October 18th, 2015

The 7 Biggest Weight Relapse Mistakes

There’s a price you must pay to get the body you want. There’s also a price you must pay to keep it. As Thomas Jefferson said, “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Once you reach your ideal weight and body fat level, you’re not finished. You’re just beginning. You can never take your success for granted or let down your guard…

Overweight woman with a weighing machine and measure tape.The relapse problem

A woman in a support group once said, “I’m an expert at losing weight because I lost 200 pounds!” Everyone in the room gasped with respect and admiration. Then she finished her sentence.  “Unfortunately, it was the same 20 pounds 10 times.”

Relapse has always been a problem with health-related behavior change. Relapse rates for drug, alcohol and tobacco dependency have been reported in the range of 50-90%. Relapse rates for weight loss are typically 70-90%, according to very reliable sources.

A study from Oxford University on weight maintenance and relapse published in The International Journal of Obesity confirmed the statistics we’ve all heard so often in the mass media:

“It’s a consistent finding that the weight lost by obese patients as a result of the most widely available treatments is almost always regained over time. Usually about half the weight lost is regained in the first year with weight regain continuing thereafter, so that by 3-5 years post-treatment about 80% of patients have returned to, or even exceeded, their pre-treatment weight.”

Obviously, there are some big differences between substance abuse relapse and weight relapse, namely the pharmacology of drugs, nicotine and alcohol. But there are also some striking similarities, including the relapse statistics themselves. So similar are the mental and physical challenges, that many people believe overeating and obesity are addictive disorders and should be treated as such.

Whether you think that regaining lost weight is as serious as substance abuse relapse or not, don’t take it lightly. Maintaining a stable lean bodyweight is a very important health goal. It’s dangerous to repeatedly gain and lose weight. Research in animals and humans has revealed that weight cycling can make your metabolism less efficient.

After each bout of weight loss and regain, it becomes more difficult to burn fat the next time. You also become more predisposed to sudden weight regain if you binge or even if you reefed to previous maintenance levels. Long term, your body composition may get worse, as you lose large amounts of lean tissue during the weight loss phase, but regain more fat than muscle on the rebound. In the end, you’re heavier than when you started or you’ve become a skinny fat person.

Weight cycling has detrimental effects on your health as well. Usually, your blood pressure and blood cholesterol will go down in parallel with your body fat level. However, when you regain weight in repeated cycles, the negative effect on your blood pressure and cholesterol can be greater than the positive effects you got from losing the weight.  Some experts even propose that weight cycling can shorten your lifespan.

Avoid these weight relapse mistakes

One piece of good news is that the reasons for relapse are not a mystery. We know why weight regain happens and it’s not difficult to predict. Weight relapsers have been studied in great depth and their behaviors are quite distinct from maintainers. If you take an inventory of which regainer behaviors you’re engaging in and then avoid these mistakes in the future, you can avoid relapse right from the source of the problem.

Relapse mistake #1: Choosing the wrong diet to lose the weight.

Maintenance begins with choosing the right nutrition program during the fat loss phase. The first mistake that leads to relapse is following a fad diet or any diet so extreme or restrictive that it triggers binging or is simply too difficult to stay on for long. This includes not only the eating plan itself, but also any other weight loss methods, such as supplements or drugs.

One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that far more relapsers had lost weight by fasting or taking appetite suppressant pills than maintainers. Apparently the fasting helped take some weight off and the pills helped curb hunger, but neither helped keep the weight off.

Relapse mistake #2: Unrealistic deadlines.

Many authorities say that unrealistic weight goals are one of the biggest causes of failure and relapse. There’s truth in that, but provided that body composition is kept in mind, I think the real problem is unrealistic deadlines, more so than unrealistic goals.

Most people sell themselves short and don’t set their fitness standards high enough. Puny goals and low standards are set for one main reason: fear. By setting low standards, you don’t risk disappointment. You can play it safe if you choose, but if you do, that’s the same as accepting mediocrity. We all have genetic constraints and we can’t change our inherent body structures, but as long your goals aren’t so outlandish that they’re merely wishful thinking, I believe you should set big, ambitious goals. You simply have to be smart about choosing deadlines.

