×3 = 21 pounds you only have 9 pounds to show for it.
Let me say this once again: You’ve done the EFFORT for 30 pounds, you have actually lost 30 pounds, but you only have results equal to 9 pounds.
Frustrating to say the least. That’s why I call this back-and-forth The Cycle Of Frustration.
While some weight fluctuations are part of life and nothing to worry about, my heart aches whenever I read weight loss intervention studies where people get amazing results and lose tens of pounds in the first 6 months, but have only kept off 3 pounds from that weight loss in their 2-year check-in.
But what if I told you that the bulk of your success with keeping weight off is predetermined BEFORE you even shed your first pound?
- And no, I’m not referring to superb genetics.
- I’m not referring to boosting your metabolism or playing some hack on your body.
- I’m also not referring to surgical interventions, pills or anything out of the ordinary.
Instead, I’m referring to actions, education, and choices that are completely WITHIN your control.
In fact, it’s my belief that about 75% (not a science-based number!) of your LASTING weight loss success depends on choices, education, and decisions you make BEFORE you even lose your first pound.
Today I’ll cover what those are but before I do, let’s first set the basics here.
ANY diet can work in the short-term.
Losing weight really is simple as it just comes down to a game of calories in vs out; expend more calories than you take in over time and you’ll drop the pounds (1).
That means cutting out gluten, going on a caveman diet, a vegan or vegetarian diet, a dairy-free diet, or whatever else your favorite Instagram fitness star touts sure CAN lead to weight loss (yup, all diets can work from a weight loss perspective!)
Why? Because following them, even if they don’t require counting calories, unavoidedly leads to a hefty drop in calories. As Myolean fitness says:
But do diets even work in the long-term? Is weight maintenance and keeping weight off possible?
A big problem I see stemming from these keeping weight off difficulties is people believing that diets don’t work, and will never work, and that it’s their metabolism to blame, etc. In other words, they blame the situation on things that are completely outside of their control.
While it’s true you’re bound to encounter changes in both your metabolism and your appetite as you lose weight, in my opinion, in most cases this is a smaller problem compared to all the “weight loss mistakes” that happened not just when you were losing weight, but before you even started to lose weight.
Really, imagine if the bulk of your success with weight maintenance is already predetermined before you even lost your first pound!
The problem is a combination of our intense focus on “the best/fastest way to lose weight” and our goldfish attention span when it comes to keeping weight off; we’re lured by short-term goals and people/society/culture/magazines rarely speak about long-term ones – which at the end of the day are the ones that matter!
Because really The Cycle Of Frustration sucks. While losing 9 pounds is great, wouldn’t it be nice if you had done the weight loss effort for 9 pounds, or at least 13 pounds, but definitely not 30?
So now the question turns to – what actions can you take that are within your control (obviously you cannot change genetics, you cannot magically transform your cells, but that doesn’t mean you’re defined by any of that) to avoid repeating The Cycle Of Frustration once again?
And more specifically, what are those actions that you can take before you even EMBARK on a weight loss journey? Let’s review!
5 Reasons The Bulk Of Success With Keeping Weight Off Is Set Before You Even Start Dieting.
1. Your choice of diet matters with weight maintenance. Can you live on an elimination diet forever?
Too many people just choose whatever diet will give the fastest results – even if it’s something they hate – and without a plan on what comes afterwards.
If I told you that starting tomorrow you were no longer allowed to eat carbs, gluten, or whatever else the latest dieting trend excludes for the rest of your life, how would you respond?
Other than rushing off to gorge on all the cookies, ice cream, and pastries you can get your hands on, I imagine you would roll your eyes at the impossibility of the task. Or you would just accept that it’s going to be difficult – but since it’s not going to last forever but only for a short while – then decide you can power through – even if that means cutting out your favorite foods.
Many diets are set up like this, having certain ‘no go’ foods for one reason or another. Some people actually prefer elimination diets over counting calories but the question still remains – are you willing to do some variation of that for the rest of your life? What happens afterwards, is there a plan or just random “hope” that you’ll somehow find the way?
What this means is you’re less likely to stick to your diet in the first place, and if you do, chances are you’ll relapse post diet with an anything goes, no brownies spared, onslaught of binging (2).
