Rethinking the problem of long-term weight management

By Banaz Al-khalidi

Losing weight is hard enough. Keeping it off is even harder. Despite decades of scientific advancement in our understanding of energy intake and energy expenditure, weight regain after weight loss remains a major issue in obesity treatment. What could we be missing in this energy balance equation? Rethinking this problem, I think it is worth asking ourselves whether we live to eat or eat to live. There is a huge difference. Given the abundance of food in our environment, the majority of us will live to eat. But what drives this motivation or simply put, what are the determinants of healthy versus unhealthy behaviors?

Generally, healthy lifestyle interventions including diet, exercise, and behavioral strategies, such as keeping a food log, have proven to be effective for weight loss in the short term. However, participants’ lack of adherence to the intervention coupled with subsistence of unhealthy behaviors result in weight regain in the long term. According to a research on cardiovascular health behaviors and health factor changes in the US population from 1988 to 2008, healthy diet scores changed minimally (from 0.3% to 1.4% between 1999 and 2008), and physical inactivity levels decreased by only 7-10% from 1999 to 2006. Furthermore, by 2020, it is estimated that 43% of American men and 42% of American women will have a BMI of ≥ 30 kg/m2 (i.e., obese category). Despite the established risks and benefits associated with diet and physical activity, it seems that health behaviors tend to be incredibly resistant to change.

A recent report from a panel of obesity experts convened at the National Institutes of Health discussed the issue of weight regain after weight loss. The authors highlighted the problem of behavioral fatigue, in which patients grow weary of strict lifestyle regimens, especially when weight loss declines after the first 6 months. Specifically, the authors mentioned that “Initially, the positive consequences of weight loss (e.g., sense of accomplishment, better fit of clothes) outweigh the cognitive and the physical effort needed to lose the weight. Later, when the goal is to maintain lost weight, the positive feedback is less compared to the effort required to keep adhering to the same regimen. Thus, the benefits no longer seem to justify the costs”. In other words, the costs of adherence to these interventions exceed the benefits as time progresses, and patients seem to justify their behavior by re-thinking about the cost/benefit ratio in the long run. How can we then increase the long-term benefits while decrease the costs associated with weight maintenance?

There is a need to understand what factors allow people to successfully maintain a behavior over a long period of time. In recent years, obesity and behavioral scientists have started to explore strategies that involve incorporating ‘mindfulness’ to promote the sustainability of healthy behaviors. Mindfulness is defined as: awareness of the present moment, and paying attention to one’s moment-to-moment experiences non-judgmentally. This attention leads to a clear awareness of one’s own thoughts as well as one’s environment in that one observes what is happening, but instead of reacting, the mind views these thoughts as inconsequential. This does not mean disconnection from life; rather, the mind is actively engaged and flexible. Mindfulness is not a technique but it is a way of being.

You might ask, what does this have to do with obesity and health behaviors? They’re all related. Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have recently become a focus for the treatment of obesity-related eating behaviors. A recent review paper examined the effectiveness of MBIs for changing obesity-related eating behaviors. Of the 21 studies included in the review, 18 studies reported positive results for obesity related eating behavior outcomes. Specifically, mindfulness enhanced self-awareness and self-regulation (i.e. long lasting self-motivation) by improving awareness of emotional and sensory cues, which may be effective for sustaining a behavior in the long term. It’s about acceptance of the moment we’re in and feeling whatever we feel (accepting both positive and negative emotions) without trying to resist, change or control it. Under emotional stress, most of us will try to comfort ourselves by putting something into our mouths, but being aware of the negative emotions, and having greater self-control skills may help us resist the urge to eat large quantities of food or unhealthy food. Thus, greater awareness and self-control skills may help an individual to better monitor and regulate their dietary intake as well as their engagement in physical activity.

When we live to eat, we tend to engage in the act of mindless eating because we tend to see food as a source of reward or entertainment, and we shovel food into our mouths without paying attention to what we’re eating and whether we feel full. However, when we’re more mindful or self-aware (i.e. eating to live), we become more conscious of what goes into our bodies by focusing fully on the act of eating and eating related decisions. The bottom line is mindfulness may help patients identify internal and external eating cues, manage food cravings, and enhance self-regulation and resilience- all factors important to counteract the behavioral fatigue that tends to occur in lifestyle interventions over time. Perhaps, when we’re more mindful, we’ll tune into our bodies instead of our thoughts (i.e., thinking about the costs/benefits), and will start to look at food as nourishment rather than as emotional comfort blanket. It is important to note that research in this area is still preliminary but exploring and understanding the relationship between mindfulness and health behaviors may hold promise for long-term weight management.

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