The Mysterious Case of Weight Cycling
Weight cycling is so common it’s an epidemic, and it exacts a heavy personal toll. But we know without doubt that it’s possible to lose weight and keep it off. So why aren’t you one of those people who’ve achieved sustained weight loss?
What causes you to relapse and regain weight when others keep it off?
If we know the answer to this question, we can finally break the cycle. That’s exactly what we’re going to do in this post. This post provides an answer based on my interviews with weight cyclers and sustainers. After you read this, you’ll know your exact reasons for relapse. First, let me anticipate some of your reactions.
“It’s a Matter of Willpower and Motivation.”
“It’s obvious why we weight cycle. We relapse because we lose motivation and willpower and just quit dieting and exercising.” This is the WILLPOWER explanation. Those able to sustain their weight loss have the willpower to adhere to dieting and exercising. Those who relapse don’t have enough willpower. It’s easy to think this way, and it’s probably the most common way people think about weight loss. And it’s partially correct – IF your approach is based on willpower. Does any of this ring a bell?
The problem with this explanation? It doesn’t fit what weight loss sustainers do. Sustainers don’t leave it up to willpower. I’ve never met a sustainer who’s continued success depends on unlimited willpower. Instead, I’ve found the opposite – over time they develop an approach that minimizes the need for willpower.
If we just accept the willpower explanation, we don’t move closer to solving our weight cycling. But by questioning this view, we give ourselves a fighting chance to see a different approach. For this reason, “Lack of willpower” should be an explanation of exclusion. Here’s what we should be asking:
How do we set it up so that sustained weight loss depends on extreme willpower forever?
How do we create a system that we’re likely to quit? The answer isn’t obvious or else we wouldn’t keep making the same mistake.
“I’m Doing Everything Right. So Why Do I Still Weight Cycle?”
“But wait, I diet, exercise, and track everything just like I’m supposed to. That’s what experts and science say to do,” you say. “I’m doing everything right. I didn’t mean to make it about willpower. So why do I still weight cycle?” I hear the frustration in your voice. Spoiler alert, it’s not your fault. If you do everything right based on an approach and still don’t get lasting results, maybe the approach is the problem.
Doing everything “right” actually leaves you dependent on unsustainable amounts of effort and willpower. How? We invest tremendous personal effort each time we try to lose weight. We need to know if we’re accidentally setting ourselves up for failure. To answer this question, we first have to consider what the “right way” is – what’s common knowledge.
Research indicates that sustainers eat lower calorie diets, exercise regularly, and self-monitor.
We’ve all heard this basic formula for weight loss – diet, exercise, and self-monitor. Makes sense. The problem with this approach is:
ALL the weight cyclers I know do these things too!
The “Right Way” is An Incomplete Formula for Success
That means these behaviors are not sufficient for sustained weight loss! What if I told you that all you need to do to win in sports is to score on your opponent and keep your opponent from scoring more than you? You’d probably call me naïve. Yes, these guidelines are true, but they’re not nearly enough to be a winning formula. They leave out all the strategies, plays, and player development required. Likewise, diet, exercise, and self-monitoring are critical to winning, but they are an incomplete formula for success.
Sustained weight loss can’t be reduced to a small, neat set of health behaviors. Such short lists water down what sustainers do so much that they rob us of key actionable insights. Simply emulating these factors won’t lead to success. Yet these few things are what most of us focus on – it’s almost a mantra for many people.
The “Right Way” Often Leads to Relapse
What’s worse, copying this superficial formula not only doesn’t work, but it can contribute to weight cycling. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to so many of us. Let’s see how this happens.
The Two Paths That Make All the Difference
How is it possible that the “right way” to lose weight often leads to relapse? The answer lies in the different paths taken by weight cyclers and sustainers. Imagine the “weight loss framework” from this post as a “choose your own adventure” book. Sustained weight loss is a possible destination. In pursuit, each of us carves our paths based on the weight loss options we choose. But it turns out:
Weight cyclers and sustainers take radically different paths.
This difference in process is precisely what is missing in research. To decipher the differences, I’ve interviewed both sustainers and cyclers. Patterns emerged. Weight cyclers and sustainers may start with the same problem – being overweight/obese. But over time sustainers gradually solve a wider range of problems. They expand to The Broader Path, which I’ll explain in the future. And weight cyclers tend to stick to what we’ve thought of as the “right way”, or The Narrow Path. Let’s illustrate the Narrow Path with a story.
