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.
Chris Tsai, MD
Be notified about updates.
And get “email only” material.