Big Fat Facts Big Fat Index

The Truth About Weight Loss Maintenance

Trigger warning: diet talk

Dieting. Food restriction; following someone's plan, counting calories, or cutting out certain foods with weight loss as the goal. Almost all of us have done it in the past; its long-term failure rate has led many of us to fat acceptance. Sometimes it seems like nobody wants to believe the truth: that it almost never results in significant, long-term weight loss. Not dieting, and not dieting combined with exercise.

Doctors don't want to believe that dieting doesn't work long-term for most people. The media certainly doesn't believe it. Most fat people don't want to believe it, even after they've dealt with it repeatedly.

Why? Because intuitively, we know that the energy in = energy out equation has to work at some level. Our bodies need food to fuel physical activity. If they're not fed enough, they will dip into their energy reserves; they'll lose fat (and muscle, and other types of tissue). Fact. We must be able to exercise some control over our weight by using this knowledge, right? Hollywood actors and pop stars obviously manage to keep themselves very thin - they can't all naturally be so gaunt.

Here's the lowdown. Studies have failed to support the idea that fat people and thin people have different eating habits, or that fat people burn fewer calories than thin people.

So, while it is theoretically possible to exercise control over our weight and even to become and stay thin, the habits that are necessary to do so are profoundly unjust and very difficult to maintain over a period of years, let alone decades. To maintain even a little bit of weight loss, it's necessary to eat less and exercise more than a person who starts out at the lower weight. To maintain the type of weight loss that actually takes someone from fat to thin takes a huge amount of effort and absolute control. It is NOT just a matter of "cutting down on the junk food" or "taking a brisk walk every day."

After an initial high energy panic stage, a body that's below it's set point - its natural weight - will fight with every tool at its disposal to regain. It will never fail to absorb the maximum number of calories from food. It will slow down all of its systems, causing us to feel cold all the time, to feel tired and irritable, and to have trouble concentrating. It will do everything it can to encourage us to eat more: chronic hunger, preoccupation with food, and a difficult to resist binge reflex. (In this context, bingeing isn't a mental issue. It's a physical compulsion.) Ancel Keyes saw all of this in his WWII-era starvation study.

The effort, control and endurance that it takes to maintain weight loss isn't compatible with most people's lives. It's just too uncomfortable. When someone who's maintaining weight loss decides that they want to feel better; wants to feel normal; to not be cold, hungry and moody anymore? That they'd like to feel full occasionally? That they need to give their body a break from all of the exercise? Or maybe they suffer an injury or give in to the binge reflex? The weight comes back on. Quickly or gradually, it's regained. Often, just to guard against future famines (because our bodies interpret diets as famines), we over-gain, past our old setpoint to a new, higher one.

And then - because there IS actually eating, even bingeing, involved; because we may have cut down on our physical activity - we blame ourselves. We blame ourselves, and everyone silently concurs. This is a bitter, painful experience and many of us have dealt with it over and over again.

But what about the few people who do manage to successfully maintain a significant weight loss?

DebraSY has been a BFB commentator for many years. She sometimes says that she's "failed at HAES." What she really means is that she's chosen the much more difficult and demanding path of weight loss maintenance. She respects the "no diet talk" policy in the fatosphere and she generally doesn't discuss it here, but she has started a blog where she does reflect on weight loss and maintenance, honestly and critically. I think that Debra's experience and point of view are a piece of the puzzle that's usually missing from our discussion. We've talked about people's experiences with weight loss surgery in the fatosphere in the past, at BFB and at Shapely Prose. Now, let's take a look at what unaided weight loss maintenance really involves, for those who can manage it.

Debra is not a proselytizer and fundamentally agrees with fat acceptance, although many people may still find her posts triggering.

On her blog, Debra talks about the potential harm that can result from the diet mentality. She's also posted a critical discussion of "diet experts." These posts are pretty much straight-up fat acceptance.



If you feel okay reading about weight control, it helps to have the background she's laid out in her "about" and her first few posts: "The Unfairness of Weight Loss Maintenance", "Weight Loss Maintenance: the Job Description", and "The Slide Into Hell: Regaining Lost Weight." The truths that Debra discusses here are both familiar and revolutionary. THIS is what fat people keep running up against, and this is the truth that doctors, the media and the government want to deny. Unfortunately, their heads are in the sand; their hands are over their ears.



