INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – An estimated 45 million Americans diet each year and spend $33 billion annually on weight loss products. Yet, nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.
The repeated loss and regain of weight, called weight cycling – better known as the diet yo-yo – plagues many people, but the problem might be more than a failed attempt at maintaining your weight loss.
“I’ve been all over the place from ‘right where I need to be’ to ‘obese,’” says Rachel Smith, an Indianapolis wife and mother.
After high school and into her early 20s, Smith weighed more than 200 pounds. A stern health warning from her doctor was enough to force her to lose 100 pounds over the course of two years.
“But after having a baby, I’ve felt my weight slowly creep up again and once I hit my 30s, it’s much harder to maintain,” says Smith.
Smith’s yo-yo weight – and the weight problems of many others – isn’t just a fault of maintenance. Genes play a role in driving an individual’s propensity to gain excess weight, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
“According to some research, a lot of it is genetic,” says NiCole Keith, an exercise physiologist in Indianapolis who has worked with people in behavior management for weight for 20 years. “Research has begun to highlight weight problems as early as in the womb — the mother’s behavior during pregnancy can influence the way genetic mapping happens,” suggests Keith.
Keith explains that if a mother consumes more fattening foods during pregnancy, it will affect the child’s weight throughout its life. Then, once excess fat is present, the problems continue.
“The fat in our bodies actually causes our brain to release hormones differently so you’re really changing your physiology,” says Keith. “That’s part of the yo-yo, too, that if I’m 30 pounds heavier and then I lose 30 pounds, the tendency for my body to want to get back up to those 30 pounds is pretty high.”
Keith points out it can take months – or years – to change your body’s chemistry as it deals with processing fat.
Determining a healthy weight
The only way to break the yo-yo weight cycle is to find a weight that is manageable and easy to maintain, then stick to it. It’s a concept that is difficult for many people.
“Why is this so hard? I feel like sometimes it’ll come off quickly and then other times it takes weeks for a pound to move,” says Tracey Allen, who admits to having a difficulty maintaining weight that started in college. “I lose the most weight when I’m outside.”
Allen and Smith are co-workers and workout buddies who share tips and encouragement with each other on their weight journey. Both women agree maintaining a weight they’re happy with hasn’t been possible.
“It’s up-and-down and sometimes I’d be really good and I would look at pictures and think ‘Oh I think look great right now’ and then other times I’d be like ‘why is this so hard,'” says Allen.
To determine a healthy weight, Keith suggests starting with the Body Mass Index table. The National Institutes of Health suggests every person’s BMI should be between 18 and 25. For the average American woman who is 5 feet 4 inches tall — a healthy weight range is between 110 pounds and 145 pounds. For the average American man who is 5 feet 9 inches tall, that range is 128 pounds to 169 pounds.
For a link to the full BMI table, click here.
“As long as you’re under 25 (BMI), that’s all that matters,” says Keith. “Where you go below that is your own goal – but your doctor will really only care that you’re below 25.”
Keith points out BMI is less accurate for more muscular individuals, but says a higher BMI suggests a person will be at risk for orthopedic injuries as your hips and knees deal with the extra weight, increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and potentially cognitive disorders like depression.
“You have to set your expectations appropriately,” says Keith. “People are so hard on themselves for not achieving an unachievable goal, so set a goal that’s achievable – something you can do – and then stick with it and don’t beat yourself up if you fluctuate a little bit.”
Healthy ways to lose weight
The National institutes of Health says physical activity should be part of a comprehensive weight loss therapy and weight control program because it contributes to weight loss, may decrease abdominal fat, increases heart health, and may help with maintenance of weight loss.
Less than 5 percent of American adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Part of it is changing your brain — not to burn fat differently but to accept who you are,” says Keith.