Dieters hit that brick wall

By Nanci Hellmich

USA TODAY

Published: Friday, March 5 2010 11:20 a.m. MST

Losing weight is hard to do.

Some of the USA TODAY readers who participated in the seventh annual Weight-Loss Challenge, especially those who are middle-aged or older, know it well. After losing 10 pounds or so, they hit a brick wall and their weight loss stalled.

Cindy Groover, 54, of Palm City, Fla., who cut calories and walked 3 miles a day to lose 15 pounds since late September, says: "When I was young, I could drop 10 pounds in two weeks by going on a low-carb diet. These days, it just doesn't happen fast."

Tom White, 66, of Waukegan, Ill., who has shed 17 pounds since late September by cutting back on his food intake and working out regularly, describes himself as "a slower loser."

And Jonieta Stone, 68, of Scottsdale, Ariz., lost 11 pounds recently and says losing weight is "taking much longer and is much harder" than ever.

All three of these readers volunteered to try out the USA TODAY eating and exercise program at the end of September. The program was designed to help dieters lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks, but it was more of a struggle for some than for others.

National obesity experts aren't surprised by the experiences of these three dieters.

Research shows that people usually drop about 5 percent to 10 percent of their starting weight in the first three to six months on a program. For many people, that's a loss of 10 to 20 pounds. After that, some people hit the wall and their weight plateaus.

Losing this much is the "sweet spot" for many people, but if they "want to go beyond that 10 percent loss, there is going to be some pain and suffering," says Tim Church, director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. "You are going to have to limit your calorie intake without starving yourself."

One reason it's difficult to drop more and keep it off is there's a cascade of biological responses designed to return dieters to pre-diet levels. A hunger hormone called ghrelin increases, and a fullness hormone called leptin decreases, research shows. In essence, your body defends its own weight, Church says.

And other factors are at work that may make weight loss more difficult for some people than others, such as genes, loss of muscle mass, lower overall levels of physical activity, deeply entrenched poor eating habits and changes in sex hormones, says Anne McTiernan, director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. She has conducted several weight-loss studies with middle-aged people.

She says there could be some genetic variability in people's ability to hold on to or lose weight: "There are so many genes controlling this."

Changing levels of hormones, including estrogen in women, also affect weight as people age. Scientists at Pennington found women had lower metabolism after menopause than before.

The postmenopausal women in one study burned an average of 100 to 150 fewer calories a day just resting and doing their everyday activities, and they were less physically active for a total drop of about 200 calories a day after menopause, says lead researcher Jennifer Lovejoy, who now works for a health coaching company, Free & Clear in Seattle.

The lower metabolism appears to have to do with changing levels of estrogen and not changes in muscle mass, she says. And there is evidence that a lack of estrogen increases appetite and can cause specific cravings for certain foods, especially carbohydrates and fats. That means women need to be careful about consuming too many cookies, cakes, candy bars and chips, she says.

Lovejoy recommends that women in their early to mid-40s begin gradually increasing their physical activity and watching their dietary habits to help offset metabolic changes that can lead to weight gain with menopause.

Keeping track

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