This is what reading Debra's blog confirmed for me: I'm not interested in emulating her. The price is too high. I've proven over and over again to myself that I have the persistence and insight to accomplish the things that I really care about. Weight loss maintenance is just not one of them. Frankly, if Michelle Obama, Jillian Michaels, the media, and the medical establishment think that's wrong, then they can go to hell. I'll take brisk walks and avoid junk food most of the time. I'll do the same things that a naturally thin person would to feel healthy and stay reasonably fit - that's HAES. But, I will not exist at the razor's edge of starvation and exhaustion in order to have a fashionable body and a doctor-approved BMI.



I'm here to say that it's entirely reasonable to say "no" to this, even if you think you might be able to manage it.

This just in: Actual data not as necessary as you might think | An Epidemic of Scapegoating

Viola's picture
Viola
October 15th, 2010 | Link | Thanks for this. I think

Thanks for this. I think about this a lot, actually. Every time I'm hungry and eat and don't feel like I should be eating, and I know I eat enough calories to keep me satisfied, and that's more calories than some people eat.

Lillian's picture
Lillian
October 15th, 2010 | Link | As someone with a current

As someone with a current weight slightly above normal, I often feel that I should try to lose the fifteen pounds that would put my weight in that normal range. I did get it there recently by exercising, but it ended up that I needed to exercise three or more hours a day to maintain that small weight loss. I stopped exercising and the weight returned. It took me over a year to lose that weight, not that I had been trying to lose weight. The weight came back in less than a month. At least, it felt like it did.

My weight is stable again. I feared that it would go higher than it been before. It's a little higher, but less than five pounds. Still, I wasn't really trying to lose weight when I first stopped eating junk food and exercising. I wanted to have more energy and to get rid of a few digestive issues. I got caught up in that diet mentality.

I'm still exercising not as much that it's a part-time job but enough to keep my energy level up and I do my best to stay away from food that upsets my stomach. I'm just not going to give into that diet mentality again even if I lose a pound or two.

Meowzer October 16th, 2010 | Link | It's so unbelievably rare to

It's so unbelievably rare to find a successful dieter who knows she is an outlier, who knows that most fat people don't have the biological and/or economic privilege to emulate her. In fact, I don't know if I can think of a single other one. Hers is a needed voice; although I can certainly understand why FA people might find the diet talk triggering and want to avoid it, maybe she can be a gateway for the benighted.

perigee October 18th, 2010 | Link | It hasn't been safe or easy

It hasn't been safe or easy for fat acceptance community members to write or talk about their experiences with weight loss.

This not just a personal hurdle but also because there is resistance within our community to talking about weight loss. I know for a fact that there are community members who have intentionally lost weight for their own reasons, for medical reasons, or as a by-product of doing other things that they wanted to do, like become pro-am athletes or whatever their passions are/were. But our community has not always been welcoming, so these folks have habitually done the weight loss activities and kept silent or shared with only very close friends and supporters.

There are folks in the fat acceptance community who are openly hostile to folks who would like to talk about weight loss. I understand feeling betrayed by having community notables intentionally changing their size toward the thinner direction, but I would prefer that we were all able to talk it out and come to an understanding. Sometimes folks losing weight do it for personal, necessary, sometimes valid health-oriented reasons. Taking that as a personal affront seems dangerously co-dependent.

I also have heard about (but sadly not seen) some discussion by older community members talking about how for some older folks in our community, fatness is affecting health and mobility and how we need to figure out our ethics so we can not only participate in the community but also see to our age-related health issues that may be being exacerbated by our weight. And overall, it's important, I think, to be able to talk positively with other fat acceptance community members about their weight loss simply from the point of view of providing emotional support and giving back to the community.

We also need to remember that folks who are part of our fat acceptance community can be part of the community without being fat. The Queer community had to learn this too, but it actually helps to have allies within the other communities that you're trying to get to accept you. Turning someone who is a potentially very strong ally (a fat acceptance community member turning thinner) into an enemy through violent reaction to imagined betrayal is short-sighted. I think it'd be a lot better for us in the fat acceptance community if we can learn to embrace our thinner and thinning community members, especially if their politics otherwise are reliable and serve our community well.

sannanina October 18th, 2010 | Link | perigee - I have lost weight

perigee - I have lost weight intentionally, not too long ago. But here is why I still do not want to open FA spaces for weight-loss talk:

1.) As someone who struggles with disordered eating, any diet/ weight-loss talk is extremely triggering for me. I doubt that I am the only one. And while I believe that weight can at times negatively affect health and wellbeing so can intentional weight loss and dieting.