To calculate the time frame, divide your amount of weight loss desired by the ideal weekly weight loss target of two pounds per week. If you want to drop 30 pounds, at two pounds per week, that’s 15 weeks. If you factor in some water weight loss or above average fat loss, you might get there in 12 weeks. But if your goal is 30 pounds in 30 days, you’d better think twice about that deadline. Even if you met that deadline by dropping large amounts of water and lean tissue, it would have been counterproductive because there’s a direct correlation between speed of weight loss and relapse.

Relapse mistake #3: Abruptly stopping a nutrition or exercise program.

Carmen was a 43-year-old mother of one who I worked with several years ago. I remember her well because she experienced some of the best results I have ever seen. Her motivation was driven to an all time high by entering a 12 week before and after competition which offered a hefty sum of prize money to the winner. She hired me to measure her body fat percentage every week.

If you looked up “motivated’ in the dictionary, you would see a picture of Carmen. She trained her butt off every day and got leaner every week, shedding a total of 10% body fat in 12 weeks without losing any lean body mass. At the end of the 12 weeks, she took her “after” photos in the best shape of her life. The last day I measured her body fat, her jeans were almost falling off her as she was literally jumping up and down for joy.

Then the strangest thing happened. As soon as the contest was over, she stopped training and dropped out of the gym overnight. My calls went unanswered for weeks. Months later she finally turned up. She was heavier than before and very depressed about it. Carmen had not thought or planned a day beyond her 12 week goal, so when the contest ended, her reason to continue had ended.

She took for granted that the physique she developed from 12 weeks of serious effort could not be maintained without continued effort. You’d think this would be common sense, but research says otherwise. One study on long term maintenance sponsored by the Kaiser Permanente HMO organization said that the relapsers seemed to assume that their lost weight was “permanently gone” and they were surprised when they found themselves heavy again.

Relapse mistake #4: Returning to your previous caloric maintenance level without increasing activity.

After a large weight loss, your calorie maintenance level is lower than it was when you started. With a 50 pound weight loss for example, an average guy will have a maintenance level about 400 calories lower than when he started his fat loss phase. Do you see the conundrum? If he goes back to his old maintenance level, and all else remains equal, he is guaranteed to regain the weight. The math equation has changed!

Even if you’re aware of this potential pitfall, permanently reducing your calories to accommodate your new energy requirements is one of those “easier said than done” propositions. If you’ve gotten accustomed to eating a certain volume of food for years or even for an entire lifetime, it’s not always an easy adjustment to make. You have two choices. One, you can get used to eating less than you did before your weight loss. Two, you can get used to exercising more. Ideally, you’ll do a little bit of both and that will make life easiest.

This reduction in calorie needs after weight loss explains why increasing exercise has always been the single most cited success strategy for long term weight maintenance. The increased activity offsets the lower maintenance level and it’s easier for most people to stay active than it is for them to eat less than they were previously used to.

Relapse mistake #5: Dichotomous thinking.

Relapsers see situations in black or white terms without shades of grey. For example, they insist they have no time to train, rather than making efficient use of what little time they have.  They’re either on the program completely or off completely. If they have one bad meal, they feel as if their entire week has been completely ruined. If they miss a deadline, instead of just pushing back the date, they think they blew an entire 12 weeks.

Relapsers also have very rigid ideas of what success means. For example, they might define success as weighing 125 pounds and anything other than 125 pounds is seen as a failure. Fitness is not a win or lose, pass or fail situation. Fitness is a journey of learning and self improvement. All or none thinking creates unnecessary stress and doesn’t allow you to give yourself credit for what you did right or to learn from your experiences. Cut yourself some slack and avoid this mistake in thinking at all costs.

Relapse mistake #6: Perpetual dissatisfaction with body weight and shape.

Relapsers express great dissatisfaction with their new body weight and body shape, even when they’ve made huge strides in progress. They tend to make comparisons of themselves to others and when taken to an extreme, this turns into perfectionism where no achievement ever seems good enough. Relapsers also tend to make judgments about themselves as a person based on strictly on their physical attributes.

The pursuit of constant improvement is clearly a virtue. Some of the healthiest and fittest people in the world credit their success to never becoming complacent and always striving for better results.   This seems to be in conflict with body dissatisfaction as a cause of relapse. We can reconcile this paradox by understanding that you can strive for continuous improvement while also liking yourself at every step along the way — it’s not one or the other.