The Story of Jane, The Model Weight Cycler
In another post, I wrote about Jane, a businesswoman with a long history of weight cycling. It’s the story in many ways of the Model Weight Cycler – an intelligent and earnest person who despite tremendous effort doing it the “right way” continues to weight cycle. Please take a moment to read a summary of her story and check out the graphic in that post. How is it that Jane - who approaches weight loss so diligently - keeps weight cycling?
To understand what’s wrong with the “right way”, let’s walk through the Narrow Path of weight cyclers. Only then will we appreciate what sustainers do. As you read the general framework described below, see what applies to you. While everyone is different, look for what resonates with your experience.
Pain of Being Overweight
Every journey begins with a motivation. All of us start out responding to the pain of being overweight or obese. Our primary goal is pain relief through weight loss.
Weight Loss Tunnel Vision
In our search for pain relief, most of us develop what I call “Weight Loss Tunnel Vision.” We narrowly focus on FAST and EFFECTIVE weight loss, and don’t think about what happens AFTERWARDS. To paraphrase the weight cyclers I’ve talked with: “I want to lose as much weight as fast as possible. I know I’ll be able to keep it off after I lose it.” Unintentionally, we’re already creating the conditions for relapse.
The Narrow Path
This tunnel vision guides us down a narrow approach to weight loss:
Diet + Exercise + Self-Monitoring = Caloric Deficit
This approach leads to the Narrow Path. Here are a few key features.
Narrow Methods. Focusing on FAST and EFFECTIVE weight loss leads to narrow methods. To achieve weight loss EFFECTIVELY, we look for a method that is clear, seems certain to work, and makes us feel in control. Generating caloric deficits through the equation above checks all these boxes. So we focus on the most important factors – the weight loss trinity of diet, exercise, and self-monitoring. To achieve FAST weight loss, we look for step-by-step plans that promise it. They take the form of diet books, coaching, exercise routines, calorie trackers, and other solutions. We’re open to messages that make that promise, like “How to lose 10 lbs. in 1 month” or “5 Steps to a Flat Tummy.”
Rigid Adherence. Formula in hand, we play our role by rigidly adhering to the set protocol because that appears to be the most direct way for us to relieve our pain. “If I follow these steps, I’ll lose weight. So, I will keep following them even if it’s a real strain.” Imagine pointing a car straight forward, stomping on the gas pedal, and ignoring all obstacles. We stick to the Narrow Path regardless if we enjoy the experience or if it fits our lives.
Deferred Sustainability. Our Weight Loss Tunnel Vision leads us to focus on the near term and defer weight loss maintenance until after we’ve lost our weight. So we don’t take sustainability into consideration as we go.
So, focus in on a few behaviors, stick to them no matter what, and forget about everything else. The Narrow Path can work, sometimes spectacularly, for a while.
Seeds of Relapse
The consequences of the Narrow Path build up over time, and we reach a point where we’re just holding on, “treading tenuously”. Here’s why.
Unsustainable Solutions. By focusing on the weight loss phase and deferring sustainability, we are willing to use solutions that aren’t sustainable, such as diet foods, workouts, and even tracking tools we don’t like or take too much effort. From day 1, we were never going to be able to maintain these behaviors. But we accept these solutions with the abstract notion that we’ll be able to maintain our weight after we’ve lost what we wanted.
Overtax Narrow Methods. Rigidly adhering to the Narrow Path, we limit our efforts mainly to diet, exercise, and self-monitoring. That means we have only a few ways to influence our weight loss: diet and exercise harder, and track more tightly. These limitations cause further strain when we encounter the usual challenges of weight loss: continuing your weight loss, weight plateaus, and finally just maintaining weight loss. Over time, it becomes a game of escalating punishment as you overtax your narrow methods:
Ignore Sustainability Changes. Because we focus on narrow methods to lose weight, we exclude issues that are important for lasting change. You need to address many things other than just diet, exercise, and self-monitoring to sustain weight loss. These includes tackling the causes of your obesity, creating an enabling environment, and more. Weight loss tunnel vision blinds us from seeing them.
