body image · diets · eating · sports nutrition

Weight lost and gained

desert2While debate exists about how many people regain weight they’ve lost (let’s just say most, or lots), how much weight they regain (all of it or more) and how long it typically takes to regain weight (certainly within five years pretty much everyone will have gained it back), no one denies that keeping weight off is much, much harder than losing it in the first place.

When people talk about weight regain one thing they often say, which I think is mistaken, is that people regain weight because they give up the restrictions and go back to their old habits. As Ragen Chastain says, “The myth goes that almost everyone fails at weight loss because almost everyone quits their diet and goes back to their old habits/doesn’t have the willpower to keep dieting/doesn’t do it “right”” But that’s not what the evidence says. People have a hard time keeping the weight off because their bodies have changed.”

Read the rest of her post on why dieters regain weight here.

This mistaken way of thinking suggests that if the people who lost weight stuck to the restrictions they’d be fine but in fact, in my experience, you start to regain weight while still dieting. Your metabolism slows down and what was once little enough food that you lose weight becomes too much and you start to gain.

How does this happen?

First, you now weigh less and so need fewer calories to support the new lower weight.

Second, your metabolism slows down. See Tracy’s post on metabolic health.

Third, your hormones change making it much harder to stay at the new, lower weight. Read Gina Kolata on the studies that demonstrate this here. See also Tara Parker Pope’s The Fat Trap.

Fourth, exercise no longer has the same effect. That’s just what getting in shape means. Consider running. The first time you run 5 km, it’s hard and you burn a lot of calories. Later, when you’re fit, running 5 km is easier but you also burn fewer calories. Now you need to run further or faster, at the same effort as you did as a beginner, to keep burning that many calories. Few of us keep pushing ourselves the way we need to.

My story: I’ve lost a lot of weight in my life. I’ve weighed everything from 155 lbs to 235 lbs with stops at just about every station along the way. I’ve gone from the top of that range to near the bottom twice. This last time on my way back up I stopped about halfway and so I didn’t regain the full amount. Phew. So for now at least I’m one of the rare people who has lost weight and kept lots of it off. The big weight loss was ten years ago now so that’s a pretty significant period of time not to have regained all or more of the weight, just half of it.

These days I’m focusing my energy on getting leaner, improving my muscle to fat ratio and you can read about my motivation for that here, here, and here.

Speaking of changes in body composition, I was fascinated to read recently that there’s also an interesting difference between the weight you lose and the weight you regain. It’s differently composed. When losing weight you typically lose in about equal amounts fat and muscle. But sadly when you regain weight it’s almost all fat.

“When individuals lose a reasonable amount of weight, the majority of the weight they lose is usually in the form of fat. But weight loss can be contributed by other things too, notably muscle. Generally speaking, about one sixth to one quarter of weight loss is actually ‘lean’ mass (mainly muscle).The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published a study in which followed up post-menopausal women after they had spent 5 months losing weight on a calorie-controlled diet, with or without aerobic exercise [1]. The average weight loss was about 11.5 kg during this time (exercise, by the way, did not improve weight loss over dietary change).This follow-up found that the average overall weight loss a year after the weight loss intervention stopped was still about 8 kg. Of course, some women did better than others, with some maintaining their weight loss well and others regaining a significant proportion of lost weight.The interesting thing about this study is that the authors monitored not only weight, but the body composition. This allowed to calculated the relative amounts of fat and muscle lose and regain by the women. Here, in summary was what they found:For each 1 kg of fat lost during the weight loss phase, women lost an average of 0.32 in lean body mass.For each 1 kg of fat regained subsequently, women regain only an average of 0.08 kg of lean mass.Putting this in percentage terms, 76 per cent of weight lost originally came in the form of fat.When weight was regained, about 93 per cent of this was fat.The problem here is not just that the body is getting proportionally fatter. The loss of muscle is a concern too, as muscle mass has some bearing on metabolic rate, and it also can determine functionality. It’s not good to lose muscle, particularly as we age, as it can leave us weak, frail, incapacitated and prone to falls and injury.”

See Regained weight found to be ‘fatter’ than weight originally lost


10 thoughts on “Weight lost and gained

  1. Great post, thank you! I spend so much time thinking, worrying about this issue, and just wrote about some of the blues I’m feeling now about recent changes; something that seems to go in cycles. I have been maintaining for 4 1/2 years, work my buns off trying to eat well, exercise, and mix it up, etc. As I have been lifting, my body composition keeps changing, and I’m definitely not as lean as I was before now. Shoulders are bigger. Legs are bigger. So all the clothing I bought a few years ago fits a little funny now, although I’m still w/in my maintaining size. I am hearing the same from some of my other long time maintainers. There’s so much change and monitoring it’s no wonder most people do not bother. It’s just so tough to manage the ups and downs. I’ll share your post w/some of my friends…

  2. This was really interesting. It made me think of another post you had about the distinction between getting fit and losing weight. I have not weighted myself for years because one of the things that happens when you start exercising and getting fit is that you gain muscle mass which weighs more than fat. So constantly weighing yourself can be discouraging as it may indicate no progress when in fact there is. Body composition is what one should focus on, as you indicate in the last paragraph. And women should focus on muscle mass rather than anything else. And put that BMI chart in the garbage can! 🙂

  3. Sam, I assume you are talking only about people who have lost alot of weight on true diets, as opposed to people who have lost it very gradually over an extended period of time. It would be interesting to hear just how slow you have to lose the weight so as not to rebound. It would also be interesting to hear about the actual exercise regimes of those who’ve regained all the weight or more. In this, I’m assuming that these people who’ve regained the weight have totally kept up with their exercise regimes. It may be that certain types of exercise regimes, ones that include alot of strength training perhaps, are more conducive to keeping the fat off and actually building muscle, than simply exercise regimes that centre exclusively on weight loss, i.e. long slow cardio. My sister lost about 80 pounds about 7 or 8 years ago now I’d say, on Dr. Bernstein, and while she’s heavier now than she was when she finished Dr. Bernstein, it’s all muscle she’s added. She trains almost exclusively in weight training, and does only 10 minutes of fast cardio to get a sweat going, then weight trains for an hour, then does only 20 minutes of cardio at most, afterward. But she has maintained extremely healthy eating habits and she is vegan, she never eats any sweets, she works out 5 times a week, and she works out hard. So guess what? It can be done. I know it can be done because my sister who I know quite well has done it. So not everyone gains it back in 5 years, Sam. I really do know this for a fact, and I plan on following in my sister’s footsteps. About a year for me now, and I’m still going strong.
    I know quite well has done it. But it really does call for alot of commitment – I’ll grant you that.

  4. I really liked this article. I am currently in a state of gaining some weight back. I went on Weight Watchers about 3 years ago and lost 30 or 35 lbs and have gained 15 lbs of it back. And my body just isn’t responding to the Weight Watchers diet anymore. For one thing, the amount of food I am supposed to eat is NOT enough and even if I keep it really healthy I just don’t feel well. Another issue is that even when I am able to stick to the diet for weeks or months my body doesn’t lose anything.

    I am currently working at changing my thought process because I think that is what is flawed, not my body (although ask me that on an emotional level and the answer is probably different). I’m trying to understand that WEIGHT isn’t what I want to lose and diet and cardio isn’t the way to go about things. I got a set of weights, I increased my caloric intake and I am working towards eating clean and strength training. And I’m not weighing myself.

    I think this post was really helpful and I’m also going to read through the articles you linked to. Thanks!

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