Does Fear of Regaining Weight Keep You From Losing?

Fear of regaining weight and fear of failure are common.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 17, 2008
7 min read

For most of her adult life, Linda Thacker, 60, of Norfolk, Va., had been heavy. When she got serious about weight loss, she did it up big.

Thacker, who is 5 foot 3, went from 227 pounds to 110. And for the past 16 years, she has kept it off.

"I did it by diet and exercise," she tells WebMD. The road wasn't always easy -- nor is it still -- and she coped with a giant fear in the beginning.

"I had a fear that I would put it right back on," she says. But Thacker, and countless others who have lost substantial amounts of weight, learned to face that fear -- and over-rule it. Weight loss experts say fears of failure and regaining weight are common, but there are ways to cope, succeed, and keep moving.

Many people with a substantial amount of weight to lose have less than optimistic expectations when they embark on yet another weight loss plan, says Daniel Stettner, PhD, director of psychology, UnaSource Health Center, Troy, and adjunct professor of psychology, Wayne State University, Detroit, Mi. He often counsels patients about weight loss.

"They have a long history of dieting," he says. "They have multiple-size clothing in the closet. They frequently expect they will regain."

Part of the problem, Stettner says, is an attitude that needs adjusting. "There is often this generalized underlying belief [from the long-term dieters] that I am just perpetually dieting.' What we try to do is get them to see, OK those are your feelings and you own them. But we have to get you to buy into this lifestyle change." They aren't dieting so they can go on a cruise and indulge, for instance, he tells them.

To help quash the fear of regaining weight, Stettner advises people to separate emotions from the behavior. That means, in part, minimizing your feelings of deprivation -- and accepting the fact that it's a lifetime eating and exercise plan, not a diet and temporary workout plan.

To get to that point, Stettner asks people to list the reasons why they want to lose weight, and to be specific. One woman who loved to bake pies and eat them finally decided her fear of her diabetes worsening because of her weight was greater than her love of pies.

Simply using the word diet can instill fear of regaining in veteran dieters, says Edward Abramson, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University Chico, and a psychologist in Lafayette, Ca. He tells patients: "Let's try something different. Let's not go on a diet," says Abramson, who wrote "Body Intelligence," a non-dieting weight loss approach.

Instead, he says, "Let's figure out what is behind your eating." He has people keep a diary, figuring out when and why they engage in unnecessary eating, such as in response to stress even though they are not hungry. Then, they work to change the environment so they reduce unnecessary eating.

"For some, emotional eating is the real trigger [to overeating]," he says. He helps people look at the emotions but address it as a problem to solve.

So, the scale is up five pounds this week and you've done everything right. Obviously time to give up, right?

Although that's common thinking among dieting veterans, it's destructive, of course. "Don't look at regainingweight as a failure,'' says Marisa Moore, RD, an Atlanta dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's just a signal to try something new."

For instance, if you've been walking for exercise, switch routines. Take up skating with your kids, for instance. Start a hiking group. Check out your neighborhood gym.

Addressing the problem of regaining weight quickly is crucial to long-term success, says Rena Wing, PhD, co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry (, an ongoing study of more than 6,000 men and women who have taken off at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year.

"We have shown that people trying to lose any amount of weight, once they start to regain, they need to take action quickly," she says. "We tell people to get concerned at two pounds."

Sometimes, people are tempted to give up when they feel they have "blown it" for just a day, or even a meal. "The littlest slips, like you overeat at one meal, those probably are not going to do much to your weight," Wing says.

But that's not to say a slip is harmless. "It often sets up a vicious cycle," she says. Typical thinking, she says, goes like this: "See, here I go again, I'm a failure, I can't do this." And that can lead to lapses and relapses and serious weight regain.

"It's not the slip that is the problem," Wing says. "It's the negative thinking you do afterward." So, the answer is to learn to stop the negative thinking. Such as? "I've shown before I can get back on track."

Wade Wingler, 37, of Danville, Ind., lost 100 pounds and has kept it off. "But last winter, I put on 15," he tells WebMD. At first, he couldn't figure out why, as he was following the same eating and exercise plan. "I jumped back into problem-solving mode," he says.

He checked in with his doctor, who found thyroid abnormalities, he says, and put him on medication. And he was soon on his way to shedding the 15 pounds again.

As those who have lost weight and kept it off know, it takes time to develop healthier eating habits and exercise routines. Those who have done that say they can't offer more valuable advice other than "Just keep doing it."

For some, the fear of regaining actually keeps them following a healthy lifestyle. Wingler, for instance, says he has fear of regaining weight every day. "Every single day I worry about it, which is how I stay motivated."

Once the healthy eating and exercise becomes a habit, the paybacks begin to outweigh the alternative, says Anne Fletcher, RD, a Minnesota dietitian and author of the "Thin for Life" book series. "Even though it's hard," she says of maintaining a regular exercise and healthful eating routine, "the payback is better than the cost you have to pay [for not doing either]."

In her book research, Fletcher has interviewed numerous people successful at weight loss. "The driving question becomes 'How do you get yourself to do it?'" she says of the good habits. One woman told her: "You have to want to be thin more than you want to eat the wrong foods."

To maintain the habits, Fletcher has found that keeping a diary can help them track the positive changes that have occurred since the weight loss, keeping them on track. "Keep a mind, body and spirit diary," she suggests, "so you aren't just focusing on the number on your scale." She advises people to write down non-weight changes, such as having more energy or reduced blood pressure or other benefits.

"When you feel discouraged, bring it out," she tells those trying to maintain a weight loss.

People who do best at maintaining weight losses over the long term tend to get a lot of exercise, says Victor J. Stevens, PhD, senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Portland, Ore. "The exercise tends to reduce anxiety," he says, a well as help burn calories.

Those who stay successful also tend to make the fewest exceptions to not following their eating or exercise plan, Stevens found recently in a poll of people in his weight loss group. He asked them how many times they had "exceptions" to following their eating plan or workout routine, such as a family celebration. Those who don't make exceptions do best long term, he says.

"One of the biggest challenges is how to celebrate without a lot of calories," he says. He tells his patients: "You can dance to celebrate. You can play games. The trick is to plan in advance."

How do you get to the point where you don't make exceptions? "I'm not sure how to do that, except practice," he says.

Those who have maintained a substantial weight loss say a certain resolve sets in -- an "I'm not going back" kind of stubbornness, even in the face of people who tell them they'll fail and regain.

"I made a promise to myself," says Allan Goldberg, 54, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., who lost 150 pounds through diet and exercise. "I like not going to the big and tall rack," he says. "I like looking nice. I feel neater, more confident, happier. That's what motivates me."

Sheri Nilsson lost 101 pounds. "I can't just go 'OK, I am done,''' she says. "If I want to have this body, I can't be one of those people who blows off the gym."

And they know that maintaining the loss will take constant vigilance. "This is my life now," says Nilsson, 41, of Louisville, Ky. of her healthier lifestyle habits. "That life [before the weight loss] wasn't as much fun as this one."

Linda Thacker, down 120 pounds, says: "It's sheer willpower and determination. I made this promise to myself and I'm keeping it."

Abramson, the California psychologist, remembers a poster he saw long ago at a health club. He believes it applies to weight maintenance. "Someone was running on a long road," he says. The road was seemingly endless. And on the bottom of the poster, it said: "There is no finish line."