You’ve worked hard, made changes in your diet and exercise routine, and you’ve reached your goal weight – congratulations! Losing weight is no easy feat, but the work doesn’t stop there. The next challenge in your health and fitness journey is keeping the weight off long term. Maintaining long term weight loss is not impossible, but it does take intentional effort and planning.
Let’s break down some attainable and sustainable ways to shed pounds and keep them off for the long term.
Why People Regain Their Lost Weight
If you find that maintaining your weight loss is more challenging than expected, you’re not alone. Only 17% of adults in the U.S. who lose 10% of their bodyweight can keep it off for more than 1 year (Kraschnewski et al., 2010). But, why? Research offers us a few insights:
Impaired satiety signals. The signals that travel from the stomach to the brain to tell you that you’re full can be impaired over time, leading to unintentional overeating (Cornier, Grunwald, Johnson, & Bessesen, 2004).
Biological drive to re-gain weight. Deep-rooted survival instincts see weight loss as a threat. For every kilogram of weight that you lose, there is a biological drive (aka an increase in appetite) to increase calorie intake by approximately 100 calories to make up for the weight lost (Polidori, Sanghvi, Seeley, & Hall, 2016). That explains why you may feel so hungry when you try to lose weight! The increase in appetite can last up to two years after starting the diet.
Not enough exercise. Long-term reductions of physical activity over time can result in weight re-gain (Rosenbaum, Hirsch, Gallagher, & Leibel, 2008).
Low dietary adherence. If you had a hard time sticking to your meal plan and exercise routine while you were in the process of losing weight, you’re at an increased risk of regaining weight 1 to 2 years after the initial loss (Del Corral, Bryan, Garvey, Gower, & Hunter, 2011). This may point to a meal plan that was too restrictive, rigid, or just not a good fit for you.
Stress. Stress-related eating can wreak havoc on both your efforts to lose weight and your efforts to keep the weight off.
Challenging food environments. If you have easy access to high calorie, low-nutrient, hyperpalatable foods (like easy access to a vending machine) it’s harder to maintain your healthy eating habits long-term. Daily temptations make it more difficult to stick to healthy behaviors long-term.
Burnout. Putting in the work to maintain a healthy weight can be taxing physically and emotionally. Some just get plain old burned out when it comes to trying to maintain weight loss.
How Your Metabolism Changes
As your body weight decreases during weight loss, the number of calories that you burn during movement also decreases. This is simply because your body weighs less and thus require less energy to function. It’s also not uncommon for the body to adapt to weight loss by lowering NEAT activity to conserve the output of energy (thus, slowing down weight loss) (Greenway 2015).
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and it includes activities like fidgeting while seated, walking from your car to the store, etc. Less NEAT can also contribute to a decrease in metabolic rate because your body is moving less overall. This decrease in your metabolic rate is a completely normal response, but it needs to be taken into consideration when planning your nutrition and exercise routines to maintain weight loss.
The Role That Exercise Plays
High physical activity levels will increase your chances of maintaining your weight loss. When losing weight, arguably the most important aspect to focus on is nutrition. To maintain weight loss, it’s necessary to maintain an energy balance – expending at least as much energy as you consume. Staying physically active is an effective strategy to help keep this balance. Aim for at least 35 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity to help you keep the weight off.
5 Accessible and Sustainable Diet Tips
Maintenance allows for some wiggle room when it comes to nutrition, but it’s not the time to throw your healthy nutrition and exercise completely out the window. Here are just a few simple diet tips to help you maintain your weight loss:
1. Include low-fat and low-calorie foods
This is a basic tip, but it works! Those who are successful at keeping their weight off eat diets that are low in fat and include plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats.
2. Create a list of staples
Avoid the “buffet effect” – which can cause you to eat more when there are more options available. Having a list of staple healthy foods that you regularly eat can help narrow down your choices but allow for some flexibility for foods that you enjoy. Think about what healthy options you enjoy for each meal and create a list to help you stay on track. You might also consider having “seasonal” options to help keep things fresh.
3. Stick to consistent meal patterns
Try to eat regular meals and snacks each day of the week, even on weekends. This can help you avoid unnecessary calorie surpluses on the weekend that derail your hard-earned progress.
4. Consistent self-monitoring
Whether you’re tracking calories, macros, weight, energy, or movement, keeping track of what you’re doing and how your body is responding can help you avoid weight regain.
5. Food environment
Create a food environment that makes it easy to make healthy choices. Keep high calorie foods out of reach (or out of your house if possible) and fill your line of sight with healthy options that are ready to grab and go. You’ll be much more likely to make healthy choices when they are readily available and obvious. It also helps to make less healthy options more challenging to access (deleting food delivery apps can be a good first step!).
It’s likely that in the process of losing weight, you found what works best for you. You probably also discovered meal plans and exercise routines that were too restrictive and/or unenjoyable. You can use this knowledge to your advantage in maintaining your weight loss.
Continue to practice some of the same nutrition and exercise habits that helped you lose weight in the first place to help you keep it off but allow for some flexibility in your routine to avoid burnout. When it’s all said and done, maintaining your weight loss results are worth the effort.
Cornier, M., Grunwald, G., Johnson, S., & Bessesen, D. (2004). Effects of short-term overfeeding on hunger, satiety, and energy intake in thin and reduced-obese individuals. Appetite, 43(3), 253-259.
Del Corral, P., Bryan, D., Garvey, W., Gower, B., & Hunter, G. (2011). Dietary adherence during weight loss predicts weight regain. Obesity, 19(6), 1177-1181.
Greenway F. L. (2015). Physiological adaptations to weight loss and factors favouring weight regain. International journal of obesity (2005), 39(8), 1188–1196. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2015.59
Kraschnewski, J., Boan, J., Esposito, J., Sherwood, N., Lehman, E., Kephart, D., & Sciamanna, C. (2010). Long-term weight loss maintenance in the United States. International Journal of Obesity, 34(11), 1644-1654.
Krieger, J. (2021). Managing weight loss plateaus and maintaining weight loss. In National Academy of Sports Medicine, Certified Nutrition Coach.
Polidori, D., Sanghvi, A., Seeley, R., & Hall, K. (2016). How strongly does appetite counter weight loss? Quantification of the feedback control of human energy intake. Obesity, 24(11), 2289-2295.
Rosenbaum, M., Hirsch, J., Gallagher, D., & Leibel, R. (2008). Long-term persistence of adaptive thermogenesis in subjects who have maintained a reduced body weight. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(4), 906-912.