2.) I do not see the need for weight-loss talk in FA spaces. There are plenty of other places to go to in order to discuss weight loss

3.) My fat is quite often only discussed in terms of the weight I supposedly should lose in "the real world" already. It is a healing experience for me to have spaces were weight-loss talk is not permitted.

There are folks in the fat acceptance community who are openly hostile to folks who would like to talk about weight loss. I understand feeling betrayed by having community notables intentionally changing their size toward the thinner direction, but I would prefer that we were all able to talk it out and come to an understanding. Sometimes folks losing weight do it for personal, necessary, sometimes valid health-oriented reasons. Taking that as a personal affront seems dangerously co-dependent.

There are also very real, health-oriented reasons not to sign up for intentional weight loss. The most important of these reasons is the often repeated (but still accurate) fact that weight loss is not sustainable for the vast majority of people, independent if sustained weight loss might improve their health or not. In fact, I think that weight-loss talk free spaces is especially important for people who are NOT in perfect health and who are therefore under even more pressure to lose weight.

I do not take people's attempts to lose weight as a personal affront. Hell, as I said before, I still have not quite decided to give up weight loss for good. The hostility that sometimes is expressed towards people who want to talk about weight loss is indeed unfortunate; however, it is also understandable to some degree. And while I personally do not feel hostility towards anyone who wants to lose weight (again, how could I when I am still stuck in that myself, I do feel very angry when people who should know better claim that weight loss is possible for everyone, or how everyone that does not choose weight loss is in denial etc. and this very often happens if you allow weight-loss talk. That Debra does not twist the reality of sustained weight loss is exactly what makes her blog a really good read - and yet I would not label it as a size- or fat-acceptance blog and I doubt she herself would do that.

Also, I have been to supposedly size-friendly spaces were weight-loss talk was permitted and I have to say that it was not a positive experience at all since discussions that should not have been about weight loss very quickly turned into weight-loss discussions. I can only speak for myself, but weight loss related thoughts already take up far too much of my time and my emotional resources - I do not want to see the precious few places where I can be relatively sure that weight loss will not be a central topic to disappear. Also, in my experience, weight-loss talk very quickly silences discussions how health can be improved through means other than weight loss. Yet, considering how difficult society makes it for fat people to engage in healthy behaviors such as exercise and considering how scarce knowledge on how to deal with the specific health-concerns of fat people in non weight-loss dependent ways is these discussions are desperately needed.

DeeLeigh's picture
DeeLeigh
October 18th, 2010 | Link | Just for the record, I agree

Just for the record, I agree that the ban on diet talk in most of the fat acceptance community is absolutely vital. I put the "diet talk" warning on this post because I was aware that it was toeing the line, and that the blog it links to crosses it. However, given the discussion of weight loss surgery from a fat acceptance perspective that's gone on in the past, I thought it was important to put this out there.

perigee October 18th, 2010 | Link | sannanina, I am absolutely

sannanina, I am absolutely on board with the idea that uncaring talk about weight loss is triggering, awful and horrible and that we shouldn't put up with it. I know how it goes with trying to have a meaningful conversation about HAES or simply being fat and trying to talk about it with a thinness advocate.

I am also completely on board with the idea that triggering talk should be handled carefully and dealt with only by folks in our community who feel prepared to do so. I don't advocate hijacking threads or discussions with talk about the desirability, in general, of being thin, even if it's done with the idea of deconstructing the concepts with the full intent of activist action at hand.

I am also not talking about thinness advocates when I talk about folks in the fat and fat acceptance community feeling silenced and unwelcome if and when they feel like they need to pursue some form of activity that has their individual (temporary or long-term) weight loss as a side effect or especially if they decide they actually need to lose weight.

The folks I'm talking about are never going to stop being fat. Even if they pursue weight loss as a direct goal and really push it, even in the short term, they're still going to be fat. They still have a stake in fighting for fat acceptance and fat civil rights. The one I know best still deals with daily harassment from strangers about her weight, and that's never going to stop. She pays her dues, such as they are, to the fat acceptance community every day. But because she's lost weight (and done so intentionally), there are folks in the fat acceptance communities who already think of her as a traitor and have said so directly to her.

