weight loss

Keeping weight off: Can you put a positive spin on vigilance even knowing vigilance is no guarantee?


We know that keeping the weight you’ve lost off can be nearly impossible.

But some people do it. I’ve written here before about those rare beasts, the weight loss unicorns. See What are the habits of weight loss unicorns? Recently Gretchen Reynolds answered weight loss questions in the Globe and Mail, including the question of why do some people manage to stay at the new lower weight when others can’t. What traits do those people share?

She writes, “Anecdotal reports by people who have succeeded in keeping weight off tend to have a common theme: constant vigilance, keeping close track of weight, controlling what food is eaten and how much (often by weighing and measuring food), exercising often, putting up with hunger and resisting cravings to the best of their ability. Those who maintain a modest weight loss often report less of a struggle than those trying to keep off large amounts of weight.”

I’m going to write another post about the difference between modest weight loss and getting down to your desired goal, or as I’ve called it, the difference between being a unicorn and an alpaca. But for now, I want to talk about “constant vigilance.”

It’s a common phrase when it comes to maintaining weight loss. In my review of Timothy Caulfield’s book I wrote,

The bit that I found hard to take, though I don’t doubt he’s right, was Caulfield’s assessment of what’s required for long term weight loss and maintenance. People who lose weight and keep weight off in the long run have some traits in common. And this group, because they’re rare, have been studied closely.  First, constant vigilance. They remain as focused and determined as they were when losing weight and they log and track just as carefully as when they started. Second, they exercise a lot. Third, they also don’t eat very much. Yikes.

I’ve wondered if there are other ways to think about the kind of dedication that’s required to maintain long term weight loss. Can we rebrand constant vigilance?

Here’s Yoni Freedhoff in Vox writing about people in a weight loss registry who have managed to keep weight off.

Today there are more than 10,000 registrants who on average have lost 66 pounds and kept it off for five and a half years. Registrants have lost weight every which way. Some have lost rapidly, while for others it took years. Some lost weight with low-fat diets, others low-carb. Some used diet books for guidance, others self-directed, and others still went to weight loss programs for help.

The key to your success is actually liking the life and diet you’re living with while you’re losing weight

Looking to their success stories, published both online and as highlighted by Anne Fletcher in her book exploring the registrants, Thin for Life, the one common theme is that while maintaining their losses requires ongoing effort, that effort isn’t perceived by these weight loss masters as a hardship but rather as just living with new lifestyles, and lifestyles that they enjoy.

Okay, is there a kind of “constant vigilance” that could fit into a life I love? What’s “constant vigilance” even amount to in day to day life?

  • People who lose weight and keep it off continue to track and measure food.
  • People who lose weight and keep it off exercise pretty much everyday.
  • People who lose weight and keep it off tend to weigh themselves daily.

Put that way it doesn’t sound so bad to me. (Note that I ignored the not eating very much part.) I do lots of this anyway. Well, except for the weighing part. And possibly the not eating very much part but I’m ignoring that.

(One of the women interviewed in Caulfield’s book says that since losing weight she’s never had a full size entree at a restaurant, only ever a salad and an appetizer. Also, no dessert. Ever.)

Back to constant vigilance. Here’s the thing. It’s no guarantee.

It might be true that everyone who maintains a new lower weight does these three things. You might be like me, thinking about this, and thinking, “I could do that.” But while everyone who keeps weight off does these three things, it might also be true that not everyone who does these three things keeps the weight off.

To put in terms philosophers like to use, these three traits might be necessary for successful long term weight maintenance but it doesn’t follow that they’re sufficient.  You could lose the weight, remain constantly vigilant, and still gain it back. Constant vigilance is no guarantee of long term success. That’s a tough pill to swallow even if you do manage to find a way to make peace with constant vigilance.

If “necessary” and “sufficient” talk is new to you, here’s an explanation. Enjoy.


4 thoughts on “Keeping weight off: Can you put a positive spin on vigilance even knowing vigilance is no guarantee?

  1. “the one common theme is that while maintaining their losses requires ongoing effort, that effort isn’t perceived by these weight loss masters as a hardship but rather as just living with new lifestyles, and lifestyles that they enjoy.” I really like this ..enjoying new lifestyles. That is very helpful long-term to anyone wanting to be healthy weight and mobile outside of the car.

    Honest, I have never weighed food at home or elsewhere. Instead it’s eyeballing amount of food…fistful of lean meat and prepare it anyway I want, etc. 2-4 times per month at home or have it in a restaurant.

    It helps to find our own personality and how it marries with methods we use to be healthy. Outside of my job (which is not numbers oriented only 2% of it is), I’m just not oriented to benchmark myself / my personal life, by “numbers”..weighing/constantly measuring food, weighing myself, etc. It’s just not me. I’m a highly visual learner, I take enormous visual enjoyment and feel most alive in doing art, looking at art, architecture, changing landscapes….this is probably why cycling outdoors suits me for transportation, health, touring and recreation…. Why I then walk if the weather is too lousy to cycle. I have never cycled indoors on rollers, etc. in the winter.

    It would wear me down psychologically to think of keeping fit by a numbers benchmark. ie. pedometer to count number of steps. I need visual beauty and other things to distract me 🙂 while I undertake exercise.

    If it works for you and you enjoy it, go for it! If it doesn’t work, then find some pleasurable exercise at least 2-4 times per wk.

  2. I echo Jean’s comments, and think Yoni sums it up beautifully. I lost weight, ohhhhhh, 7 or 8 years ago and have been stable at the lower weight ever since. initially there was a learning curve – learning how to cook healthy foods in ways I like, learning to be active. Getting in touch with my body, with hunger/full signals, to figure out the diet that made me feel good. It took months of yoga classes before I worked out there were these things called sports bras, for example, and now I’m packing four of them for a week away.

    Now, people assume that I’m one of those lucky, born skinny people, for whom this is effortless. They’re wrong on the first, but right on the second, now. I pay no more attention to maintaining my weight than I did when I was fat (and am far less angsty about it). The only time I weigh food is when baking, when it matters for a successful outcome. I am enthusiastic about the sports I love. These couple of weeks, I’ve been packing giant baby spinach salads for work at lunch because, as the weather gets warmer, they’re delicious. They’re also much lower calorie (and cheaper) than the junk food run that would have been lunch 10 years ago, but that is genuinely incidental. Yummy spinach salad and a walk in the forest with the dogs makes me happier than the chips and computer games of ten years ago.

    I’m a fierce supporter of HAES, not least because it was making changes for health that improved my joy in life so much. Living in a string, fit, flexibly body is fun! But I do get frustrated that part of the narrative of HAES is that people like me don’t exist. I’m a “unicorn”; mythical; not real; making it up. It’s relentless. And it’s as much a denial of my lived experience as the narrative that all fat people are unhealthy. Neither are true.

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