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Why It’s So Hard to Lose Weight and Keep It Off

June 05, 2023

Dieting is hard. And keeping the weight off once you’ve lost it can be even harder.

“It’s not because you’re lazy or weak — it’s just the way we’re wired,” says Jacqueline Cameron, MD, who practices at Hartford HealthCare locations in Norwich, Waterford and Mystic.

So why do we regain weight more easily than we lose it? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

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Our bodies have evolved to hold onto weight.

For thousands of years, with the notable exception of being chased down by a tiger, humanity’s biggest threat to survival was this: Not enough food.

While that may not be true for you today, it takes awhile for your cells to get the message — several generations, at minimum. In the meantime, your body is still operating like a species on the brink of starvation.

“Our body and mind, all the systems deeply ingrained in us, have evolved to make sure we seek out, take in, and store energy — and then hang onto it,” says Dr. Cameron.

When we do lose weight, our brain’s first instinct is to get it back.

“When you lose weight, your body thinks, ‘It’s a famine: I must regain that energy,’” says Dr. Cameron.

Your brain immediately calls a Code Red. It sends signals that increase your appetite — refill those stockpiles! It sends other signals that decrease your desire to be active — don’t burn all those calories in one place!

In extreme cases, it can actually lower your metabolic rate, so you need fewer calories to function than before. Unfortunately, this energy-preserving ploy makes it even easier to regain weight.

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Weight loss is way more complicated than most of us realize.

We live in a society that’s desperate to believe weight loss can be simple.

And why not? We all love quick fixes, and we’re bombarded by marketing for magic pills, miracle supplements and other false promises.

But weight loss is not easy or straightforward — for anyone. That’s especially true for individuals with obesity.

“The disease of obesity is very, very complex,” says Dr. Cameron. “There’s a huge genetic component. There are mental and emotional components. There are financial, social and spiritual components. All aspects of life affect it, and are affected by it.”

However, that doesn’t mean achieving a healthy weight is impossible. The trick is not to get discouraged.

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The next time you regain weight, try this.

First, remember you’re in good company. The rest of humanity is right there with you.

Second, try to reframe your thinking about this moment. “I always remind people: You can’t relapse unless you succeeded,” says Dr. Cameron. “It’s a sign that you did something successful for awhile.”

Third, get your health team involved. They can help you understand how you got here, and where to go next.

“Let’s look at what helped you be successful, and look at what led you to return to the way things were. And let’s make a different plan this time,” says Dr. Cameron.