Once you’ve lost weight, the big fear is that you’ll pack it back on, right? You often hear grim statistics like 80% to 90% of people who lose a significant amount of weight gain it all back. That’s not what you want to hear after struggling to shed those extra pounds. Fortunately, a new study offers hope for anyone who’s struggled to lose weight and keep it off afterward.
The Problems with Maintaining a Lower Body Weight
Why is it so hard to sustain a lower body weight once you’ve lost it? Some experts believe “set point” has something to do with it. The theory behind set point is this: Each of us has a weight that our body tries to hold on to. Our set point weight is partially determined by genetics. When you fall significantly below your set point weight, your body makes adjustments to your appetite, activity level, and hormones to bring it back up.
Set point is a protective mechanism your body uses to maintain homeostasis. Remember, your body is more concerned about keeping you from starving than it is in making sure you look good in a swimsuit. Your body sees a drop below your set point as a signal that energy is in short supply. In other words, you could be starving. So, it tries to bring you back to a “safer” weight. The question is whether, over time, you can reset your set point after losing a significant amount of weight. How much is a significant weight loss? Ten percent or more of your body weight.
What a New Study Shows about Maintaining Weight Loss
Can you reset your body’s set point? Researchers at the University of Copenhagen recently put the idea to the test. They asked a group of 20 healthy, obese individuals to diet for 8 weeks. The participants successfully lost weight, an average of about 13% of their total body weight. After reaching a lower weight, they went on a 52-week maintenance program designed to, hopefully, keep from regaining what they had lost.
One of the main reasons people regain weight once they take it off is they lose the battle with their appetite hormones. The two main appetite hormones that ramp up your appetite and increase cravings are leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone made by cells in the lining of your stomach that dial up your appetite. In contrast, leptin is produced by fat cells and acts as a satiety hormone. It tells your brain that you have enough energy in reserve and you can stop eating. When your leptin level drops, you feel hungry and, to make matters worse, your metabolism slows.
So what happens to these hormones when you lose weight? Research shows after periods of calorie restriction and weight loss, your ghrelin level rises and your leptin level drops. That’s a bad combination. In response, you become hungrier and your metabolism slows. With changes like this, it’s not hard to see why it’s so easy to regain weight once you lose it. Your appetite hormones work behind the scenes to make you feel hungry. Frustrating, isn’t it?
Back to the study. The gist of the University of Copenhagen study is that if you can successfully maintain your new weight for at least a year, your body and appetite hormones can adjust to your lower body weight and essentially normalize, meaning you won’t have to continuously fight the urge to overeat. In this study, the researchers found two other hormones that reduce appetite increased after maintaining weight loss for a year. These hormones are called GLP-1 and PYY and help reign your appetite in.
Of course, the first year after losing weight could be challenging since your appetite hormones aren’t making the job any easier. One of the best ways to curb your appetite until your appetite hormones adjust is to eat more protein and fiber-rich foods. These two dietary components have natural satiety benefits.
Characteristics of Successful Weight Loss Maintainers
Interestingly, another study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found people who successfully maintain a lower body weight after losing weight have certain behaviors in common. Successful weight loss maintainers were more likely to:
. Track calories
. Track fat
. Plan meals
. Weigh daily and react quickly to any changes in weight
. Lift weights
The last one is one not enough people do, especially women. You might think aerobic training is the best form of exercise for keeping your weight down since it burns more calories but, as this study shows, weight training is helpful too. Working your body against resistance improves your body composition. That’s important since you lose muscle when you lose weight too. In addition, the muscle you build through training modestly increases your resting metabolism. So, do cardio but balance it with weight training.
The Bottom Line
It’s nice to know that at least one study shows you can reset your set point after losing weight. Although this was a small study, it offers encouragement that once you do the hard work of losing weight you can keep it off, hopefully, on a permanent basis. Though your appetite hormones and set point may naturally adjust over time, you can increase your odds of staying lean by lifting weights, planning healthy meals, and weighing yourself often so you can respond quickly to changes.