“The Biggest Loser” winner John Rhode is happy he nabbed the grand prize after shedding 220 pounds, but he’s also worried he might gain the weight back, and he’s not alone. Most people who lose weight eventually gain some, all or all plus more of it back in endless cycles of yo-yo diets.
“He admitted he has a food addiction,” says Felicia Stoler, a New York-based registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and author of “Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great.” “A lot of people have food addictions. But unlike alcoholics, who don’t need alcohol to live, we do need to eat to live. You have to recognize that these folks need support from the people around them.”
For food addicts, having that support can be key to keeping the weight off, she added, and if friends and family can’t do the job, it might be a good idea to seek out a group such as Weight Watchers, which has support and accountability built in.
It also helps, Stoler says, to think of losing weight as a lifestyle change and not an on-again, off-again endeavor. “You have to accept that you’ve chosen a behavior change, which is how you’ve gotten where you are.” Problems arise, she adds, when people go the fad diet route, eliminating foods and food groups from their lives, only to binge on them down the road.
But we’re only human and susceptible to an occasional indulgence once in a while, be it a couple of glasses of egg nog or a day spent comatose on the sofa. That’s OK, Stoler says, as long as that doesn’t become the first step to spiraling out of control.
“You have to say, ‘OK, tomorrow it changes. Don’t punish yourself -- it’s that self-loathing that creates a bad cycle. You have to do some positive self-talk.”
Since weight regain is so common, it’s been the subject of several studies. One, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October, found that people who lose weight on a very low-calorie diet had higher levels of certain hormones that conspire to make people feel hungrier, store fat and conserve energy, making it difficult to keep the weight off.
Study participants included 50 obese men and women who were placed on an extremely low-calorie diet for eight weeks and followed for a year. Researchers measured levels of nine hormones related to appetite and metabolism right after the diet and a year later.
Although some people quit the study, among those who remained, the average weight loss after 10 weeks was a little less than 30 pounds. However, one year out, the average weight regain was about 12 pounds. In addition, levels of those appetite and metabolism hormones were high, making it challenging to keep the weight off.
Regaining weight can mean a return of health problems such as metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that can up the odds of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But exercise may stave off some of the ill effects, a 2010 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found. About 100 men and women who had markers for metabolic syndrome lost 10% of their body weight via diet and exercise. After that, 77 regained weight, with some randomly assigned to do no exercise, while the others engaged in continued supervised exercise.
While the no-exercise group saw declines in most metabolic syndrome markers, those who exercised sustained improvements in maximum oxygen consumption, blood pressure, blood glucose regulation and some inflammation markers.
“You can take control and choose to be healthy and make better food choices,” Stoler says. “You’re important, and you only have one body.”