Why We Regain Weight And How To Stop It- The Leptin Connection
Losing weight is easy- most of us have done it several times over the course of our lives. The problem is that after faithfully following a regime of diet and exercise, something happens. A shift occurs. Not all at once, but subtly. You find yourself after weeks or perhaps even months of dedication, slipping back into the old unhealthy eating habits. Foods that you religiously avoided suddenly seem to regain their appeal. A hole opens up in your stomach that begs to be filled and your appetite once again becomes a raging and uncontrollable beast! Fast forward several weeks and you’ve regained the weight that you worked so hard to lose. What gives us cause for alarm is that this Sisyphean tale isn’t an extraordinary case- it is the plight that most people face when trying to lose weight. Today, weight loss has become almost a national preoccupation as we spend billions of dollars in the quest to lose weight and not regain it. In spite of the fact that more people are trying to lose weight ( more than at any time in our history) the average American’s BMI has increased steadily over the past 20 years. [1,2] In fact studies have found that the more we diet, the more likely we are to regain weight in the future. [4, 5] That being said, why is keeping the weight off so hard? How can we stop this seemingly never ending cycle of losing weight and regaining it? The answer may lies in understanding a hormone called leptin.
Why We Regain Weight- The Leptin Connection
Leptin, (coming from the Greek word, leptos which means ‘thin’) is an important hormone responsible for regulating our caloric intake, metabolism and appetite and is one of the most important hormones produced by adipose (fat) tissue.  Leptin sends information about our food intake to key regulatory centers in our brain called hypothalamus.
Studies have found that increased body fat is associated with increased levels of leptin, which then acts to reduce our food intake by killing our appetite so we don’t get too fat. Unfortunately, although it works as a signal to reduce appetite, most obese individuals have an unusually high circulating concentration of leptin. These people are said to be leptin resistant in very much the same way people with adult onset (type 2) diabetes are resistant to the effects of insulin. The high concentrations of leptin from high levels of fat tissue seems to result in leptin desensitization thus people with high fat levels don’t always feel sated after eating and will tend to overeat. There are many theories as to why this occurs- some studies have found connections to high fructose corn syrup. [6,7,8,9] but there are several questions yet unanswered.
While we understand how leptin resistance can make us overeat, what most fail to realize is that leptin can also sabotage our attempts to lose weight as well. Any decrease in body fat will, as a rule, lead to a decrease in circulating leptin levels, which stimulates food intake and reduces energy expenditure.  Our urges to eat are enormously complex, and don’t only fall within the realm of hormones. There are also sizeable social, behavioral and sensory components to our eating habits that make it intrinsically difficult to change our eating habits in the first place. Add to this, the unconscious urges to eat brought on by leptin and other hormones and you have a recipe for throwing diet to the wind after losing a certain amount of weight.
Why We Regain Weight- The Role Of Hormones On Our Unconscious Urges
Yes, we have the ability to control our eating- and there are many tried and true techniques we can use to distract ourselves- but outside of these methods, most find themselves utterly lost when it comes to self control in the face of long term dieting. From my own experience devouring pizzas (meaning more than one at a sitting) and donuts in the double digits after having reduced my body fat levels to under 4% back in my natural bodybuilding days, I can personally attest to how powerful hormones can be in forcing you to overeat when your body fat levels drop! It isn’t about willpower at that point- the drives are far too primal in nature to be ignored when your fat levels are so low.
Why can’t we always stop ourselves in the face of such urges? Why is motivation almost useless at these times? Feeling hungry is an intense experience. One that seems to turn off the light switch for rational thinking. The more weight you lose, the greater the hunger you will feel, growing more and more in intensity as you lose more and more weight until your conscious desire to lose weight is simply overwhelmed by the primal desire to eat. The basic drive to eat, while not as powerful as our need to breathe, is very similar in that no matter how hard we try to suppress it, in the end our unconscious inevitably wins. Try telling yourself, for example, to hold your breath. You can, using the force of sheer willpower hold your breath for a minute or two, but as time goes in, the need to breathe will always overcome your will to hold your breath and you will exhale. The same plight awaits those who use conventional means of dieting. It isn’t that the overweight among us don’t want to look and feel better by losing weight, but in the process of losing weight, most are doomed to eventually give in to the compulsion to eat everything in sight. A sobering thought, but is there a way around this, or are we hardwired to be fat no matter how hard we try? The answer thankfully, is yes, but it isn’t easy.
