Which Is Harder: Losing Weight or Keeping it Off?

Brittany Risher
by Brittany Risher
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Which Is Harder: Losing Weight or Keeping it Off?

When your goal is to lose weight, being tunnel-vision focused on dropping those pounds isn’t totally a bad thing. The more you focus, the more likely you are to stick to your plan, even when you hit roadblocks. And that will help you reach your goal faster.

But while thinking short-term can help you lose weight, it can also make it hard to keep the weight off, which is the bigger challenge.

“Evidence shows that people can lose weight on the short term on practically any diet; it barely matters what the diet is,” says Traci Mann, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. “The problem is, nearly everybody gains it back in the long term. I’m not saying it’s not hard to take weight off. But when people struggle to do it, they can, and often do, succeed.”

However, most people do not succeed in keeping that weight off. “The majority of people gain the majority of that weight in 2–5 years,” adds Mann, author of “Secrets from the Eating Lab.” And this has nothing to do with willpower.


Here’s why keeping weight off is harder than losing weight and what you can do to maintain your weight loss:


In 2016, researchers published a study on former “The Biggest Loser” contestants in the journal Obesity. The results found that those dramatic transformations don’t last. And not only because once they leave the show they’re not doing extreme, hours-long workouts. On average, the contestants regained 70% of the weight they lost, in part because of metabolic adaptation. Because we have evolved to survive during periods of food scarcity, our metabolism becomes more efficient when we lose weight, Mann explains. As your metabolism becomes more efficient, you burn fewer calories, leading to regain.


It seems from puberty until death, we loathe hormones. And here’s another reason: Studies found that after losing weight, levels of leptin, which decreases appetite, decrease, while levels of ghrelin, which increases appetite, increase. Because of this change, “you are more likely to be hungry and less likely to feel full on foods that used to make you feel full,” Mann says.


“Data shows that dieters often feel like, ‘I can’t stop thinking about food,’” Mann says. You are also more likely to notice food if it’s present and have a harder time distracting yourself from it. In two small studies, Oregon Research Institute scientists looked at the brains of college students who hadn’t eaten for 4–6 hours. They found that those students paid more attention to photos of palatable food and food cues.


On top of being more appetizing, food gives you a bigger high when you do eat. When you have food, your brain releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that’s produced when your brain expects a reward. “The brain releases more dopamine if you are calorie-deprived and you eat, versus if you’re not calorie deprived. So that makes food more pleasurable, makes you want it more, makes it harder to resist it and makes you crave it more,” Mann explains. Talk about a vicious cycle.



Yes, most of these changes are beyond your control — but that doesn’t mean you are doomed to yo-yo diet. The key to keeping weight off is to think long-term from the beginning. Rather than doing Whole 30 and then having a cinnamon roll the size of a dinner plate for breakfast on day 31, make eating and activity changes that you can stick with for good.

And remember incorporating vegetables at every meal and exercising lower your risk of death, no matter what you weigh, Mann says. So do things that will make you healthier — and as a bonus, those may also help you lose weight — for good.

About the Author

Brittany Risher
Brittany Risher

Brittany is a writer, editor and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She loves experimenting with new vegan recipes and believes hummus is a food group. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training, meditation and scotch. Connect with her on TwitterInstagram, and Google+.


13 responses to “Which Is Harder: Losing Weight or Keeping it Off?”

  1. Avatar John Carter says:

    Ohh! I see why I always feel the serious urge for food even when I’m actually not hungry. I’m totally in unanimous agreement with what you are saying here. Losing weight doesn’t have to be something we do for the short run but rather a pattern or way of living healthy.

    A point to note is that losing weight isn’t a trick, it isn’t a short cut, but rather a long burning desire, hunger, craving for good health and a beautiful body by only exercising and eating less but quality meals.

  2. Avatar Good sex says:

    Ohh! I see why I always feel the serious urge for food even when I’m actually not hungry. I’m totally in unanimous agreement with what you are saying here. Losing weight doesn’t have to be something we do for the short run but rather a pattern or way of living healthy.

