New research helps explain why sustained weight loss is so difficult to achieve.
This blog was co-authored by Dr. Lorie A. Sousa.
If you’re like most people, you took the optimism and opportunities that come with a new year and thought about improving your eating and exercise habits with the aim of weight loss and improved health. Perhaps, you even made a firm commitment to “get in shape” or “lose X amount of weight” in 2020. But now, as January slips away, you may find yourself grappling with the familiar realization that this new year’s resolution feels less than resolute.
It’s not your fault that you can’t lose weight.
In fact, there are scientific explanations for why weight loss is incredibly difficult – in fact, nearly impossible, for some. The bottom line is that you are essentially fighting your own body when you try to lose weight; both your psychology and your physiology are working against you. We’ll explain — but our point is not to induce despair; be sure to read to the end for ideas regarding how to reexamine your relationship with food, your body, and health to feel your best in 2020.
1. Attempts at weight loss are usually psychologically maladaptive.
We are psychologists so we’ve written about this extensively elsewhere (see here and here, for examples). The gist of the psychological problems with weight loss attempts boils down to the fact that restriction is not fun. If we commit to avoiding carbs, we’re going to think about, want, and often ultimately end up eating more carbs. If we commit to avoiding sugar, who knows how much mental space will be occupied by counting grams of sugar. And, when you fall off the no-sugar-bandwagon, be prepared for a binge.
Psychologists have illustrative names for these related phenomena, including ironic processing, false-hope syndrome, and the what-the-hell effect. The science supporting the likelihood of these phenomena occurring is compelling: decide not to eat chocolate and you’ll think a lot about chocolate (ironic processing); give into your craving and you’ll end up eating a lot of chocolate (the what-the-hell effect); resign to try again on Monday and follow your “no chocolate rule” and you can start the whole cycle all over again (false-hope syndrome).
2. Your weight is written in your genes.
We all like to believe that our bodies are endlessly malleable. You can hardly blame us for thinking this way; every day we see advertisements for diet plans, cosmetic surgery procedures, and wellness products. It’s easy to start to feel like it is simply our fault if we can’t change our bodies to look like Gwyneth’s or Beyoncé’s.
However, research has found that up to 80% of our height and weight are due entirely to our genetic make-up. You probably don’t spend a lot of time trying to get taller, because you know that doesn’t make much sense. So, maybe you should spend a lot less time trying to alter your weight, too? Perhaps the focus should be less on weight and more on factors that are changeable, like your health habits.
3. Attempts to lose weight may make you gain weight.
Most people who lose weight will regain it, plus additional weight. Oftentimes, they’ll also attempt to lose weight again with some success. The cycle of weight loss, gain, and loss is referred to as weight cycling. A recent review of relevant studies (of humans) that examine weight cycling found that approximately half of the research on weight cycling suggests that it is associated with future weight gain and increased body fat. article continues after advertisement
Thus, it is not a foregone conclusion that attempts to lose weight will lead you to gain weight in the future, but it is a very real possibility. Further, this research is a serious reminder that anyone who attempts to lose weight should only do so through dietary and activity changes that they expect to maintain long-term.
4. You’ve heard about the microbiome? It’s relevant here, too.
The human microbiome is comprised of a complex network of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, with the gut microbiome being particularly consequential for our health. Recent research indicates that our gut microbiomes may be relevant to our immune systems, mental health, metabolism, and also our weight status
Although our gut microbiomes are dynamic and influenced by diet, stress, and the environment, our gut microbiomes appear to affect the amount of energy that is extracted from the food we consume and how that energy is stored. This is then related to our body fat composition and possibly weight. In other words, the bacteria residing in our gastrointestinal system appear to affect how our bodies are able to utilize the food we eat and how we store it, which in turn affects how much food we eat and what we weigh.
In the future, as our understanding of the gut microbiome expands, it may become a tool in managing our weight. But for now, the gut microbiome presents one more possible reason why what we weigh can be out of our control.
We appreciate that if you are really committed to weight loss or feel that your health would improve if you lost weight, all of this may seem a bit depressing. Our goal is not to make you feel bad, but to help you reframe how you think about your weight. In fact, our read of all of this research leads us to believe that we should all be thinking about our weight a lot less than we tend to. It turns out that although our weight may be associated with our health, it is far from completely predictive of our health. article continues after advertisement
So, how should we think about our weight and what can we do?
There are a lot of things we can do to improve our health with the first being to adopt a mindset of self-care. When we stop feeling like we need to punish ourselves over a cookie eaten, a work-out missed, or a slight uptick on the scale, we will be happier — and likely, healthier — people. Evidence indicates that we will have better luck maintaining goals that are aimed towards the adoption of healthy habits to take care of ourselves than the avoidance of unhealthy ones.
In terms of the adoption of healthy habits, we will likely feel better, have more energy, and even improved concentration, if we nourish our bodies with foods we enjoy. In other words, we don’t need to drink kale smoothies every morning (unless you really like kale smoothies), but we can put some thought into eating food that is nutritious.
We can also adopt an exercise routine that we enjoy. That could mean walking with a friend, taking a dance class, or strength training at a gym; whatever movement that is reinforcing to you. Again, the goal should be to feel good (not to punish ourselves) so that we can maintain regular physical activity. Research continues to indicate the vast benefits of physical activity, from improved mood to increased longevity, so doing some sort of movement regularly is a good goal. article continues after advertisement
Just don’t sacrifice getting enough sleep so that you get to that 5 a.m. class every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three adults doesn’t get enough sleep, with “enough” being at least seven hours per night on average.
Our health will also benefit from good psychological health practices. We can meditate or manage our stress and identify positive social relationships that sustain us. This can be as simple as downloading a meditation app to help us fall asleep or spending 10 minutes reading something enjoyable when we first wake up. Maybe we’d benefit from regular visits with a therapist? Maybe we just need to be better about maintaining date nights with our partner? There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for the integration of self-care into our lives, but even a minor change may have long-lasting benefits.
It is not your fault if you feel the pull of the latest diet or health fad. The advertising is compelling and the desire for a quick fix is understandable. But pushing back against diet culture will save you mental and physical distress. And, feeling good — that’s more important than any number on the scale.