Some people's brains are better wired to resist temptation than others. (GETTY IMAGES)

How to Avoid Weight Regain, According to Science

How to Avoid Weight Regain,
According to Science

Follow these six research-backed strategies to keep those pounds off for good.

Some people's brains are better wired to resist temptation than others. (GETTY IMAGES)

Some people’s brains are better wired to resist temptation than others. (GETTY IMAGES)

Regardless of where you are on your weight-loss journey, you’re likely living with the constant fear of gaining it all back. Your worry is not unfounded: Research suggests men and women on most traditional diets drop 5 to 10 percent of their original weight within the first six months, but less than 5 percent maintain that weight loss over time. Even worse, over two-thirds of dieters regain more than they lost. No wonder folks stay up late at night worrying if weight creep is lurking around the corner.

If you’re one of them, relax. There’s no need to stress about this if you’re using the right science-based strategy. Here are six key steps you can take to create a powerful foundation for long-term weight maintenance success:

1. Convert the willpower stereotype into a ‘wellpower strategy.’ 

A newly released national survey found that Americans feel that a lack of willpower is the most significant barrier to achieving and maintaining weight loss. These study participants also felt that obese people should be able to shed weight on their own by eating less and moving more. These findings are alarming since they fly in the face of evidence-based science. Here’s the truth: Gaining excess weight is caused by a complex interplay between genetics and environment. The newly emerging science of epigenetics has unmistakably shown that hundreds of obesity-prone genes can be activated by a spectrum of conditions, from childhood abuse and trauma to the nutrition status of grandparents.

It’s time to stop blaming yourself and others for a lack of willpower. Appreciate that relying solely on eating less and moving more is too simplistic and trivializes substantial challenges to weight maintenance, such as impaired mental health and compromised socioeconomic status. Let’s strive for a holistic, integrative “wellpower strategy” that honors and works with your unique mind-body history, as well as your living and working environment.

2. Use your head.

You’re not a robot. You can’t just get up one day and eat healthy foods in appropriate portions and miraculously become more physically active. You also need to engage your mind. This involves psychology, as well as brain science. New studies shed light on how our brains can help support weight maintenance:

  • In the first, scientists scanned chronic dieters’ brains with functional MRIs and found that some of them are literally hard-wired to maintain their weight better than others. Peering into the brain’s white matter, the scans revealed a “super highway” between an area that perceives reward and one that provides a braking system. Successful weight maintainers showed greater connectivity, coherence and integrity between these two brain regions. In other words, their brains’ braking systems successfully say, “Hold it right there” as soon as their reward systems launch with, “I’m stressed out of my mind and want that candy now!” Not surprisingly, these master maintainers had lower body fats as well better weight maintenance.
  • In the second study, researchers found that for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of weight lost, appetite increased enough to drive people to eat an extra 100 calories a day. This is apparently a primal biological feedback control of energy intake that kicks in when weight loss occurs.

Worried you may not be optimally hard-wired for weight maintenance? Fretting about your own body’s push to drive you to regain? No need to stress – there are ways to improve your own hard-wiring and cerebral control systems to keep you on track. Read on.

3. Practice mindfulness.

Meditate your way to a more effective brain. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that a consistent mindfulness practice promotes neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells), which enhances learning, memory and emotion regulation – something you may need when a bad day tempts you to reach for the chip bag. Other research shows that meditation – including transcendental meditation – can also lead to a thickening of the brain’s pathways, meaning you can improve the communication between the brain break and the runaway reward system.

4. Define your ‘power why.’

Don’t launch into a new lifestyle program without first connecting with the reason(s) you want to change. Go deeper than the usual “I want to be healthy” retort. Visualize your goal. Do you see yourself hiking, biking or running with your friends and family? Looking and feeling energetic and happy? Being there for your kids and grandchildren? Acing that promotion because you’re filled with confidence? Being fit and healthy enough to live your dreams? Once you identify what’s really driving you, test it out to see if it can keep you on track in the face of temptation. If not, keep refining your “power why.” It will anchor you in the present, support your mindfulness practice and allow you to supervene over any biological drive to regain the original weight by encouraging you to patiently, persistently practice your healthy lifestyle habits.

5. Nourish your brain.

Just as with meditation and physical activity, a healthy diet will lead to a more effective, focused brain because it, too, promotes neurogenesis. You’ll also improve the health of your gut’s microbiome, or the 100 trillion friendly bacteria than exert a powerful influence on everything from immune function to your ability to maintain weight.

6. Move to maintain.

Getting more physically active isn’t just about burning calories. It’s about encouraging the growth of more brain cells to improve neural pathways, enhance vigilance and promote the optimal ability to stay on track. Both the practice of mindfulness and regular physical activity counter the body’s primal directive to regain weight. This has been demonstrated by the over 7,000 participants in the National Weight Control Registry, an ongoing prospective study of people who have maintained, on average, a 50-pound weight loss for 10 years or more. Over the past 20 years, these study participants have demonstrated that their consistent healthy lifestyle habits override alterations in appetite that could result in weight gain.

Successful long-term weight maintenance becomes a reality the moment you utter, “I am going to shed these extra pounds and get healthier” – and then commit to an integrative, mindful wellpower strategy.