Most people can lose weight. Some lose weight with a high carb diet, some with a low carb diet, some with a Paleo diet, some with intermittent fasting; there is no shortage of effective weight loss methods (2, 3).
However, the problem lies in the murky waters of weight loss maintenance. One review showed that when success is measured as maintaining a 10% intentional loss of bodyweight for at least one year, the success rate is somewhere around 20% (1). So based on the data we have available, along with personal experiences, we know that maintaining significant weight loss is difficult.
There are several reasons why maintaining weight loss is such a daunting task, a few of which I have listed below.
1. Decreased energy requirements as weight is lost makes it difficult to sustain energy balance.
As one loses body mass, they burn less calories through both exercise and day-to-day activity. A 200 pound individual is going to burn more calories than someone who is 150 pounds. In addition, less calories are burned through digestion and the thermic effect of food due to less overall food intake.
Armi Legge did a great podcast on the metabolic adaptations that take place when dieting that covers all of the above and more; you can check it out here.
2. Our environment encourages us to eat.
The environment we live in today is certainly more obesigenic in nature than it was forty to fifty years ago (4, 5). The rapid increase in food availability has definitely played a huge role in the obesity epidemic, as well as the rampant marketing of fast food restaurants (note: I’m not saying fast food is inherently evil, but it does contribute to the environmental factors that play a role in obesity).
Furthermore, consistent advances in technology have allowed us to get through our daily lives with as little movement as possible. This is great in terms of efficiency, but not great in terms of our waistlines.
3. It’s tough to maintain high activity levels.
Many lose weight by introducing abnormally high exercise volume (Biggest Loser anyone?). Weight loss tends to occur rapidly. However, it also comes back rapidly as such a high level of activity is difficult to sustain over the long term.
A moderate approach in which both diet and exercise are manipulated seems to be the most effective and sustainable path to achieving and maintaining body weight loss.
How to Maintain Weight Loss
So based upon some of the examples above, we know it’s tough to maintain weight loss. Sadly, weight loss maintenance doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. Most are so fixated on the end result, and doing whatever it takes to get there, that they have no idea what to do when they achieve their target weight.
“Lots of people will tell you they WANT to be wealthy – but when happens to lottery winners? They can’t handle it. They’re not prepared for life as millionaires and they often quickly sabotage their financial situation and quickly end up back in the same (or worse) situation they were in before they hit the ‘jackpot’.”
This is an excellent explanation because it’s almost invariably what happens when someone loses a lot of weight in a short period of time. They always knew they wanted to get to that goal weight, but they never prepared themselves for what they would have to do to maintain it.
Below I’m going to give you some practical tips to make the idea of maintaining weight loss a bit less frightening, and hopefully provide you with the tools you need to get the job done.
Lose Weight at a Modest, Consistent Pace
Crash diets are undoubtedly effective at inducing rapid fat loss. However, the massive caloric restriction is problematic, in that the dieter is more likely to binge and regain weight very quickly when the diet comes to a screeching halt. Such extreme dieting measures should be left to professionals whose well-being relies upon the ability to get to ridiculous levels of body fat in a short period of time (bodybuilders, fitness competitors). Even then, dietary extremes are usually unnecessary.
For the average person whose goal is to simply drop twenty pounds and look better naked, a moderate approach should be taken. Beginning at a small deficit and slowly increasing activity levels on a weekly basis will ensure that the adopted habits are sustainable, which makes them more likely to be maintained after the weight is lost.
There’s no need to take drastic measures. People are often terrified when I say significant weight loss takes months, and even years, when done properly. In reality, five or six months is nothing in the grand scheme of things. I would much rather take a longer, more consistent approach to weight loss instead of yo-yo dieting and wondering why the weight won’t stay off.
I know it’s cliché, but the saying “anything worth having is worth waiting for” certainly applies to significant weight loss endeavors.
Embrace Weight Loss Plateaus
The word plateau seems to always carry a negative connotation in the context of dieting. No one wants to see the scale remain stagnant for a period of time; we want results now. However, I’m of the opinion that plateaus can be a positive (and even essential) part of the dieting process and that they should be embraced.
Think of plateaus as a mini-maintenance phase; maintenance practice, so to speak. You’re not losing weight and you’re not gaining weight, which is similar to what you will experience after the diet is over. Dieters tend to freak out when the numbers on the scale remain steady, only to pursue more extreme dieting methods or abandon the diet with a sense of failure and disappointment.
Plateaus indicate that you’ve made progress, and you’re stabilizing at a lower body weight. Use plateaus as a time to recoup, evaluate your progress, clear your mind, and look for areas to make small improvements and adjustments. Weight loss almost never occurs in a straight line.
A Large Deficit Day
I stole this idea from Leigh Peele, and I think it’s excellent and has proven to be very effective in my experience.
Remaining in energy balance tends to be thought of as a day-t0-day process, but in situations where weight maintenance is the goal, I prefer to take a weekly perspective. Meaning: energy balance over the entire week is more important than energy balance day in and day out. This could mean that you eat a bit more on some days, and you eat a bit less on others.
To ensure that you’re in energy balance (or even slightly below, depending on your goals) you could implement the large deficit day. On this day, you eat marginally less than you would on ‘regular’ days (preferably on a rest day, if you weight train). This will act as damage control, in which you ensure that energy balance is met over the week as a whole. Understand that implementing the large deficit day is not permission to go crazy on all other days of the week, but it does provide a bit of leeway.
There is not any specific literature to back this idea, but it seems to work very well in a practical setting.
An alternative to the large deficit day is to simply vary your caloric intake throughout the week, as I vaguely alluded to above. For example, you could eat in a slight surplus on days that you exercise, and you could eat in a slight deficit on rest days (or days that you don’t feel you need as many calories to perform well). This is quite similar to what is recommended by Martin Berkhan in his Leangains protocol, and it’s great for maintaining body weight.
