Why Do Dieters Gain Their Weight Back?

Success and DietsBefore we get into this I want to be clear that even if there were research showing that sustained weight loss is possible for most people (and there’s not) and even if there were research showing that weight loss (and not simply behavior changes regardless of weight change) increases the odds for health (and there’s not) fat people would still not have any obligation to attempt to be thin.  I also don’t want to oversimplify – people are lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons and our body size is nobody else’s business unless we ask them to make it their business.

The reason I want to talk about this is because I think that one of the persistent myths that allows the diet industry to increase their profits every year with a product that doesn’t work is the idea that  “well, people gain the weight back because they just go back to their old habits!” (Of course in this case “their old habits” means not putting their body into a state of starvation so that it will consume itself and become smaller, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

The thing about intentional weight loss is that research shows that almost everyone can lose weight short term, but then almost everyone gains it back – with the majority of people gaining back more than they lost. Weight loss companies make money by taking credit for the first part and blaming the client for the second part. When I was in school they taught us that if most of the kids failed the test, then the problem was probably the teacher and not the students.  So if only a tiny fraction of people are able to maintain weight loss, is it really believable that the product works but almost everybody is just too weak-willed to do it? Or is it more likely that the product doesn’t work and the very few people who are able to be “successful” are held up (wrongly) as proof of efficacy rather than (correctly) as exceptions? Consider this:

Your body doesn’t understand that there is a certain size and shape that brings with it an increased social capital.  Your body can’t imagine a situation in which it is hungry and there is food, but you won’t feed it. And so when your body is hungry but you ignore it, it assumes that there is no food available. Your body is like “No problem, I’ve evolved to survive famine let me just get those systems online. I’ll just get started lowering our metabolism.” (In my mind your body talks like JARVIS from the Ironman movies, but that’s neither here nor there I suppose.)

In the meantime, you go run on a treadmill. Your body now thinks that there is a famine and you have to run from bears. But your body is like “No problem, I’ve got this.” So it lowers your metabolism even more, drops calorically expensive “extra” muscle, floods the body with hunger hormones (since, what with the famine and the running from bears, it wants to make sure that you don’t forget to eat) and it holds back hormones that tell you that you are full. Basically, your body is hard at work doing everything it can to lower the amount of food that you need to live and store as much food as it can.

At the end of this process your body is biologically different than it was when you started. Your body has now turned into a weight gaining, fat storing, weight maintaining machine, biologically different than a body that has never dieted, and likely with a new set point weight – higher than your original weight – that your body is trying to maintain because it now is worried that there will be another famine and bear situation. Bodies are still biologically different even a year or more after someone stops dieting.

So it might be less about people “just going back to their old habits” and have more to do with the idea that keeping yourself in a state of starvation (dieting requires that you eat less fuel than you need so that your body will consume itself and become smaller) is unsustainable, especially when the body reacts by working as hard as it can to get you to eat more and to store all the food it can.

For whatever reason, at the end of the day, nobody can produce research for any intentional weight loss method (call it a diet, call it a lifestyle change, call it whatever) that succeeds in the long term for more than a tiny fraction of people, meaning that even if a doctor thinks it will make us healthier it still does not meet the requirement of ethical, evidence-based medicine (since it has, you know, the exact opposite of the intended effect almost all of the time.)

Of course people are allowed to try to intentionally manipulate their body size if they want, but I think people deserve to know that the most likely outcome of intentional weight loss is weight gain, and not necessarily for the reasons we’ve been told. “Just don’t go back to your old habits!” seems like something we can control.  “Just change your body biologically back to how it was before you dieted!” not so much.

If we are looking to increase our odds for health (knowing that health is not an obligation, a barometer of worthiness, entirely within our control, or guaranteed under any circumstances) there is no evidence to suggest that intentional weight loss will help with that, and there are evidence-based ways to support our health that don’t involve self-created famine or bear attack scenarios.  We each get to make choices but it would be nice if we weren’t bombarded with so much bad “information” along the way.

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Published in: on March 5, 2015 at 11:02 am  Comments (29)  

29 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is great. I love the mental image of JARVIS saying “Oh there’s a famine and we’re running from bears? I have systems for that, let me bring them online.” It would be nice if giving verbal commands to our bodies were as effective as giving them to an advanced artificially-intelligent computer… But I can definitely imagine our bodies coming back with some pointed sarcastic comments if we asked them not to bring these systems online while die-ting.

