Losing weight is challenging. But as anyone who has ever successfully lost weight knows, it's avoiding weight re-gain that's the real challenge.
This is true no matter what method you follow to lose weight. For example, studies show that people who follow very low calorie diets (between 800-1,200 calories per day) regain between 26% and 121% of their lost weight five years after treatment.
People who follow behavioral weight management programmes (such as WW, formerly Weight Watchers) regain between 30-35% of their lost weight after one year.
Even people who use weight loss medications, such as Wegovy, are shown to have regained about two-thirds of the weight they lost one year after stopping the drug.
There are many reasons why we regain the weight we lose. First, maintaining weight loss is less rewarding than seeing the number on the scale decrease while you're losing weight. This makes it hard to maintain motivation and continue looking after your weight.
Second, it's often difficult to maintain the lifestyle changes we made in order to lose weight – especially if these changes are unrealistic and hard to stick with in the long-term (such as very low-calorie diets or cutting out whole food groups).
Third, weight loss can trigger increased production of hunger hormones – and can even slow your metabolism. These changes can make it difficult to resit overeating and can contribute to weight regain over time.
But while weight regain may be a common experience, that doesn't mean there aren't many evidence-backed things you can still do to prevent it in the long run:
1. Be flexible
It's important to understand that maintaining a healthy weight will require lifelong management – so having rigid expectations and thinking you'll always adhere perfectly to your lifestyle changes is unrealistic.
Don't feel guilty when you have a slip-up. Instead, make plans to get back on track as soon as possible. For example, if you think you may have overeaten on the weekend account for this by adding a couple extra walks into your routine the next week.
Doing this can prevent an "all or nothing" approach to weight management – whereby you feel guilty when you don't achieve your goals and so instead abandon your efforts.
2. Plan for disruptions
Recognise that there will be disruptions to your weight management efforts – such as holidays, weddings and birthday parties.
Plan ways to navigate these disruptions successfully. For example, losing a few extra pounds ahead of time may adjust for extra weight that may be gained during these occasions.
Or, if you're going to a barbecue, bring along a healthier option (such as vegetable skewers) so you have a lower calorie option to choose. Doing this will help you enjoy special occasions with less worry.
3. Be proud of your achievements
Our weight naturally fluctuates over time – and so being proud of yourself when you achieve your goals, regardless of the number on the scale, is important.
Research also shows that people who focus more on how they can achieve their goals – rather than the outcome – are more likely to stick to behaviours important for maintaining weight loss. This might be because they're less likely to be affected by setbacks (such as regaining some weight).
4. Make habits
This means that even when we can't be bothered, the habits we implemented to help us lose weight will be easier to stick with when trying to maintain weight loss. You could also create some new habits after losing weight – such as going for a walk after dinner or taking the stairs when possible.
5. Get active
A study which looked at people who successfully maintained their weight loss found that physical activity was the most important factor for keeping weight off. This is because physical activity can offset some of the calories we eat.
The best physical activity for maintaining weight loss is the one you enjoy doing most. This is because you're more likely to stick with it in the long-term if you enjoy it. But research suggests you should try to get at least 250 minutes of exercise each week to maintain weight loss.
6. Weigh yourself regularly
Weight fluctuates by as much as 1kg-2kg throughout the week. By weighing yourself regularly, you can develop a personalised weight range of your highest and lowest average weight. This will help you to keep track of your weight, and understand whether you need to make any changes to your diet and exercise habits in order to maintain your weight loss.
Research shows that people who use personalised weight ranges are better able to prevent large weight regain because they're able to adjust their behaviours when necessary.
7. Eat breakfast – and focus on fiber
Another study also found that people who ate plenty of vegetables and high fiber foods – such as wholemeal breads, brown rice and oats – each day were more likely to avoid weight regain. Eating these types of foods means you feel fuller and are more likely to eat less.
Maintaining weight loss can be hard, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. And even if you're only able to maintain a small amount of the weight you lost, remember it can still be very beneficial to your health.
Henrietta Graham, PhD Candidate, Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University and Claire Madigan, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Lifestyle Medicine and Behaviour, Loughborough University