This doesn’t just make keeping weight off post diet harder, but esp. for elimination diets, it leaves you fearing certain ‘fattening’ foods too. As you know now though, there is no such thing as a fattening food as it is the overall calorie intake that determines fat gain.
2. Many dieters cut calories excessively.
There are so many “bazillion pounds in 20 days” transformation stories that we feel that this is what we need to live up to.
And to live up to this excessive standard we need to take excessive measures.
Losing 15 or 30 pounds in a year sounds like a failure when comparing to the person who lost that amount in 2 months.
So that’s how many people opt for dropping calories too low.
Dropping calories super low may lead to rapid weight loss up front, but like the diets mentioned above, it’s not sustainable and you may just relapse post diet as a result. What’s more is it will lead to a greater loss in muscle mass and may have a greater negative effect on your metabolism compared to a less drastic calorie cut (3-5).
Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cut calories significantly. Some people thrive on that. But you got to be very careful.
So, for example, I get it if you’re following an 1000-calorie per day plan with meal replacements under the care of your physician. This can actually be motivating at first as you see the pounds MELT! But what about later? Do you want to do meal replacements for the rest of your life? If not, how are you preparing yourself for what comes up next, i.e., keeping weight off?
Again is there a plan, a strategy or just random hope? And if there’s no plan, can you see that you’re already putting yourself in a losing position before you even start shedding pounds?
3. Changing your diet means you’ll have to change your lifestyle. But nobody seems to care about that because “it’s going to be temporary.”
The best diet for fat loss is one that both creates a calorie deficit and is one you can stick to. Most faddy diets require you to change your eating behaviors pretty drastically and as a result, they’re unlikely to fit your preferences and lifestyle.
Once again, this makes keeping weight off difficult as you’re likely to go back to your old pattern of eating post diet.
The problem is nobody seems to care about that. Too many people see weight loss as something “temporary” not as something they’ll have to be conscious of forever. So that’s why they don’t care if the way they choose to lose weight fits their personality or if they think they can happily make changes to their lifestyle to accommodate this new pattern of eating.
So the focus is consumed by the way to get to weight loss, and nobody thinks about keeping weight off, or they start thinking about it after they drop the pounds.
And by that time it may already be too late for successful weight maintenance; the pounds are already creeping up.
4. Diet plans don’t teach you what to do when life gets in the way.
Say you chose a plan you feel is doable and you’re excited to start. But have you planned for occasions that are bound to happen?
- Holiday season with subsequent dinner parties.
- In-laws visiting and your mother-in-law insists you eat all her cookies or she’ll be offended.
- Traveling for work where you’ll be eating at random restaurants that you haven’t been before.
So diet plans tell you what to eat or how much to eat but there’s no coaching on how to deal with out of the ordinary situations. And those out of the ordinary situations when looked at together you’ll see that they happen almost on a weekly basis. Really, when was your last “typical week” where every day of the week followed your typical pattern?
So first those “out of the ordinary” ordinary situations will make your weight loss more difficult because you’ll be making two steps forward, one step back. Then even if you lose the weight, what will happen the next time you go on vacation (and you won’t be on your weight loss journey by that time)?
Clarifying here, I’m not advocating that “once on a diet, always on a diet.” But the truth of the matter is that because food is so readily available around us, unless you’re conscious about it it’s just so easy to eat more.
This is something you have to ACCEPT before you even start losing weight, because really if you think that all you have to do is go on that diet plan for 6 months and then you can go back to doing whatever it is you’re doing right now, then no wonder keeping weight off is not going to happen.
This emphasizes one more time how crucially important it is to choose a weight loss method that fits your personality and doesn’t make you hate yourself, or hate food, but instead allows you to enjoy what you’re doing while also accommodating changes that facilitate weight loss and later on keeping weight off.
5. Diet plans don’t address habits and behaviors.
Ultimately, the process of dieting requires you to change your behavior and routine. This takes you away from your regular routines and requires you to develop and sustain new behaviors – from eating more vegetables to being conscious of how you full you are on a regular basis, the specifics depend on the pattern you’re following.
