Why Do Dieters Regain Weight?

Ask QuestionsPredictably, after my blog yesterday called out Weight Watchers for having a failure rate hovering right around 100%, people rushed to blame almost 100% of dieters for “just doing it wrong.”  The myth goes that almost everyone fails at weight loss because almost everyone quits their diet and goes back to their old habits/doesn’t have the willpower to keep dieting/doesn’t do it “right”. That’s not exactly what the research says but before we talk about this let’s look at this from a basic perspective.

First, let’s talk about what “dieting” means (so that we can avoid the “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change!” discussion.)  Dieting occurs when someone gives their body less food than it needs to survive in the hope that it will eat itself, thereby becoming smaller.  Call it a diet, call it a lifestyle change, if you are starving your body hoping that it will eat itself resulting in intentional weight loss, congratulations you are on a diet.  (You are completely and totally allowed to diet, I’m just saying let’s call it what it is.)

So why are diets so very unsuccessful long term?  Let’s look at it from your body’s perspective.  Your body isn’t aware that there is social value in meeting an arbitrary stereotype of beauty. Your body can’t actually imagine that there is enough food available, but you won’t feed it because you are hoping that it eats itself and becomes smaller, so it assumes that you live in a circumstance where sometimes you have to deal with starvation. If you add a bunch of exercise to that then your body assumes that there are times when you are starving and have to run long distances.  Your body is very interested in helping you live, and so it reacts to this situation by putting measures into place for the express purpose of gaining and maintaining weight so that you can deal with your life of starvation and running.  And it keeps that up long after your initial weight loss ends.

An Australian research team studied people who had lost weight in an effort to understand some of these changes. A year after their initial weight loss:

  • A hormone that suppresses hunger and increases metabolism – Leptin – was still lower than normal
  • Ghrelin, nicknamed the “hunger hormone,” was about 20 percent higher
  • Peptide YY, a hormone associated with hunger suppression was abnormally low
  • Participants reported being much more hungry and preoccupied with food then they had prior to losing weight

A year after losing weight these people’s bodies were still biologically different than they had been prior to the weight loss attempt, desperately working to regain the weight – and participants had already regained about 30% of the weight they had lost.  One of the study’s authors characterized it as “A coordinated defense mechanism with multiple components all directed toward making us put on weight.”

The evidence that exists shows that almost everyone fails at long term weight loss (yes Virginia, even the National Weight Control Registry.  In fact, especially the NWCR!)   I will never cease to be amazed at people who insist that it’s just that almost everyone does it wrong.  That’s like saying that, since some people survive jumping out of planes when their parachutes don’t open, almost everyone who dies in such a circumstance is just falling wrong.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  the truth is the almost everyone can lose weight short term on almost any program, and almost everyone gains their weight back long-term even if they are able to maintain their diet behaviors, with many people gaining back more than they lost. What WW and other diet companies have managed to do is take credit for the first half of a natural biological response (the weight loss), and convince their clients to blame themselves for the second half of that response (the rebound weight gain.)  Sure it’s disingenuous, but at least it’s highly profitable!  They’ve also managed to spread this myth far and wide, successfully making people into PR machines.  They’ve done such a great job of turning people into myth-spreading marketing machines, that diet companies don’t even have to speak up in their defense because other people will be so very happy to do their dirty work for them.

Like the blog?  Here’s more of my stuff:

Become a member: Keep this blog ad-free, support the activism work I do, and get deals from cool businesses Click here for details

The Book:  Fat:  The Owner’s Manual  The E-Book is Name Your Own Price! Click here for details

Dance Class DVDs:  Buy the Dance Class DVDs – Every Body Dance Now! Click here for details

58 thoughts on “Why Do Dieters Regain Weight?

  1. If what works for me, doesn’t work for you, you must be doing it wrong!
    I am very lucky to have beautiful clear skin, that actually seems to thrive on my neglect. I spend 4 hours a day in a chlorinated swimming pool. I buy no products, and wash my hair and body with whatever soap the YMCA puts on the wall of the shower room.
    I easily recognize that this is not normal, and there are many people with elaborate skin care regimes who ‘try harder’ than me, yet end up with very different results.
    Clearly, THEY must be doing it wrong!
    After all, since it is so easy for me, it must be easy for everyone, so if they ‘fail’ they must be lazy, or not trying hard enough… or perhaps they are lacking morality.

