By Chris and Eric Martinez
To start this off, we will quote the National Institutes of Health Technology Assessment Conference Panel:
“Weight regain is generally the rule, with long-term follow up studies indicating that one-third to two-thirds of the weight lost is regained within 1 year and almost all is regained within 5 years.” (1)
With a show of hands in the reader’s audience, how many of you have lost weight successfully?
We are assuming a good majority of you probably have your hands up. Now, the million dollar question, how many of you have lost weight and kept it off for a significant amount of time?
Probably not as many hands rose on this question and the reason being that weight loss isn’t the problem; it’s keeping the weight off that is the major issue.
Repeated cycles of weight loss and weight regain, referred to as “weight cycling” or “yo-yo dieting” are a frequent occurrence, just ask Oprah Winfrey. All joking aside, Mann and colleagues found that the long-term outcomes of energy-restricted diets show that at least one-third of dieter’s regain more weight than they lost (2). There’s another term for this and it’s called “fat- overshooting,” more on this in the latter part of the article.
In this article, we will be discussing why you’re not losing weight and some of the metabolic adaptations to look out for and how to mitigate them, along with why you’re not keeping the weight off.
Why You’re Not Losing Weight
One of the biggest mistakes people make when entering their weight loss journey is looking at fat loss in a linear fashion.
To quote Eric Helms, “People think they have to micro-manage every meal to achieve fat loss. You have to look at the big picture which is adherence and consistency, personal preference, and energy balance. Those that try to keep insulin down at every meal, stop eating at certain times, and avoid specific foods are overlooking what matters most. You can’t micro manage everything with nutrition. You can micro manage some and what you need to, but not everything. Look at the big picture because that’s where the effects come from.” (3)
Everything Helms stated is right on point, hence choosing a weight loss diet based on personal preference. Concepts such as flexibility, personal preferences, schedules, and individualization should not be ignored. The fact of the matter is if you can’t adhere to the weight loss diet then how will you get results?
There is no such thing as the perfect nutrition program. The important question you should ask yourself is “what’s the best nutrition program that’s going to allow me to:”
- A) Fit it into my lifestyle and schedule
- B) Be able to adhere to it on a consistent basis
- C) Get me my desired results
There are pros and cons to every type of nutrition program, but you must find a program where the pros outweigh the cons, makes logical sense for your lifestyle and goals, has science to back up its claims, and something you will follow on a day-to-day basis.
As soon as you look at the bigger picture and find out what type of nutrition program you can adhere to the most, you will be in a better position to successfully lose weight.
Why You’re Not Keeping the Weight Off
Dieting isn’t easy nor is it fun, but it should never be a case of suffering. On the contrary, keeping the weight off is much harder due to physiological and psychological factors. As our good friend Layne Norton likes to say “You can’t separate psychology from physiology.”
Think about when you were a kid and your parents restricted you from sweets and fun foods, you felt restricted right? What was the first thing you did once they turned their backs or you went to a friend or relatives house? You did exactly what they restricted you from doing.
Psychologically depending on the type of diet you used and the restriction it had, a good majority of the time when you are off a diet and have no goals to attain anymore you will eat more than your body can metabolize at that time and thus store fat. Dulloo et al. found that classic studies of food deprivation and refeeding showing that more weight is recovered than is lost; a phenomenon referred to as post-starvation obesity or “fat over-shooting” (4).
To support this phenomenon of fat over-shooting, Keys et al. Showed that after 12 weeks of restricted food intake, food levels were increased above the pre-starvation level, and this hyperphagic response persisted for several weeks after body weight reached the pre-starvation level, and contributed to weight overshooting mostly as fat (5).
Moreover, Fleisch et al. found that after food rationing was abandoned and products were available again in larger quantities, food consumption and body weight rose rapidly. Fat over-shooting became evident after subjects gained 14 lbs after rationing ended (6).
As you can see the individual may increase body fat beyond baseline levels, yet retain a metabolic rate that has yet to fully recover (7).
We asked Eric Trexler about the above comment and he stated “That comment represents a theoretical scenario based on the combination of a number of previous research findings. While controlled diet interventions do not typically cause substantial losses in LBM (especially when resistance training is included), it may be more pertinent in lean athletes and physique competitors, as has been demonstrated by LBM losses in recently published case studies in natural bodybuilders. Further, the “body fat overshooting” phenomenon has been described in multiple publications by Dulloo. Since LBM is more metabolically active that adipose tissue, you could theoretically surmise that body fat overshooting may lead to such a scenario where body fat is restored more rapidly than lean mass (which has been demonstrated), and metabolic rate would therefore not recover as quickly as body fat percentage (8).”
To support Trexler’s statement, we provide you with Weyer et al’s conclusion to support a repressed metabolic rate after weight regain (9):
“Six months after the subjects resumed an ad libitum diet, body weight had reverted to pre entry values, almost entirely because of an increase in fat mass. Despite the complete recovery in body weight, adjusted 24-h EE and spontaneous physical activity remained lower than predicted. These findings suggest that in lean individuals, an adaptive reduction in EE can occur not only in states of life-threatening under nutrition (such as after several months of semi starvation), but also in response to less severe energy restriction that can be sustained over years”.
As we can see in this study by Weyer and colleagues, they took 8 subjects and had them stay in a biosphere (3.15-acre enclosed glass and steel structure; self-contained ecologic mini world) for two years and they ended up having an unexpected food supply shortage and ended up losing weight. After two years of confinement they had subjects return to ad libitum diets and they ended up returning to pre-entry weight levels but gained purely fat mass along with a still suppressed metabolic rate from the years of restriction.