While diet plans are great at telling you what to do, what to eat, or how much to eat, they suck at telling you how to change your behavior for good – so that if you, say, learn to eat 5 servings of vegetables daily, you keep doing that not just a for a month or two, but for the rest of your life.
(And it comes out naturally, without having to think about it. THAT’s the power of habits.)
Instead many of them pretend like they give you habit-building advice. Actually you’ll find this pretension all over the web:
Just like the advice “make exercise a priority” sounds like habit-building, it’s actually terrible. Because it means nothing. HOW are you supposed to make exercise a priority? What if you’re really tired today? What if you hate running? What if you feel judged at the gym? Are you supposed to just power through all the obstacles?
Only whipping yourself into shape doesn’t work. In fact, the more you do it the more you guarantee that whatever actions you’re taking right won’t last the test of time.
And it’s the test of time you care about, not just about losing 10, 20, or 50 pounds.
Yet many diets will either neglect the problem of creating new habits as a whole, or will PRETEND to address it by giving you superficial advice on how to make it happen – the “make exercise a priority” type of advice.
So you go on thinking you’re equipped to make those new behaviors part of your lifestyle, only you’re not. Because “make eating vegetables a priority” is not going to cut it.
Want more proof that you’re left unprepared in the dark? Look at the graph below. Does it ring any bells?
I suggest you read it, understand it, and then check whether your weight loss plan is bound to succeed in the long-term using this Model. If you were Sue, would you be above the line or below the line?
Getting educated about how habits really work is one of the best investments you can make, again all BEFORE you even start dieting.
Because without those good habits in place, how will you keep up with conscious eating after you lose the weight?
Before you dismiss the above and blame not keeping weight off on your “broken metabolism” or “bad genes,” 4 questions to ask yourself.
So if 75% of success with keeping weight off is due to the above 5 reasons (again, not a scientific number, just my personal belief from observing what people do,) then what is the remaining 25% dependent on?
Well that’s where changes in your metabolism and appetite come in. I’m going to address this in a future article. However, before you conclude that the reason you keep yo-yoing is completely outside of your control (metabolism, physiological changes, genetics) ask yourself first about the things you can actually control.
I want you to really think and methodically review what happened the last time you successfully lost weight but didn’t do well with keeping it off:
- Did you follow a diet plan because you thought it’d give you results even though you kind of hated it or knew it was something you were not willing to follow to at least some extent forever?
- Did you think strategically about what to do when life gets in the way, when your in-laws are visiting, when you have a holiday season full of dinner parties? These things are not just possible, they are certain that they will happen and if you have no plan to address them and you leave things to chance, then is it a surprise that weight is creeping back up?
- Did you completely stop doing what you were doing to lose weight after losing it? E.g., many people lose weight on Weight Watchers, then stop the service, then gain the weight back. If you haven’t learned to maintain without the immediate help of Weight Watchers, is it really a surprise that you gained the weight back?
- Did you have a method for creating new behaviors in your life? So if say, you were eating zero servings of vegetables and you wanted to go up to 5, did you have a method to get you from zero to five in a way that actually made eating your “5 a day” a habit?
So reviewing the last time you successfully lost weight, what are your answers to the questions above? Leave a comment below!
- Hall, K. D., Heymsfield, S. B., Kemnitz, J. W., Klein, S., Schoeller, D. A., and Speakman, J. R. (2012). Energy balance and its components: implications for body weight regulation. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 95(4), 989-994.
- Stewart, T. M., Williamson, D. A., and White, M. A. (2002). Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 38(1), 39-44.
- Heymsfield, S. B., Gonzalez, M. C., Shen, W., Redman, L. and Thomas, D. (2014). Weight loss composition is one fourth fat-free mass: a critical review and critique of this widely cited rule. Obesity Reviews, 15(4), 310-321.
- Hall, K. D. (2007). Body fat and fat-free mass inter-relationships: Forbes’s theory revisited. British journal of nutrition, 97(06), 1059-1063.
- Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., and Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 7.
- Anderson, J. W., Konz, E. C., Frederich, R. C., and Wood, C. L. (2001). Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 74(5), 579-584.