The Willpower Wall. All the above create a particularly punishing system destined to break. Here’s how it works:
Weight loss is driven by rigidly adhering to a Narrow Path of unsustainable solutions.
Over time, the experience becomes increasingly punishing and overwhelming.
The only way to power that system is with intense effort and willpower.
This is the answer to the question: “How do we set it up so that sustained weight loss depends on extreme willpower forever?” Imagine the trajectory of this experience. Maybe you know it firsthand. We eventually push against the limits of our willpower just to maintain the weight we lost.
Overwhelm. At some point, you enter the “Overwhelm” phase of the weight cycle, where we are vulnerable to relapse. Weight cyclers explained to me that at this point they are so vulnerable that ordinary stressors are enough to trigger relapse: a new project at work, social drinking with coworkers, eating pizza with the family. And just like that, your diet is off the rails. These relapse triggers may seem small, but they are the straws that break the camel’s back. The ongoing burden was already huge. Then after a misstep, we don’t bounce back immediately because it’s actually a relief to stop. We predictably relapse, regain, and complete the weight cycle.
Something is Very Wrong with What’s Considered Right
I have met many weight cyclers who fit the above description - business student, social worker, programmer, etc. These Model Weight Cyclers excel at doing everything right: diet, exercise, self-monitor. And they all are still trapped in weight cycling. In a cruel irony, it turns out what we think of as the “right” way can be described as the Narrow Path that often leads to weight cycling. Common knowledge might be temporarily effectiveness, but it isn’t sustainable.
Should we point the finger at ourselves for relapsing? The answer is a resounding NO. To say otherwise would be a form of victim-blaming. But if what we thought was appropriate doesn’t work, why do we keep doing it? What makes us accept an unsustainable approach?
Why do we repeatedly take the Narrow Path even though it leads to weight cycling?
In a future post, we’ll discuss why it’s so hard to see past this approach and imagine another way. It’s so hard that it causes us to weight cycle not only once, but over and over. But once we see how the trap works, we’ll see how to get out.
What You Can Do Now
What I’ve explained above is a framework to answer why we weight cycle. But each of us have our own specific reasons for relapsing.
Are You At Risk for Weight Cycling?
To break your weight cycling, let’s identify the reasons you relapse. The clearer you are about the factors that affect you, the more targeted you’ll be in breaking the cycle. Which of the following elements have you experienced?
So what relapse factors did you find? If you answered yes to most of these questions, you may be setting yourself up for weight cycling. Remember your findings going forward. This hard-won personal insight is another giant step toward your ultimate goal of sustained weight loss.
As always, I’d love to hear your comments.
Weight cycling is so common among people who lose weight that it’s an epidemic. For those of us who’ve gone through it, each time it takes a huge personal toll. Despite this public and personal health tragedy, we talk about weight cycling as if it’s a natural and inevitable part of trying to lose weight. We even gave it a nickname – yo-yo dieting.
In fact, some people are convinced that we can’t lose weight and keep it off. They draw on their own weight cycling experiences. They misinterpret conclusions from large population studies to claim that you can’t permanently lose weight because diets don’t work. They also draw the premature and overreaching conclusion from body weight homeostasis or “set-point” studies that you’re destined to regain any weight you lose.
Convinced of the futility of weight loss, some give up. It’s understandable that you might think it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off, especially if you’ve weight cycled yourself.
But they are wrong. Successful weight loss sustainers have been studied extensively in large registries for many years around the world. The National Weight Control Registry in the U.S. has followed over 10,000 sustainers who maintained an average of over 60 lbs. of weight loss for over 6 years. Studies from these registries have identified dozens of differences between sustainers and weight cyclers.
Decades of sustainer research tell us that you can lose weight and keep it off
“Okay, so it’s biologically possible to lose weight and keep it off. But it’s nearly impossible in an obesogenic world.” Every day, articles are written about why we can’t lose weight because society doesn’t provide what we need. Yes, it may feel like the odds are stacked against us, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Sustainers in the registries do it in the real world. We’re going to bust all these myths.
This article is loaded with great news that will erase all your doubts. After reading it, you’re going to feel a tremendous burden lifted. And you’ll be in the right frame of mind to achieve sustained weight loss. You’ll stop wasting time wondering if it’s possible and instead be excited about making it happen.
