Just as we all start resolving to lose, we’re hit with the news that it may never work. If you’ve been overweight for a while, if you’ve dieted only to keep regaining, the problem may well exceed willpower.
In this season of “20 Lbs in 20 Days!” other headlines ask “Do You Have to be Superhuman to Lose Weight?” Or, “Are We Programmed to Pack on Pounds?” Unpopular questions, for sure, but ones to which science increasingly answers “probably”.
Research from around the world concurs. Once we’ve carried the weight, our bodies seem to adjust to that new “normal”. Our chemistry then seems to fiercely defend the larger body size. We’ll experience this as relentless hunger as well as painfully slow losses and discouragingly quick regain. The ramped-up hunger, the sluggish metabolism, the rapid accumulation of fat: all of these are hormonally driven, arising from the extra weight itself. Losing weight, then, becomes at the very least a mighty struggle against biology.
Long-term studies have emerged from obesity labs at Columbia, Brown, Yale, and other U.S. sites as well as from Britain and Australia. They do agree on the complexity of the problem, and they’ve identified some hormonal culprits. No one, however, is telling people to stop trying to manage their weight. The health benefits, all will point out, accrue even with small (5 or 10 percent of body weight) losses. Plus, key questions about what might help remain unanswered. It’s not entirely clear, for example, whether or not losing slowly aids in permanent loss. It’s also not clear whether or not a single episode of gain and loss lead to the “packing on the pounds” phenomena, or whether this requires repeated episodes.
While this news can seem to dash all hope for those who seek slimness, researchers don’t necessarily see it that way. “It’s helpful for people to know what they’re up against,” summarizes the concensus. Some dieters do succeed, after all, against the biological odds, even if they represent a minority. And, it does indeed seem that those who keep weight off are those who hold no illusions about the problem. In the “Do You Have to be Superhuman….” article, New York Times’ Tara Parker-Pope interviewed people from the National Weight Loss Registry. The registry, uniquely, follows people who’ve kept weight off. Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., of Yale, points out there that thousands who’ve kept weight off don’t register for the data bank. However, nowhere else can we look at what many (10,000) dieters do to maintain losses. (To register, one must have kept off at least 30 lbs. for at least a year; on average, 70 lbs. have been lost for over six years.)
What’s clear is that the work of keeping weight off never stops. Those who successfully maintain losses, whether 30 or 130 lbs., exercise, a lot. They continue to keep track of what they eat. They allow little or no room for “treats” or holiday lapses. They treat weight maintenance as if they’ve known all along what science confirms: that without such care, they’ll regain, plus some.