Why is it that keeping lost weight off is so difficult? The amount of effort and restraint that goes into shedding the pounds is enormous, the feeling of success satisfying, and the general health benefits are undeniable; yet, for many the success is short lived with the unwanted padding gradually returning, leaving a feeling of guilt and defeat. This cycle is clearly demonstrated by the number of contestants on the television show The Biggest Loser, who have, over a period of time, undone all of their hard work. Ali Vincent, who won the contest 8 years ago by shedding over 100 pounds, announced on Facebook that all her weight had returned.
“I remember wondering before if I was unhappy because I was heavy or heavy because I was unhappy, I realized it didn’t matter because both were true and I needed to do something about it. When I realized this something just clicked and I did do something about it. It’s different now though, I’m not unhappy with my life, there are a lot of great things in my life. I finally have a loving relationship that I trust in wholeheartedly. I have friends throughout the country. I have work that inspires me. I’m hopefully finally going to be pregnant. So I’ve been struggling with why I can’t or haven’t rather pulled it together and I know it’s shame.”
Ali is not alone in this “shame.” Erik Chopin became a favorite of the fans when he lost 214 pounds during season three of the show. Regardless of having access to the best trainers, dietitians and other resources, he regained most of the weight. In his case, food was an addiction. “When I finally saw it, a little bit of depression I had got even deeper and I sunk into pretty much a deep depression,” he said. “I just didn’t want to face life. I just felt like staying in bed. Like, ‘I did this to myself again. What’s going on?'” In cases like this, very often a mental health professional could offer help in getting to the cause of emotional eating, be it depression, trauma or stress.
While we are inclined to focus on counting calories, diet and exercising, a number of other factors are at play behind the scenes.
Perhaps the biggest enemy in maintaining weight loss is the fact that our bodies have evolved to store fat. Once fat is lost, the body’s metabolism goes into survival mode and fewer calories are burned. This mechanism, called metabolic compensation, is designed to increase chances of survival during periods of famine. Not only does metabolism slow in response to weight loss, but the levels of hormones that regulate hunger also shift. Basically, the mechanism is similar to that of a thermostat. It is set to a certain weight, and strives to maintain that weight by adjusting the amount of calories burned off according to the amount of calories we consume. This mechanism takes about a year to reset itself once a substantial amount of weight is lost.
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Holly Lofton, assistant professor of medicine and the director of the medical-weight-management program at NYU Langone Medical Center, says there are a number of ways in which to counter this mechanism. According to her, it is important to include protein in every meal and snack, as it helps to keep you full and is the building block for muscle. Muscle maintenance is important during weight loss, as muscle burns more calories at rest than fat does. Diet foods should also be avoided, as their lack of fat and natural sugars could leave you feeling more hungry. Along with this, she recommends cardiovascular exercise as opposed to strength training until at least half way to your target weight.
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