Does Society Enable Weight Loss?
Clearly, our society has an obesogenic framework in place that promotes weight gain. But are all the pieces necessary for weight loss in place? Does the world in which we attempt to lose weight actually support it? Or is there something missing from our society’s “weight loss framework” that keeps us from achieving sustained weight loss?
The image above is a simplified problem-solving flowchart of all the societal conditions needed for an individual to lose weight. Let’s test how our society performs.
Awareness of Obesity? Check!
Most of us know obesity isn’t good for our health and that it hurts other aspects of our lives. Health care, media, and the marketing engine of the weight loss industry have made awareness a non-issue. Given the size of the weight cycling epidemic, most of us trying to lose weight have also experienced weight regain first hand. In fact, you might say we’re overly fixated on our weight.
Motivation, Willingness, and Effort? Check!
Most of us are motivated to lose weight. At any given time about 50% of overweight and obese adults are trying to lose weight. If you count people who tried in the past, most overweight and obese adults have attempted to lose weight at least once. Calling the obese and overweight lazy is a ridiculous contention, and counterproductive at best. I don't see an obesity epidemic among people who don't care. I see a weight cycling epidemic among people trying to improve their lives.
Solid Diet and Exercise Science? Check!
Sure, ongoing research on diet and exercise contribute important and useful findings regularly. But enough science has been produced that there is consensus about what is healthy. At this point there is a diet with every macronutrient permutation – low carb, high protein, low fat. Likewise, there is a spectrum of workouts with every combination of cardio, strength, flexibility, duration, and intensity. All new diets and exercise programs are derivatives of existing ones.
Sufficient and Accessible Resources? Check!
Many healthy diets and exercise routines result in weight loss. And the market for weight loss products and services is enormous at about $68 billion in 2017 and expected to continue to grow. Think weight loss professionals, programs, books, foods, gyms, videos, apps, etc. There is no lack of information, products, or services – free or paid. Anyone with the Internet has access to the answer “how to lose weight”.
It’s important to note that socioeconomics plays a huge role in the obesity epidemic. Weight loss for those in lower income levels is an extraordinary challenge that defies easy answers. For people in this situation, a lack of resources plays a huge role in their weight. At this time, I’m focusing on people who have the minimal resources needed to attempt weight loss. If we don’t have a solution for those with just the modest means necessary, we stand little chance of success to help those without.
Success Models Exist? Check!
There is extensive documentation and science about sustainers easily accessible on the Internet. Just search for “sustained weight loss” in your favorite search engine or at pubmed.gov.
Let’s Bust All the Myths and Stop Wasting Time
We dissected society’s “weight loss framework” to dispel the numerous myths that deficits in our society keep us from losing weight and keeping it off. Finger pointing articles appear regularly in the media, and they only serve to distract us.
So Do We Have What We Need?
The answer is a resounding YES. There is no question that a “weight loss framework” exists in our society. We live in an obesogenic environment, but society enables sustained weight loss as well.
This has huge implications for us as individuals and a society dealing with obesity. Focusing on the issues above will probably lead to incremental progress at best. Why? The obesity epidemic is worsening even as we keep building out our framework. Despite more public health campaigns, research, products, and services, we have nothing to show for it.
I think it’s possible we’re approaching a point of diminishing returns with our current approaches.
Continuing this path will lead to a lot of wasted resources and victim blaming. Even worse, it doesn’t get us any closer to solving our weight cycling
Doubt and Burden Lifted. Now We Can Focus on The Real Problem
This is incredibly liberating! You can stop blaming yourself. You can stop waiting for the perfect diet, exercise program, wearable, or app. You can stop believing weight loss is impossible. Everything you need to lose weight and keep it off is available now.
By clearing up this confusion, we can now focus on identifying the real problem.
Why Such a Low Success Rate?
For a long time now, the problem has not been if losing weight was possible. Weight loss happens daily on a population scale! Search for “weight loss progress pics” in your favorite search engine, social media platform, social network, or forum. Weight loss is ubiquitous.
Even better, the question is no longer if it’s possible to lose weight and keep it off in our society. The large weight loss registries around the world are massive proof of this.