It’s also important to get very clear about how far you want to take your physical development and how much time and effort you’re willing to invest. Not everyone wants or needs the washboard abs of a Men’s Health cover model or the body shape of a figure model.

Use 80-20 thinking here. Suppose you can get 80% of the way to what you consider your physical ideal with a fairly modest investment of time and effort. To capture the next 15% takes more time and serious hard work, and the final 5% takes a monumental full time effort. How far to you want to go and how much are you willing to pay?

Relapse Mistake #7: Poor coping and stress management skills.

High levels of stress, unexpected life events and negative emotions can all lead to weight regain if you don’t have strong coping mechanisms to deal with them. Maintainers experience the same non-health stresses that relapsers do: financial difficulties, family issues and work stress. The difference is, relapsers use food to distract themselves or escape from bad feelings rather than confront their problems head on and develop alternate coping mechanisms.

Women need to be more on guard then men. According to the Styles survey, which was conducted to identify characteristics of weight maintainers, more men (35.5%) were successful at maintenance than women (27.7%). The most likely reason for this difference is women are usually more emotional than men and are more susceptible to emotional eating.

Regardless of your gender, to maintain your weight, you have to continue reminding yourself that food is for fuel, for nourishment and body-building material, not for coping with stress. If you haven’t mastered stress management and developed good coping skills during the fat loss phase, then even if you manage to reach your weight goal, it will be a struggle to maintain it.

– Tom Venuto, author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle and The Body Fat Solution

This article was excerpted from Tom Venuto’s national bestseller  The Body Fat Solution: 5 Principles for Burning Fat, Ending Emotional Eating, And Maintaining Your Perfect Weight.

“Offering the opposite of a quick fix, Venuto is honest about the effort it takes to drop a significant number of pounds. This is the book for women ready to tackle long term weight loss.”   – Oprah Magazine

If you have ever struggled with weight relapse, self-sabotage or emotional eating, then this could be the most important book you ever read: CLICK HERE to order your copy of The Body Fat Solution




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23 Responses to “The 7 Biggest Weight Relapse Mistakes”

  • Tom I have gotten so much out of this book! I actually keep this book and Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within in my bathroom and read from them each day. Sorry if that is TMI 🙂

    Changing your mind is key to permanent transformation. You cover so much of that in The Body Fat Solution.

    I believe that, while it is great to have short-term goals, it is more important to look at the long-term picture. What do you want your body and your life to look like a year from now? 5 years? 10 years? And then act accordingly!

    If we do that well, we will never have to “diet” again!

    • Elaine,

      It’s interesting you link both Awaken the Giant Within and this book together (in the bathroom at least 🙂 ) because those two books have both made a huge impact in my life (my mind and my body). I loved BTFFTM, but Tom’s new book has really helped to solidify all of the principles in an easily digestible format as well as tying together the principles I learned from Awaken the Giant Within.

      Well done Tom!

      – Erich

  • mike

    Great list, Tom! I think you covered all the bases.

    Number five, “Dichotomous thinking,” is particularly relevant to me. I have struggled with this in the past and always have to be wary about those tendencies. I have a Type A, “perfectionist” personality, which can be great for attaining success and overcoming obstacles but can lead to a great deal of misery along the way. I used to view these fat loss challenges that I set up for myself in “black and white” terms. Either I was committed 110% or I just didn’t give a damn. When I was following the program I would be running 5-7 miles a day in the morning and would often times lace up my sneakers for a second five-mile run in the evening. This was on top of the strength training that I was doing and the fact that I was “only” consuming around 2,100 calories a day!

    Following this schedule I would make herculean progress! I remember one week I lost close to two inches in my waist and around ten pounds of scale weight. Obviously it wasn’t all fat but the payoff was tremendous.

    The problem arouse the following week once the euphoria of the previous week’s measurements had worn off. I started dreading getting out of bed in the morning. I was perpetually sore particularly from the waist done. I felt terrible physically and my attitude soured. Basically I had run myself into the ground, literally and figuratively.