    A point to note is that losing weight isn’t a trick, it isn’t a short cut, but rather a long burning desire, hunger, craving for good health and a beautiful body by only exercising and eating less but quality meals.

  3. Avatar Glenn Nelson says:

    Why is there no mention of body set weight (bsw)? The longer one is over weight or obese the higher the bsw. Especially if one’s weight problem is a result of metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance). Metabolic syndrome has five factors: a waist of > 38″ men, >36″ women,high triglycerides, low HDL, high blood pressure and high blood glucose. If you have three of these markers you have metabolic syndrome. So it is important to eliminate these factors to permanently lose weight. So eat a proper diet to regain your health and the weight will follow if you are insulin resistant. Avoid sugar and refine carbs to bring down the insulin resistance. Exercise will increase one’s insulin sensitivity in the muscles (but not in the liver). Another factor not mentioned is gut microbiota. Weight can be an indication your gut microbiota is in bad shape. It is important to tend to your gut garden and eat plenty of fiber (vegetables,fruits and whole grains) and natural probiotics (fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt , saurerkraut, or kombucha) . The goal is to get oneself as healthy as possible with proper diet, exercise and sleep. One can only hope to get down to one’s lowest body set weight and keep it there. That may mean that the scale says you are over weight but if your lab numbers are good and you feel healthier than the number on the scale is meaningless.

  4. Avatar Nancy Slewidge says:

    I hit menopause and all hell broke loose, Im still physically active at least 35 to 45 minutes /day my healthy eating hasn’t changed but I am in a battle of weight loss that i’ve never encountered, even after the birth of my two sons, feeling P. O about it!!! 54 and annoyed

    • I call that “weight creep” and it is soooo frustrating! Many women are in your situation–having never really had a weight problem until menopause. You can get it off–the first big step is accepting that things are different now (see article: hormones and muscle mass changes). Easier said than done! Once the new reality has set in (and the annoyance subsides :), staying conscious of your food choices is the next step–again, challenging since you never had to do it before. Staying consistent will get you to your goal.

      • Avatar Sisthaqueen says:

        Nancy I am there with you girlfriend. When I hit menopause not only did my weight go crazy my blood pressure when crazy also. My Bp was always in range usually 120 or below over 78. Now i’m on blood pressure meds. I have decided that my weight loss is going to be forever at this point in my life. I’m 61 now. “The struggle is real, embrace it” I agree with Nancy.

        • Once the estrogen plummets the protective effects on blood pressure stop. It’s a total bummer! The struggle will get easier as you make the tweaks that work for your new normal. It takes time to change habits. Sigh. But once they are in there you are golden.

  5. Avatar Mike Evans says:

    I found exercise was key to keeping the weight off, plus, what were for me relatively minor and pain-free dietary adjustments.

    I dropped from 19 stone to 13 stone in a manic ten month diet after 25 years of being massively overweight.
    Four years later I’m around 11.5 stone and healthier than I was in my teens. Some of the dietary lessons I learned during the diet have stuck (no sugary soft drinks, much less bread/rice and pasta), but otherwise I don’t particularly watch what I eat. However, I do exercise most days (running, cycling, swimming and/or strength training).

  6. Avatar Gina Bisaillon says:

    One thing is certain: it’s easier to keep off the weight if you live alone because you can choose which foods go into the house. You just buy what’s good for you. And if I may add a piece of advice: if you don’t know how to cook, take lessons!

  7. Avatar Rend Platings says:

    I was really hoping for more pointers on maintenance – this article didn’t deliver that at all, shame – but good article on why it is hard not to regain lost weight

    • I think of maintenance as “preventing weight gain”. Studies show that daily exercise (low impact like walking totally counts) helps with maintenance (even better than for weight loss). And once you’ve figured out how much food you can eat each day (calories) and which foods satisfy you the longest (usually more protein and fiber than refined carbs) you will know your baseline. Then the exercise will allow the treats every so often.

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