    1. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Most people have something about themselves that comes to them naturally. Be it a body part, hair, smarts. Most of us find something that we are very proud of about ourselves for that very reason. And most of us recognize it as being something different that not everyone else can obtain/attain, therefore we do not flog others for not being able to obtain/attain it.

      I have a knack for learning languages. The hubs does not. I’m thrilled that in all our years of marriage I’ve been successful at teaching him a handful of phrases in the languages he might actually have a need to use. I’ve not flogged him for being an ignorant dolt, for he is not! Not that anyone should be flogged…

      The hubs is naturally within the realm of handsome and his body size in the realm of acceptible in our society. I feel I fit in the realm of standard prettiness–but I no longer fit in the proper “thin” category, so the pretty is negated in societal norms. The hubs thinks I’m gorgeous, I believe I’m pretty and my body should be cherished regardless of my assimilation or lack thereof to what our society accepts. It’s all good.

    2. This is such a PERFECT analogy for this that I just want to HUG YOU! 🙂 Thank you for putting it so simply by comparing it to skin which we all seem to know and understand is ‘different for everyone’. ❤

      1. Thanks! Hugs right back to you 🙂
        Yes, folks willingly accept that everyone’s skin is different, yet when it comes to metabolism, it is assumed that people (as Ragen puts it so perfectly), are like identical lawnmower motors… calories in, calories out.
        *shakes head*

    3. My skin used to be like that until I got the coil, the low level hormones deal with my period, stop me getting pregnant but they also aggravate my Roseca, which I didn’t know was the cause of the redness in my cheeks until I started getting the acne too. I’m now getting all sorts of lotions and potions suggested by my family and they even suggested I change birth control methods. Of course this is partially because I have stopped wearing make up unless I want to, so the last few times they’ve seen me they’ve disapproved of that too >.<

      I'm lucky as it comes into what I'd tentatively call Spring my face seems to be settling down, I don't know if my body is adjusting or if it's related to the warmer weather – or maybe I'm doing something right again, but I'm back to my basic skin care which is oh yeah, I might as well use them as I have them (assuming I remember) and general benign neglect at other times.

      I wonder what my sisters would say if they know I don't shave my legs or armpits before I go swimming!

      1. It does not seem fair that my skin ‘behaves’ with no effort on my part, while you struggle with yours…

  2. Exactly! Personally, I’ve never had a “bad hair day” Just brush these lustrous locks, and everythings good. But I don’t go around lecturing others to quit the hot rollers and the curling irons and blowdryers, etc.

    I guess we are the boss of our underpants and brush.

    The point is we are different. (I’m just a little better)

    1. My post must have come out wrong, I was trying to express that I have an asset that I recognize as a privilege, that I can take no credit for… my very point was that I am not better than anyone else for having tough skin.
      I’m sorry… I thought my sarcasm would be obvious.

      1. Actually, Sandra, I thought your skin analogy was perfect. Because exactly the same thing happens. People who have more acne are blamed for it, when in actuality, short of acutane most acne products are about as effective as dieting or prayer.

        1. Valerie,
          This is so true. And skin care companies make a lot of money pushing acne products.
          Of course, they must first make you feel badly about your skin so you ‘need’ their product 😦

      2. I think that Jlzkcarlos was also being sarcastic in turn, but not at your response. I totally understood your sarcasm, and hers too.

          1. Sorry. My hair is really nice, but big deal…I was being sarcastic and “funny” The thing about all of this is, in all my years, I never won any awards for having lovely waist-long locks. (I was just hiding behind my hair) Yeah, right!!!

            1. @ jlxcarlos: I have never won any ‘skin awards’ either. I was worried that my post had come off as ‘conceited’ (which was truly not my intention).
              While I may have won the ‘skin lottery’, I have lost the gene pool in many other aspects… including hair! I would love to have your waist-long locks- unfortunately, my hair is not as resistant to chlorine as my skin…

  3. I got behind a van yesterday in traffic with the words “DIETS DON’T WORK!” and thought, well hey, finally a bit of intelligence…then I noticed it was a advertising van for some sort of “Melt the Fat Away Fast!” pill.