    My mother, whom I’m extremely close with, could sense my anguish and frustration. She strongly encouraged me to “pace” myself by doing a little bit every day but not so much that I would overburden myself mentally or physically at any one time. Once I was able to overcome my stubborn streak and really listen to what she was saying it all made sense. So from that point on I vowed to take on a more “abstemious” or middle-of-the-road approach to diet and exercise. And that has made all the difference!

    I actually began to enjoy exercise more and allowed myself to have more treats along the way as long as I kept my calories in check. One thing that you said before kept thundering in my ears and that is, “You can have your cake and eat it too, just not all in one sitting.” I would think about that quote quite often when I was trying to strike this balance in my newfound lifestyle.

    I knew that calories were most important and if I practiced portion control AT ALL TIMES, then there was no need to “deprive” myself. I could have the best of both worlds and thus my whole attitude about “good” food and “bad” food changed for the better. I became less rigid and enjoyed some indulgences along the way but made sure that I didn’t overdo it. All the while I was losing fat! Ultimately I reached my goal of 6% body fat. It was a titanic struggle at times but was very much worth it. I transformed from the inside, out.

    Number six, “Perpetual dissatisfaction with body weight and shape,” also strikes a chord with me. This is somewhat embarrassing to say but I thought carving out my abs would make me more “lovable,” “better looking,” or improve my social standing. It did nothing of the sort.

    I thought just because I now had a great set of abs that women would find me more desirable but too be honest, nothing really changed. However, the confidence I gained from accomplishing my goals propelled me forward in all aspects of my life. THAT was the difference! It was NOT the abs per se, it was the fact that I had become more comfortable in my own skin and accepting of my “less than perfect” features. I was at peace with myself. I had done everything in my power to look my best. If that wasn’t good enough so be it.

    “Good looks” are largely determined by genetics. Either you have them or you don’t LOL. What you see in the movies about how women marvel at a great set of abs is just that, it’s Hollywood. I’m not saying that people don’t admire them from afar but my expectations were very much out of touch with reality.

    People need to change their bodies for THEMSELVES not to garner approval from others. Otherwise, they will be perpetually unfulfilled and disillusioned. I learned that the hard way.

  • So damn good article, congrats Tom!! 🙂

    I’ve been able to maintain my weight, thanks God!

  • Eve

    I can relate to this article. I was medically diagnosed as obese many years ago and was determined to lose the weight and lost 65 pounds off of my 5’1″ frame. Two years ago I had surgery on my toe and was unable to put any type of weight on my foot for 2 months. As a result I gained weight and did not stick with my healthy eating. I didn’t know how to cope with the lack of exercise. I’m @ 130 lbs. and hoping to lose at least 20 lbs.
    Tom thanks for the great article! Wish me luck 🙂


    It was good to read about the body weight regaining. I myself am a fitness fanatic. I used to walk and afterwords jogging too. But I realized that jogging and walking are not much effective to the core of human body, as it’s not moving as the other body organs. So I converted to weight workouts for the last three years. It’s very effective bring a man figures into true shape and keep it in shape, provided one does it regularly with different workouts every day at least six days a week for half an hour.

  • Thanks Tom…I think that if you do not intergrate health and fitness into your lifestyle…any weight loss and fitness achievements will only be temporary…as it is true with all things…you are what you live and your life is your message…

  • Jim

    As a longtime health and fitness enthusiast, I’m especially bothered by all of the ridiculous fad diets on the market. These diets just set people up for failure since they don’t teach people how to eat right for longterm weight maintenance and health.

  • David

    It does not make sense to me why anybody would wait to adjust their caloric needs after losing 50 pounds. Of course that is going to be a sudden loss of food that is going to be hard to swallow (reverse pun intended).

    With the use of a spreadsheet calculator or a TDEE calculator freely available on the Web, it is easy to determine your TDEE/total caloric needs on a weekly basis. And since it is so easy to keep track of the calories eaten using an app or other website, you can adjust the amount you eat every week. That way, when you get to 50 pounds you will have already decreased your caloric intake, bit by bit all the way down. And, I have to assume that you will get to your goal faster as your calorie deficit will be more consistent.

