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Why Is Gaining Weight So Much Easier Than Losing Weight?March 4th, 2012 at Sun, 4th, 2012 at 1:40 pm by timigustafson
One of the hardest things about weight gain is that it can happen so easily. Losing weight, on the other hand, can be a never-ending struggle. Some people say they put on a pound or two merely by looking at food. But no matter how much they deprive themselves or how hard they exercise, the numbers on the scale only seem to go up.
This experience is as common as it is counterintuitive. If you eat more calories than your body burns off, you will gain weight. The same should be true the other way around. Use up more than your intake and you will lose weight.
One pound of body fat represents 3,500 calories. You can increase or reduce that amount – it would seem – by equal measures. But that is not necessarily so. A great number of additional factors must be taken into consideration to understand the difference between weight gain and weight loss.
For example, your actual weight determines how many calories you burn. The heavier you are, the more calories your body requires to function properly. If you are overweight or obese, you need more calories to maintain your weight and, paradoxically, you can also lose some faster than if you were normal-weight – but only to a certain extent.
Dr. David Ludwig, director of the “Optimal Weight for Life” program at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-author of a commentary on the subject of weight gain versus weight loss in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), explained the difference like this:
“Our bodies don’t gain or lose weight indefinitely. Eventually, a cascade of biological changes kicks in to help the body maintain a new weight. A person who eats an extra cookie a day will gain some weight, but over time, an increasing proportion of the cookie’s calories also goes to taking care of the extra body weight. Similar factors come into play when you skip the extra cookie. You may lose a little weight at first, but soon the body adjusts to the new weight and requires fewer calories. Regrettably, however, the body is more resistant to weight loss than weight gain. Hormones and brain chemicals that regulate your unconscious drive to eat and how your body responds to exercise can make it more difficult to lose weight. You may skip the cookie but unknowingly compensate by eating a bagel later on or an extra serving of pasta at dinner.”
Unconscious or “mindless” eating, as Dr. Brian Wansink called it in his landmark book, “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think,” can contribute substantially to unwanted weight gain or the inability to lose weight. Indulging in some tasty but less-than-healthy snacks or downing a few sodas or alcoholic beverages on the side can add on unaccounted calories real quick. But burning those off can take a lot longer and require serious efforts.
Another issue is whether your weight gain was rapid due to some exceptional occasion or event (e.g. a party or a vacation) or whether you put on more pounds over time. The former can usually be undone by returning to your healthier eating and lifestyle habits. The latter is a different story. In that case, some self-evaluation may in order. Did your eating pattern change for any particular reason such as stress at work, a move, financial issues or domestic problems? Did you stop exercising? Age may also be a factor. As you get older, your metabolism slows down and you require less food than you used to – but your habits have not kept up with your biological changes.
One of the greatest frustrations people with weight problems can go through is the so-called weight cycling or yo-yo dieting – losing weight successfully, only to gain it all back. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is quite common. Over 80 percent of dieters regain some or all of their former weight back within two years and two-thirds of once successful dieters end up heavier than they were before their initial weight loss, according to a study by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
Yo-Yo dieting is not only emotionally frustrating, it can also have serious consequences for a person’s physical well-being. “The more diets you’ve been on, the harder it becomes to lose weight,” said Dr. Kelly Brownwell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Even on a sensible diet, your body is reluctant to let go of some of its mass. When you are dieting, it may perceive it as impending starvation and a threat to its survival. In cases of rapid weight loss (e.g. crash diets), a metabolic overcompensation can kick in, resulting in a slower metabolism and greater difficulty to lose additional weight.
Weight cycling can actually change your physiology, according to Dr. Brownwell. One of the reasons for this is that through dieting a hunger hormone called ghrelin increases, and a fullness hormone called leptin decreases, so you feel hungrier and less satiated every time around. Also, frequent yo-yo dieting lets you lose muscle mass and replaces it with fat as you regain weight. Because muscle burns many more calories than fat does, your metabolism slows down even further.
“Losing and regaining weight regularly takes a huge toll on your body,” said Dr. Keith Ayoob, professor at Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York, not just aesthetically by loss of skin elasticity but, more importantly, by the damage being done to the inner organs, the arteries and the skeletal system, and by a host of potentially life-threatening illnesses resulting from unhealthy weight gain like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.
Of course, there are cases where the body is resistant to weight loss because of an underactive thyroid or other disorders. But those are relatively rare by comparison to diet- and lifestyle-induced weight fluctuations. In the absence of such medical conditions, the best way to prevent weight gain and promote weight loss (if necessary) is, as always, healthy eating, regular exercise, managing stress and getting enough sleep – in other words, opting for an all-around healthy lifestyle.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.