    Soo…diets don’t work, but pills do? Is that the message I’m meant to take away from this?

    Here’s a wacky idea: why not say, “Health works!” and leave it at that?

    (BTW…I’m currently living outside of Augusta where on any given day I can count 3 “Bariatric Surgery WORKS…Ask Your Doctor” billboards, along with numerous adverts for weight loss centers, if not the actual centers themselves, like JC, WW, and LA Weight Loss. It always makes me crazed in the head to see a car with “Follow Me to the Next Weight Watcher’s meeting!” on its boot…)

    1. I can feel a number of possible bumper stickers coming on here. Life is difficult enough without having to deal with anti-chub discrimination on such a universal and inisidious level.

    1. Virginia was a little girl who wrote a very famous letter to a newspaper many years ago asking if Santa Claus was real. The editor’s reply began “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” and went on to extoll the spirit of generosity and kindness at Christmastime as the real Santa Claus, whether or not there was a kindly man at the North Pole bringing toys to all the children of the world.

      It’s a popular turn of phrase to use (or, as in this case, paraphrase) to illustrate that something is real whether or not people think it’s rational.

      1. When I first started working after college, I used the phrase “Yes, Virginia” in responding to a client. I got in sooooo much trouble!

  4. This information, more than anything else I have ever read or heard, is the foundation of my decision to STOP abusing my body with weight loss tactics. I do not agree with bariatric surgery as a tool for weight management.. but that is my own underpants. I do, however, completely support anyone who wishes to modify their body through nips, tucks and such for their own purposes. I would love an opportunity to afford some treatment that would allow me to get rid of the excess skin on my frame that has resulted from yoyo diets and my body finally settling significantly below the highest of my weights. I don’t do anything about it becuase I will not be able to 1. afford it, and 2. get anyone to do it without feeling they have to take fat tissue also… or force me to loose another 60 pounds to qualify. So I get to be saggy, baggy and fat. I’m a walking-talking example of what not to do to your body.

    1. What I see is that you are a walking, talking human woman whose body has seen her successfully through a lot of tough changes and issues. Your body has nothing to do with your value or your beauty. Those are qualities that are inherent in you. You are beautiful for speaking out. 🙂

      1. Once again, I wish for a “Like” button on Blogger. That was the sweetest, most supportive and compassionate reply! Not to mention, truest.

    2. Yup, same here – the Honourary Swag of Motherhood is firmly settled on my front now, and because I’m also fat, there’s no chance of getting it removed. Hey, maybe I’ll just accept it for what it is – the physical sign that I’ve proudly borne two children. Skin swags and gollops are very difficult to love, especially in this skinny-obsessed culture, but I think maybe I can decide to be proud of my 59-year-old body – it’s had a long, tough, productive life, and it’s showing it. I’m still feeling my way through the idea that it’s okay to NOT hate being fat and life-marked. My words may be clumsy but I wish to communicate support and affection for every woman battling against fat discrimination. It’s easily as ugly and unjustifiable as racial or sexual discrimination.

  5. I am embarrassed to admit that I was one of those people that supported weight watchers. I know better now. The last time I went to ww, I became increasingly aware that the women that went never looked like they were actually losing weight. One woman was obsessed about the last 2 pounds to goal for several MONTHS! And I actually thought that all those people MUST be doing something wrong and that myself and a few others were the only ones doing it right.
    And then my weight loss came to a screeching halt and nothing I did made a difference, eating the minimum, exercising more. I know I followed that program diligently and things just stopped working. I asked the leader and she suggested I drop more points. I’m a runner and my runs were already suffering from low carb intake. That’s when I had my AHA moment. It’s not me!! This is BS! Clearly I can’t do the activity that I want to do and stick with this crap. The running started as a weight-loss tool years ago but has developed into a favourite activity of mine. I realized to be able to continue the long distance runs, I had to give up the diet (or lifestyle change). Sure I may be a few pounds heavier now, but the trade off? I can run faster and further and I enjoy every minute of it because it’s not to burn off calories or earn more points.