The real problem is the low success rate for sustained weight loss. As we’ve discussed, only 1 out of 5 of us lose weight and keep it off. That’s a 20% success rate.
Since it is possible to achieve sustained weight loss, why is the success rate so low?
If we have all the ingredients and components for sustained weight loss, why isn't it fixed? How does the same framework allow for radically different outcomes – sustainers versus weight cyclers?
The Mystery of Weight Cycling
Let’s go back to that 80% weight regain rate. That high a rate is a big clue that the usual suspects aren’t responsible. This rate is happening even though our society provides all the components of a weight loss framework. That already tells us something else is at play.
For now we know at least two things about it:
That’s progress, but we need to keep an open mind. How can we miss something so big? In future posts, we’re going to shine a light on it.
First, we’ll look for clues from what weight cyclers do that lead them to relapse. Then, we’ll solve the mystery and identify the culprit that leads us to weight cycle over and over again.
What You Can Do Now
We’ve narrowed down our obesity problem to the low 20% success rate of people who achieve sustained weight loss. But percentages are for populations. It might just mean most people have the wrong approach.
If you’ve read my other posts, you know that breaking your weight cycling to achieve sustained weight loss is what you should focus on (rather than for instance shopping for another diet). Now let’s take the next step. Answer this question for yourself:
What are your personal causes of relapse?
What causes you to quit your weight loss efforts? For help, look at this weight cycle diagram. The better you know your own causes, the better you’ll be able to solve them. You’ll also get more out of the next article.
As always, I’d love to hear your comments.
In a previous post, I described the size of the weight cycling epidemic as 70 million U.S. adults losing weight at any given time who will regain their weight. That’s 30% of all adults in the U.S. The sheer numbers of those who weight cycle each year, and throughout their lives, make this an epidemic with huge economic and societal costs. It is one of the greatest human-made public health problems we face today.
But just as great is the effect weight cycling has on an individual over a lifetime, an impact well beyond the effects of being overweight or obese. Here are some things that happen to people who try to lose weight and why it’s critical to understand them.
“I Feel Trapped on an Emotional Rollercoaster”
Weight cycling exacts an enormous emotional toll. Depressive symptoms are associated with weight cycling, but this doesn’t paint a full psychological picture. The experience is best shared in a story.
I interviewed numerous weight cyclers who shared their experiences. They often began by describing previous weight loss attempts and lessons they learned. Eventually, however, they all described the emotional rollercoaster that accompanied their weight cycling.
One interviewee in her early 30’s - let’s call her Jane - discussed the rollercoaster-weight cycle experience in extraordinary detail. Each cycle began with a trigger, such as looking in the mirror or having difficulty sitting in an airplane seat. The pain of the trigger drove her through a progression of very sophisticated, stage-based diet and exercise regimens she developed over years of weight cycling. She spoke of the rush or high she would feel during the weight loss phase of her cycle. Then inevitably, she would slide down the “punishing loop” phase, caused by the need for increasingly rigorous diet and exercise to reach and then simply maintain her weight goals. During this phase, she would also experience the pressure, fear, and sense of vulnerability of not being able to “keep it up.” This “punishing loop” is a horrible place to be. After exerting tremendous willpower and effort, she would eventually become overwhelmed. All it would take to relapse were common disruptions in her life, such as increased stress at work. This would always be accompanied by a sense of guilt, shame, and failure. Having relapsed, she would begin to regain her weight, until the cycle repeated with another painful trigger. She had already completed several weight cycles in her life.
Jane is a highly educated and successful business woman who has always been extremely motivated to lose weight. Over the years, she put in the time and effort. She tried medically supervised weight loss. She used personal trainers, nutritionists, and naturopaths. She tracked everything and tried many weight loss apps. She studied weight loss extensively on her own, learned things that seemed to work for her during each cycle and applied them to the next. Yet she couldn’t break the weight cycling.
Nearly all weight cyclers I interviewed said they felt trapped in repeating weight cycles and on the emotional rollercoaster. They tried to get off but couldn’t.
During my interviews, the interviewees’ emotions would always break through. This only proved their tremendous courage to share their painful stories in the hopes they would help others. It was plain to see weight is one of the most difficult emotional issues they face in their lives. There was no way to not be deeply touched by their struggles.
No doubt some of you have similar experiences and yet have found the will to try again.
