Marion was enjoying the benefits of a 39 pound weight loss and feeling excited about the attention she was getting from the men in her office. Barbara, who had recently quit drinking and smoking, was pleased to have now gotten in control of her compulsive overeating, as well, and to feel a sense of mastery over herself. Despite all of this, each of these successful weight losers regained the lost weight within a period of three months to a year and were right back where they started. Even worse than the regained weight was the loss of self-esteem resulting from yet another setback in the continuing quest for a thinner, healthier, and more acceptable self.
What happened to Brian, Marion, and Barbara? Why were they successful in their efforts to lose weight and then unable to maintain their loss? In fact, why do the majority of people who successfully lose weight end up regaining it?
A well-known but little understood phenomenon has come into sharper focus recently as growing numbers of obese people have been losing weight on an ever-increasing variety of diets and weight loss programs. Interviews with “veterans of the weight loss wars” reveal that many people – unexpectedly – have trouble handling life as a thin or thinner person and so unintentionally or even intentionally regain the lost weight!
Life is not always better or easier thinner. The person who has lost a great deal of weight is not always happier and does not necessarily feel better about him or herself. There are often new terrors to confront and stresses to cope with from unexpected sources. The factors that undermine success are many.
The biochemical or physiological factors that may be involved in regaining weight are not yet fully understood. The psychological factors that undermine success in maintaining a proper weight include: difficulty handling compliments and higher expectations, a self-image that lags behind reality, issues with self-worth, fear of regaining weight, overconfidence, a paucity of rewards in life, a situation where weight loss is actually a solution for another problem, unreasonable expectations for what weight loss can do, and control issues with food.
Brian developed a serious case of overconfidence while on his weight reduction program and did not appreciate that his body was changing faster than he was! Brian knew as little about nutrition and proper eating habits as he did before he lost his weight. While Marion enjoyed the expanded social opportunities that seemed to develop after her weight loss, she also felt unprepared for the new demands and expectations with which she had to struggle. Her regaining the lost weight seemed to restore her need to feel safe and protected. Barbara realized, although a bit too late, that she required continued help with her compulsive eating behavior even though she had already overcome many addictions. She had also mistakenly believed that her 50-pound thinner body would somehow take care of her long-standing struggles with loneliness, depression, and unhappiness with her job as an art director in a leading advertising agency.
It is disheartening, although necessary, perhaps, to think of weight loss alone, as a partial success. Making the mental switch that makes it possible to maintain a lower weight is the secret of true success. Today, therapists are helping overweight clients change ineffective ways of thinking and to learn more effective coping skills. As a result, there is an increased probability that behavior changes will be maintained. There is increasing recognition that weight management is a lifestyle problem and that there is no simple answer. With an approach that incorporates the essential factors – diet, exercise, thinking and behaving that is not self-defeating – lifelong, successful weight management is possible.