Reasons You Regain the Weight

Woman weighing herself
Woman weighing herself. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

In the world of weight loss, it often feels like there are two distinct phases of weight loss? One where you're losing the weight and then another where you gain it all back. 

If you even feel that way, you're in good company.  Most of us have lost weight at one time or another (some of us, many times), but the biggest struggle is keeping it off.

There are no exact numbers on how many people regain weight, but some estimates suggest that it's anywhere from 80 percent to a whopping 95 percent.

There are things working against us when it comes to maintaining weight loss, some of which we can't control, such as our age, gender, and genetics and others we can, such as how much time we spend sitting around, what we eat and how much we exercise. Either way, knowing what's in store for you after you lose the weight can help you keep it off for good.

Beyond Weight Loss

We often focus so much energy on losing weight, we're completely unprepared for what happens when we actually lose it.

We often have the belief that, once we lose the weight, we're home free. We can finally get back to "normal" life, a life that doesn't involve monitoring every bite, watching portion sizes and doing crazy exercise routines.

The truth is, you have to do at least the same amount of work to maintain your weight loss as you did to lose it in the first place, perhaps even more.

Knowing that, and understanding the factors that can contribute to weight regain, can help you stop the cycle for good.

Why You Regain the Weight

1. Unrealistic Diets and Exercise Programs

One major reason we regain weight is because, in an effort to lose weight fast, we often follow unrealistic diets that are simply not sustainable for the long term.

It may be a fad diet (such as the Master Cleanse), or something like The South Beach Diet or some other low-carb version of eating. These kinds of diets often restrict entire food groups. Not only is that unhealthy, it's almost impossible to follow for more than a short period of time.

As soon as you restrict something, you may find that your body starts to crave that very thing. That kind of thing is what can quickly end a diet. 

If you add in an unrealistic exercise program, say going from very little exercise to seven days at the gym, it's easy to see why weight regain is so common.

While you might lose weight initially, these extreme diets and exercise programs require such drastic changes that you can only follow them for a short period of time.

By restricting what you eat and working out like crazy, you might lose weight but you never learn how to change your habits for good. Losing weight too quickly can also have some unpleasant side effects such as:

  • Physical problems - Losing a lot of weight very quickly can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, constipation, gallstones and, for some, loose skin that may require surgery. That's at the more extreme side of weight loss. If you stick with 1-2 pounds a week, you're not likely to experience these problems.
  • Loss of muscle - When you lose weight quickly, especially if you're dieting without exercise, you not only lose fat, you lose muscle as well. That not only slows your metabolism, which contributes to even more weight gain, you may end up with more body fat after weight regain, leaving you worse off than you were before.
  • Misery - Many diets are so restrictive, you cut out entire food groups, leaving you feeling hungry and deprived. Jumping into extreme exercise without slowly building strength and stamina leaves you sore, exhausted and burned out. Life isn't much fun when you're sore, hungry, and tired all the time.

Taking It Slow

If you want long-term weight loss, you need long-term change...a lifestyle change. Changing lifelong habits takes time and requires learning a variety of new skills and habits, something that doesn't happen overnight.

You have to learn how to exercise: What you enjoy, how much you can handle, how to fit it into your schedule and how to stay motivated on a daily basis. You have to learn how to make your exercise habit stick.

You also have to learn how to eat - How to monitor your portions, how to avoid emotional eating and how many calories you need. All of this while still managing to enjoy life without too many restrictions.

Aside from exercise and eating, there are other issues you may have to deal that contribute to weight gain such as stress and lack of sleep.

However, the most important thing you have to learn is how to lose weight slowly. Not just the physical components of eating and exercising, but the psychological aspects as well.

Many of us want to see instant changes on the scale but, slow weight loss means weeks or months before seeing significant changes. Learning to lose weight slowly means:

  • Forgetting about weight loss - It sounds counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to lose weight is to forget about losing weight. Instead of asking, "How much weight did I lose this week?" it's about asking, "How much exercise did I get this week? Was I careful with my diet most of the time?" If you're able to do that, the weight loss will happen.
  • Learning to Enjoy Healthy Eating and Exercise - To many of us, the words 'healthy eating' and 'exercise' do not inspire any sort of enjoyment. However, as you practice both of these skills, you start to feel good, which goes a long way towards motivating you to keep going. Remember the benefits of what you're doing and that weight loss is only one of them.

2. Weight Loss - The Energy Gap

The funny thing about losing weight is that, as soon as you start losing, your body suddenly wants it all back.

As you lose weight, your body doesn't need as many calories as it did before but, for many of us, something strange and frustrating happens - We want more food.

Like the stereotypical bustling mother who plies you with food saying, "Eat! Eat!," your body doesn't like to lose weight. It can't tell the difference between you going on a diet or being struck by famine and immediately goes into protective mode, lowering your metabolism by up to 15% and stimulating your appetite to preserve fat stores.

On top of that, when you lose weight, your body needs fewer calories to maintain itself, creating what experts call 'the energy gap.'