Of course, none of the above is essential, and if you want to just keep things simple and eat at (0r very close to) maintenance every day of the week, that’s fine too. Adhering to your personal preferences is what’s most important.
Another critical aspect of maintaining weight loss is activity levels. Increasing activity levels is often recommended for those who are attempting to lose body fat, but it seems to be even more important in preventing weight regain. Some survey data indicates that those who have maintained significant weight loss over a long period of time exercise quite frequently with moderate to high intensity (8) (note: survey data is not the most reliable form of research as people tend to overestimate their activity levels, but it does provide a frame of reference).
To display the importance of high activity levels, a study in 2004 observed an Old Order Amish community who obviously do not embrace the technological advances as we do, and consequently enjoy very low levels of obesity (6). The study found that this group of Amish adults were highly active: the men averaged 18,425 steps per day after one week, and the women averaged 14,196 steps per day. Also, both the men and women reported frequent vigorous physical activity, along with the high amounts of walking.
Contrast the above with a study done in Colorado that found the average male takes 6733 steps per day, and the average female takes 6384 steps per day. It goes without saying that Colorado has higher obesity rates than the Amish community in Ontario.
The differences in steps per day between these two studies would equate to about a difference 400-600 calories burned through activity. Activity levels are not the only factor, of course, but 400-600 calories is significant and can alone be enough to result in the higher prevalence of obesity in Colorado compared to the Amish group.
So activity levels definitely play a massive role in maintaining a lower body weight. Also, the more active you are, the more food you can eat and still remain in energy balance. And remember, active does not necessarily mean training with extremely high volume in the gym. It could just mean standing more often throughout the day, taking a walk around the block during a break from work, playing outside with the dogs, parking a bit further from the grocery store, etc. The small changes add up, both when you’re trying to lose weight and maintain your weight loss.
Have Realistic Expectations
Weight maintenance seems to be unfamiliar territory. Most people are so used to the scale moving one way or the other on a consistent basis that they don’t know what to expect when they finally hit the maintenance phase. Because they don’t know what to expect, they are often surprised with some of the things that occur.
First of all, the scale is going to fluctuate quite a bit on a daily basis. For example, if you eat a bit more carbohydrates than usual the night before you decide to weigh in, the scale number may be a bit higher. Does that mean you have regained fat overnight? Of course not. Carbohydrates often cause water retention, which is not a big deal, as water weight tends to fluctuate greatly throughout the day.
Also, if you’re bumping up your calories from a deficit state to maintenance, expect the scale to jump a bit. This is normal as you’re retaining a bit of water and glycogen.
The point is: you should not freak out if the scale jumps up a few pounds every once in a while, even when eating at maintenance.
To ensure that you don’t get huge variations in the numbers on the scale, make sure you weigh yourself on the same day and at the same time (preferably after using the restroom). This will remove confounding factors so you can differentiate between water fluctuations and actual progressive weight gain.
If you notice an upward trend in scale weight, look for areas where you can make small adjustments. Maybe you ate out a few more times than normal, or maybe you took a few unexpected days off from the gym. All in all, don’t obsess with the scale, especially during weight maintenance. Staying within five pounds of the target weight (above or below) is usually sufficient. Don’t get cynical about remaining the exact weight week after week.
Track Your Food Intake
Calorie counting seems to have taken a load of criticism over the past few years. With the growth of the nonsensical message that calories don’t matter, people have resorted to “intuitive” eating, or just counting carbohydrates because they feel that carbohydrate intake is the main arbiter of weight gain or weight loss (hint: it’s not).
If intuitive eating works for you, that’s awesome, stick with it. However, some have a tendency to overeat when they don’t track their calorie intake, so tracking is a quick and easy way to ensure you’re staying consistent and remaining in energy balance (I use MyFitnessPal to track food intake and calories. It provides a massive database of foods that you can simply type in and it provides you with the nutritional values).
Look, tracking your food intake is not obsessive, and it’s not a sign of disordered eating. Once you get the hang of it, counting calories takes about a minute or two out of the day. It’s funny how those who demonize calorie counting insist on counting the amount of sugar in certain foods and constantly pee on Ketostix to make sure they’re in ketosis. Wait, who’s the obsessive one? Right…
In short, keeping a food diary and/or tracking calorie intake does not have to take over your life, and both can be effective for those attempting to maintain their weight, and it can even lead to significant weight loss (7).
And there is also data looking at the habits of those who were able to maintain significant weight loss over a long period of time showing that many indeed continue to count calories and weigh themselves on a consistent basis (8).
Again, if you’re more comfortable not counting calories or tracking your food choices, that’s fine. But, tracking is a simple and effective way of keeping yourself accountable, and it provides you with the information you need to make adjustments when needed.
I’ll end this section with a quote from Yoni Freedhoff’s article that I referenced above, in which he describes the significance of tracking food intake:
“It’s a behavior that truly takes seconds to minutes a day to do, but each and every time you pull out your app or diary, you remind yourself of your healthy living desires and strategies. It’s through regular and conscious efforts and reminders that new habits are formed, and any behavior that helps you to keep your goals and intentions at the forefront of your busy mind is a good one.”
Maintaining significant weight loss is no easy task, so hopefully this post can be helpful if you’re struggling now, or if you want to prepare for what’s ahead.
Consistency is key. Making small changes and ensuring that they are sustainable is what’s going to set you up for success in the future. Don’t be so fixated on quick results. Weight maintenance takes time and effort, and you’re going to run into some bumps in the road. Remain level-headed, make small adjustments when needed, and keep moving foward.
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