“I Feel Punished for Even Trying”
You might be conflicted about trying to lose weight again, especially if you end up regaining it like you did last time. I agree - another attempt should give you pause if you’re just going to tackle it the same way as before.
Weight cycling is a perverse punishment because it is reserved exclusively for the very people who try to improve their health, appearance, self-esteem, and lives in general. As described above, each cycle initiates an emotional rollercoaster. But the costs don’t stop there. Let’s take a step back and see what the process nets you. You have to muster the courage to hope and to risk failure, over and over. You can lose tremendous time and effort, added up over years, even decades. Then at the end of each cycle, you are punished with weight regain. Perhaps worst of all, many people (1/3 to 2/3) regain more than they lost.
Imagine committing to get healthier, only to be punished by getting worse.
It’s been suggested that if you’ve weight cycled multiple times, you’ll be less willing to attempt weight loss in the future. I think it’s worse than that. Perhaps the most horrible effect of our society’s failure to address obesity is, if you’ve weight cycled in the past, you may have learned it’s not worth trying again.
Weight cycling is an epidemic of learned helplessness among those who try to improve their lives.
At any given time, with about 70 million people likely to regain the weight they lost, perverse punishment is nothing less than a public health tragedy on a massive scale. As a member of the health care community, my biggest frustration is: we haven’t been able to help people who are actually trying. This damage needs to be undone.
Is Weight Cycling Harmful?
For over 30 years, researchers have explored whether weight cycling itself was harmful to your health (1, 2) beyond the effects of obesity. Results ranged from finding no difference in health compared to those who are stable in their obesity, to increased risk for various conditions such as heart disease and mortality. In the past, health care professionals have even recommended that diet-based weight loss programs should not be funded because the “benefits of dieting are simply too small and the potential harms of dieting are too large for it to be recommended as a safe and effective treatment for obesity.” More recently, the pendulum has swung the other way, with a recent review of the scientific literature arguing that increased disease risk related to weight cycling is sparse, and “weight loss intervention should not be discouraged because of a person's propensity to be a weight cycler”.
This area of research is a quagmire of mixed and inconclusive results. It may be that certain populations are at greater risk for certain health issues after weight cycling, and other populations for developing different ones. As this field of research standardizes its study designs, the question remains open.
My takeaway message is this:
Don’t be afraid to try to lose weight for fear of the health effects of regain.
And if you’re going to do it, make it count
by focusing on achieving SUSTAINED weight loss
Here’s Why Focusing on Weight Cycling Matters
So why did I detail the personal toll of weight cycling?
Understanding the pain of weight cycling is the start to breaking the cycle
We’re all driven to lose weight in part from the psychological pain of being overweight. That was certainly true for me. But focusing exclusively on removing JUST that pain is part of what leads to weight cycling itself, which I will illustrate in future posts. A better pain to target is the entire toll of weight cycling. Feeling the cost from a broken process makes you want to fix that process.
Let’s step back and look at the big picture. Consider the Emotional Rollercoaster, which starts with the pain of being overweight and goes on from there. Then add the psychological harm of Perverse Punishment of regaining weight. This is the collective pain generated throughout each cycle AND afterwards. This is what you want to fix. Don’t just lose weight. Lose weight in a way that doesn’t lead you to weight cycle.
Successful (and Happy!) Sustainers have Solved the Weight Cycling Problem
Now that you recognize the toll weight cycling has taken, let’s make something good come from it. For a long time now, there has been hope, if you know where to look. Long term sustainers (people who have maintained long term weight loss) do exist. They have been studied and reported on extensively. Researchers have isolated many things they do differently from weight regainers. Let’s see how sustainers begin to break the weight cycle.
Through my interviews, I’ve learned that sustainers don’t just go on an all-out quest to lose as much weight as possible. Instead, driven by a strong desire to avoid weight cycling again, they go on an all-out quest to lose weight in a way they can live with. How? Here’s the insight you’re ready for.
Many sustainers have discovered a way to enjoy the process of losing weight and the resulting lifestyle that sustains their weight loss.
Incredibly, many sustainers enjoy their new lifestyles as much as or more than their previous lifestyles. What does this mean? It isn’t just that losing weight and keeping it off can be enjoyable. Maybe enjoying the process is essential to sustaining your weight management efforts.