  2. This is my favorite post you have written to date. It is literally every conversation point rolled into one concise, well written article. Bravo.

  3. I can’t help wonder what folks’ weights would be at (including mine) if nobody had ever pestered us about our weight and started the weight-cycling.

    • Me too.

      • me too

    • I’m pretty sure that, had I never challenged my body with famine-bears, I’d not only be thinner, but also taller, since I started my famine-bearing before I hit puberty.

      Thanks for this article, Ragen! It so perfectly sums it all up! And from now on, every time I hear the word “diet,” I will be picturing ravenous bears, searching for scarce food in a famine.

      • I too started before puberty. I was put on those diet shakes as a child. They tasted awful and made me feel like puking, so I never finished a whole can, or even half a can.

    • I was born later in the family to somewhat older parents, so I have access to pictures of my female relatives – mom, grandmas, great aunts etc. Most were farm women and the generations before my mom did not have the social pressure to be thin at all ages. I doubt if any of them dieted. From those pictures I believe my natural weight would have been 200 – 230 pounds. Dieting has added probably 70 to a hundred more pounds to my frame. I was going to be fat no matter what, but the size I am now is courtesy of societal stigma, the profit motive, and pressure from those who only had my best interests at heart.

      • Many of my relatives are also heavy, going back a couple of generations, but not all of them. I know some of my stress in life had to do with being criticized about many things (not just) by family members, including my mom. As all of that contributed to my general unhappiness and occasional attempts to lose weight, I really can’t be sure where my weight would have been if I’d not done any weight loss attempts and hadn’t been so unhappy in my teens and twenties. I’m sure it would still have been higher than socially acceptable, but it might have been thirty or more pounds less.

        Not to mention how nice it would be not to occasionally stress out around food.

        • Wow I relate so much here! I never thought I could have been taller and I actually never thought I was probably not fed enough when I was a kid because of the fear I would be fatter. I was actually chubby but not fat at all and had a bigger frame than my mother’s side family which freaked them out… I have always been “heavier” than I look and I can fit in smaller clothes than other people that weighs the same so my weight was a concern even if not so much my size… Both my siblings on my father’s side (which I met as an adult) are way taller and have a bigger frame than me and they told me it came from my father’s side… makes a lot of sense that I didn’t grow as much…

  4. The bears! I love this so much. I wish I had read this before I started my first diet, lo these many years ago. Thanks, Ragen!

  5. I’d like to think that my body sounds like Emily Dickinson when it talks, but who knows?

    The diet/weightloss/Big Diet companies never seem to produce a study that indicates that most people keep weight off beyond two years..and yet doctors either don’t seem to know about this or don’t pay attention.

  6. Ragen, this is a perfect explanation of what happens to our bodies on a weight loss diet. I couldn’t have explained it better myself!

    I have friends that have weight cycled for years yet still say to others, “Just eat less and move more” like this is the weight loss cure-all, even though it has not even worked for them. Our bodies are amazing at trying to save us from our self-imposed famines!

    My body’s voice sounds like KITT from Knightrider…

  7. I have spent the better part of my life exercising and eating for weight loss and yet at my adult height, I could never get below the 200lb bench mark. To put it in perspective, the CDC recommends 2.5 hours a week of moderate physical activity a week to stay healthy. I’m at four times that a week and no one would argue when I call myself fat. For a long time I thought it meant that I was abnormal and still not healthy because I’ve never been thin. Then I found your book and your blog and while I’m not yet ready to give up all up trying to lose weight (emotionally) it makes me feel less crazy. Thank you for being a bright spot in an otherwise dark Internet. Maybe one day, I’ll let the statistics sink in and find some self acceptance. Until then, thank you.

  8. Wow, this is so true. Last June, I had knee surgery. I was truly not very hungry for several months after the surgery and lost some weight quite effortlessly. Within about two months of surgery, I was back to taking long walks almost every day and biking on my stationary bike–something I hadn’t been able to do for years.

    I have continued to stay quite active (within the limits my body will allow) and have gone back to my regular eating pattern–which, just as a point of reference, has always been quite moderate, in other words I don’t starve myself, but I rarely eat large amounts. I just try to eat in a way that feels comfortable for me.

    I must admit that I am somewhat under the tyranny of the scale. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the way it is. I have a Fitbit, which I use mostly to keep track of how many steps I take in the course of a day, but I do loosely track my weight. And wouldn’t you know it, I’m back at exactly the same weight I was one year ago.

