There’s no doubt that it’s very common for someone to go through an entire body transformation to finish looking incredible and months later unable to sustain what they’ve achieved. This notion of weight regain affects approximately 80% of people who are said to regain lost weight - all or plus more - within 2 years of losing it (1).
Understanding why: the metabolic maths
While it’s normal for small weight fluctuations, significant weight loss and gain aren’t healthy. Particularly as a female who hormonally cycles through periods of the month whereby weight can increase up to 2.5kg depending on the menstrual cycle. However, cycling through seasons of being various different dress sizes or fluctuating between 5-10kg ranges isn’t ideal.
Kelly Brownell, M.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University says in regard to weight regain post low calorie dieting the reason is:
"The body may perceive dieting as a threat to its survival. It might not know the difference between Atkins and famine"(2).
Brownell, who dubbed the cycle as "yo-yo dieting" in the 1980s, says that weight cycling can actually change your physiology (essentially your metabolic function). So the more diets you've been on, the harder it becomes to lose the weight. The hunger hormone called ghrelin increases, and the fullness hormone called leptin decreases, so you feel hungrier and less satisfied.
Our Equalution client, down 20kgs and 69cm in body measurements. This was achieved through a science-based and flexible diet allowing her to enjoy her favourite foods daily including hot chips, burgers and chocolate, among her lean meats and vegetables.
The body is equipped with defensive reactions to a negative energy balance (calorie deficit) and can restore weight lost, ‘beyond the point of weight restoration’. In other words, there’s a high potential to regain the weight that you lost, and then some. So after you’ve lost weight and sit at your goal body, many of the metabolic adaptations made while in a calorie deficit persist while you aim to maintain your new body weight(3)(4).
This is why rebounds can often occur in conjunction with an increased hunger rate. So restraint and a conscious reverse diet must be practised post dieting to avoid adverse effects, otherwise rapid weight regain will occur like most who regain lost weight within the first 1-5 years. Research has shown that weight gained during this ‘aftermath’ period is stored as fat(5) in conjunction with the susceptibility of adipocyte hyperplasia which is the addition of new fat cells(6) which can facilitate the fat overshooting.
Moreover, every person has a ‘body-fat set point’ which is the body-fat level the body is accustomed to and will attempt to maintain itself. It's highly individual and a number of individuals can have all different set points. This ‘set point’ is based on a range of factors including genetics, activity level, and nutritional habits over the course of their lifetime. Whatever that set point is, the body wants to keep you there as long as it possibly can.
If you drop your caloric intake too quickly, the body will adapt to make fat loss more difficult and these adaptations are made through changes in your metabolism. This is why initial fat when beginning a diet may melt away, however it isn’t long before your body responds by making it a little harder for you to burn calories. This is due to the further you get below your set point, the more efficient your body's energy systems become(7).
The mitochondria, your cellular energy systems, become able to generate more power—more mileage, figuratively—from less fuel. So you become like a super-efficient hybrid sedan which in this case isn’t ideal(8). Your basal metabolic rate lowers and the amount of energy you expend during activity is reduced, and even how much your body burns breaking down food and nutrients decreases(9)(10). So as you get further below this set point you become more efficient and even more efficient if you’re a regular dieter.
Your fat cells shrink, and in the process, they excrete smaller amounts of leptin which (amongst other things) tells you when you're full(11). Interestingly, studies have shown that your levels drop far more than they should, based on the amount of fat you lose, and they stay low even after your weight has stabilised(12). Basically, your body overdoes it, so you rarely feel full or satisfied. At the same time that this fullness hormone is decreasing, ghrelin, the hunger hormone, is increasing(13). So you’re hungrier, less satisfied and are burning fewer calories, see how fat gain can occur?
Understanding why: the psychological reasons
There’s no doubt that dieting is as much a mental challenge as it is physical endurance. These mental challenges and the ‘diet mentality’ can also be a driver to weight regain after a fat loss journey. Restrictive methods, low-calorie dieting inducing extreme hunger, and accumulated cravings all contribute to harvesting mental challenges that disrupt a successful post-diet process.
