BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY SAMUEL RAMOS
“I lost 10 pounds and vowed to keep them off, but no such luck. I’m so discouraged.”
“I shed seven pounds to reach my weight class, then BOOM, I regained it all after the regatta.
“This is my third time losing 20 pounds.”
If any of those stories sound familiar, you are not alone. Research suggests dieters tend to regain lost weight within two to five years, if not sooner. This includes many rowers who struggle to stay at a goal weight.
If you are fearful of regaining your hard-lost weight, this article will help you understand why maintaining lost weight takes effort. Paul MacLean, a professor of medicine and pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has carefully studied weight regain. He identifies three reasons why dieters regain weight: biology, behavior, and environment:
1. Biology: The body has a strong biological drive to regain lost weight, usually through increased appetite and a slower metabolic rate. In response to dieting, the body learns to store fuel as far very efficiently.
2. Behavior: After three to nine months, dieters tend to be less strict with their low-calorie diets and often report that they have hit a weight plateau. Despite self-reported claims that they are diligently dieting (yet only maintaining weight), these dieters can become discouraged and less adherent. (Note: “Diligently dieting” anecdotes are hard to verify.)
Environment: We live in an obesogenic environment, with easy access to ultra-processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle, and chemicals that contribute to weight gain, including those found in upholstered furniture, pesticides, cosmetics, and who knows what else. Weight is far more complex than self-induced overeating and underexercising. You should not blame yourself for 100 percent of your excess body fat.
• By adding exercise, some people lose weight and some gain weight. Rowing by itself does not guarantee fat loss. Rowers who lose weight tend to keep the weight off if they stick with their exercise program. High levels of exercise are linked to greater success. That’s good news for the rowers who train regularly. That said, a fine line exists between compulsive rowers (who exercise to burn calories) and dedicated rowers (who train to improve their performance). Fear of weight gain can impact both groups.
• Questions arise:
1) Is weight maintenance more about being compliant with a restrictive eating plan than about exercise?
2) Do rowers who comply with a strict diet avoid regaining weight?
3) Are rowers more likely to stay on a weight-loss diet compared to non-athletes?
4) Does exercise create metabolic adaptations that favor maintaining lost weight?
Research with rodents
Finding answers to these questions is hard to do in humans because of biology, behavior, and environment. So MacLean turned to studying formerly obese rodents who had lost weight and then were allowed to eat as desired for eight weeks (the regain phase). Some weight-reduced rodents happily stayed sedentary while others got exercised.
• Fancy cages accurately measured the rodents’ energy intake and energy expenditure. MacLean was able to see how many calories the rodents burned and if they preferentially burned carbohydrate, protein, or fat for fuel.
• The formerly obese rodents who exercised ate less than the sedentary rodents and they regained less weight. Exercise seemed to curb their drive to overeat, meaning they felt less biological pressure to go off the diet. With exercise, their appetites more closely matched their energy needs.• Exercise promoted the burning of dietary fat for fuel. Hence, the exercised rodents converted less dietary fat into body fat. They used carbohydrate to replenish depleted glycogen stores. Note: Carbohydrate converts into body fat inefficiently. That is, converting carb (and also protein) into body fat uses about 25 percent of ingested calories to pay for that energy deposition. To convert dietary fat into body fat requires only about two percent of ingested calories. Given the calorie-burn of exercise plus the metabolic cost of converting carbs into body fat, exercised rodents gained less weight.
• The sedentary rodents ate heartily and were content to be inactive. Their bodies efficiently converted dietary fat into body fat; they used carb and protein to support their limited energy needs. They easily regained weight.
The depressing news
When followed over time, the longer the formerly obese rodents were weight-reduced, the stronger the appetites and drive to regain weigh got. When allowed to eat as desired, they quickly regained the weight. “At least people, as compared to rodents, can be taught to change their eating behaviors to help counter those biological pressures,” MacLean noted. For example, people who have lost weight can stop buying fried foods, store snacks out of sight, and limit restaurant eating, etc.
More depressing news for women: Most of MacLean’s data are from reduced-obese male rodents. Exercised females showed more weight regain than did exercised males. The female rodents seemed to know they needed extra energy to exercise, so they ate more and regained weight. We need more research, MacLean says, to understand the clear differences in the biological drive to regain weight.
A glimmer of hope
The best way to maintain weight is to not gain it in the first place. Yes, easier said than done, but at least rowers who maintain a consistent exercise program can curb weight regain. We can also change our behaviors to minimize weight regain by prioritizing sleep, curbing mindless eating, choosing minimally processed foods, etc.
Can the rowing culture change so that rowers can focus less on weight and more on performance? Rowers, like dogs, come in many sizes and shapes. Some rowers are like Saint Bernards; others are like greyhounds. A starved Saint Bernard does not become a greyhound but rather a miserable, weakened Saint Bernard.
By fueling your genetic body type and focusing on how well you can perform, you can enjoy being stronger, more powerful—and perhaps better able to meet your rowing goals. If being leaner means a lifelong sentence to Food & Exercise Jail, you might want to think again? The better fueled rower will outperform the depleted but lighter rower.
Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D. C.S.S.D. counsels both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for info.