• Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

Are Diets Making You Fatter?

A Guide to Sustained Weight Loss

Losing weight is easy. A lot of people are able to successfully achieve weight loss at some point in their lives. However, very few are able to maintain their weight loss over time.

Within one year of losing a significant amount of weight, over 80% of individuals gain it back (1). After three years, this number increases to almost 95% (2,3). Of those that relapse, about two-thirds actually end up gaining back more weight than they had initially lost in the first place, leaving them heavier than they were before (4). This would suggest that, in many individuals, diets are in fact making them fatter in the long-run.

Often times, the process of weight loss and weight regain can end up repeating itself in a non-stop cycle of yo-yo dieting that extends decades into life.

Overall, when you consider the statistics, diets have a less than a 5% success rate past three-years. This data demonstrates that our real problem isn’t losing weight, it’s keeping it off. Why is weight loss so hard to maintain in the long-run and what can we do about it?

In this blog we'll highlights some of the reasons why weight regain occurs and discusses different dieting techniques that can be used to promote healthier, more sustained, and long-term success.

Body Fat Settling Point

There are a number of different factors, psychological, environmental, and physiological, that contribute to both weight loss plateaus and weight regain. However, for the most part, this phenomenon can be explained by a concept referred to as “body fat settling point”.

The concept of body fat settling point refers to the body’s tendency to achieve and maintain a consistent bodyweight, and more specifically, a consistent level of bodyfat, over time. Once you establish a stable settling point and remain there for a duration of months or years, the body is very resistant to changes. In fact, it will actively defend against deviations from this bodyweight and bodyfat level. This, in part, is what makes dieting and losing weight so hard in the first place.

The phenomenon of body fat settling point is best illustrated using the example of a thermostat.

Thermostats function to maintain a consistent room temperature. When a thermostat senses a deviation in temperature from your selected set point, say 68 degrees, it initiates a response that is aimed to correct the deviation. If the room temperature drops below 68 degrees, it activates the heat. If the room temperature increases above 68 degrees, it activates the air-conditioning. Just like a thermostat works to maintain a constant room temperature, the body works to maintain a somewhat consistent bodyweight and level of body fatness.

The Body's Response to Dieting

Like a thermostat uses air conditioning and heat to regulate temperature, the body uses appetite, metabolic rate, and changes in physical activity to regulate bodyweight.

When weight loss occurs, the body perceives that there is an energy imbalance occurring, and more specifically, that the number of the calories coming in from the diet are not sufficiently meeting the needs of the body’s energy expenditure. Therefore, in order to correct the imbalance and restore energy equilibrium, the body adapts by not only lowering its expenditure but by attempting to increase its calorie intake.

It does this via changes in appetite, metabolic rate, and physical activity. In our more primitive ancestors, these adaptations functioned as a defense mechanism against starvation. In today’s day and age, they make dieting and losing weight a very difficult task.

Below is a quick summary of what happens to appetite, metabolism, and physical activity as you depart from your bodyfat settling point;

Hunger and food cravings increase

In order to increase calorie intake, the brain increases not only our hunger signals, but it sensitizes our food reward systems, making foods taste better and appear more desirable to consume. Thus, when we diet and lose weight we tend to experience both hunger and food cravings.

Your metabolism slows

In order to bring energy expenditure down, the body adapts by slowing its metabolism, effectively lowering the number of calories that are required to undertake its basic life sustaining processes.

Metabolic adaptation, as it is termed, is defined as a decline in energy expenditure that is not predicted by weight loss alone. It can account for up to a 10-15% drop in total daily energy expenditure, meaning that as you lose weight, your body may actually end up burning about 200-400 calories less per day at a given weight, depending on your genetics. This not only makes it harder to achieve continued weight loss, but it makes you much more susceptible to weight regain.

You burn less calories from physical activity

In an attempt to conserve energy and lower energy expenditure, the body becomes more economical and efficient during physical activity and exercise, burning less calories for a given activity than it used to. Essentially, you go from being a non-fuel efficient, 10 miles per gallon semi-truck, to a very economical 50 miles per gallon smart car.

Not only are you more efficient during physical activity, but you do less of it unconsciously. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, is used to describe all of the physical activities that you do on a daily basis other than that of formal exercise. This includes fidgeting, walking to and from your car at work, shopping, cooking, and playing with your kids.

When we lose weight and depart from our body fat settling point, NEAT levels tend to drop markedly and we unconsciously begin burning fewer calories throughout the day. Often times, we’re rather unaware of this decline in activity as it simply gets perceived as increased fatigue or laziness. Think of that sluggish feeling you get after dieting for a while.

Where you really get into trouble

The degree to which these adaptations occur is in proportion to how fast you lose weight, how much weight that you lose, and how lean that you get. This is why weight loss tends to get exponentially harder the longer that you diet, the more weight that you lose, and the leaner that you become. As you lose weight and move further away from your body fat settling point, it’s almost as if you’re pulling on a rubber band, building more and more tension and resistance as you go further from the start point.

Combine the effects of increased hunger, reduce metabolism, and lowered physical activity with psychological burnout, diet fatigue, stress, environmental pressures, and life obstacles, and you’ve created the perfect storm for weight loss plateaus and weight regain.