This is how sustainers end weight cycling and avoid its toll. You can lose weight in a way that makes you more and more miserable, but you’ll almost definitely gain it back. In contrast, those who become sustainers adapted their approach so that it’s more and more enjoyable. I’ll show you how sustainers do this in future posts.
What You Can Do Now
Cement your own experience weight cycling. The goal is not to relive the pain, but to acknowledge it as a concrete and important problem to solve. Have you been on your own version of the Emotional Rollercoaster of Weight Cycling? Have you felt punished for trying to lose weight when you regain it? Some things in this article will apply to you while others won’t – everyone’s experience is different. But the pain each of us feels as we weight cycle results in part from an unsustainable approach to weight loss.
Let’s recognize what you just accomplished. Your big leap forward from this article is that you now understand the toll weight cycling takes on you, and hopefully you’ll take that toll seriously in your weight loss plans. From now on, don’t think only of the pain of being overweight, but also the pain of weight cycling. You may have just shaved years off your weight loss journey.
You have taken a big step towards becoming a sustainer by realizing the need to deal with weight cycling.
So how do you avoid weight cycling the next time you lose weight? That is the right question, the right focus. If the weight cycling epidemic is a terrible experience that everyone wants to fix, and we already know what successful sustainers do, why does just about everyone weight cycle at least once? In future posts, you’ll see why the dieting mindset is so hard to break.
Until then, I’d love to hear your comments.
We’re all aware of the obesity epidemic, not only in this country, but worldwide. But despite an ever-increasing selection of diets, exercise strategies, and technology, obesity rates continue to increase. That’s a very telling correlation. Why is this happening? Maybe we’re targeting the wrong problem.
What’s the Best Way to Reverse Obesity?
Obesity is a complex multifactorial problem; how can those of us who are overweight or obese figure out the best way to address it when traditional methods like dieting aren’t reliable? One way is to target a key challenge around which our own weight AND the entire obesity epidemic pivots.
Here are some candidates. Entirely change the food environment. The physical environment. The workplace. The obesogenic (obesity-causing) market economy through taxation. If any of these ecological problems were fixed, they would dramatically change the complexion of obesity in this country.
But these challenges would have little impact on those of us who are overweight or obese now. IF they were fixed, the timetable for change would likely be decades. What’s more, the progress made so far is at best slowing the continued increase in U.S. obesity rates, never mind reversing it. Clearly, we can’t depend on solutions to these problems to change our lives.
Weight Cycling Is More Important Than You Think
There is at least one pivotal challenge that, if solved, could impact people in the near term – Weight Cycling. Weight cycling is the regaining of weight after losing it. In other words, it is the inability to sustain weight loss. Some call it yo-yo dieting. It occurs in such large numbers that it qualifies as its own spin-off epidemic.
Anyone who’s tried to lose weight is aware of weight cycling. You might think of it as a frustrating outcome for all your weight loss efforts. Researchers and health care professionals feel the same way. But I don’t think it’s been given the attention it deserves. My goal is to elevate the status of “sustained weight loss” to the primary target for people trying to lose weight, not just an afterthought. I’ll show you why solving weight cycling would profoundly change individual lives as well as the entire course of the obesity epidemic. And why ignoring it will leave us chasing our tails as obesity rages on.
Focus on Sustained Weight Loss, Not Just Weight Loss
Do you have a history of weight cycling? Let me explain why achieving sustained weight loss should be your singular goal.
Let’s take a step back to see what the real need is. If we look at the weight loss landscape, from scientific research to the consumer marketplace, it’s clear we’re trying to figure out how to lose weight better. Everyday there’s a new science-based diet, an even better workout, a more precise and motivating fitness tracker. But achieving better weight loss is not the biggest problem. Many people lose weight everyday – we already do this on a massive scale.
Weight loss itself is only half the problem – a problem for which we have sufficient solutions. But our continued focus on only this half has created a catastrophe for people, health care, and our society in general. Why? Because we haven’t figured out how to make it easy to sustain the weight loss. The bar for making progress against obesity has moved – most people just haven’t realized it yet.
The problem we should be trying to solve is how to lose weight in a way that enables you to keep it off.
