Photo credit: Marjan Lazarevski on Flickr
What happens when we gain a few pounds? Weight gained during the holidays, through stress, or over freshman year of college may seem like a temporary change. But can we actually lose the weight we gain and keep it off in the long run?
In 2000 a team of doctors, nurses and researchers tracked the weight of 195 people over the holidays and again after a year. They published their findings in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
The actual average weight gained between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day was just one pound. But that relatively good news was countered by some really bad news: while we don’t gain much weight, whatever we do gain, we seem to keep. People seem unable to shed holiday pounds in the subsequent months. It just contributes to life-long weight gain.
Heavier people gained more weight. And, not too surprisingly, those who reported exercising gained less weight, and the most active actually lost weight. See the chart below.
The weight you gain is weight you keep: The Set Point Theory
According to the Set-Point Theory of bodyweight “weight is maintained at a stable range, known as the “set-point,” despite the variability in energy intake and expenditure.”(1) It also states that the body is more efficient gaining and maintaining weight than losing it.
Our bodies quickly adapt whenever we gain weight to establish a new set point.
It is possible to change the body’s set point to a lower level, but it is really, really hard.
You can initially lose the weight by hitting the gym and dieting. Every weight-loss plan works. At least at first. But then reality sets in.
In reality, 97 percent of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within three years. Obesity research fails to reflect this truth because it rarely follows people for more than 18 months. – Harriet Brown writing for Slate.com
And for the 3% who keep the weight off, doing so becomes a stressful, all-encompassing obsession. It’s a full-time job.
Long term weight loss is possible, but it’s really, really hard. According to the National Weight Control Registry, a database tracking people who have lost weight and maintained the loss for over 5 years, success stories share these traits: (2)
- 78% eat breakfast every day.
- 75% weigh themselves at least once a week.
- 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.
- 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.
These folks never go back to care-free eating and living. They remain ever-vigilant, tracking their diets and always knowing their exact weight.
Weight loss is even harder for the obese.
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, that the vast majority of obese people will not return to “normal weight” within a given year. Specifically, the odds that an obese woman will return to normal weight is 1 in 124; for men, it’s 1 in 210.
Weight gain is multifactorial. Long-term weight loss requires changing one’s lifestyle, surroundings, friends, culture, and outlook. And sometimes even that’s not enough.
Food addiction, age, binge eating, hormonal imbalances, culture, food access, poverty, medication, meat consumption, and engineered foods are all implicated in weight gain.
Some weight gain, like after menopause and childbirth, is inevitable. We’ve written about this here.
Food addiction is possibly as widespread as smoking addiction, and probably even more powerful. In a culture saturated with cheap foods engineered to hack our brains’ preference for fat, salt, and sugar, food addicts face an extraordinary challenge. They have to fight powerful biological, cultural, and commercial forces. It’s no wonder people with food addictions say their battle is lifelong.
Only a plant-based diet lets people safely lose weight and sustain that weight loss.
The only evidence for long-term weight loss through diet is found among those following a plant-based diet. See the video below, from NutritionFacts.org.
Inconvenient truth: vegans are the only dietary group in America who are, on average, at a healthy weight.
Every other group, including vegetarians who eat dairy, are overweight.
The Adventist Health Study has followed thousands of vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters since 1974 and found that the vegans not only stayed lean, but also had 78% lower prevalence of diabetes and 75% lower prevalence of hypertension compared to meat eaters.
Plant eaters enjoy an 11% faster resting metabolism. It may be easier for vegans to lower their set point than meat eaters.
To lose weight and keep it off, start early, and eat mostly plants.
The smartest approach to weight management is to start early and remain vigilant throughout life. Fat babies become fat children who become fat adults who get sick more often and suffer more. Parents must keep their kids lean and healthy from the start. Babies need breastmilk and plant-based foods, and not much else.
As adults, we should eat mostly plants, exercise daily for at least 20 minutes, manage our stress, get enough sleep, and cultivate loving relationships. All these work together to keep up healthy and happy in the long run. They also help keep our weight down, so that we never have to worry about trying to get back to normal weight.
Losing weight is possible, but it may actually be impossible for everyone to achieve “normal weight.”
There are tremendous benefits associated with losing 5 to 10% of our bodyweight if we are obese or overweight. But it’s not realistic for everyone to expect to achieve their medically prescribed ideal weight.
What about Bariatric surgery? It works for some, but is dangerous.
Bariatric surgery is a medieval treatment made possible with modern medicine. There are three kinds: gastric banding, gastric bypass, and sleeve gastronomy. These all involve rerouting digestion to bypass parts of the stomach, making it physically impossible to eat more than a few bites at a time.
It’s torture. Bariatric patients continually feel hungry and crave food, but simply cannot eat. It’s like the Buddhist idea of punished souls: they’re hungry ghosts with giant stomachs but tiny mouths.
People who undergo this operation face serious risks. According to the Mayo Clinic, complications are serious:
Aside from all the infections and complications coming from any invasive surgery, 1 in 50 die within one month of the procedure.
Doctors will say that, if one survives the first year, the benefits outweigh the procedure’s dangers. But with such a high death rate and so many potential complications, this should be an option of last resort.