    1. I also did Weight Watchers at one point, and heavens knows why. I look back at my photos of how I looked in high school, and couldn’t believe I thought I was fat. Of course, I probably had been not taking care of my health then, having to run from classroom to classroom, and the high anxiety that came with school in general.

      I’ve realized I did Weight Watchers because I try to control my anxiety by gaining control over as much as I can. I also have been prescribed a antidepressant, which also calms down symptoms of OCD, so I think I have some OCD but not the stereotypical version of it. Every once in awhile, for example recently I was sleeping a lot and figured it was my diet, I was tempted to go back to Weight Watchers to feel the illusion of control. Instead, I realized I was just eating too many carbs, for my body. I mean like white bread carbs, not grain carbs which are good.

      I think diet plans play into the illusion of having control a great deal, and makes it seem that watching what you eat is one less thing to worry about. Until you are worrying about it constantly. How many points did I have today, oh I’m still hungry but I used all my points, ect. ect. Before you know it, you’re starving yourself trying to meet the points rather than meeting what your body needs to be healthy. That’s how the diet companies keep getting clients, from the illusion that we can keep our bodies in our control perfectly. It simply isn’t true.

      Our bodies need food to survive, no matter what size our bodies are. If only society would finally recognize that, then again, there is no money to be earned from body acceptance. So we have to continue to fight an industry that makes money off of convincing us to be thin and sick, is better than being fat and healthy.

    2. Yup, been there, done Weight Watchers. And Slimming World. And the Cambridge Diet. And ‘herbal’ slimming capsules (amphetamines). And Rosemary Conley diet classes. And a year of little blue pills and diet and exercise under the eye of a community nurse (that’s how seriously weight loss is equated with health gain in the UK!). The result? Zip. Nothing. No weight loss whatsoever. My mother put me on my first diet at 14, and all it did was make me a very clever sneak-thief of biscuits and cheese and anything sweet. At 59 I’m still very, very heavy – around 270 pounds – but I’m NOT going to wreck my joints, my energy levels, and my enjoyment of life by agonising over it any more. Well done with the running, it sounds awesome!

      1. Running is awesome! Although for me biking and yoga are close seconds. I finished a half marathon yesterday. It was not my first half marathon and the reason I keep going and why I love those events are the people of all different fitness levels, sizes and ages! I know some people still have the mistaken belief that they can’t do something because they weigh too much or are too old but it’s simply not true.
        And thanks to blogs like this and other sources of HAES, I no longer assume when I see a heavier person at an event that they must be running to try to lose weight. I just see a fellow runner.

        1. Even when I was a child and not overweight, although I was very active (constantly climbing trees, swimming, riding, mucking out horses etc.) the one thing I could NOT do was run for more than 20 seconds. Seriously, I’d start tasting blood in the back of my throat. I’d be gasping for breath as well. No, I didn’t have asthma (well, it was never diagnosed), I just couldn’t run.

          1. Oh, I wouldn’t run as a kid voluntarily! I was a fat kid and my legs would chafe so bad! I always felt like either my head or my chest was going to explode. And I wore glasses that slide down my nose as soon as I started sweating, which was always in the warm months! The worst part of running as a kid was this awful teacher I had in elementary school. He would have us run from the wall in the gym to the quarter line, back then to the 1/2, wall, 3/4, wall, other wall and back. I was a SLOW runner (still am thank you very much) and this prick of a teacher on more than one occasion would say, “Well since Louise ran that so slow, I think you should all do it again!” I would get glared at from the entire class. No wonder I was teased when the teacher was a bully!
            So I absolutely HATED running.
            I didn’t start running until my 30s, and I missed out on a lot of years of running because I didn’t think I could.
            Running slow… its still running!

          2. In light of Ragen’s most recent blog, I want to apologize if any of my comments were felt by anyone as condescending or dismissive. I am very enthusiastic about running, and I can get really excited discussing it. I do not believe any activity is for everyone and I do believe someone when they say they can’t run. When I was a child I was discouraged from ALL physical activity because I was not naturally talented at anything. I struggled with every sport, every activity. Now that I’m older I am trying things that I thought were impossible for me. Some things I still can’t do, baseball, volleyball… the eye to ball coodination thing is physically not possible for me. Again, I sincerely apologize if my comments were offensive to anyone.