But even these sorts of folks get alienated when we draw lines against them. I understand where you are drawing your boundaries and I respect that in you personally, but I would like to find a way to be able to talk with and be supportive of our fat community members who, despite all of our ideological reassurances have found it necessary to do things that bring about weight loss for them, whether directly or as a by-product of some other self-directed initiative. I don't agree that shutting them out or making them talk about their experiences elsewhere is entirely emotionally/mentally healthy for us as a fat acceptance community.

I think that we do ourselves a disservice when we don't make time or set aside energy to talk about emotionally difficult issues within our community. I think that figuring out how to work with our fat-but-getting-thinner community members is an important pursuit, and I don't think it's wise to dismiss it so easily.

Dannan October 18th, 2010 | Link | :D

LOL Shannon, I know exactly what you mean. I've been mostly bedbound since about 15 with an illness that plays havoc with my appetite... due to this I cannot eat a normal amount per day. I feel too sick to eat breakfast or lunch, but then I'll have a tea in the evening. It was the illness that led me to put on weight (although I was a fat kid too!)

Yet when I go through a period of being healthier, and able to eat MORE.. I lose weight, without doing anything different apart from eating more.

Doctors don't believe me, of course. They say that 'well, you must be eating the same amount but doing more activity'. Err.. no. How can they say they know that? They're not there with me. I'm eating more, and only doing a little more activity. On top of that, I'm actually eating more junk food during these 'feeling healthier' times.. I can't handle junk food when I'm sick (yet those are the times I put on weight, and not losing it! Just goes to show, doesnt it..)

I firmly believe that your body is it's natural shape as long as you eat an amount that satisfies you, a range of tasty foods (including treats) and do an amount of activity that you feel comfortable with. Some people will be skinny by doing that, some of us will be fat... and that's what needs to be accepted.

As for weight loss discussion.. Im not sure if I agree with it in a place like this. I dont think people who aim to lose weight are traitors in the least, not at all in ANY sense.. but we need to be very careful who would see the weightloss talk. Even the most secure people go through times when they are incredibly insecure.. and if someone catches a whiff of weightloss talk, in a place that's supposed to be 'safe' for them, at a time where they are feeling a little fragile.. it could lead to people torturing themselves about their weight =( Questioning themselves.. Just my personal thoughts =)

Tobysgirl October 22nd, 2010 | Link | I hope it's okay that I

I hope it's okay that I mention this, but in the book The Diet Cure (very much against dieting), the author writes about how many women eat TOO LITTLE. She recommends 2500 calories as a basic threshold because otherwise your metabolism slows down to accommodate your lack of calories. (I hate calories and NEVER count them because this was my adolescence and I HATE it!!!!!)

strawberry October 20th, 2010 | Link | Debra? May I ask what

Debra? May I ask what particularly motivates you to do all this? It's probably best to answer this on your own blog rather than here. I'd also be interested in reading how your family and friends have reacted to your Herculean efforts, and how you deal with them.

akteacher October 21st, 2010 | Link | I guess I could be

I guess I could be considered a "successful dieter" although I don't see myself that way. When my husband and I were waiting to adopt our child from China it was an incredibly stressful time. What was supose to be a 10 month wait turned into three years. I was depressed and frustrated and stopped exercising and starting eating out of stress. I put on 60 pounds. I'm tall, 5 foot 10 and I gain it all over so weighing 240 was fine with me. But when we finally were able to adopt our darling daughter and my life went back to normal I lost the 60 pounds and went back to where I was before. I didn't really do much besides eat healthier and chase a toddler around. People would say to me "You look great! Don't you feel so much better" I would smile and say, "I thought I was pretty cute before" because it's true. I don't really feel any different and I looked cute at 240 and I think I look cute at 180 too Sticking out tongue I've kept it off because I'm back to where I normally am, I don't feel like I'm a successful dieter, because I didn't diet, but I wonder if doctor's would?

DeeLeigh's picture
DeeLeigh
October 22nd, 2010 | Link | That's a really interesting

That's a really interesting story, and I've heard stuff like it before. It seems that in some cases, additional weight doesn't settle in. I guess that in terms of set point theory, you're over your set point and your body wants to lose weight to get back to it. I have no idea what the rules for it are, though. It seems like it usually results from relatively short-term weight gain that's connected to stress and/or temporarily changed habits.

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