    Of course, maybe THAT would slow you down as a result of triggering the starvation response sooner. Only someone with a lot of data could make that call. But if adjusting your caloric intake for a more consistent deficit seems to slow weight loss down, then the answer is probably to cycle on and off the low/high calorie days so your body gets more then it needs (as properly measured against your current weight) several days a week. (Again, though, if Tom’s book suggests “cycling” without adjusting your caloric needs from week to week, and that has worked for people in the past, i don’t know what “proper” (i.e., using the current week’s TDEE for measuring calorie needs) cycling would do to the rate of fat/muscle loss.

    Curious to know Tom’s thoughts!

    • Tom Venuto

      Thats correct, you decrease calories bit by bit, week after week if and when its necessary. After establishing baseline, people who use my systems, adjust calories on a week by week basis using a “feedback loop” system. if you do this diligently, youre not on the same number of calories at the end of a long fat loss phase as you were at the beginning, you’re either eating less, or your weight loss has progressively slowed down. The point in the context of this article is that If you go into it with a “diet” mentality, then when the diet is over, its very very easy to slip back into old eating patterns and return to the same amount you used to eat, especially if you’ve eaten that way for y ears. Old habits die hard, especially the amount youve eaten if youve been overweight a long time, or your whole life. After a successful large weight/fat loss, when shifting into maintenance mode, you’re going to either have to eat less than you did before the weight loss, or exercise more in order to successfully maintain. smaller body = fewer calories needed to maintain that body mass.

      • David

        Makes sense. I’ve read both books and as a quasi-numbers guy I liked BFFM for its mathematical exactness (knowing nothing about weight loss is exact). The BFFM book did not discuss recalculating your TDEE on a week by week basis, but instead (if I recall) said to adjust your diet depending upon results. I am sure it gets you to the same place, especially given the imprecision involved in measuring calories, and calculating TDEE on a week by week basis. But I can’t help but think that there is more leeway for guessing wrong if I adjust my calories based on whether my LBM went up or down and my Fat Mass went up or down — but not actually recalculating TDEE to see how much I’m “supposed” to be eating.

        In the end, of course, your approach is what counts because it is based on results — not everybody is going to get results off of simply eating the TDEE less 15-20%. There is MATH and there is the real world (where our bodies may not respond precisely to mathematical formulas).

        I’m using both approaches – recalculating my TDEE every monday based on my actual results. And going back to BFFM to review that page about how to interpret your results, if and when my LBM does not hold steady or gain over a two week period, if and when my %Fatmass and actual fat mass do not decline on a week to week basis and if and when my weight stays in equilibrium.

        Thank you, Tom, for simplifying weight loss. And for those reading along, as a great man once said, losign weight is simple, though it is by no means easy.

  • I found this to be one of the most useful chapters in the book since I was almost at my goal weight when I read it. The bottom line is, your life as a maintainer isn’t going to be all that different from your life as a ‘loser’ so if your weight loss method makes you miserable, you should probably reconsider…

  • Great point about returning to previous maintenance levels without upping activity levels.

    That caloric surplus is a one-way ticket to weight gain!

  • Jo

    Hi Tom,

    loving your work!
    I absolutely agree that one of the biggest reasons for weight regain is using the wrong type of ‘diet’ to lose the weight in the first place.
    Getting your diet right is crucial for long term weight-loss maintenance.
    Having researched weight-loss diets in depth, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most effective diet strategy is to choose foods which are more filling for the same amount of calories, thus enabling easier and therefore more maintainable weight-loss.

    Most diets have grasped one aspect of a food which contributes to its being more filling for less calories, e.g low fat, high protein, high-fibre.
    However, each food has to be evaluated individually, as the different factors present in different foods may outweigh in importance other factors. This means that we can’t judge an individual food according to one factor, i.e fat content, as the only indicator of how ‘fattening’ it is.
    The best research I’ve seen, which has made the first attempts to rank different foods, according to their ‘fillingness’ has led to the formulation of ‘The Satiety Index’.
    I’ve written an analysis of which food properties appear to have the greatest effect on satiety and how to use that knowledge to choose the most filling foods. It’s on my website – if you’re interested!
    Thanks Tom!

    • Tom Venuto

      Jo, right on. Im familiar with satiety index. Also, you must be familiar with Barbara Rolls work, yes?

