Many of us strive to stick to a healthful diet in January while we attempt to shed those extra pounds we gained in December. We'll probably even succeed in reaching a more satisfying weight — but can we keep this up?
Strict calorie counting, giving up alcohol for the whole of January, and eating more fruit and veg — we put ourselves through this ordeal for the sake of feeling fitter, more attractive, and in better health.
When we reach our weight goals, we celebrate our success and mark the date in our calendar — but is this achievement doomed to being short-lived?
Researchers from the University of Florida in Gainesville have recently set out to learn just how long we can maintain weight loss for, and their findings aren't very optimistic.
Kathryn Ross — who is an assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions — and her team hypothesized that following conventional assumptions, after a person experiences significant weight loss, there is a "limbo" period of weight loss maintenance before that person starts to put on weight again.
However, their working hypothesis was not verified.
"We had expected to see some sort of overall maintenance phase and while there is a lot of individual variability — there were participants who were able to maintain their weight and even some who were able to keep losing — on average, that wasn't the case. They started regaining weight right away."
The study findings were published in the journal Obesity.
Many of us cannot maintain weight loss
The question that the researchers were interested in addressing, however, was how long it took for people to start regaining weight. Although they first believed in a "period of grace" in which people maintained their new weight before relapsing, the current study proved the researchers wrong.
The team worked with 75 participants who all completed a 12-week, Internet-based weight loss programme. Through this programme, the participants managed to shed 12.7 pounds (which is around 5.7 kilograms), or a pound (0.4 kilograms) per week, on average.
Following this weight loss achievement, Ross and her colleagues asked the study participants to continue to weigh themselves every day over a period of 9 months. They were able to do so from the comfort of their own homes with the help of "smart scales," which were capable of relaying the data remotely "to research servers via wireless or cellular networks."
The scientists note that, approximately 77 days from the beginning of the study, the participants started to experience weight regain, putting on approximately 0.15 pounds (or 0.07 kilograms) per week.
After approximately 222 days from the start of the programme, weight regain rate slowed down somewhat, with participants only putting on about 0.13 pounds (0.06 kilograms) each week.
Of the initial 75 participants, the researchers based their final analysis on the data sourced from 70 of them. The data from the other 5 participants were disregarded, as they were incomplete.
Why do we rebound, how can we avoid it?
Now, the researchers are dedicated to pinpointing what the riskiest periods for weight regain are, so that they can build strategies for prevention and weight loss maintenance.
From this study, it is unclear why the participants started to regain weight so soon after the weight loss programme. Nevertheless, Ross and her team speculate that their social environment — with so many temptations and encouraging people to indulge in unhealthful eating habits — may have something to do with it.
"We're surrounded by easy opportunities to get high-calorie, high-fat foods and it is hard for a lot of folks to build activity into their day," she warns.
In other words, once we achieve our weight loss goals, we're satisfied enough with our progress to cave in to the same temptations that led to being an unhealthy weight in the first place.
She does offer some encouragement, noting that weight regain is not a hard and fast rule. She says that some dieters remain successful and do not put the extra weight back on after the initial weight loss achievement.
For those of us interested in keeping up our progress, Ross has a few tips meant to help us stay on track.
First, she "encourage[s] folks to weigh themselves daily. This allows you to see how the changes you're making in your eating and activity are impacting your weight," she adds.
She also "urge[s] people to look at the trends [in their weight maintenance journey] and not so much the day-to-day variation."
When it comes to adjusting back to a higher caloric intake after a weight loss diet, Ross advises that we only add an extra 100 calories per day. Then, we should continue to keep tabs on our weight and modify our caloric intake accordingly.
"There is not a huge difference between the number of calories people are eating when they hit their goal weight versus what they need to maintain," Ross says.
We should also remember that maintaining a healthy weight isn't all about dieting. Exercise is just as important to keeping our body in shape, so we shouldn't forget to incorporate that into our regime — and keep at it.