As you can see, the concept of bodyfat settling point can be very problematic for long-term weight loss. Not only is it problematic, but its unavoidable. This becomes blaringly obvious when you consider the rather grim statistics concerning dietary success and weight loss maintenance that were mentioned earlier. While the adaptive effects of weight loss cannot be avoided completely, there are many ways to minimize and manage them, helping you to achieve more sustained weight loss.

What can you do?

Below is a list of general guidelines to follow while dieting and losing weight;

1. Lose weight at an appropriate rate

The harder that you diet and the faster that you drift from your bodyfat settling point, the harder that your body will adapt and push back. One of the keys to successful dieting is doing it in a way that allows you to eat as much food as possible while still making measurable progress toward your goal. It’s important to consider the big picture and think long-term. Everyone wants to lose weight as fast as possible. However, your long-term success relies on what you are able to sustain over the course of months, not just over the course of one week or a few days. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s probably best to lose anywhere between 0.5-1.0% of your bodyweight per week. If you’re at a higher bodyfat percentage (about 15% and higher), err towards the higher end of that range. If you’re already fairly lean, stick more toward the lower end.

2. Take regular diet breaks and maintenance phases

A diet break is a temporary period of time in which you purposely increase calorie intake in a controlled and strategic manner. During this period of time, your goal is to take a break from losing weight and focus on maintaining the bodyweight that you’ve achieved thus far. For this reason, diet breaks are also referred to as maintenance phases. Taking regular diet breaks can help to prevent, and possibly even reverse, some of the negative side effects of weight loss. They can help to lower hunger levels, increase your NEAT, restore your metabolic rate, and most importantly, give you a psychological break from rigors of dieting.

The more regularly that you take diet breaks and the longer that they are in duration, the more effective that they are. However, it’s unrealistic and rather impractical to take a diet break every other week or diet break for years at a time. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to take a diet break every 10-12 weeks of dieting or after losing about 10% of your bodyweight.

A diet break should be no shorter than 1-2 weeks in duration. Any shorter and you’re missing out on the benefits. The best recommendation is to have your diet breaks last about as long as your previous weight loss phase. In other words, if you dieted and lost weight consistently for 12-weeks, then take a 12-week diet break at maintenance. The longer that you spend at your new bodyweight, the better that your body will adapt and stabilize it. The ultimate goal of weight loss is to establish a new bodyfat settling point that is lower than your previous one. That’s the key to sustained weight loss. Otherwise, you end up go right back to your old weight.

As a side note, diet breaks are not meant to be completely restriction free all-out food binges. You still have to practice some dietary restraint so that you don’t end up gaining all ther weight back that you had previously lost. Control the number of calories that you consume and continue to implement healthy eating habits. Most importantly, go into your diet breaks with a plan so that you don’t end up losing control or direction.

3. Schedule dieting around your life

Plan your dieting phases around holidays, vacations, difficult work seasons, and life obstacles. These are great times to schedule diet breaks because they give you more flexibility with your diet and allow you extra calories to play with. Trying to maintain a successful diet through life events such as these can be very difficult. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Also, it’s important not to lose scope of your life priorities and forget about the things that matter the most. Dieting shouldn’t come at the expense of your social life, career, and psychological health.

4. Stay active

Active people with higher energy fluxes tend to be better at maintaining a lower bodyfat settling point. The less physically active that an individual is, generally, the worse they are at regulating their bodyweight. Try to stay as active as possible, both inside and outside the gym.

Try to implement a little more physical activity into your daily routines. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park a little further away at the grocery store, walk to work, and try to sit less. Aim for about 150-minutes of low-to-moderate intensity aerobic activity per week. This could be as simple as a light 20-minute walk or bike ride each day. Additionally, try to perform some type of resistance training or weight lifting at least 2-3x per week. Resistance training is by far the most beneficial type of exercise to perform during weight loss as it prevents the loss of muscle and lean body mass and helps to direct weight loss from fat tissue.

5. Utilize a flexible dieting approach

Try not to enforce overly restrictive diets. Diets that involve the complete restriction of certain foods and macronutrients are extremely hard to sustain over long periods of time. Additionally, they can cause you to develop some poor relationships with food and can form rather unhealthy eating behaviors.

Try to find a dietary approach that you can adopt as a lifestyle and not just as a temporary way of eating. Ask yourself this, “do I see myself eating this way one year from now?”. If you don’t answer yes to that question, then it probably isn’t the diet for you. Additionally, if you feel like you need to cheat on your diet, then it probably isn’t the one for you. Would you propose marriage to someone that you feel the need to cheat on? The same goes with your dietary approach.

Flexible approaches that practice inclusive eating, as opposed to exclusive eating, tend to promote far better long-term weight loss success. The truth is, there are no foods or macronutrients that you need to restrict completely from your diet. Be flexible with your food selection and allow your diet to fit your preferences and lifestyle. Remember, you have to stick with this diet for a long time in order to be successful, so it better be something that you can sustain. Often times, weight regain tends to coincide with an individual’s inability to sustain a certain way of eating. You might lose a bunch of weight doing a very restrictive diet for a short period of time, but what happens when you decide to stop.


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