            1. Hey, no worries here… I rejoice in people being able to run, and to enjoy running. I’m unfortunately one of those who find it impossible, even when not overweight, to maintain enough oxygen in the lungs to keep going, but that certainly doesn’t mean I feel at all put upon by being encouraged to give it a go… just pleased that someone else can run, and love running.

  6. Does anyone else think the term “lifestyle change” is somewhat pretentious, as in they’re implying you’re a bad person if you don’t follow whichever diet/exercise regimen they’re evangelizing? On a different note, I think orthorexia, aka the “healthy” ED is being encouraged by the government, the weight-loss industry, and people are buying into it.

    1. It does sound pretentious. It also sucks because when you do make a big change in how you eat or exercise, it’s one of the few terms to use. I usually try to say “adopted the HAES focus/perspective”, until someone comes up with a term or phrase that doesn’t make you sound like a preachy asshat. I really don’t care what other people want to eat, nor do I think my food choices are better than someone else’s. And yeah, I think orthorexia is a problem, makes you not even want to mention food or exercise with anybody anymore.

    2. My parents have ortho, and take these pills that are supplied free from some company, because nothing else in the world supplies “pharmaceutical grade” vitamins.

      I also know someone at work who’s like this. She’s also pregnant for the first and only time, since she had to go to a fertility clinic. I think her lack of periods was due to excessive dieting.

      1. Excessive dieting can cause fertility issues. Hopefully she’s taking care of herself while she’s pregnant, that’s really no time to be dieting.

  7. Regan I also want to thank you for your blog because it gives me encouragement and hope every day to work on what seems to be a very long road of loving myself as I am.

    I was born the first girl after my mother had three sons and then a few years later another girl was born. I grew up following and adoring my older brothers and was not what my mom would consider very “girly”. Go figure! I also grew up chubby and out of five kids the only chubby one! This was the 60s and thin was in and as a woman if you wanted to make something out of yourself you had to be thin and beautiful and catch a husband so I was taught at an early age to focus on getting my “MRS” not my masters. In order to do to get my MRS I had to be thin so from an early age I was told in so many words that I was fat and therefore unlovable and unworthy and most of it I felt or heard from my mom. I don’t think she was being cruel she just wanted me to fit in and be happy. She died when I was only 14 so this was instilled in me even after her death.

    So of course dieting started young and she restricted what I ate and it was obvious to me and everyone. When there was a birthday I was eating melon while everyone else ate cake.

    When I went away to college my first year I was introduced to the dorm “dealer” and got my first hits of speed. This was the first time I actually was able to lose weight and dropped from somewhere over 200 lbs down to my smallest at 5’6″ about 120 lbs. Of course my brain never fit my body or the changes I was making so my life was full of a bit of crazy.

    Eventually I fell in love and married the man I am still with today. As soon as we were together the weight crept back on and I felt it like a wave was coming or maybe a tsunami. Over the years although he never made me feel bad one day about my weight it was still there my mother’s voice in my head so I knew that even though the wave of weight was coming back it had to come off so I spent the next 27 years of my life on a variety of diets, drugs, and two weight loss surgeries including RNY. And guess what RNY doesn’t stop that wave either but I understood that and because I knew my body wanted to be where it was in the beginning that cute but maybe a bit of a chubby girl! In fact even though I found this feeling a bit odd at first I realized I preferred to be chubby over thin because it was natural for me and not painful.

    Now that I am “aware” due to these types of blogs and books and listening to my own body even though it still has a huge staple line cutting my stomach in two I am happier now with my body than I ever was and am trying to learn to love myself a little more every day! Good luck to all of us who still have this struggle with ourselves!

    1. I was the chubby girl in my family too. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I no longer tolerate anyone trying to police my body, my food and eating habits or my clothing choices. It’s still a struggle not to let those voices have any space in my head, but overall I’m much happier now than I was then.

  8. Thank You, thank you, a million than yous!
    I love hearing the cold hard facts like this. I never know what to say when this whole issue comes up but every time I read your blog a little more seeps into the old noggin and I get smarter and more confident.

  9. “Dieting occurs when someone gives their body less food than it needs to survive in the hope that it will eat itself”

    Holy crap. Ragen, thank you; that’s easily the most evocative and accurate description of intentional weight loss that I’ve ever seen. THANK YOU.