Why We Regain Weight- The Need For Building Muscle & Not Following A Fixed Diet
One of the most important aspects of any diet and exercise program has to be an emphasis on muscle building. Its importance comes from the fact that, no matter how hard you try, you will want to eat more as you lose more and more body fat and the more muscle you have- the more you can eat and still keep losing weight! At 6 feet tall, 225 lbs and just about 5-6% body fat, I need a staggering 6 to as many as 7 meals a day to keep from consuming any small land animals that venture in my path. Muscle requires energy to be built and maintained and so, by following a program of high intensity weight training focused on building lean muscle mass, you can offset the reduction in energy expenditure that comes with losing weight and be able to eat more as you may need more calories than you did before you lost weight in the first place! A perfect fix- but not without some key interventions. Your diet has to be regulated and changed as your nutritional and caloric needs change with the reduction in body fat and the increase of activity and muscle mass. If you find yourself feeling really hungry, your diet has to be carefully adjusted to increase your macronutrient intake so that you are not starving at the end of the day when we are most susceptible to food cravings.
This method has been proven over decades to help bodybuilders to fitness models in the know, get lean and stay lean all year round and it isn’t terribly complicated. It can be done on your own, but most need professional help with creating and regulating their dietary intake- as it isn’t a one size fits all situation, and some instruction is usually required in terms of the appropriate exercise intensity that will stimulate muscle growth. The end result of this process are the very stars and fit bodies that we see gracing the covers of magazines, and not the unsightly and over muscled image that most associate with muscle building. This negative image, reinforced by millions of steroid users, is the major reason why weight training is less in vogue and why many shy away from it in favor of aerobic exercise and conventional dieting that almost always ends in failure. The muscle minded fitness boom of the 1980’s saw many people embrace the benefits of weight training as an effective form of permanent weight loss, but the competitive and often drug induced extreme aspects saw to it that it fell very much out of fashion with the general public. High intensity weight training isn’t easy- nor is it as do-it-yourself as hopping on an exercise machine or taking a class and it does require some knowledge in nutrition to make it work – but in my experience it is the only way I have seen anyone who was obese get a six pack and keep it. The focus on self reliance and individuality as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach makes it difficult for the weight loss industry to cash in on it- but it is an important method that needs to be studied and implemented more, as conventional approaches as so many of us know, ultimately fail.
1. Flegal KM, Caroll MD, Ogden CL, Johnson CL. Prevalence and trends in obesity among US adults, 1999-2000. JAMA
2. Ogden CL, Flegal KM, Caroll MD, Johnson CL, Prevalence and trends in overweight among US children and adolescents, 199-2000. JAMA
3. Korkeila M, Rissanen A, Kaprio J, et al. Weight-loss attempts and risk of major weight gain: a prospective study in Finnish adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
4. Gasser GA. Big fat lies: the truth about your weight and your health. Carlsbad: Gurze Books
5. Korkeila M, Rissanen A, Kaprio J, et al. Weight-loss attempts and risk of major weight gain: a prospective study in Finnish adults.
6. “Fructose Sets Table For Weight Gain Without Warning”. Science News. Science Daily.
7. Vasselli JR (November 2008). “Fructose-induced leptin resistance: discovery of an unsuspected form of the phenomenon and its significance. Focus on “Fructose-induced leptin resistance exacerbates weight gain in response to subsequent high-fat feeding,” by Shapiro et al.”. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol.
8. Shapiro A, Mu W, Roncal C, Cheng KY, Johnson RJ, Scarpace PJ (November 2008). “Fructose-induced leptin resistance exacerbates weight gain in response to subsequent high-fat feeding”. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol.
9. Considine RV, Sinha MK, Heiman ML, Kriauciunas A, Stephens TW, Nyce MR, Ohannesian JP, Marco CC, McKee LJ & Bauer TL (1996). “Serum Immunoreactive-Leptin Concentrations in Normal-Weight and Obese Humans”. N Engl J Med
10. Friedman JM. War on Obesity- Not the Obese. Science
Kevin Richardson is one of the most sought after NYC personal trainers and creator of Naturally Intense™ High Intensity Training. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here. If you live in the New York City area and need help losing weight or getting into shape give Kevin and his team a call at 1-800-798-8420.