Why Is it So Hard to Maintain My Ideal Body Weight?
We’ve all got a number in our heads. For some of us, it’s the 10 more pounds we want to lose to hit our ideal body weights. For others, it’s a pant size. Still others have their eyes set on a number that will get them to a “healthy” body mass index.
But even if we reach our ideal body weights, staying there is a whole other issue. Research from the University of California at Los Angeles shows that as many as two-thirds of people who lose weight gain it all back — and then some — within a handful of years.
For a long time, researchers and dieters alike explained the conundrum through set point theory — the idea that each body is genetically programmed to maintain a certain weight. Trying to fight this was considered futile.
However, current research, including one Disease Models and Mechanisms review explains that the set point theory is too simplistic. It states that weight is more likely determined by a number of setting points, which have to do with epigenetics — basically, how our environment interacts with our genes. After all, the fact of the matter is that our environment has become increasingly more obesogenic (obesity-promoting) in past decades. And as humans, our genetics haven’t changed much in that time, but our weights sure have.
So then why is keeping the weight off so hard? Just because of all the fast food joints out there?
It’s not that simple either.
“The human body loves homeostasis,” explains Wesley Delbridge, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It likes to stay where it is, and the longer you are at a certain weight, the more your body gets accustomed to being at that weight.”
Unfortunately, for the 70.7 percent of U.S. adults who are overweight or obese, that means the body gets accustomed to a weight that is higher than is healthy. So, when you begin to cut calories and lose weight, the body assumes that you must be starving. To compensate, it lowers your metabolic rate. Presto chango, you are no longer in a caloric deficit.
In fact, research from Columbia University shows that when you lose at least 10 percent of your body weight, your metabolism significantly lowers. This decline is far more than what would be predicted based on weight and body composition alone. (The lighter you are, the lower your metabolic rate naturally is. It takes less fuel to power a smaller body.) Case in point: “The Biggest Loser study,” which found that the average contestant’s resting metabolic rate was 499 calories lower than it should have been for a person of his or her size.
A lowered metabolism is a huge issue in people who lose muscle, typically as a result of cutting calories too severely. “Losing muscle is the leading cause of weight regain in my patients,” says San Diego bariatric surgeon Julie Ellner, M.D. That’s because your body’s muscle mass determines, in large part, how much fuel (a.k.a. calories) your body burns through on any given day.
Furthermore, hormonal changes stoke your appetite and hunger levels to make weight regain even more likely, says Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., a board-certified family and bariatric physician, diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine and author of The Fat Loss Prescription. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when 50 overweight adults followed a low-cal diet for 10 weeks, their levels of hunger-regulating hormones including ghrelin, YY, and insulin were out of whack even a year later. Levels of leptin, which helps you feel full and prevents cravings, were found to decrease during the weight-loss period.
So What’s Your Ideal Body Weight, Really?
Ask most doctors, and they’ll refer to a body mass index (BMI) chart to determine your ideal body weight. But, since it only takes height, weight, and sex into account, it’s anything but perfect. “There are some guys out there who are in great shape, but their BMIs are going to say that they are overweight because they are short or muscular,” Delbridge says.
In fact, according to a 2016 International Journal of Obesity study of more than 40,000 adults, nearly half of all overweight individuals — including 29 percent of people who are obese and 16 percent of people who are severely obese — were found to be metabolically healthy, despite having high BMIs. Meanwhile, more than 30 percent of study participants with “healthy” BMIs had poor cardiometabolic health, potentially causing them to experience issues like insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and hypertension.
Better indicators of body composition and health include waist-to-hip ratio, waist circumference, and body fat percentage. Your waist is an important reflection of overall fitness because visceral fat (a.k.a. belly fat), which sits in and around the organs, has a much larger impact on overall health than fat that accumulates in other areas of the body. One study published in the journal Diabetes found that waist-to-hip ratio was positively and significantly associated with the risk for diabetes in 792 men observed over a span of 13 years.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, your risk of chronic disease increases if you have a waist circumference greater than 35 inches (women) or 40 inches (men).