  10. What killed any desire in me to ever try dieting was in college. I had already decided the whole thing was stupid and was talking with some girls in class about how the sheer size of my bones would keep me ever reaching an “optimal” weight. They then cheerily chirped that if I dieted enough I would lose bone mass! Like that would be a good thing! I’m already on a medication that could weaken my bones over time, why in the world would I make that go faster? Instead I just focus on eating healthy and moving for my health how I can.

    1. I’m completely flabbergasted that someone would actually say that out loud. Lose bone mass…I have no words. I think I would have just stood there with my mouth open unable to speak.

    2. And this was in COLLEGE. Presumably young women of average or above intelligence, and they came out with THAT? Ye gods.

    3. This is a perfect example of how our weight-loss obsessed culture has absolutely nothing to do with being “healthy”.

  11. I believe that weight is as genetically determined as height. yet people still insist that if we “shut our mouths and move our asses” and are “willing to sacrifice our pleasure in order to look good” we’ll lose weight and keep it off. oh, and as for height, i’m a shortshortshortfat who has actually been told by numerous people to go to china and have my legs broken and stretched so I can “look normal” and since i’m not willing to do that, I obviously don’t “want” to look “hot” badly enough, and all the “shortcalls/fatcalls” I get from complete strangers (“fat dwarf!” “midget!” “troll!” “four by four!”) are therefore my own fault. it will NEVER surprise me how evil people are about weight and height, particularly for those of us who are viewed as female (due to the deification of the tall and skinny female model, who is considered the ‘ideal’, and how female bodied people are always first and foremost judged by all genders on how they look) …and how so many people think that those of us whose bodies don’t conform (whether through fat or extreme shortness or both, for instance, although this barely scratches the surface) should literally torture ourselves to regulate things that are beyond our control so that we can conform to what our disgusting culture arbitrarily considers aesthetically pleasing. It all makes me so angry and makes me feel so helpless sometimes.

  12. I am saddened, but not surprised by my fellow 60 year olds on this blog, who like me, have wasted the last 40 years worrying about their weight, size and shape, only to look back at old photos and realize that they were NOT fat to start with! We grew up in the age of Twiggy and fashion shops that sold nothing bigger than a size 14. The Biba company openly believed that anyone bigger did not deserve to wear their beautiful clothes. To be anyone at all, you needed to be thin. Trying to repair 40 years of damage is hard, but I’m not going to waste any more of my life!

    1. I’m not quite 60 (only short by 8 months) but yes, yes, YES….the cult of stick-thin ‘beauty’ of the 1960’s was appalling! I have seared on my memory the smirking face of one Miss Selfridge shopgirl who suggested I try ‘Evans OUTSIZE, Madam’… I have never bought from Selfridges since. Overcoming such deep-rooted humiliations and hurts is not easy, not is the legacy of generations of women who all quietly hated themselves for not being slender.

  13. Another “gem” they like to throw at fat people is that we are so used to overeating/large portion sizes that we don’t know what a “normal”, “correct”, et cetera, one looks like. I see so much condescension and/or infantilizing surrounding fat people, like we have not heard of the things fatphobes are telling us and so they, often Internet strangers in comment sections, just HAVE to be the ones to tell us.

    Ragen, would you be willing to make a post about how fat people are condescended to and/or infantilized like I described? I’d love to read your thoughts about the subject.

      1. Yep. I sometimes watch mukbangers or food reviewers on YT and, while the skinny ones do get hate comments — they have uploaded videos about it — it does not seem near as many as the fat ones get. With a mukbanger I watch in particular, I can all but 100% guarantee there will be at least one person in the comments section saying something about their health, their psychological status, their morality, et cetera.

    1. This is one of my personal berserk buttons, too. In addition to what you said, it’s also part of that infamous paradox of bigotry, where fat adults are seen as big babies/animals who need to be gently manipulated into engaging in behaviors/programs associated with weight loss because we’re too stupid to understand these things… while at the same time, actual fat CHILDREN are viewed as dangerous unchildlike enemy-monsters who require strictness and cruelty to be kept properly contained. I was a fat child. I remember.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.