    Yes, the body knows what it’s doing and it wins out.

  9. The scientifically curious part of me wonders what the difference is in people that do experience lasting weight loss. I would guess that they actually have abnormal sympathetic/parasympathetic responses and that they would have been the first to starve during famine and first to be eaten by the bear.

    • Some of the 5% people have shared their “secret.” They continue to starve themselves and exercise, several times as much as a person of the same weight and height who has never dieted. You see, they are still running from those famine-bears! They just keep doing it for the rest of their miserable lives.

      Basically, in order to simply MAINTAIN, they have to continue to fight those famine-bears and diet forever. Not “live a healthy new lifestyle.” No, they have to restrict their calories to less than their body needs, while exercising for hours on end, and make weight-maintenance literally a full-time job. But because they had been fat, and they are simply maintaining, and not continuing to lose, people think they are fine, and not living a life of disordered eating and excessive exercise.

      Also, they don’t seem very happy. But then again, living in a state of perpetual hunger pains and exhaustion will do that to you.

      • I tried five times to write a reply, but all I got is “that’s horrific” Now I’m going to eat cookies and watch funny animals.

      • This!! Of the people I know who fall into this category, they also seem to have just gotten.. really annoying about it. It seems like the only way you can keep up that sort of weight loss, when your body is working against you, is to build your life around it in every way possible. To talk about it incessantly. I am sure that’s why systems like Advocare are so popular.. it’s not even just about making money off of a ridiculous product, it’s that YOU have to get yourself excited about it, to convince yourself that it works. You have to be evangelical about it, you have to build your life around it. Ninafel mentions below that many people she knows who fit this bill are gluten-free/vegan/etc. I think the people who are most likely to keep the weight off are a) building their lives around it and b) have convinced themselves that whatever they are avoiding is absolute poison.

    • Some are people who gained weight due to a temporary situation so they’re able to drop the gained weight (pregnancy, medication, restricted movement, actual excess calories, etc). My brother was made to put weight on in the military since he’s the naturally really thin and wiry type and they thought his body fat was too low and as soon as he wasn’t eating 4000 calories a day he dropped it and went back to his previous set point.

      • That makes sense.

      • I was going to say this, too!

        I don’t think that the following qualifies as diet talk but please let me know if I’m wrong..

        I gained 50 pounds in college. We had been poor growing up, and my mom was on allthediets, so usually our meals consisted of broiled chicken and veggies (blech). So when I got to college, there was all this delicious food on campus, in hundreds of varieties, and easy access to Ben and Jerry’s pints (almost nightly) on a meal card, and I just ate and ate and ate. So I gained a lot of weight very quickly. Eventually I “changed my habits” and lost weight. I thought I’d found the “secret” myself, until years later after reading many fat acceptance blogs/lots of diet research, when I realized that I’d only had that weight on me for a few years.. so it was easier to take off. I realized I hadn’t “found the secret” so much as I was likely genetically predisposed to being thinner.

        What also made me realize this was taking an SSRI. I gained back almost all of the weight I’d “kept off” for 8 years. I read in researching SSRIs that many people who gain weight on them drop it shortly after quitting them. This was not my experience. But, I think that especially since a lot of doctors are still in denial about SSRIs or even other meds causing weight gain — “you’re just HAPPY again!!” (because depressed people aren’t known for overeating..)–many people might attribute their weight loss after dropping an SSRI to “making lifestyle changes.” And even the NWCR just requires a weight loss of 30 pounds.. it doesn’t say anything about how you got the weight in the first place.

  10. Great talking points. And like Michelle puts so well, everyone I know who has lost weight and not gained it back (often plus more) is someone who keeps herself in a constant state of starvation, speeding herself up with coffee and/or diet cola and eating very rigidly. I notice some use the excuse of being vegan, or gluten-free, to explain why they won’t eat what others are eating. Several of these women I’m familiar with find it uncomfortable even to be in the presence of others who are eating normally. A number of them shop obsessively for clothes, which seems like it’s part of a vicious circle.

    On the other hand, I also know a few naturally thin people who have never dieted and seem to stay thin while eating plenty.

  11. Even if we assume that the problem is that people go back to their old habits- that if only they were to maintain their diet for the rest of their life- why do we say “the problem is just those lazy individuals don’t have enough will power!” and not “this is not something people can sustain. There is something psychologically draining about dieting that people cannot, typically, sustain that activity long term”. We are just so committed to the idea that being over one’s idealized weight is a personal failing, that we are unwilling to say that if the vast majority of people cannot maintain something long term, maybe the problem is bigger than individuals and maintaining that long term is not a reasonable goal.