How many times have you finished a diet or challenge or have reached your weight loss goal and at first thought fantasied about all the food you’re going to enjoy ‘once it over’? This act of overconsumption and/or increased energy intake due to having calorie-dense foods is what makes one susceptible to weight gain post fat loss. Giving in to temptation, feeling like the hard work is done, feeling deserving or like you ‘need’ the reward and knowing that you can always go back to your diet if things get out of hand are some of the psychological justifications that make keeping the weight off a challenge due to facilitating destructive eating behaviours.
Second to this mentality that’s formed from the diet itself is the fact that some people are prone to or genetically built with already underlying psychological susceptibilities to fat gain. This doesn’t necessarily mean that if you’ve come from a family of overweight individuals you’re physically destined to be overweight or that if you do carry weight it is because of your genetics. Instead, it could be a matter of ‘learned fat-making behaviours’, i.e. eating habits, from parents etc. when growing up. Some people then carry these behaviours and mentality towards food and the role it plays in their lives in times of emotional upheaval. Despite fat loss and body transformation success, if the underlying mentalities still exist it can often mean that the corresponding behaviours can lead to weight regain after losses.
How to avoid weight regain
There are a number of things you can do to ensure you’re not prone to joining the majority of people in gaining weight (plus more) back after you’ve lost it. Here are our tips:
1. Reverse diet
Reverse dieting can serve as the bridge between an extensively low-calorie diet and ongoing satiety facilitating uninterrupted maintenance of any fat loss achievements. It can also build your metabolic capacity to a realistic intake for everyday life without jeopardising your body in the process. This strategy is aimed at avoiding rapid fat gain after the diet (body fat overshooting), in light of the immediate post-diet time period where the body is particularly susceptible to fat gain. So, instead of jumping straight back to a ‘normal’ intake consumption or to a huge caloric surplus, reverse dieting refers to gradually increasing caloric intake by progressively adding in calories in conjunction with the body’s response. So the process itself assists in gradually reversing adaptations to weight loss and recovering lean mass, while minimising fat regain(14). The gradual reintroduction of calories avoids the rapid fat gain and body fat overshooting that could make future dieting more difficult and/or an undesirable ‘everyday body’.
2. Understand your metabolic capacity
By knowing your maintenance calories once you’re transitioning to intuitive eating or regaining normal eating post fat loss you can roughly know your daily limit in order to cap your eating. It’s all about balance so if your maintenance is 2000 calories and one day you guess to roughly have hit 2500 you can know to be a little more active during the week or not overeat the following day.
3. Don’t diet restrictively
Restrictive eating or dieting ineffectively has been shown to increase the risk of bingeing and increased overeating due to how it promotes the experience of both psychological and physiological deprivation. The more frequent the cycle is repeated, the more entrenched it can become. Severely restricting food intake can be a very dangerous practice. Not only intake but also foods and food groups too. When the body is starved of food it responds by reducing the rate at which it burns energy (the metabolic rate), and when resulting in a binge it can lead to weight gain due to a sudden increase in calories which can put the individual in surplus weekly(15). When you also place a restriction on yourself as to food you can and can’t have this means of not getting what you want can lead to a blow out caused by rebellion or inability to sustain the strict practice. If your diet is restrictive it can cause you to have regular binges and blowouts which is a sound indication that it’s not a workable means for achievement of your goals.
4. Don’t bandaid relationship with food issues
Don’t use your fat loss to mask binge eating issues, or do a comp prep to lose weight you’ve put on through unhealthy eating behaviours. Even though no one wants to hear that good things take time, it's true. Invest your time in building a better relationship with food, start dieting flexibly and learning how to manage your cravings by incorporating foods you love without having 10 servings and writing the day off. We always advise if you’re binge eating to slightly increase your daily calories and move out of low-calorie dieting to give yourself more flexibility and not feel so deprived. Chances are, mathematically, with the low days + blowouts you’re having it would be more favourable to be on a greater caloric intake daily anyhow.