      • Jo


        Yes, I really liked Barbara Rolls’ book ‘Volumetrics’. She makes some very good points about satiety and weight-loss and debunks a few of the myths, but I think that her general conclusion, about energy density being the most important factor in how filling a food is, is not quite accurate.

        Most of the studies which she uses to support this theory involve replacing pasta with vegetables.
        Pasta has a fairly low satiety score anyway, and if we can extrapolate from the very high satiety scores of potatoes and certain fruits, shown in the satiety index(those high in fibre, especially soluble fibre)to other vegetables, we can expect that most vegetables would have a higher satiety score than pasta.
        It appears,from analysing the satiety scores of other foods shown in the index, that energy density is not the crucial factor positively affecting the high scores of these fruit and veg, as yogurt has a low energy density, but also a low satiety score.
        The crucial factor influencing postively the high satiety score of potatoes and apples and oranges, as shown in the index, is the high levels of soluble fibre.
        So, to use ‘energy density’ as the prime guiding principle for judging which foods will be more filling could be misleading, as, for example, yogurt has a lower satiety score than cookies and is nearly as low as crisps!!
        I would say that aiming to choose foods high in fibre, especially soluble fibre (i.e most vegetables and many fruits) and/or protein content and of course,avoiding high fat content would be the best strategy for choosing foods which are more filling.
        It also appears that ‘dry’ foods are more filling than ‘wet’ foods, resulting in the strange results that cookies are more filling than yogurt! and also – highly volumetric foods, such as popcorn and honeysmacks have surprisingly high satiety scores – and would be a better snack choice – for when you’re craving something sweet.
        It would be good if someone would do more research into this and analyse a greater range of foods to get even more clarity on it.
        If only things were simple!

  • I have to admit that I am a victim of mistake number 7. I definitely need to work on managing my stress.

    Does anyone know of good ways to manage stress?

    I am open to all suggestions.

  • I was very surprised when my doctor informed me that I had developed impaired blood fasting sugar.
    I have always been a very active person and I thought that my eating habits were healthy. It turns out being reared in the south that my diet included way too many carbohydrates. So I started to do the things mentioned in this article. I started to eat right and developed an exercise program that I could live with. At this point I have lost 27 pounds and lowered my blood pressure to 120 over 80. I did this within 6 months time. I feel so good about myself that I know this new lifestyle will stick.

  • Bridget

    Tom, thanks for posting this very wise piece. I found out about you through Strategic Coach and have been a fan of yours…since your work helped me lose weight myself. I’m consistently impressed by your ability to write accessible, inspiring, and yet scientific books and blog postings. That’s not easy to pull off!

    For me with weight loss maintenance, what has really helped is not giving up. If what I’m doing isn’t working, I try something else. When I stopped blaming myself, my life got a lot better.

    Currently I am in OA, or Overeaters Anonymous. I came to OA when I had lost weight but was at my maximum stress level. One big stress was fear of re-gaining the weight. OA has helped me with #6: Perpetual dissatisfaction with weight and body shape as well as #7: Inadequate coping and stress management skills.

    It’s also free, which gave it a lot of credibility in the weight loss arena.

    No one solution or approach is going to work for everyone. I was really inspired by the Fat2Fit podcast–look for what makes sense and what works in every program.


  • Bob Bullard

    This article was not only great but good timing right after the summer challenge when I needed it the most. The challenge is over but my journey should and will continue.

  • Debbie Z

    Hi Tom, I read your book, The Body Fat Solution: 5 Principles for Burning Fat, Ending Emotional Eating, And Maintaining Your Perfect Weight years ago. Thanks for posting this reminder. I think I fit in #7, but it’s more than stress coping mechanisms. It’s group (aka family) eating and the fact that I just enjoy food. It’s very dificult to attend a family weekend where for 3 days there is food everywhere!

  • anon

    Would you consider writing a blog post, simple comment, or just pointing another resource about stress coping mechanisms. Eating has always been my goto way to cope with stress, reward myself, relax after a long day. In general it is a big source of pleasure. I’ve been aware of it and oftentimes manage to deal with this, but I feel like it is through sheer willpower, which we know is not the best way to a long term solution. I think it would be nice if you further discuss this topic.

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