If you want to get more precise with your measurements, you can look at your body fat percentage. A skin caliper makes it easy to measure your body fat, and track your progress over time.
“The goal should be to maintain a healthy ratio between fat mass and fat-free mass,” says Ellner. The American College of Sports Medicine says a healthy body fat range is 20 to 32 percent in women and 10 to 22 percent for men.
Keep in mind: No two people’s “ideals” are going to be exactly the same.
“There is no real ideal weight,” Nadolsky says. “I prefer to use the term ‘best weight,’ which is a term coined by doctors Arya Sharma and Yoni Freedhoff. Basically it’s the lowest healthiest weight you can maintain while still being happy.”
Delbridge agrees. “You know when you’re at your healthiest weight when you feel your best physically as well as emotionally and mentally,” he says. “In the end, it’s about listening to your body.”
Once you’ve reached the healthy weight that’s right for you, the next challenge is sticking relatively close to that weight.
3 Strategies for Keeping Off Weight You’ve Lost
1. Build Muscle
Muscle keeps your metabolism up and makes it easier to maintain your new, lower weight. To prevent muscle loss as you’re losing weight, a 2015 Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism review recommends getting about 25 percent of your daily calories from protein.
So, if you eat 1,600 calories per day, that would work out to 400 calories or 100 grams of protein. (Each gram of protein packs four calories.) Study authors note that eating this higher amount of quality protein may help prevent weight regain.
To build muscle, consume between .5 and .9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (and no more than about 25 grams per meal).
Pair a healthy eating plan with strength training to maintain the greatest fat-loss benefit. In a 12-year-long study that followed 10,500 healthy men, those who performed strength training gained less age-related belly fat compared to those who spent the same amount of time on cardio.
2. Adjust Your Caloric Intake
To achieve slow and steady weight loss that doesn’t crash your metabolism, most experts recommend working toward a caloric deficit of no more than 500 calories per day. That means if you burn 2,000 calories per day, you should consume about 1,500. (Although, as long as your total caloric intake for the day was under 2,000, you should be losing, not gaining, so consuming 1,700, 1,800, and so on, calories should be fine.)
If you’ve lost weight successfully, you probably already know this. But, did you know that your metabolism naturally declines as you lose weight because it takes less fuel to power your body the less you weigh?
To stick to your new weight, you can recalculate your daily caloric needs to find the approximate range you should aim to stick to for in maintenance mode. OpenFit suggests the following formula:
Figure out your caloric baseline:
- If you’re sedentary, multiply your current weight by 11
- If you’re moderately active (work out some, have a desk job but try to stay active), multiply your current weight by 12
- If you’re highly active (have a physical job or move as much as you can), multiply your current weight by 13
Figure out your maintenance calories:
- If you’re sedentary, your calorie baseline are your maintenance calories
- If you’re following a moderately challenging exercise program, add 400 to your caloric baseline
- If you’re following an extremely challenging exercise program, add 700 to your calorie baseline.
Keep in mind that most people should not reduce their daily caloric intakes below 1,200 calories — specifically, 1,200 for women and 1,400 for men — unless they’re under the supervision of a registered dietitian. So if you are right up against these general daily calorie ranges and are having a hard time maintaining your weight, try switching up your exercise plan (for example, mix up the intensity of your cardio and strength training, or try a new fitness program) and increasing your overall daily activity. It’s also not a bad idea to talk to your doctor for more individual advice.
3. Ditch the “Finish-Line Mentality”
If, once you reach your goal weight, you drastically increase your caloric intake or cut way back on your exercise (or both), you are going to gain the weight back.
In reality, the “maintenance phase” is much more similar to the “weight-loss phase” than most people think, Ellner says. You have to focus on forging habits that will follow you throughout the rest of your life, rather than just helping you get to a finish line. That’s easier said than done, which is why a study from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign suggests that receiving support, whether through weight-loss groups or accountability partners, is just as important to maintenance as it is to weight loss.
It may not be easy, but it is possible to maintain weight loss. Learn about the six most effective habits people who’ve dropped pounds practice in order to not only maintain the weight loss but also gain an improved quality of life.