We all know that metabolic adaptations are common occurrences from long-term and low calorie dieting. It’s a self-defense mechanism our bodies react to and it’s part of our biology (10). The imperative thing we must understand is to mitigate these adaptations and not let them run loose like a wild fire.
There is evidence to suggest that adipocyte hyperplasia may occur early in the weight regain process (11), and that repeated cycles of weight loss and regain by athletes in sports with weight classes are associated with long-term weight gain (12).
On the physiological side of things, your body makes specific adaptations when dieting. Such as (7, 10, 11, 13, 14):
- Decreased energy expenditure
- Increased metabolic efficiency
- Adaptive thermogenesis
- Reduction in adipocytes
- Increased mitochondrial efficiency
- Decreased sympathetic nervous system
- Decreased fat oxidation
- Decreased thyroid hormones (plays significant role in metabolism)
- Increased cortisol
- Increased GIP (increases food intake)
- Decreased leptin
- Decreased insulin
- Increased Ghrelin
- Increased appetite
- Increased cravings for high fat food and sugars
- Decreased satiety signals
To put this list in the correct context, the size of the energy gap determines how much of these adaptations will occur and how severe they will be, the length of being in a hypocaloric restricted diet, and the amount of fat mass and fat free mass lost will all dictate how many of these adaptations occur (15). To support this, another cool study by Knuth and colleagues demonstrated that metabolic rate was reduced by double than what was predicted based on the amount of body fat lost (16).
Some practical applications and how to mitigate theses adaptations:
- Dieting on as many calories as possible so you won’t create such a large energy gap (7)
- Train with a proper periodized training protocol to prevent loss of lean body mass and reduction in resting metabolic rate (17,18)
- Use cardio as a tool, implement it strategically throughout your weight loss phase (17)
- Manage stress levels and get sufficient sleep, this will lead to lower cortisol levels (19)
- Have a high protein diet to induce MPS at each meal, retain muscle mass, and keep satiety high (7)
- Make less aggressive cuts in calories when weight stagnates (7)
- Have a planned refeed (s) to keep leptin levels elevated and ghrelin levels decreased (7)
- Lose weight at a slow rate, 0.5-1% of bodyweight weekly (20)
- Frequent self-monitoring (i.e., pictures, measurement, weighing yourself, and tracking your daily food intake) (21)
- Do not eliminate food groups or foods, keep flexibility and variety at the forefront (22,23)
- Have balance in your life (family, fun, activities), anything non training and nutrition
Over one-third of lost weight tends to return within the first year, and the majority is gained back within 3 to 5 years (24).
Let’s face it, losing weight and keeping it off isn’t an easy task by any means. But if we can understand why we’re not losing the weight, why we’re not keeping it off, some of the metabolic adaptations and how to mitigate them, looking at the bigger picture in weight loss, and finally, finding a nutrition program that’s going to be sustainable and fit our life-styles, goals, and schedules then we will all be in a better position to lose fat and keep it off permanently.
For more information on how not to suffer on your diet, see video below
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We would like to give a special thanks to our coach and friend Eric Helms and our friend and colleague Eric Trexler for allowing us to quote them and for taking the time out of their busy schedules to proof read our article.
- National Institutes of Health Technology Assessment Conference Panel (1993). Methods for voluntary weight loss and control. Ann Intern Med.
- Mann T. Tomiyama AJ, Westling E et al (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. Am Psychol
- Eric Helms, AUT University, 3D Muscle Journey
- Dulloo AG. Human pattern of food intake and fuel partitioning during weight recovery after starvation. 1997
- Keys A, Brozek J, Henschel A et al. (1950). The biology of human starvation, Minnesota.
- Fleisch A. The swiss food rationing experiment. 1947
- Trexler et al. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: Implications for the athlete. 2014
- Eric Trexler, UNC
- Weyer et al. Energy metabolism after 2 years of energy restriction: The biosphere 2 experiment. 2000
- Maclean et al. Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. 2011
- Jackman MR. Weight regain after sustained weight reduction in accompanied by suppressed oxidation of dietary fat and adipocyte hyperplasia. 2008
- Saarni SE. Weight cycling of athletes and subsequent weigh regain in middle aged men. 2006
- Anderson et al. Long term weight loss maintenance. 2001
- Drewnowski et al. Sweet tooth reconsidered: Taste responsiveness in human obesity. (1985)
- Dulloo et al. How dieting makes some fatter: from a perspective of human body composition auto regulation. 2012
- Knuth et al. Metabolic adaptation following massive weight loss is related to the degree of energy imbalance and changes in circulating leptin.
- Stiegler et al. The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. 2006
- Wernbom et al. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross sectional area in humans. 2007
- Redwine et al. Effects of sleep and sleep deprivation on interleukin-6, GH, cortisol, and melatonin levels in humans. 2013
- Helms et al. Evidence based recommendations for natural body building contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation. 2014
- Sumithran and Proietto. The defense of body weight: a physiological basis for weight regain after loss. 2013
- Smith et al. Flexible vs Rigid Dieting Strategies: Relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. 1999
- Stewart et al. rigid vs flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in non-obese women. 2002
- Cornier et al. The effects of overfeeding on the neuronal response to visual food cues in thin and reduced obese individuals. 2009