Unlike what social media influencers would have you believe, the vast majority of people who lose weight don’t maintain it for longer than a year. For most people, the weight eventually comes back in a phenomenon known as “weight cycling.” And no, it has nothing to do with “falling off the wagon.”
Your weight doesn’t determine your health, so if you’re finding weight loss to be a frustrating and fruitless feat, you have our permission to give it up and focus on other aspects of your wellness instead. But if you’re committed to weight loss as a goal, there are some pitfalls that you can avoid to help improve your chances of success. Here’s what not to do.
A short-term attitude
Everything on this list is somewhat of a hard truth, but this is often the hardest to accept (and change). If you approach weight loss with a short-term attitude, you may not make it anywhere except on the yo-yo diet train.
Without a long-term approach to weight loss, you may lose 10 or more pounds in two weeks and then suffer a rebound when you discover that regimen wasn’t working for you. This is all too common when people embark on strict diets such as keto or paleo, or fad diets that promise rapid weight loss. In reality, for most people, a well-balanced diet that includes all food groups and even some treats works best in the long run.
An all-or-nothing mindset
Many people who struggle with a short-term attitude also struggle with an all-or-nothing mindset. I myself began my health and fitness journey with this mindset. I cut out all (literally all!) processed foods: no bread, no pasta, no milk, no cheese, definitely no individually wrapped snacks. I basically existed on chicken, vegetables and berries.
This was great until it wasn’t, and I ended up on a CVS run for all the chocolate and Goldfish I could hold in two hands. Then, because I’d “ruined” my diet, I would eat as much as I could physically handle, because, “Why not? I already ruined it.”
Then, of course, I’d feel bad about the snacks I ate and return to my overly restrictive regimen the next day. This is a destructive cycle to be in, but it’s something I see all the time with personal training clients. An all-or-nothing mindset can keep you in a perpetual cycle of lose-gain-lose, not to mention shame and guilt around food.
This all-or-nothing concept applies to fitness, too: If you’ve been The most effective workouts to get in shape in the least amount of time left and right but don’t feel fitter or stronger, you might be doing too much. Toning it down could — counterintuitively — be the answer to improving your fitness (and playing the long game).
A poor support system
Supportive friends, family members and significant others are critical to successful weight loss. If I was asked to cite the most common reason for not sticking to a healthy diet from my past personal training clients, I would say stigma.
That’s right. As silly as it sounds, people really do get made fun of for eating healthy, especially in regions where food is an integral part of the culture. Growing up in southern Louisiana near New Orleans, I experienced this very often when I decided I was making changes to my diet.
At family gatherings and social outings, I’d get comments like, “That’s all you’re eating?” or, “You’re really not going to eat any dessert?” or, laden with sarcasm, “Next time we’ll have a salad potluck.”
It’s not fun to be ridiculed or scoffed at, especially for things you care about (like your health!), so it can be very easy to fall into a trap of eating — and drinking — for the sake of your social life. This is why a solid support system is key to long-term weight loss. Without it, the journey can feel lonely and intimidating.
If you currently feel you lack a support system, try having open conversations with your friends, family and partner about it. You can make it clear that they don’t have to change their eating habits if they don’t want to, but that your health means a lot to you and you’d appreciate it if they didn’t mock or downplay your hard work.
If an IRL support system isn’t working out, turn to online communities that promote both health and body positivity. I really love Flex and Flow on Instagram, Health At Every Size and the Intuitive Eating Community. These communities emphasize health without emphasizing weight, which is helpful because when you focus on the health outcomes, you’ll reach your happy weight with ease. Reddit also has a great forum (/r/loseit) where you’ll find lots of real-life stories about weight loss.
Weight loss had different effects based on people’s weight
The researchers studied the health data of nearly 200,000 people from three prospective cohort studies conducted between 1988 and 2017.
People were deemed lean if they had a BMI under 25. If it was 25 to 30 they were deemed as having overweight and if it was above 30 they were deemed as having obesity.
The team evaluated various weight-loss strategies — including a low-calorie diet, exercise, low-calorie diet and exercise, fasting, a commercial weight loss program (CWLP), and diet pills — in people who lost at least 4.5 kilograms, or about 10 pounds.
They also looked at people who did not lose weight.
Of the people who lost at least 4.5 kilograms team found that all of the weight-loss strategies were associated with less weight gain and a lower risk of diabetes among people who have obesity at baseline, however, exercise was the most effective strategy.
“The primary determinant for success in obtaining and sustaining weight loss is exercise capacity. This study and many others support this fact once again,” says Dr. David Prologo, a board-certified obesity medicine physician, who was not involved with the study.
Over the course of 24 years, people with obesity who exercised had a 21% lower risk of diabetes and those who took diet pills had a 13% lower risk. People, who have overweight and who exercised, had a 9% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes and those who took diet pills had a 42% higher risk of diabetes.
“If you are overweight or obese, even moderate weight loss — up to 4.5% — showed pretty significant gains in overall health and reduction in disease risk,” says Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA medical center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding school of public health, and author of Recipe for Survival.
The health effects were opposite among lean people, and according to the study, lean people who intentionally lost weight tended to gain back more weight and have a higher risk of diabetes.
Lean people who exercised in order to lose weight had a 9% greater risk of diabetes and lean individuals who took diet pills or followed a commercial weight loss program to lose weight had a 54% increased risk of diabetes.
“These findings are surprising because it would seem that weight loss would be beneficial for everyone; based on this study, lean individuals seem to have a different biological makeup,” Ali said.
Why weight loss’s effects vary depending on body weight
Obesity causes hormonal and metabolic complications that can contribute to a range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, hypertension and heart disease.
Hunnes said the risk of diabetes and other health issues can increase depending on a person’s weight.
When people, who have obesity, lose weight they eliminate some of the fatty tissue that produces inflammation, disrupts hormonal production, and contributes to insulin resistance.
“Decreasing the volume of that tissue directly results in improved health,” says Prologo.
Lean individuals, on the other hand, have a different hormonal and metabolic makeup, which likely causes them to respond different to weight loss.
When you are lean”trying to lose weight can actually have negative effects on your overall metabolism, mental health, and possibly even overall health as you increase the likelihood you’re going to be hungry and eat more and possibly gain weight,” says Hunnes.
People who are already lean should engage in maintenance activities, says Prologo. This could include activities such as exercise and eating nutrient-dense whole foods while eliminating or reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
Ali says he often sees people try weight-loss strategies that aren’t sustainable — most diets will work for a time, he says, but the weight comes right back when the diet ends.