As individuals, it’s important to focus on sustained weight loss and not just weight loss for several reasons.
First, focusing on just weight loss is part of the very mechanism by which many people end up relapsing and regaining weight. It’s part of the problem. If you don’t change your mindset, you may doom yourself to weight cycle for years. I’ll write about this in more detail on my blog.
Second, the costs of weight cycling are very high, and they exacerbate the toll obesity already takes. We’ll explore this more below.
Third, achieving sustained weight loss requires an entirely different approach than just trying to lose weight. I’ll discuss in detail how you can sustain weight loss with lessons from the science of sustained weight loss and real-life success stories here.
For society, this focus is equally important. Imagine people filling a room at the rate of new cases of obesity. Some people are temporarily able to get out by losing weight, only to be pulled back in by weight cycling. Another new diet just leads to another temporary escape. The room just keeps filling.
Instead, if those of us who are overweight put our effort into sustained weight loss, we have the potential to open the spigot of the obesity epidemic at a population level and begin to empty the room.
What are the consequences of not focusing on sustained weight loss? The Weight Cycling Epidemic. In the rest of this post, I’ll start to dissect this epidemic by describing its enormous scale.
Obesity Is the Obvious Epidemic
About 37% of adults in the U.S. are obese and another 33% are overweight, affecting a total of about 70% of U.S. adults, or approximately 175 million people. That means 2 out of every 3 adults in the U.S. are either overweight or obese. The lowest obesity rate of any state is about 22%. If you’ve ever been overweight, you probably already know firsthand about some of the health, psychological, social, and economic consequences of obesity. So rather than give a comprehensive review, I’ll stay at a high level and emphasize a few things.
Sustained weight loss may be the linchpin for your health. Obesity is the number 1 cause of preventable life-years lost in the U.S. Think about that – it robs more people of more years of life than any other modifiable behavioral risk factor. Because of its profound, widespread effects on your entire body, it contributes to disease in all major organ systems. Obesity also deeply effects how you experience nearly every aspect and stage of your life, anywhere from your social well-being to how much you earn.
If you are overweight or obese, this may be the biggest obstacle standing in your way to having a healthy and high-quality life, the social relationships you want, and the career you’ve earned. In short, it stands in your way of experiencing the life that you want.
But for those who try to lose weight, obesity is not the only problem.
Weight Cycling Is a Hidden Epidemic
Odds are you’ve tried to lose weight at least once, even if you didn’t know any of the statistics above. Unfortunately, trying to lose weight creates its own challenges. The weight cycling epidemic is a byproduct of the obesity epidemic.
Here are some back of the napkin calculations of the weight cycling epidemic using various sources of information (1, 2). Remember that 70% of U.S. adults who are overweight or obese? They are not just sitting around unconcerned. At any given time about 50% of them are trying to lose weight, which translates to about 88 million people. However, only 1 out of 5 will succeed in keeping the weight off for at least a year, about 18 million people. The other 80% will regain their weight, about 70 million. So, around 70 million adults in the U.S. who are trying to lose weight right now will end up regaining that weight (30% of the entire adult population). These numbers do not even include those of us who may have tried in the past.
Now We Know What We Need to Fix
Identifying the best target is the first step in solving any challenge. For the current obesity epidemic and those in it, weight cycling is the biggest solvable problem. That makes it the pivotal challenge of the obesity epidemic.
You Are Not Alone
It’s clear the weight cycling epidemic is enormous. The numbers above simply describe the scope of the weight cycling epidemic. But these numbers also mean you are not alone in your struggles. Millions of people are going through it with you.
Where to Start?
How can you begin to change your mindset? First understand which pattern you fit:
When you’ve tried to lose weight, have you only focused on losing weight, and not keeping it off? When a diet doesn’t work, do you just try another one the next time?
Or, have you thought about weight cycling as being as much of a problem as being overweight? Have you purposefully approached your weight loss differently to prevent weight cycling?
Viewing sustained weight loss as your goal is a critical distinction you need for success.
In future posts, I’ll continue to give form to the sorely underdiscussed issue of weight cycling – its personal toll and why it happens. I’ll describe what people who achieve sustained weight loss have in common. And I’ll share how you can achieve sustain weight loss yourself.
Until then, I’d love to hear your comments.
Chris Tsai, MD
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