Why keeping it off is the hard part

July 13, 2012 

OK readers, let’s pretend for a minute that we are all in the same room together. If you have ever tried to lose weight, raise your hand. Now, if you’ve ever been successful in losing a significant amount of weight, keep your hand up. Keep that hand in the air if, after losing the weight, you gained it all back and maybe put on even more than when you started.

If we were in a room together, and we were all being completely honest, a lot of the people who raised their hand at the beginning of that exercise would have kept them up the whole time. Many of us have learned that losing weight is hard, but keeping it off, long term, seems to be nearly impossible.

It turns out there is a good reason for that, and it’s not just a lack of willpower to blame. According to a study recently published in “The New England Journal of Medicine,” when a person loses a great deal of weight their body goes into a state of shock, and the condition lasts for a very long time. In the study, a group of obese people were put on a strict, carefully monitored diet and exercise program and then received long-term follow-up counseling on maintaining a healthy weight after they reached their goal.

The story does not have a happy ending, I’m afraid. A year after they lost weight, the dieters had regained an average of 11 pounds and reported feeling constantly hungry and preoccupied with thoughts of eating.

The scientists who conducted the study think they may have some idea why that was. Even a year after the participants stopped dieting and they returned to a regular (healthy) diet, their bodies were behaving like they were starving. Hormones that stimulate the appetite were noticeably elevated and those that suppress hunger were abnormally low.

A whole year after they’d lost a drastic amount of weight their bodies were doing everything it could to push these poor people to eat, eat, eat and gain back whatever weight they’d lost.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that it is even harder to keep weight off once we lose it. Our bodies simply refuse to accept the fact that we have reached a new “normal” weight, and it’s not something that seems to get better with time.

I realize this is not good news, but I’m not looking to make anyone depressed or suggest that trying to lose weight is a bad idea. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. But there are a few points I want to make now that I’ve shared this admittedly downbeat information.

• We can’t consider dieting to be a temporary thing. Fighting obesity is a lifelong process, and people engaged in weight loss need long-term care -- lifetime care, really -- to have a chance to be successful.

• It turns out that losing weight and keeping it off is much harder than staying at a healthy weight from the beginning. We need to be vigilant about keeping our children healthy. Up to a certain age, parents control what their kids eat and (to some extent) how active they are. This information underscores the fact that if we don’t get them started off right they will have a hard time ever recovering their good health.

• People who lose weight and gain it back are not weak. They are human. They are dealing with biological issues that those of us who have not had the same experience can’t begin to understand, and we need to cut them some slack and offer encouragement and not insults.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.

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