The hardest part of weight loss

Pop quiz: what’s the hardest thing to do when it comes to losing weight?

Answer: keeping it off.

This is something that not a lot of people talk about, but it’s really true. Losing weight is actually pretty easy, especially compared to keeping it off. To lose it you just need to eat less than you burn, and be willing to be a little uncomfortable for a while.

But to maintain that loss requires much more significant changes. You have to change your eating habits, as the habits that got you fat aren’t going to keep you lean in the long term. For some people this might be a small change, for some it might require literally restructuring their entire life.

Unfortunately, just like pretty much everything else in life, there is no magic bullet for this one. You can’t just spend some money, or take some pill, or eat or cut out some specific food. The only magic bullet is hard work and dedication… the clever readers will be starting to see a trend here.

Thankfully, research1 has been done on this. Science to the rescue! This paper studied about 4000 people on the American National Weight Control Registry – a list of people who had managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and keep it off. And while this is just observational/correlational research, it’s about as good as is realistically possible to get on this subject.

So what did they find? There were a few commonalities in all of the people who managed to lose and keep off a significant amount of weight. The first is physical activity, with people reporting an average of an hour per day of moderate activity, an example of which given in the study is brisk walking. So maybe you should get a god [this typo amuses me, I’m leaving it] and take it for a walk every day for an hour or so. Hell, if you have a significant other, you can drag them with you and maybe actually have a real conversation with them for once.

The second important commonality they found was eating a low calorie diet, combined with tracking food intake and weight. If you have a good idea how much food you are putting into your body, and you know what your weight is doing, you can do something about it before you are “suddenly” 20lb heavier and have no idea how you got there. Here is where a combination of a food log and a weight tracker with trendlines is useful – you have an amazing piece of technology in your pocket masquerading as a telephone, and you should make use of it for more than playing candy crush.

Regarding food, they also found that people who were successful in maintaining weight loss ate at restaurants an average of 2.5 meals per week, and 0.74 meals per week in fast food joints. So heavy McDonalds consumption != continued weight loss. Shocking, innit?

The bad news is that roughly 80% of people who lose more than 10% of their body mass will gain much or all of it back, or possibly even end up heavier than they started. The good news is that it gets easier as time goes on, with those who manage to keep the weight off for 2 years being significantly more likely to keep it off.

The good news is that armed with this information, you are much more likely than the average person to actually succeed. I was one of those people who lost a bunch of weight and then gained most of it back, partially because I didn’t make any of the changes that would have set me up for success. But now I am informed and know what I did wrong, and now I have no one to blame but myself if I fail. Just like you.

So go forth, get less fat, and be awesome. It’s worth it.

  1. Klem, Mary L., et al. “A descriptive study of individuals successful at long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 66.2 (1997): 239-246.

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