Hollywood watchers are buzzing about Kirstie Alley's confession that she cut herself some slack after reaching her goal weight, but that little bit of slack led her to gain 83 pounds. Anyone who's lost weight knows maintenance is the hardest part—and many obesity researchers and doctors agree. Plus we give people the fewest resources and the least support to help them keep weight off.
Although many people think they're done, medical science is uncovering that your body still goes through a lot of changes—and may even work against you—after you lose weight. There are psychological challenges too. Here's more on what happens after you shed pounds—and how to work with it.
Some of the psychological motivation you had while losing weight disappears once you reach your goal. Once the compliments stop and you are not seeing changes on the scale and in your clothes as you did when you were losing, it's easy to lose your drive. You're not working toward something anymore—you're working to stay the same. It takes a different mindset and persistence to keep up a lot of work without the payoff of a visible change from week to week.
My suggestion: If you had a support system (a group, a friend, a trainer, a motivational coach or counselor, or someone else) to help you while you lost weight, don't end that relationship. Instead, let it transition so you still have some encouragement to maintain your new weight. Check out our new Feel Great Weight blogger—she's kept the weight off for almost three years.
Many unsuccessful dieters lapse into patterns such as binge eating and stress eating that can cause regain. A Swedish study shows people who are successful at keeping weight off learn better coping strategies, have more social support, assume more responsibility in life, and have more overall psychological stability. If you find you still turn to food to cope with emotions (and don't make the mistake of thinking that overeating is all about the blues—some people make a habit of overeating to celebrate!) then seek out counseling to learn new ways to deal. If you've got health insurance, check your benefits—they may cover mental health services, and you can look for a counselor who specializes in eating issues.
At least one appetite hormone, ghrelin, works against you after losing weight. Ghrelin makes you want to eat more, and studies show that the amount of ghrelin in your body rises after weight loss. (This may be a counter measure—your body may think it's been starved and so ghrelin kicks in to regain the lost weight.) However, research from Baylor University shows that the elevated levels of ghrelin won't last forever: Concentrations increase significantly around six months after weight loss, and return to normal after a year.
Metabolism slows down as you lose weight. I know—it's not fair! But when you lose weight, you lose muscle, too, and that changes your metabolism. Strength training can help you keep your metabolic rate up, but it can't make up the total difference, and you can't go back to eating the way you used to: The smaller you are, the fewer calories you need to maintain your body weight. You'll also need to consider that your metabolism slows as you age—meaning that over the years, you'll need to trim a few calories in order to maintain your body weight.
You need to exercise just as much or even more to maintain weight loss as you did to lose it in the first place. Results of a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows exercising 55 minutes a day, five days a week is key for women who want to keep weight off.
There's some good news in the end, of course: Keeping weight off gets easier over time. The chances that you'll maintain your new body weight increase after two to five years. If you've lost weight and kept it off successfully, share your best secrets! Leave me a comment—the strategies that work for you might help someone else.