    I also think it goes to what people imagine in terms of “their past behaviors”. Because people have this stereotyped image in their head of fat constantly gorging themselves on fast food and other “junk” food. When in reality, for a lot of people, going back to their old habits likely means returning to eating real foods (for those on diets that consist only of special shakes or special meals through a company), not counting every calorie, and enjoying eating out on occasion with family or at special events. Which are not themselves bad behaviors. Those are bad things to go back to.

    I’ve done the yo-yo dieting thing. And everytime I get the “diet fatigue”- that point when it’s just exhausting to keep going with this constant obsession over food and numbers- tracking calories, macro nutrients, micro nutrients, redoing calculations constantly to make adjustments, which of course means tracking weight, making graphs to compare changes over time, as well as tracking a variety of body measurements.
    At a certain point it’s obvious this is just not sustainable behavior for me.
    And I’m sick of people acting like that’s a bad thing. The truth is, there is nothing bad about just eating a normal healthy diet without entering every bite into mfp so you can constantly obsess over the numbers. There is nothing wrong with eating out on special occasions and at special events and not freaking out over the food choices and getting stressed because there is no way to get the accurate nutritional information from this catering company so you don’t know for sure if it’s “ok” to eat.

    So yeah, I’m back to my old habits of just eating healthy foods when I’m hungry (and not eating when I’m not hungry- so over diet advice that says you have to eat breakfast even if you aren’t hungry), and even if there are certain things I try to stick to, not being stressed out if on rare occasions I eat differently.

    • Oh, wow, ebay! You actually tracked nutrients?

      All the diets I ever tried, and I mean EVER, I never tracked nutrients. When I was on Weight Watchers (both times), they told me to track my water intake, dairy intake, and POINTS. Never actual nutrients, though. There was no space on the tracking sheet for tracking actual nutrition. Apparently, getting enough water and dairy was supposed to be enough.

      And the “milkshake” diets? Well, the things were fortified with some of the stuff a person needs, but as for the rest, well, I suppose that was supposed to come from pills, because it certainly wasn’t supposed to come from the salad I ate for dinner.

      And then there were the “cleanses,” where I got my fill of fiber, but nutrition? Forget it!

      And so, each time I dieted, I wound up with these really weird cravings, like really craving bananas, or really craving tomatoes, or really craving chicken, or really craving some other very specific food. Not junk food. REAL food. And my body needed something in it. But was I supposed to give in to the cravings and listen to what my body needed? Nope. After all, that would be weak and lazy, and it’s really all about calories, don’t you know.

      Because ignoring nutrition in favor of calories in versus spent is healthy. (sarcasm)

  12. There are times when I’ve had the most evil fantasy:

    Famine breaks out over the entire world. And then all watch as the ‘beautiful’ people succumb to starvation while the fat persons carry on. Then we come to appreciate why nature programmed our genes to function as they do. Course, those who need the lesson here won’t be around to see it (yeah, the only flaw to my little fantasy).

    A long time ago, I was told about a woman who had destroyed her metabolism via dieting such that she found that she would gain weight if she consumed anything beyond 600 calories per day. Pure Hell, I would think, if she tried to exist on those paltry 600 calories a day. But, when fen-phen was popular, she got on that and found she could eat normally – without weight gain. She was very happy. And then they withdrew fen-phen. I don’t know what happened with her. And this is what I’m expected to do to myself so as not have folks lecture me on my eating/exercise habits? Can’t think of a more perfect way to combat those you hate than to have them harm themselves. Who created this madness?

  13. For real, I am going to print out multiple copies of this post and leave them in random public places so everyone can see the science behind the almost-inevitable “failure” of dieting. Brava, Ragen.

  14. I literally destroyed my body with dieting… and when regular dieting no longer worked, I developed bullimia. But still with the HOURS of exercise and excessive food restriction, I never lost any weight because of course, I would binge eat to compensate for all the exercising and restricting I was doing. I received treatment for my ED and am now just eating what I like – and guess what – I’m actually losing weight because my body no longer thinks it’s in a famine.

    • Congratulations on getting the treatment you need, and making your body happy. I hope you stay happy, at whatever weight your body decides is right for you.


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