Losing fat and maintaining fat loss is difficult. There’s no question about it. Research has found that nearly all dieters will re-gain fat and many will often exceed their initial weight. In fact, a meta-analysis of 29 long-term weight loss studies found that half of subjects lost weight was regained within two years, and by five years, more than 80% of lost weight was regained (1).
Can we lose fat and keep it off?
Yes, we can! With a well-planned, consistent and sustainable diet, exercise, support and most importantly, patience, people can successfully maintain their fat loss. However, it’s important to understand that you are inevitably fighting against your body, which is trying to prevent starvation and in doing so, is favouring weight re-gain.
The battle against our body
Our bodies have evolved sophisticated homeostatic processes which protect fat stores once we have them. When fat is lost, our bodies go into survival mode, modifying biological pathways to alter energy homeostasis and nutrient metabolism (promoting fat storage) as well as increase energy intake by increasing ghrelin (an appetite stimulating hormone) and decreasing leptin (an appetite supressing hormone)(2).
What can we do?
• Set a sensible calorie deficit. This is based on individual factors such as gender, life stage and activity levels. To lose weight, an individual must be consuming less calories than they are burning (3).
• Choose unprocessed whole foods which are high in fibre. A 2019 study found that those following a processed diet chose to consume greater amounts of foods than those on a non-processed diet, despite meals being matched for calories, energy density and macronutrients (4).
• Choose protein-rich foods. Protein is the most important macronutrient to consider for fat loss. It promotes satiety (feelings of fullness), uses more energy to digest (increasing energy expenditure) and maintains muscle mass. Check out our article on Why Protein is the Key to Fat Loss for more information.
Why we need to play the long game.
One of the most important things to understand is that extreme, fast fat loss is almost always short lived. Super restrictive, low calorie diets are effective in achieving fast weight loss, but unfortunately this isn’t the weight loss we want. When we restrict the energy we consume, our body turns to energy we store in the body (glycogen). Glycogen is stored bound to water, so when it’s used up, the bound water is released. This means the weight loss we observe is water loss, not fat loss. Once glycogen is all used up this water loss begins to stabilise (5).
Once the glycogen’s gone, what’s next? If a calorie deficit is set too low and our protein requirements are not met, the body turns to muscles for energy. This too results in weight loss, but it’s still not the weight loss we want. Breaking down lean muscle mass not only impedes on fat loss but can have other negative health implications (6).
Instead we need to ensure our calorie deficit is sensible and our protein intake is adequate, even if this does mean we have to wait a bit longer to see results. Incremental behaviour changes are the key to sustained fat loss and the reason it’s important to play the long game!
(1) James W Anderson, Elizabeth C Konz, Robert C Frederich, Constance L Wood, Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 74, Issue 5, November 2001, Pages 579–584, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/74.5.579
(2) Greenway F. L. (2015). Physiological adaptations to weight loss and factors favouring weight regain. International journal of obesity (2005), 39(8), 1188–1196. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2015.59
(3) Blomain, E. S., Dirhan, D. A., Valentino, M. A., Kim, G. W., & Waldman, S. A. (2013). Mechanisms of Weight Regain following Weight Loss. ISRN obesity, 2013, 210524. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/210524
(4) ) Hall, K., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., & Chen, K. et al. (2019). Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism, 30(1), 67-77.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
(5) Kreitzman, S., Coxon, A., & Szaz, K. (1992). Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 56(1), 292S-293S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/56.1.292s
(6) Willoughby, D., Hewlings, S., & Kalman, D. (2018). Body Composition Changes in Weight Loss: Strategies and Supplementation for Maintaining Lean Body Mass, a Brief Review. Nutrients, 10(12), 1876. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10121876