They estimate that the energy gap we need to maintain weight loss could be up to 200 calories a day for a person trying to lose 10% of his or her body weight. This energy gap is smaller for people trying to avoid weight gain, around 100 calories a day. If you don't keep that energy gap going every day, the weight eventually creeps back on.

Making Peace With The Energy Gap

  1. Exercise - Your number one defense against your body's natural tendency to hold on to weight is exercise. It doesn't just burn calories, it also weakens your body's desire to regain weight. Researchers don't understand all the mechanisms behind this, but believe working out may encourage the body to become more sensitive to leptin (a hormone that regulates appetite) so you don't feel as hungry. One study, published in the American Journal of Physiology, showed that exercise decreased the rate of weight regain in rats while another, published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition found that, among more than 100 dieters who exercised, 44% reported eating less after exercising.
  2. Recalculate your calories - As you lose weight, make sure you recalculate how many calories you need. The more weight you lose, the fewer calories your body needs to maintain itself and tracking that can help you keep the energy gap you need to maintain weight loss.
  3. Go by net calories burned during workouts - When you calculate how many calories you burn during exercise, make sure to subtract the number of calories you would've burned if you weren't exercising to get a more accurate number. For example, if you burned 300 calories during a 30-minute run, you would subtract the number of calories you would've burned sitting (e.g., around 20-40 calories).
  1. Avoid compensating for your workouts - Another way we sabotage ourselves without realizing it is by compensating for workouts. This may mean resting more than you normally would or eating more because you think you deserve it after exercising. Stick to your regular eating and activity habits to keep the energy gap going.

3. A Sedentary Lifestyle

Another known culprit of weight regain is your relationship with your TV, computer, car, and other assorted electronics that encourage us to sit for hours at a time.

Sitting can actually shut down your metabolism but, unfortunately, it's what we spend most of our time doing, making it easy to regain. Experts know that successful weight losers often restrict how much TV they watch and look for ways to be active throughout the day and that is in addition to their regular workouts.

Get Moving

4. Not Enough Exercise

Aside from being active, exercise is crucial for successful weight loss and avoiding weight regain. In fact, Dr. Len Kravitz states in his article, "Physical Activity, Weight Loss and Weight Regain:"

"[C]consistent physical activity is the best predictor of sustained weight management following weight loss. And, when it comes to preventing weight gain, 'more is better'."

While we know that exercise is important, everyone needs a different amount based on a variety of factors including gender, age, fitness level, weight, body composition, and genetics. Successful weight losers spend about an hour a day exercising and experts suggest the following guidelines depending on your goals:

  • To prevent weight gain: 150–250 minutes per week of moderately vigorous exercise, which translates to about 20-35 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
  • For weight loss: 225–420 minutes per week of moderately vigorous exercise, which translates to about 60-90 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

Get Started With Exercise

If you're new to exercise, 60-90 minutes may feel impossible, but it's okay to start with what you can handle and what your schedule allows and work your way up from there.

Your exercise program should include cardio (about 3-5 workouts a week) and strength training (about 2-3 nonconsecutive days a week) for best weight loss results. The following resources will help you get started:

How long you can maintain weight loss is another important factor in whether you keep the weight off or gain it back.

Experts have found that people who maintain weight loss for more than two years tend to keep it off. It seems that, the longer you maintain weight loss, the better you get at it, mastering the delicate balance of calories in and calories out and figuring out how much exercise you need to maintain that balance.

Two years may seem like a long time, but most of us have a lifetime of bad habits and weight problems to overcome. It's going to take time to unravel all that history. Remembering how long it took to gain the weight may help you keep things in perspective.

Sticking With It

Sticking with it doesn't mean you have to be perfect for the next two years. There will be times you fail - You'll get sick, get slammed by holidays, get injured, go on vacation or just lose your motivation.

There are always times in life when you may not be able to exercise. It happens to all of us. The key is what you do when that happens. How you respond is going to determine just how much of that weight loss you can keep going.

If you are coming back from a break, there are some things you can try:

  • Get Back on Track - Falling off the exercise wagon will happen, but what's important is what you do about it.Recognize that a mistake is a one-time thing and something you can overcome by admitting your mistake and easing back into your program.
  • Learn The Right Way to Fail - Whenever you make changes in your life, failure is inevitable. At some point, you return to those old behaviors but, each time you do, you learn something important about the process and about yourself. Using that failure to your advantage will help you get back on track.
  • Learn to Think Like an Exerciser - Changing how you think about yourself and about exercise is a crucial element to your success. Exercisers tend to look for opportunities to exercise rather than reasons to skip it. Paying attention to how you think about exercise can help you learn to look at it in a more positive way.

While regaining weight is something many of us struggle with, there are no simple solutions. One thing most experts agree on is this:

It's much easier to prevent weight gain than it is to lose weight.

Once the weight is on, your body will often fight to keep it that way, which is what often leads to weight regain. Knowing that, ask yourself what would happen if you focused on avoiding weight gain rather than losing weight? Practicing the healthy habits you need to keep your weight in check may just lead to the weight loss you've been looking for.

Forgiving yourself for lapsing and realizing this isn't always a linear process can help make the whole thing a little less frustrating.


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