5. Flexible diet
Flexible dieting has a range of benefits pertaining to both the physical and mental dimensions of fat loss and weight management. Beginning with the strategy, eating according to a calculated daily macronutrient requirement ensures the scientific accountability of meeting your goal requirements without deprivation of both calories and particular macronutrients. Through initial calculations, you’re able to control the severity of your caloric decrease consciously rather than following a cookie-cutter 1000 calorie diet plan with no knowledge of the macronutrients and those that you may be depriving your body of and causing metabolic adaptations. Second to that, once you have your intake requirements you’re able to use a range of unrestricted food groups to meet these requirements removing the adverse mental downfalls of feeling ‘restricted on a diet’. Those who are able to make regular inclusions of their favourite foods avoid uncontrolled blowouts and cheat meals which can hinder fat loss results and also cause significant fat regain after your body transformation. It also gives you the tools on how to eat for life, it’s not an ‘on/off/ way of eating, it will quite literally change your perceptions and behaviours and ensure long term sustainability.
6. Experiment with your intuition
This includes knowing to listen to hunger and full cues but using your intuition and pre-learned knowledge of calories and portion sizes for your meals. Don’t regiment your eating, instead eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. What will help you in this practice is understanding the calorie density of foods and knowing that particular foods can be had in high volumes without costing you a lot of calories while other foods can be/have to be had in smaller volumes. For example, a meat, chips and vegetable meal would mean smaller meat and chip portion while veggies can be used to volumise your meal.
7. Learn how to eat out
Making the right choices when dining out can ensure your dine out meals aren’t serving as a blow out when you socialise or enjoy a meal out.
8. Maintain a healthy and active lifestyle
Generally keeping healthy and active can put you in a good routine and frame of mind to maintain your body transformation efforts. Destructive behaviours like binge eating, drinking etc can promote behaviours that can cause fat gain which can be better helped through leading a healthy life. Being healthy is a real ‘feel-good’ tool, if you’re in a place of good shape and healthy you’re far less likely to derail.
9. Keep yourself in check
Implement methods of keeping yourself in check and not going down a path of weight gain. Don’t weigh yourself daily - this isn’t healthy, but it won’t hurt to step on the scales every once in a while to understand if there’s been an unhealthy fluctuation that needs addressing. Taking progress photos and every so often tracking your day’s worth of food to see what sort of intake you’re taking in are other ways to check yourself before you wreck yourself!
10. Keep accountable, seek professional help
A professional in this context like our Equalution team can:
- Strategise your intake requirements for optimum results and ensure your metabolic capacity is not harmed in the process. Also strategise the intricate reverse diet process.
- Customise your intake rather than you following a cookie-cutter low-calorie deficit that is far below your body’s needs making you susceptible to fat regain.
- Give you the tools to integrate your lifestyle so you don’t fall into an on/off cycle.
- Support you on your journey with positive encouragement and setting expectations.
- Aid you in emergency situations that are likely to cause deviations.
- Keep you accountable.
When dieting for fat loss, for a better experience during and post we recommend a reasonable and ‘safe’ deficit and conservation of sound mental health done through a flexible dieting method. If you wish to get started on such a method which is customised to your requirements and food preferences get in touch today!
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4. Rosenbaum M, Hirsch J, Gallagher DA, and Leibel RL. Long-term persistence of adaptive thermogenesis in subjects who have maintained a reduced body weight. The American journal of clinical nutrition 88: 906-912, 2008.
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11. Löfgren, P., Hoffstedt, J., Näslund, E., Wiren, M., & Arner, P. (2005). Prospective and controlled studies of the actions of insulin and catecholamine in fat cells of obese women following weight reduction. Diabetologia, 48(11), 2334-2342.
12. MacLean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology's response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301(3), R581-R600.
14. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, and Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 11: 7, 2014.
Yours in Health & Fitness,
The Equalution Team